1 But now, this is what the Lord says - He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen Him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
It never ceases to amaze me that God would choose peasant shepherds to be the first to hear the news that the promised Messiah had finally arrived. This was a major event, not only in the history of the Jewish nation, but for the whole of the human race too. They’d been waiting for thousands of years for the prophecies of Jesus to finally come true, and now at last, the King of kings and Lord of lords entered our world. If it were up to us to organise such an event, we would have chosen the finest hospital or clinic we could find. Invited guests would be housed in the best exclusive hotels nearby and would be given red carpet treatment as the rich and famous from all corners of the globe came to pay homage to the new born King. But in the words of 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.”
But God didn’t do it this way just to prove a point. He does nothing without good reason, and one of the things He shows us in the way that His angel appeared to the lowly shepherds is that He has a heart for all His people, regardless of how important or unimportant we might think they are.
He chooses what we consider to be foolish, weak, lowly and despised in order to tell us that every one of us is precious in His sight.
Christmas is less than two weeks away, and although it’s a long time ago now, I can clearly recall the sleepless nights as a child (especially on Christmas Eve), looking at the twinkling lights on the tree and the presents piled underneath it. How very different that first Christmas night was. When the angel appeared to the shepherds, the first thing we’re told is that the glory of the Lord shone around them. When God shows up His glory is unmistakeable. When the sheer brilliance of His perfect holiness breaks through into our world of darkness and sin you cannot help but notice it. The initial reaction of the shepherds is also interesting and a very good lesson to us today. There is little or no fear of God in the world anymore. Instead He is treated with contempt and He is mocked and ridiculed at every opportunity. But there is coming a day when He will show up again in all His glory. Some – those who know and love Jesus - will rejoice on that day, but for the rest there will be fear and terror, just like the shepherds that night felt, but there will be a remarkable difference between that day which is still to come and the first Christmas night. There will be no reassuring “Do not be afraid,” because on that day it will be too late. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here…
Look again at the words of the angel: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” The first thing the angel does is to calm their fears and gives them the amazing news that the Messiah has come, so we can only imagine what these shepherds must have thought when this “Great heavenly host” appeared, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men on whom His favour rests.”
These men had been sitting out in the pitch dark in the middle of nowhere, probably dozing off to sleep every once in a while with nothing more than a flickering campfire to give them a bit of light and warmth when suddenly the night sky was shattered by the glory of God and the praises of countless Heavenly beings. It must have been quite a sight, and what an honour for them to be the first to hear the news. And it’s no wonder that at first they were terrified – wouldn’t you be?
We’ve all experienced fear in our lives. Sometimes it’s an irrational fear like being scared of the monsters living under our beds, while on other occasions our fears are very real and quite justified. But these fears are nothing compared to the sheer terror we experience when we come face to face with the holiness of God, so the angel addresses that fear first. This is one of the many deep mysteries of God – that He would choose to enter our world in the most non-threatening way possible. What could be less threatening to us than a newborn baby? But yet at the same time, the sheer awesome power of God is shown to us, as if to say, “Yes, I am only a helpless infant, but don’t ever forget that at the same time I am the Almighty, everlasting King of kings and Lord of lords.”
Don’t make the mistake of forgetting that the cute little baby lying in a manger is God Himself.
This is why God reassured us and told us not to fear. The second time that Jesus comes will be very different, but the first time He came it was to bring good news and great joy.
We are living in the same window of opportunity as those shepherds did 2000 years ago – the age of grace, and so God’s message to us today is the same as it was then: “Do not be afraid.” We should be, but because of His grace and mercy shown to us, there is no need to fear God. When Adam and Eve hid from God, the first thing Adam said to the Lord was “I was afraid.” But in and through Christ, God breaks through our fears to draw us near to Him. That’s what grace is all about.
Many think that the character of God that we see in the Old and New Testaments are different. The Old reveals God’s wrath, while the New Testament, mainly because of the coming of Jesus, portrays a more grace-filled God, but this is not true.
Despite the stubbornness of God’s people throughout all ages, including those of the Old Testament, the endless patience and grace of God is revealed. Isaiah’s time and the exile in Babylon were among the worst in Israel’s history, but what did God say to them? “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.” And that’s just one example. The phrases ‘fear not, do not be afraid’ appear more than 100 times in the Bible.
Because of the Lord’s patience, grace and mercy, and because of Jesus we have nothing to fear.
Essentially what the angel said to the shepherds that night was, “Fear is unnecessary. I am not here to hurt but to help. I am not here to attack you but announce to you something that is for your benefit and your blessing.”
As we grow in our faith and respond to God’s call on our lives He teaches us that there is no need to fear Him as the world should and will fear Him one day. We are, after all, adopted into His family, and this is why there is no need to run and hide. God entering our world was good news of great joy, and this is why we celebrate – not just on Christmas Day, but every day for the rest of our lives and into eternity.
The angel preached “good news” to the shepherds. In fact, the word Gospel means “good news.” Someone has also said that the word news is an acronym for the four points of the compass – north, east, west and south. This reminds us that the good news given to the shepherds and passed down from generation to generation needs to be proclaimed everywhere. The practice of sharing the good news is evangelism, which comes from the same root word.
