"Announcement from Heaven"
2:8 - 20
(Delivered Sunday, Christmas Eve AM Service, December 24, 2000 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angle said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." 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, goodwill toward men!"
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them (Luke 2:8-20).
I have read this story many times - certainly every Christmas; but not only at Christmas - and yet, I have never grown tired of it. I love to read it again and again; and to imagine this remarkable series of events. I invite you to imagine this event with me.
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The scene is an evening in a field where shepherds were watching their sheep - the sort of context that ordinarily wouldn't draw our attention or interest, because nothing remarkable or of much interest would ordinarily be associated with it.
Being a shepherd wasn't always the "no-brainer" of a job that we sometimes think that it was. You had to make sure that the sheep were all fed and accounted for, which would require some level of managerial skill. And if any of the sheep had became injured, a shepherd had to be something of a veterinarian. And you had to constantly watch over the sheep to protect them from thieves or predators, which would require a certain amount of courage and physical stamina. But my suspicion is that being a shepherd at night didn't involve much. It was a pretty low-stress job in the evening; and you could enjoy an extended time of peace and quiet.
I love to recreate in my mind the serenity - and probably, to be completely honest, the boredom and monotony - that would have characterized the scene of the shepherds that night as they watched their sheep. I love to imagine the quiet of the evening; probably interrupted by nothing more than an occasional cough, or sniff, or whisper from one shepherd to another; or perhaps the occasional bleat or shuffle from among the sheep that lay scattered on the field around them. I imagine that the moon hung brightly in the sky, giving a pale highlight to the field, and flocks, and faces of the shepherds. I imagine that a cool breeze blew slightly; and perhaps there was warm, red glow of embers and the smell of smoke from a slowly dying campfire. My guess is that it would have been very hard to keep awake in such a night-time setting. Nothing was happening; and nothing was likely to happen. It was all about as much peace and quiet as someone could ever hope for.
But then, I try to imagine what it must have been like for the area around the shepherds to have lit up without warning - brighter than baseball stadium lights could make it - with the glory of the Lord. I try to imagine this mighty angel suddenly standing before them; and I try to imagine the sound of his voice as he spoke to them, seeking to calm them down enough to hear his crucial message to them. And I try to imagine what it must have been like to hear - "suddenly," as it says in the text - a multitude of angels from heaven praising God and singing the message, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
The scene that night went from serene darkness and quiet to unexpected, unearthly brightness and joyous, awesome loudness in a matter of seconds! What a shock it must have been to these poor shepherds!
The angel knew that this was all having a traumatic effect on them; because he told them, "Do not be afraid". But in saying this, he was almost putting the matter mildly. The text says that these shepherds were "greatly afraid". In the original language of Luke's gospel, their reaction is expressed emphatically; it literally says that they "feared a great fear". The New International Version translates his phrase, "they were terrified", and the New American Standard says they were "terribly frightened." But I've always liked the King James Version's way of putting it: they were "sore afraid". They were experiencing fear; and they were suffering great mental distress and anguish in that fear. If it weren't for the mercy of God, these poor guys would never quite be 'right' again after all this. At the very least, they would have needed a some counseling for post-traumatic stress!
But in spite of their great fear, their final reaction to it all was wonderfully positive. They recognized the news that was brought to them as good news of great joy. In fact, they responded to this news by running to Bethlehem in haste to "see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known" to them. And afterwards, they returned, "praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told to them".
And what was this heaven-sent message that caused them to leave the sheep field in such haste and run to Bethlehem? This is the remarkable thing: It was the birth announcement of a baby boy.
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When a man and his wife are going to have a baby, we say that they're "expecting". Personally, I like it that we use that word to describe such an event. It expresses the idea that we anticipate something wonderful. But in this case, it shouldn't surprise us that this child's birth announcement was so unusual and characterized with such an extreme emotion of joy; because this baby was declared to be remarkably unusual even before He was born.
Before He was even conceived, in fact, an angel greeted His mother with the news about Him. The Bible says that while she was simply going about the business of life - no doubt making preparations for her upcoming marriage - unexpectedly, an angel appeared to her.
... The angel said to her, "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!" But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end." Then Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:28-35).
Then, after the child had been conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit, an angel made a similar appearance to the man who was about to take this young woman as his wife. And he, like his wife-to-be, received a remarkable announcement about this child. The Bible tells us;
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins." So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, "God with us" (Matthew 1:18-23).
God had sent an angel to make it clear to Mary and Joseph who this child they were expecting really was. And when He was finally born, it was the shepherds that received the birth announcement. It was a remarkable birth announcement because it was one that came from the angels of heaven; and that's why the shepherds were so terrified by it. But it was also a remarkable birth announcement because of the identity of this child. That's why, once they received this announcement, the shepherds dropped everything, ran across town to look, and came back glorifying and praising God.
