The First Christmas Carol’s Audience

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Luke 2:8-14
The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds by Rembrandt | Städel Art Museum, Frankfurt, Germany | December 2021

I walked into the room expecting there to be three people total – maybe four. But there were 20 or more people. I was in high school and the room was a classroom at the local university. I had never been to a vocal competition. I had no idea that I would be singing for 20 people! I lost my nerve. I forgot the opening words to the art song I was to sing. My throat was dry. My knees were knocking. Finally I got my accompanist’s attention and mouthed the words: What’s the first line? “Love’s blind they say,” came her reply. I bundled up my courage. She began to play. I began to sing. I was glad when it was over and I got to leave.

I suspect the angels on that first Christmas night were not similarly fearful. In fact, it was the other way around. The angel appears to the shepherds, and the shepherds, rightly, are afraid. “Sore afraid,” as the KJV has it. Filled with great fear.

This puts the kibosh on a picture of God as a doting grandfather, kindly tolerating his grandchildren’s pranks. He is a consuming fire. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). And don’t get me started on the idea of portraying angels as cute and chubby little cherubs: harmless and adorable. The consistent response of people – high and low – to the appearance of angels is one of fear.

But equally consistent is the message of angels when appearing to Mary, Zechariah, and now the shepherds: ”Fear not.” In previous times angels have executed God’s judgement on Israel’s enemies or pagan prophets. They protect God’s people. They are called angel armies. But the world is turning ona different axis these days. They are messengers of good news of great joy for all the people.

A Savior has been born. He will be like no one expected – in his demeanor, appearance, manner, and means of bringing salvation. His birth in a menagerie and his manger bed are just the beginning. His appearance is nothing out of the ordinary. He is available to the most meek and lowly. He will win salvation by his submission to a cruel Roman cross.

And it all starts now. Shepherds – common working men – are first to hear the Good News. If we think we’re too good to consort with the common folk, we are in grave danger of missing the message of Christmas. But if we’re OK being ordinary in our fame, fortune, power, and prestige, and willing even to be a bit afraid (sore afraid?) at an angel’s appearance, and in reverent awe when encountering God, we will delight in the Good News to the shepherds. And we will join the angelic song:

Glory to God in the highest! And peace to his people on earth!

Christmas Blessings!

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