It may be the greatest choral presentation in the history of the world.
One nameless angel had the honor of playing the lead, with a veritable angelic multitude behind him. But no tickets were sold, and the show was not announced ahead of time. You might call it the first ever flash mob, and the audience was simply a flock of unresponsive sheep and a lowly band of unsuspecting shepherds. But it was too good to keep quiet about. “All who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:18). Word got out, and the Gospel of Luke records the story.
Good News of Great Joy
It had been a night just like any other in the fields outside Bethlehem, so we can imagine the shepherds were seriously caught off their guard when the messenger made his cameo. Angels sweetly singing o’er the plains may be how the shepherds eventually remembered the show with nostalgia, but the first thing that broke in on them was fear. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear” (Luke 2:9).
So the angel addresses this right away, and clarifies that the grandeur of this display, this shining of the glory of God, is not to make them cower, but to make them deeply and enduringly happy. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).
This good news of great joy — this declaration designed to make them profoundly and eternally happy — is that, at long last, the long-awaited hope of Israel, the Christ, the Anointed One about whom all the prophets have spoken, has finally come. This is his advent, and this is not how anyone was expecting that it would go down.
See Him in a Manger Laid
First of all, this grand announcement is happening as a private presentation for unsuspecting shepherds. These are not the kings and rulers, the scribes and Pharisees, the learned and influential, the esteemed of the day. It is precisely the opposite. These men live near the lowest rung of society. They herd sheep.
Here, from the very beginning, as God moves to give a savior for all people, he does it not on the world’s terms, according to popular expectation, but in his own surprising, mysterious, and marvelous way. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
But not only does this extravagant announcement come to lowly shepherds, but the Christ himself comes as a child, even as a weak and fragile infant, and is of manifestly humble birth: “you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). No castle, no palace, no hospital, not even a house and a crib — he is born in a stable, wrapped in the cheapest of raiment, so helpless he needs a swaddle to sleep, and laid in an animal feeding trough.
What is the meaning of this unusual path? Why shepherds? Why swaddling cloths and a manger? Now cue the multitude of the heavenly host.
Glory Up and Down
After the messenger’s solo, suddenly the massive choir appears, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
This ostentatious presentation is not about the worth and merit of the shepherds. The glory is not theirs. And it’s not about mankind’s deservedness and value. This gospel is for all people, and this peace is for all the earth, and all those with whom God is pleased by faith (Hebrews 11:6), but this declaration of glory is not to them.
Rather, as the angels say, this stunning news, and this strange and wonderful way of doing it, is to the glory of God. He is the initiator and actor. He is the one who has promised this Savior for centuries and now sends him in humility to shepherds and all who acknowledge their lowliness. It is his goodness on display in this good news, and the great joy he brings redounds to his praise: “Glory to God in the highest.” And yes, for the lowest too.
Christ the Lord?
But perhaps the most spectacular thing on this spectacular night is this subtle, but world-changing, line in the angel’s declaration: this newborn is “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Come again? The Lord?
It was “an angel of the Lord” who appeared, and it was “the glory of the Lord” that shone around them, and when the shepherds finally respond, they acknowledge this is what “the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15). And this newborn Christ shares the same divine identity.
Not only is this child sent from the Lord, but this is the Lord himself. Not only has the Lord of heaven initiated and acted to rescue his lowly people from their sin and shame, but he himself has come to earth, wonder upon wonder, and now dwells among us, in our own flesh and blood, the highest made lowest for us.
Come, Adore on Bended Knee
The weight and magnitude of it all is too much to take in at once for the shepherds, and even for Mary and Joseph. But the shepherds get the point, and their hearts have the right instinct, even as their heads are still spinning. They understood that Christmas is not about the worth and goodness of humanity, but the mindblowing mercy of God.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:20)