8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to people whom he favors.”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
Shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks on the eve of the Nativity. When the angel appeared, the shepherds got pretty shook up, terrified, actually, when the glory of the Lord shone around them.
Nowadays we don’t associate terror with the appearance of God. Terror is something in horror movies. Or terror might be brought about by disaster and impending doom. But God – terror? How can that be?
Maybe the shepherds were terrified at God’s glory not because God is terrible, but because God was about to change things. When they were surrounded by God’s glory and saw the angel, the shepherds knew they were going to be thrown out of their comfort box and yanked into a new thing. They didn’t know what it was, not yet. But they did know that God was doing something big, and it terrified them.
We usually get all warm and fuzzy about the stories of Jesus’ birth, making them into a big, “Aaahh” moment. But consider for a moment that Jesus’ birth was also an occasion for terror. When the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, it revealed them more clearly than the brightest spotlight. There they were for God to see, just as they really were. And it terrified them because they knew that before God all secrets are revealed, and nothing is hidden.
A healthy sense of fear and trembling would be a good thing for us as we consider the nativity. For while it is true that Jesus came into the world to save the world, it’s also true that now we have no excuse before God. When God has put on flesh and walked and lived and slept and spoken and died and lived again, right among us – then we cannot claim we didn’t know God or weren’t aware of what God wanted. If we stopped and thought really hard about Jesus Christ lying in the manger, it would scare us half to death. We would be terrified.
But not for long! Jesus came in love, not in threat. So it’s good to hear the first words of the angel announcing Jesus’ birth: “Do not be afraid.” God is not remote, God is here. That really is good news of great joy.
When the heavenly chorus had gone, the shepherds looked at one another in astonishment and said, “Let’s go!” And off they went to Bethlehem to see the thing which had happened, which the Lord had told them about.
It is the last moment their lives will be the same as before. The door of history is swinging wide, and the shepherds are the hinge.
It reminds me of a young girl whose parents took her out west. One of their stops was the Meteor Crater in Arizona. The girl stood open-mouthed before the great crater, a mile across, a thousand feet deep. Then she exclaimed, “Something must have happened here!”
That’s how it was with the first evangelists, those shepherds who ran around town. They had seen something amazing and enormous in its implications: the wonder of their savior born. So they ran through the dark streets, shouting, “Something happened here!”
Everyone who heard the news was amazed. Maybe they were amazed that a bunch of shepherds would be running around town shouting about God rather than out in the fields with their sheep. Maybe they were amazed that an angelic singing group had given a private performance that night. They could have been amazed that a little baby could be a savior for the people.
I think they were amazed at the fervor of the shepherds in proclaiming the good news. Something shook the shepherds out of their ordinary religious complacency. It lit a fuse under them to become evangelistic fireballs. What dull lives shepherds led, yet here they were, all excited about a new thing God had done and what it signified.
The story is told of a fifth-grade child who was terribly burned in an accident. The doctors said the boy would be hospitalized for many weeks. After the boy was taken out of the critical-care unit, one of the fifth grade teachers packed up his school books and homework assignments and visited him in the hospital. Two days later the burn ward’s chief nurse called her. “What did you say to Christopher?” the nurse demanded. The teacher started to apologize but the nurse interrupted. “You don’t understand,” she said. “We have been very worried about Chris’ will to live. He was in such despair that we thought he had given up. But now his whole attitude has changed. His spirits are high, he’s taking the treatments and doing much better. I asked him what was different. He said, ‘They wouldn’t send books and homework to a dying boy, would they?’”
When the angels serenaded the shepherds, and when the shepherds saw the infant savior, they suddenly realized that God wouldn’t do this wonderful thing for a people he had written off. The human race is not terminal. God would not send God’s own son to heal humanity if humanity was incurable. So the townspeople were amazed at the transformation of the shepherds and the new life in them. “Let’s go!” exclaimed the shepherds, and off they went to tell everyone of the new hope and salvation found in the manger.
The shepherds returned to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. The shepherds went back to work different people because of what they had seen and heard.
It’s easy to overlook that Luke ends the shepherds’ story with the reminder that they saw and heard things which were as they had been told. When our Christmas season is over and we have returned to our usual routines, we need to remember that the gospel we have and the salvation we are given is just that which we have been told. The grace of God isn’t mysterious and incomprehensible—it is just as we have been told in God’s Word. A savior was born in Bethlehem almost two thousand years ago, just as we have been told.
Like the shepherds, we will soon live in a world when the memory of Christmas is overcome by other events. The shepherds’ sheep still got sick or attacked by wolves. Our cars will still break down and we’ll still have bills to pay. On the outside, everything seems the same. But something big has happened, and now our lives are different. God is with us and the future looks good!
The glory of the Lord has shone around us, and through our doubts and fears there is a voice: “Fear not, for behold, there are glad tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a savior!”