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It's my hope that, this morning, we can respond to this birth announcement with something like the attitude with which the shepherds responded to it. I hope that as we take a closer look at this "birth announcement", we'll respond - if not with great fear and terror - at least with some sense of holy awe and humble wonder they felt as they heard it. And as we follow along with these shepherds, as it were, to look at the child whose birth is being announced, I hope that we too will come away glorifying God and praising Him as they did.
First, let's look at ...
1. THE CONTENT OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT.
Notice that the angel told them, "Do not be afraid ..." And I'd like to suggest to you that that's no small thing. When mighty angels come down from God to appear to sinful and fallen human beings, and then tell those human beings not to be afraid, you can take that as a very good sign! Something of the grace of God is being communicated to us in that.
There have been lots of occasions in which an angel has made an appearance to men with a message from God; and the news wasn't always good. An angel of the Lord once came before the disobedient prophet Balaam and withstood him - drawn sword in hand - threatening to slay him (Num. 22:22-33). When Balaam saw this angel, he bowed flat on his face; and we note that, on that occasion, the angel didn't say, "Do not be afraid" - or anything like it.
On another occasion, after King David had committed a terrible act of disobedience before God; God sent an angel to slay seventy-thousand of his soldiers. And in a vision, he saw "the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, having in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem" (1 Chron. 21:16). David and his leaders fell on their faces in sackcloth, pleading for mercy; and nowhere do we read that the angel said, "Do not be afraid, David." In fact, fear seemed to be the appropriate response; and the angel didn't say anything to relieve David or his leaders of a single bit of it.
On one very remarkable occasion, when the nation of Israel was being threatened with complete destruction by the armies of the dreaded Assyrians, the king pleaded for mercy from God. And on a certain night, the angel of the Lord went out into the camp of the Assyrians and killed one hundred and eighty-five thousand of the enemy Assyrian soldiers; "so that when the people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses - all dead" (2 Kings 19:35). And we certainly don't read of the words "Do not be afraid" accompanying this angelic appearance. Being afraid seemed like a good thing for everyone to be - everyone, that is, who had a chance to be!
I've never read this in a theology text book; but I suspect that we can take it as a solid principle: whenever a mighty angel from the holy God of heaven appears among sinful men with a drawn sword in his hand, that angel is probably not about to say to them, "Do not be afraid." In such cases, fear - great fear, in fact - is a completely appropriate response.
That's why it's very significant that this angel told the shepherds, "Do not be afraid." It's because, even though the sight of this mighty angel gripped the shepherds with great fear, God was nevertheless sending a message through him that was very good news. There were no drawn swords this time. This was not a threat. Instead, the angel was a messenger of God with news of peace and joy. In fact, that's exactly what the angel said, " Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people."
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As sinners, we need desperately to hear good news from God. But the fact of the matter is that we don't deserve good news from God. He is a holy God who has a right to expect our obedience and worship; but we've neither worshiped Him or obeyed Him as we should. Instead, we have often withheld the thanks and worship He deserves from us, have often shaken our fists at Him in arrogance, and have often disobeyed His clear commandments to us, If anything, we deserve the drawn sword.
But that's what's so wonderful about this birth announcement. It's a message from a holy and righteous God, sent by a mighty angel; and it's a message of "good tidings". The Greek word that the angel used to describe the proclamation of his message was "euangeliz§"; a very common phrase in the Bible that means, "to proclaim good news", and that is usually translated in the Bible by the phrase, "to preach the gospel".
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Note also that this is good news of "great joy"; in other words, it's a message that's intended to result in the experience of great joy in those who hear and believe it. When John Wycliff translated the first copy of the New Testament into English, he translated the angel's words this way: "I evangelize you to a great joy."
This "birth announcement" is news of great joy, because the One who is born is the One who brings us into the greatest experience of joy possible. Because of this child whose birth was being announced, those who live under the bondage of spiritual darkness can now be delivered and brought into the kingdom of life and light. Because of Him, those who live in guilt and shame because of their sins can now be washed clean and declared sons and daughters of God. Because of Him, those who lived their whole lives long in the fear of death and judgment can now live with hope in the prospect of glory. As the apostle Peter wrote,
Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith - the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:8-9).
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And notice too that it's good tidings of great joy "which will be to all people". It isn't good news that will result in joy for the shepherds alone. It isn't good news of joy for the Jewish people only. It's good news to all people of all nations.
People often think of Christmas as a day of celebration that's appropriate only for those nations that have a historic tradition of faith in Christianity. But though there are many different religions and faiths in many different cultures, this birth announcement is the announcement of good news for all nations and all peoples. There is no other Savior for the people of the world - no matter what nation or culture they live in - than the Savior who was born on Christmas Day.
