Our little nativity set at home is a far cry from the events at Bethlehem. Our 10 month old granddaughter enjoys teething on Mary and taking the animals to her Fisher Price barn. That OK with me because I know that in the years to come she will learn that there was a real nativity that originated in a galaxy far, far away called heaven. It was not the first time that heaven and earth met – there were others.
Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden
Think of Moses on Mount Sinai, receiving tablets of the Law from God himself
Think of Isaiah and Ezekiel, receiving their calls directly from the throne of God
In theology these are called, “Theophanies,” appearances of God. They were very rare. More common were the appearances of messengers of God, angels. God sends them to announce, to protect and defend and even to judge.
The difference on this night was that the messengers of heaven, the angels, were sent not to a prophet, priest or king, but to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Amazing!
How the Nativity Happened
Let me set the stage for this great drama… John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah, was six months old inside his mother, Elizabeth’s womb when an angel appeared to Mary, announcing that she too would have a son. Questions all over the place! Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, can’t believe that an old man could be a father. Mary wonders how she, a virgin, could conceive e a child. Joseph, Mary’s fiancee, was troubled for he thought, “She’s not pregnant by me!”
Understandable, but one of the many messages of Christmas is that God specializes in impossible things.
So, God sent angels to straighten everything out and the Baptist is born, and Mary and Joseph prepare for their first child. Time to be hunkered down, right? But just then the Roman ruler, Caesar Augustus, commands that everyone return to his place of birth to be registered. So, the young parents-to-be bundle up for the 100 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town. They were not alone, for others had arrived before them, no vacancy in the Inn and so their son, Jesus, was born in a stable and laid in a manger.
The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary
To say that shepherds were the “blue collar” workers of the day is to flatter them. Their reputation was somewhere between politicians and used car salesmen – that might even be an insult to politicians and used car salesmen!
A couple things about shepherds that you should know: First, their lifestyle was gypsy-like, moving from field to field, sleeping with their flocks and occasionally stealing what they needed from the locals. Second, as a result they were so poorly regarded that their testimony was not even permissible in a court of law.
This begs the question, “Why would a holy God choose shepherds as the first recipients of the good news?” Let’s come back to that. Here they are, on an ordinary night, doing what they do, keeping watch over their flocks, when suddenly, BAM! An angel appears and with it, the glory of God. We can imagine that the darkness of night was changed in a moment to bright light, of the sort that was blinding.
Luke is at a loss for words to describe their terror. “They feared with fear greatly.” The most ordinary of men were suddenly faced with the extraordinary presence of God. What does this tell you about God’s plan? As Jesus would later say, “God loved the world so much that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.”
The Promise is Fulfilled
Do you remember the promise? It took different forms and was repeated over the centuries, but it was always the same: a savior from sin. Last week we reviewed Isaiah’s predicted that a child would be born, a sign of God’s presence and deliverance. I mentioned that it had a double fulfillment, one during Isaiah’s day and one in these verses.
The angel’s first words: “Fear not.” There’s a place for the fear of God. The Book of Proverbs tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For centuries the Law made people afraid that they could never measure up to God’s perfect standard. It was meant to teach them that they needed a savior. We all do.
For all of the years of the Law, before Jesus was born, there was only the constant reminder of sin, never the removal of sin. But that time had now come and for the first time in history since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, there was no need to fear. The name Jesus means, “Savior,” and the name “Christ” means, “Messiah.” – Fear not.
The shepherds are given a sign and then the angel is joined by a “host” of angels. From other uses of this word in the Old Testament, there were “10,000 times10,000.” You do the Math. I can only imagine that it was quite a sight and quite a sound as they all praised God together.
But I want you to notice are their last words. If you grew up on the King James version, you heard, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” That leaves the impression of a kind of heavenly hug from God to all men. But the meaning is that there is peace in the hearts and lives of men, women, boys and girls with whom God is pleased.
It all comes back to fear. If you are fearful, being a sinner in the presence of a holy God and gladly receive the gift of a Savior, Jesus, God is pleased with you – not because of who you are but because of who Christ is and what he came to do on your behalf.
Well, the angels vanished as fast as they appeared, and the shepherds were now excited to see the proof of what had been announced to them.
The Gospel is Born
I believe we can say that the shepherds were the very first evangelists! They were the first to hear the gospel (aside from Zechariah and Elisabeth and Joseph and Mary). As with all of us it’s not what you hear but what you do with what you hear.
Upon hearing of the birth of Jesus, they went in haste to see for themselves that it was true. Every disciple of Jesus must begin here. Paul tells us that, “Faith comes by hearing…” and that’s true. But it’s what you do with what you hear that makes you a disciple.These sometimes liars and thieves, so poorly regarded by everyone around them, now made known the undisputed facts of the new gospel. And rather than ignoring them, everyone “wondered.”
They were the first. And then there is you. What will you do with what you have heard and what you have come to know? That really is the question of Christmas. We know there is food and fellowship and family, but God wants us to add faith to that list.
I learned a Naval acronym this past week: CAVU. The late President George H.W. Bush used it in a letter to Mike Pence’s son, a young Navy pilot. It means…. “Ceiling and visibility unlimited.” The President was not only referring to flying but to life: “Though I have never met you, I wish you many CAVU days ahead!”
For the believer in Messiah, there are many CAVU days ahead, for at Bethlehem the invisible God appeared and provided unlimited access to Himself.