There’s an old legend, (and really, it’s nothing more than that,) that many years after that first Christmas night, some of the older shepherds were trying to remember how that song went that they heard the angels sing on that first Christmas night. As they sat around the fire, on the hillside under the stars keeping watch over their flocks by night, they tried and tried to recall the song but to no avail. They’re pondering was interrupted by the sounds of a lamb, bleating in the distance that had gone astray. Which of them would leave the warmth of the fire to go rescue the lost sheep.
Finally, a teenager got up from the fire and went. On finding the lost lamb, he lifted it up on his shoulders and brought it back to the fold. As he returned, he was singing a song that he had learned from his father who said that he had heard it one night, in those fields just outside of Bethlehem. It was the tune to the song that the angels had sung on that first Christmas night.
(Sung from balcony: LSB #368 – Refrain)
This evening, we too have left the comfort of our homes to hear that song that the shepherds heard on that first Christmas night. We want to participate in the wonder and the mystery and the marvel of that night. But for us, this is far more than a night of holiday nostalgia. Most of all, we have come here to hear the same good news of life and salvation that those shepherds heard. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, A SAVIOR, who is Christ the Lord.”
St. Luke tell us that when the shepherds saw the heavens being ripped open and the glorious light shattering the darkness of the night, they were “filled with fear.” No kidding. It was like it was in the beginning when God called light into the darkness of the world. The text literally reads that a “mega phobos” came over them – they were ‘mega afraid.’
It wasn’t always like that you know? There was a time way back in the beginning, when everything was Paradise and the appearance of angels and the glory of the Lord was the most natural and normal thing.
But now, it’s just the opposite. We’ve been in exile from Paradise for so long that we’ve gotten used to the darkness… and you know, it’s not so bad once you get used to it. And the idea that the LANDLORD lives far away and doesn’t send His inspectors around to check up on us is just fine with us because He might not like the mess we’ve made of His house. But it’s our mess and we’re comfortable with it. We don’t want anything to disturb our status quo.
Now, the presence of angels and the glory of the Lord shinning into our gray and dusky life “fills us with fear.” Which is to say, we’re a long way from Paradise.
So before the angel is able to tell these poor, miserable, sinners that he’s got GOOD NEWS, He’s got to first tell them to “Fear not…” “Fear not” means, ‘it’s okay.’ ‘I’m not here to harm you.’ “Fear not…” means, ‘you’ve got the wrong idea. You think that God just wants to check up on you and that HE’S OUT TO GET YOU and that you need to hide from Him. But that’s just because someone has fed you the wrong food. It was pleasing to the eye and promised that it would make you wise. But it was all just a hoax because it really made you go blind and twisted your thinking and made you crazy, especially in the way you think about God.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you GOOD NEWS of GREAT JOY…” My dear men, if you will just listen to me, I come with news that will transform your “mega phobos” into “mega xaris.” Your GREAT FEAR will be overwhelmed with GREAT JOY. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
“God is coming to get you alright, but not for the reasons that you think.
• He’s is coming to get you like a Father comes to get His children who have been kidnapped and locked away in a basement. He’s coming to pay the ransom and take you home with Him – because you are His children.
• He is coming to get you like a Shepherd comes to get His sheep that have gone astray and are being attacked on every side by hungry wolves. He’s coming to rescue you and carry you home on His shoulders – because you belong to Him.
The angel must have seen that that these shepherds DON’T BELIEVE or CAN’T BELIEVE or AREN’T SURE WHAT TO BELIEVE. So he gives them a sign. “This shall be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
And then, it was like the curtain behind this angel that we didn’t even know was there, is suddenly raised, and there’s choir of angels who were ready to SING and could contain themselves no longer. “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 towards men.”
It was the Middle Eastern custom in those days that when a baby boy was born, friends of the new parents would hire local musicians who would come to the house and greet the newborn with music and song. But this child’s parents were out of town when “the time had fully come.” None of their friends back home in Nazareth even knew that Mary’s baby had been born, let alone know where to send the band.
But the angels knew. They had been watching and waiting for this child to be born ever since they heard the Lord God make that promise to the man and the woman in the Garden that the ‘offspring of the woman would crush the head of that serpent’ who deceived them and gave them that food that blinded them and drove them mad.
While the whole world went about its business, unaware of the ETERNAL MOMENT that had finally happened, this heavenly choir was busy keeping the appointment for which they had been commissioned since the foundation of the earth was laid.
How long had that curtain that separated heaven and earth kept them from singing the song that they SO LONGED to sing?
How many times over these ages upon ages had they had to bite their angelic tongues when they saw the foolishness and futility of foolish men and women who all think that they know better than their Creator, and all they wanted to do was shout from the sky, “REPENT.”
But God had held them back saying, “they have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them.”
But now, finally, all of the long awaited promises of God were being fulfilled in the birth of this child, who is, Christ the Lord. Here, in the city of David, ‘O little town of Bethlehem…’ arranged by Caesar Augustus, of all things… oh, if only he realized that a God whom he did not believe in had nevertheless, used him for His own purposes that the Savior of the world should be born right where the prophets had said it would happen.
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)
In this child, the dividing wall that separates heaven and earth is removed. Heaven has come down to earth and earth and heaven dwell together as one – AND IMMANUEL IS GOD WITH US.
And for this all too brief moment, we get a foretaste of what is to come. It’s the ‘new heaven and a new earth,’ where “the dwelling place of God is with man and He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev.21:3-4).
How divinely and wonderfully appropriate that the first to be invited to witness and celebrate the birth of Christ were shepherds. These humblest and lowest of men, rejected by the religious leadership of Israel and despised by society in general… (how does the country song go? “O mamma don’t let you babies grow up to be shepherds…”)
These shepherds were the KEEPERS of Israel’s sheep – sheep that were KEPT for the sole purpose of being used at the Temple as a sacrificial substitute for the atonement of sins. An innocent lamb would bare the punishment for the sins of the guilty men and women who offered it up unto death.
Which sounds totally unfair, I know. That an innocent little sheep should be declared guilty and die; and the guilty ones should be declared innocent and live… sounds too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
That is, until we learn that this is God’s idea and His plan, conceived within the Trinity before the creation of the world. He Himself will be the sacrificial substitute for the atonement of sin. For in His great love for YOU, He does not desire the DEATH OF A SINNER, but that YOU should repent and LIVE.
These shepherds of Israel’s sheep now shepherd us as they lead us to the LAMB OF GOD, WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD. This baby born in Bethlehem will put these shepherds out of business – and joyfully so.
For this innocent child,
conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
God in the flesh dwelling among us,
IS THE ONCE AND FOR ALL, sacrificial substitute for the atonement of the sin of the whole world.
In Him, perfect mercy and perfect justice meet and kiss. In Him, men and women are forgiven all of their sins and made holy and LONG FOR THE TIME when we live among the angels in the glory of God in pure joy, forever and ever.
This is the song that whole Christian church on earth sings tonight along with the angels and the archangels and the whole company of heaven. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.”
We stand to confess this faith in the words of the Apostles Creed.