God has told us in the Scriptures that Jesus isn't the Savior of only the Jewish people, but rather that He's the Savior of all people everywhere. In the Old Testament, God says of the Savior,
... It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to rise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).
And in another Old Testament prophecy about Jesus, it says,
Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! For He has done marvelous things; His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory. The LORD has made known His salvation; His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God (Psalm 98:1-3).
Just as the apostle Paul taught: our God is not the God of the Jews only, but He's the God of the Gentiles also; "since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith" (Rom. 3:29-30). There isn't a different Savior for different people groups. There is only one. Jesus' birth is the good tidings of great joy for all nations and people groups; "For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all ... (1 Tim. 2:5-6).
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The angel goes on to announce this good news; "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" (vv. 11-12).
Here, the angel calls Him "Christ"; which means "the anointed One". He is the Jewish Messiah; the Savior that God promised long ago in the prophecies of the Old Testament. He is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, when He told him, "... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3).
And the angel told the shepherds how He could be clearly identified. They were given the sign by which He would stand out to them: they would find Him wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in "a manger" or a "feeding trough". (That would have been an easy sign by which to distinguish the Savior; because what mother would ordinarily place her newborn baby son in the feeding trough of an animal stall?)
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If I may, let me encourage you not to minimize this announcement in your thinking. Here, we have an angel from heaven bearing good news to men from God; and the announcement is this: 'Your Savior has been born!' If someone were truly seeking favor with God, and were honestly wanting to be made right with Him, then they should take note of this announcement and listen to it. Here, an angel from God breaks into the realm of humanity and makes the announcement that God has provided a Savior; and that Savior has been born. What more could a true seeker of truth ask for than that?
The sad fact is that most people don't appreciate being told that God has looked down upon them in mercy, has seen the desperateness of their spiritual lostness and bankrupt condition before Him, and has sent a Savior to rescue them. That's an insult to the pride of many folks who believe they're fine just the way they are.
I heard of someone who walked up to a Christian and derisively said, "As far as I'm concerned, Jesus is nothing more to people like you than a 'crutch'." And to this man's surprise, the Christian agreed. "Yes," he said. "Jesus is my crutch. But you know, a crutch is a pretty good thing to lean on when you're crippled."
And the truth is that until a man or woman can have the intellectual and spiritual honesty to admit the truth - that before a holy God, they're wounded and helplessly crippled by sin - then they'll never care at all that God has sent a Savior. But to those of us who feel the terrible weight of our sins, and who know that we have no hope of favor before God except on the basis of His grace, then this announcement is very good news. We have a Savior!
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And so, there we have the content of this announcement. But I would like you to also notice ...
2. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT.
The remarkable significance of this announcement is shown by the fact that "a multitude of the heavenly host" suddenly break into the scene, and join the angel in praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"
No other event has ever been greeted with such praise from heaven before the watching eyes and listening ears of men, but this one alone. And that fact by itself makes this birth announcement the most significant piece of news in all human history. Not only do the angels of heaven suddenly pierce the divide between heaven and earth and break into the realm of man to make an announcement; but what they sing bridges between God's realm and man's as well. It reaches up to God's throne, and down to man's need.
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Notice that they sing "Glory to God in the highest". This event - the birth of Jesus Christ - results in God's glory! The angels of heaven sing praise to God for the birth of Jesus!
Why is it that the birth of Jesus is to the glory of God? It's because God the Father has purposed to glorify Himself in the sight of all through His Son Jesus Christ. Perhaps you're familiar with what Paul wrote in Philippians concerning Jesus;
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:5-8).
That speaks of how Jesus humbled Himself for us. But we need to remember what Paul goes on to say resulted from Jesus' coming and dying for us;
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 9-11).
God the Father is glorified through His Son Jesus Christ (John 13:31). And so, His birth is significant, because it is greeted with the praise from heaven, "Glory to God in the highest".
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But there's more to this heavenly greeting. It not only reaches up to the highest heaven, but down to the depths of human suffering and misery as well. The angels also shout, "And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (or as it is in the NIV, "And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests" ). The birth of Jesus also means that God's peace has reached down to earth, where men and women live.
I read an interesting story this weekend. During World War I, enemy soldiers sat in trenches and underground supply rooms that stretched for hundreds of miles across from one another. But on Christmas of 1914, something remarkable happened. An unofficial Christmas Day truce occurred. No one ordered it; it just happened. Gunfire ceased. A few soldiers from both sides began spontaneously singing Christmas carols - some in English, some in German. And eventually, some soldiers braved their way across the divide between the trenches to sing carols with their enemies.
