“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’”
I have actually stood in the shepherd’s field outside Bethlehem. I was blessed, in fact, to be able to preach a sermon, on this text, in that field. It was a profound thing, to stand where these shepherds might have stood, and to imagine what it might have felt like to have this experience. At work, in the quiet of the night. A night, at first, just like every other night. And then, the whole of the heavenly host. An angel of the Lord standing before you. The glory of the Lord shining around you. I remember, standing in that field, trying to imagine it. But it was impossible. Nothing that my brain could come up with seemed right. Everything I could picture seemed a pale shadow of what it must have been like. It wasn’t nearly as powerful as it needed to be. Trumpets, and choirs, and…well, it just didn’t work. It was all…too cheesy. And not nearly scary enough.
My family and I recently watched The Chosen Christmas Special, an episode of that great TV show that tells the story of a shepherd who is present in the field that night and then goes to see the newborn baby Jesus. As we were watching, and as the episode progressed and it became evening on that night of nights—the shepherds, living in the fields and keeping watch over their flocks—I began to get worried. How was this TV show going to depict this event? How do you show the heavenly host? What would the angel look like? Sound like? God help us, were computer graphics going to be involved? How on earth were they going to do it in a way that wasn’t totally embarrassing? Now, thankfully, the show depicted the whole thing as dazzling light and indistinct sound. All we heard was thrumming resonant music and all we saw was an overwhelming brightness on the shepherds’ awestruck faces. They didn’t show anything, and there were no intelligible voices. It was the right decision. Nothing they could have committed to film would have been adequately frightening.
Because that’s the most easily forgotten thing about this powerful event, isn’t it? That it was terrifying. The heavenly host is described as praising God, but the shepherds sure aren’t! They’re too scared to move! You can see this all throughout Scripture, in fact…whenever an angel of the Lord appears to someone, its first words are always, “Do not be afraid!” And when we look at the descriptions we see of angels in Isaiah, Revelation and elsewhere, they do seem to be terrifying creatures. So fear and trembling seems like a reasonable response for the shepherds. And the church, in Advent, makes an effort to bring us to a similar emotional place. To make you feel something of what it might have felt like to be in that field on that night.
If you’ve been in church these last few weeks, you’ve walked with us through stories intended to present God as powerful, holy, and—if we’re honest—kind of scary. We read Psalm 50, which sings of God calling his people to him…in order to judge them. We read the prophet Malachi telling the people that God is a refiner’s fire and that all of their impurities will be burned out of them. We heard John the Baptist come on the scene, warning everyone of the wrath to come: that God would come with his winnowing fork, ready to throw the unrighteous into an eternal flame. All of this should combine to give you pause when you consider the coming of Almighty God. “What’s God going to do when he gets here?” we rightfully wonder. “Will God accept me…or reject me?” “Is he going to love me…or destroy me?” And so, when the heavenly host arrives in a field outside Bethlehem, and an angel of the Lord appears, and the glory of the Lord shines all around…terror seems like the EXACT right response. Is this the refiner’s fire? Is this the wrath to come?
“Do not be afraid,” says the angel; “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” A savior is born to you. Jesus, who will withstand the refiner’s fire for you. Jesus, who will bear the brunt of God’s wrath toward sin for you. Tonight, he is born. Tonight, he is here.
Throughout Advent, as we have been awaiting the coming of God, we’ve been saying a special prayer as part of our service of Holy Communion. It goes like this: “It is right, our duty and our joy, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great glory to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.” “Dear God,” we are praying, “make it so that when you come, we don’t have to be afraid. We know you are holy and we are not. Make your coming GOOD NEWS to us.” Advent has been the season of wrestling with what it might mean for sinners like us that an almighty and holy God is coming into the world.
But now, at Christmas, he’s actually here, and we find that we have a new prayer to say. Here’s our pre-communion prayer for the Christmas season: “It is right, our duty and our joy, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth because you gave Jesus Christ, your only Son, to be born for us; who, by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary his mother, was made truly man, yet without the stain of sin, that we might be cleansed from sin and given the right to become your children.”
Now, because of Christmas, we have been cleansed from sin. Now, because of Christmas, when almighty God comes, he finds us blameless. Spotless. Pure. Clothed, the Bible says, with Christ, and adopted—on his account—as children of God. The birth of Christ, the savior, has made our Advent prayer come true. Because of the God who actually arrived—Jesus Christ, savior of the world—we can—without shame or fear—rejoice to behold God’s appearing.
Tonight, God is here. Almighty God, come to earth, and come to save. Tonight, in and on account of Jesus, you are his child. Let us rejoice to behold his appearing.