The good news is that God has sent His Son our Saviour into the world. He sent Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and He sent Him for the benefit of (in the words of the angel) “all the people.” Some argue that this word “all” does not mean all people, but all of a certain group. Yet that is not what Scripture teaches. When the shepherds heard the angel’s proclamation, they heard that this good news was for all people. No one is excluded. God’s love is universal, and so is His offer of salvation. Jesus Himself said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
But what was the good news that the angel and the heavenly host brought to the shepherds that night?
When we hear and respond in faith to the message they brought, it brings a three-fold result.
Firstly, it brings great joy. Joy is not the same as happiness. They are two very different words with completely different meanings. Happiness depends on what happens - it is circumstantial. When everything is going well in our lives, we’re happy. When things don’t go well, we’re unhappy, so our state of happiness depends almost entirely on the circumstances we experience at any given moment. Joy is not circumstantial. Joy depends on Jesus, and it is relational. It is that inner peace and contentment that we have when we know that God has everything under control and that our lives, which are in His hands, will experience His blessing, regardless of how happy or unhappy we might feel. And this was the good news the angel brought – news that will result in great joy.
Secondly the news will bring glory to God. The angels declared, “Glory to God in the highest.” Whatever God does, and however He chooses to reveal Himself to us is for one purpose and one purpose alone: To bring glory to Himself. Even creation itself, in the words of Psalm 19 declares the glory of God. Read the Bible from cover to cover and you will see on virtually every page that whatever God does brings glory to Himself. Look at God’s plan of salvation: We sinned and rejected Him, but in His great mercy and because of His everlasting love He took on human form and suffered and died in order that we might be forgiven. And what is the only legitimate response from those who accept this amazing gift? To offer glory and praises to God!
As the Church, if we ever decide it’s time do something new or to change anything, the crucial and underlying question that should always be asked is this: “Will this bring glory to God?” Everything God does and is, brings Him glory.
And thirdly, the good news will produce peace on earth. Whenever the true Gospel of Christ is preached and received, God’s peace will reign. Particularly at this time of year you hear the words “peace on earth and goodwill to all men.” It’s a wonderful thought, but without the peace of God, it never lasts. This Christmas Day 2014, is the hundredth anniversary of the famous Christmas Day truce in 1914, when British and German soldiers met in no man’s land in France. They exchanged small gifts and showed each other pictures of their families. They even played football. This true story is a poignant reminder to us of the futility of war. It’s also a heart warming story about what can happen if people take seriously the call to show peace and goodwill to each other, but the next day they were back in their trenches, killing each other once more. We try to bring peace, but it never lasts. God’s peace though, transcends human efforts, and is a very real presence even in human conflict and wars. There never will really be true peace in the world, because the world is broken, but thanks be to God, there can at least be peace in our hearts. The apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 4, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Just as the joy of the Lord transcends human happiness, so does the peace of God transcend our well-meaning but ultimately flawed efforts at bringing peace to all mankind.
When the angel appeared to the shepherds, the first message was to not be afraid. Should we be afraid of God? Absolutely! He is holy and perfect beyond any human understanding, and when we’re given just the tiniest glimpse of who He really is, we have every reason to run and hide, but the message of Christmas is this: Do not be afraid. Why? Because God loves us, and He is the one who has done what is necessary to bring us back into His family. God took on human flesh and came near. He came to bring us the good news of joy, peace and glory that only He can bring. So do not be afraid.
Before we close, I’d like to focus once more on a key concept of the Christmas message. The angel said that good news would be “for all the people.” The opportunity of salvation is given to everyone, everywhere. In 1 Timothy 2:3-6 Paul writes, “This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
In chapter 4 he writes, “This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labour and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe.” His point is not that everyone will be saved, but that the Gospel is for everyone who will accept God’s only solution to our sin. God wants everyone saved – the Bible makes this very clear - Jesus died for all, but this is what makes Him the only Saviour. There is no other. He said it Himself in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
So the fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is not, “Can everyone be saved?” The simple answer to that question is yes – that’s why Jesus came.
The big question is, “Will you be saved?” It all depends on whether you will believe and accept the true message of Christmas. All over the world – in the so-called western world at least – Christmas is celebrated by believers and non-believers alike. Even though there is more hostility to God these days and manger scenes have now been replaced by Santa Claus and plastic reindeer in the shopping malls, there has always been this kind of warm, fuzzy feeling at this time of year that because Jesus came at Christmas, all will be well and heaven is where we go after this life.
But it doesn’t work that way. The Christmas story and the Easter story are one and the same thing. Jesus came, Jesus died, and Jesus rose again. God came near. He came in human flesh and He bled and died so that we can find hope, meaning and a purpose for our lives. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.”
He came for you.
Do not think that God’s salvation is not for you. It is.
Do not think that Jesus did not die for you. He did.
Do not think that this message of salvation is not for you. It is.
If you have heard, listened to and accepted the true message of Christmas, you will join with the choir of angels for all of eternity as you too will sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests.”