It was a remarkable instance of goodwill between enemies. They met in the middle and gave each other Christmas gifts of chocolate, jam, cigarettes and souvenirs; and they even exchanged addresses so they could write to each other after the war was over. Some soldiers pulled out photos of family members to show to their enemies. Several soldiers lined up with groups of enemy soldiers to have pictures taken together. Some German and Scottish soldiers played a holiday game of soccer together, using their helmets as goalposts. For a season, the hostilities were forgotten; and the birth of the Savior was celebrated.
It was a dramatic illustration of Christ's birth bringing peace to earth. Sadly, however, this particular Christmas truce only lasted for a few hours - or at best, in some cases, for a few days. In the end, it wasn't really a lasting "peace". It was just a temporary "cease fire"; and soon, the hostilities resumed.
Real peace is more than mere truce. Real peace means that the real cause of enmity is forever taken out of the way; making it possible for two parties who were at war with one another to be reconciled forever as friends. I'd suggest to you that such a real peace between men can never happen in any permanent way until there's first a peace with God; because our lack of peace with God is the primary reason for our lack of peace with one another. That's the sort of "peace" these angels are primarily singing about in this verse - not peace between men; but peace between sinful man and a holy God.
Peace between God and man can't happen until the cause of the enmity between them is taken out of the way. That cause of our enmity with God is something of our own making - sin. And until the barrier of sin is taken out of the way, sinful we cannot have peace with God - nor any kind of lasting peace with each other.
And that's another reason why this birth announcement is so significant. It's the announcement that the Savior from sins has been born. It's an announcement that the Son of God has been born into the human family to pay the price for our sins on His cross. It's the announcement that real peace is finally possible - peace, first of all, between man and God; and then, peace between people. As Paul wrote;
For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross (Col. 1:19-20).
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And so, we've looked at the content of this most wonderful of all birth announcements; and we've seen the significance of it. Finally, let's look at ...
3. THE RESPONSE TO THE ANNOUNCEMENT.
Another thing I like to imagine about this scene is what happened as soon as the announcement was over, and as soon as the angels had gone back to heaven and the field became dark and quiet again. I may be wrong, but I imagine that, for several minutes, there wasn't a sound or a movement from the shepherds. I like to think that, after a few moments of stillness, one of the shepherds might have quietly said, "Did what just happened ... just happen?"
Well, anyway - however long it was after the angels left - they eventually said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us" (v. 15). It's interesting that the angel didn't tell the shepherds what to do about this birth announcement. Perhaps he didn't need too. Such an announcement as this was too wonderful for business as usual. He simply told the shepherds where the child would be found; and they ran to look into it further.
The Bible says, "And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger" (v. 16) - just as the angel said. I love to imagine the wonder and awe that would have been on the faces of these shepherds as they beheld the Son of God as He lay in the manger. There's no doubt that they told Mary and Joseph what they saw and heard; and what was told to them about the Baby.
We know for sure that they told others. The Bible goes on to say, "Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child" (v. 17). In other words, they didn't keep this good news to themselves. They did what you should do with good tidings - they spread it around. They became the messengers of this birth announcement to others.
And not only did they spread it around; but in doing so, they spread the sense of wonder too. The Bible tells us, "And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds" (v. 18). And the reaction to this remarkable birth announcement wasn't simply to marvel at it as if it were a mere novelty. We're told, "But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (v. 19). Not only Mary, but others who heard about it, remembered these things and called them to mind as the child grew. There would always be a sense of awe and wonder over Jesus on the part of those who heard about this remarkable birth announcement.
And when I imagine this story, I like to also imagine what changed men these shepherds must have been. They had to go back to their work, and back to their families and relations; but they could never receive such an announcement and be the same again! They went back transformed men. The Bible tells us, "Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them" (v. 20). They not only heard and saw; but they believed and took it to heart.
I'm sure they had to still watch their sheep on other nights, just like usual. But I'd bet they were never at a loss for evening-time conversation from then on!
I hope that you'll take some time soon to read that story again for yourself; and as you do, I hope that you'll enjoy putting yourself in that scene - as I do - and imagine the details. But more importantly, I hope that you'll respond to it correctly. It's a story that God means for us to respond to. I suggest that this passage teaches us how we should react to the birth announcement that the shepherds received:
- Like them, we should look into it with great eagerness and excitement; because if it's true, then it's the greatest news mankind has ever heard.
- We should think carefully about these things - keep them, and ponder them in our hearts, as Mary did. We should let the truth of this great Christmas announcement sink deeply into us and transform us.
- We should also make it known to others, as the shepherds did. God has seen our need and has provided us with a Savior. He has come! News this good is too good to keep to ourselves.
- And finally, we should celebrate it. We should go back to our lives transformed people - people who glorify and praise God for all the things He has done for us through giving us His wonderful Son Jesus Christ.
May your Christmas celebration be nothing less than a humble, worshipful, joyous response to the greatest birth announcement ever!
(copyright 2000 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)
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