A War Cry: Angels and Shepherds - Luke 2:8-20 (HIUMC - Christmas Eve Sunday Morning)

When you think of Christmas angels, what images come to mind?  For most of us, pageants over the years, have left us with images of pretty, young angels, often female, singing over a field of shepherds.
[Maybe a little something like this.]

What if, however, we pictured the group of angels, less like a professional music group dressed in choir robes singing…and more like [this],

a group of angels, swords by their sides, standing in military formation, who just happened to be gifted in music and singing.  Why this image?  We’ll explore that in just a few moments.
Let’s take a moment to remember where we have been on this journey, that we have entitled, “A War Cry,” so we will have a grounding point for where we find ourselves today.  We began our journey by noting that while Christmas time has traditionally been a point of thinking about “peace o’er all the earth,” an image highlighted in 1914 with the Christmas cease-fire during World War I, that in reality, Christmas is God’s declaration of war on evil, sin, and death.
We began in Bethlehem.  We recalled that Bethlehem’s history was a very dark history…throughout the Old Testament, Bethlehem was associated with death, betrayal, idolatry, violence, brutality, sorrow, and prejudice.  It was no Garden of Eden, and yet, it is the location that God chose to declare war on those very things that marred the history of this tiny town.  For us, this means that there is no life too small and no history too putrid that God will not enter in, fight for, and declare victory.
Next, we considered Mary.  We reflected on the fact that while she submitted herself to taking part in God’s war plan, that she didn’t jump up and run to the recruiting office to volunteer, but when God said, “I want you,” with fear and trembling, and probably a little hesitancy, she put her life and her relationship with her family on the line, and said, “…let it be with me according to your word,”  with the promise that she would survive as God’s presence would be with her.
Joseph, put family, finances, and reputation on the line as he agreed to serve God, by marrying Mary, his teenage fiancée who had become pregnant by someone other than himself prior to their becoming wed.  We saw that both Mary and Joseph experienced the cost of their commitment to God’s service as they found themselves alone, in the stables, with Mary giving birth amongst the sounds and smells of the animals.
It was in this humble and humiliating location that we encountered the fourth element of our series…the one who uttered the “War Cry,” the baby Jesus.  We realized that in giving our lives to the service of Jesus, we must be willing to endure the same humiliation He did. This is the One who stepped from the glory of the Heavenly throne room, to be nursed at a woman’s breast, endure wearing soiled garments until they could be changed, face the same temptations we face day in and day out, and then be crucified as a common criminal, all to bring us victory over sin and death…and He says, “come, follow me.”
Today we move from inside the little town of Bethlehem, to the fields outside the city gates.  Here we encounter the shepherds who have the joy of working the night shift taking care of the sheep.  While there may be a bleat here and there, for the most part the sheep were probably sleeping and not grazing.  This did not lessen the workload of the shepherds, it most likely increased it, as they would have to be on watch for any four, or two-legged thieves that would seek to steal or destroy the sheep that were under their care.  Suddenly the darkness of their night as illuminated in a way that most likely startled and surprised them, and there standing in their midst was an Angel of the Lord.  Remember, angels as they appeared on earth, from the time of Abraham were not noted by their winged appearances (those appearances were reserved for visions of heaven), but when God’s people encountered angels, they looked not too differently than you or I.  Suddenly this angel appears in dazzling light before the shepherds, seemingly coming out of nowhere—think of the Air Force member suddenly appearing in the Smithsonian with his chello, catching everyone by complete surprise…to bring it to Downeast, think of being out on a shrimp boat and having an Admiral suddenly appear on the bow of the boat.
No wonder the angel began his speech by saying, “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....”   Then, just as suddenly as the first angel had appeared before the shepherds, a whole multitude of the heavenly hosts joined him.  Two notes on this—one is about “multitude.”  I have often thought, well maybe there were 20 or 30 angels in this angelic chorus…but if we consider the ways that Luke uses the Greek word plethos through his gospel, from the fish that the disciples caught when throwing their nets off the side of the boat, to the number of people that gathered on the plain to hear Jesus teach, Luke is encouraging us to think in terms of hundreds and thousands of angels that appeared to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem—no wonder the lead angel had said, “fear not.”  The second note is the Greek word that refers to “hosts,” and will move us from considering the sweet angelic cherubs we usually think of singing sweetly over the plain, to thinking more in terms of the Air Force descending upon the Smithsonian, the Greek word translated hosts is strateia—a word consistently considered to have military connotations.  So here we have enough of God’s heavenly warriors to fill anywhere from a battalion to a brigade to a whole division, standing before these shepherds—thinking back to the shrimp boat, picture the sudden appearance of a battleship and aircraft carrier appearing alongside the boat—the sides of both vessels lined with sailers.  These members of God’s army appearing over the plain just happen to be gifted musicians and are singing God’s praises, offering up prayer to God, and words of encouragement to those who were listening in reference to the Messiah who had been born—singing of the child laying in the manger: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  They proclaimed peace, the peace we considered last night, the peace of knowing that God has come to be with us, the peace that comes from the assurance that God has already claimed victory over everything that would assail His people.
And this message was brought to shepherds…shepherds of all people…out in the middle of field in the middle of the night.  Why shepherds out in the middle of nowhere?  Why did the angels not appear in downtown Jerusalem…where the large crowds would have been located?  Why not appear at the gates of the Temple at the height of the business day—I mean, think about it, if they had waited until halfway through the next day to proclaim this message in Jerusalem, it would have given Mary a little time to rest from her journey and the stress of unassisted childbirth.
Yet that is not when and where God sent them…God sent his messengers to this open field in the middle of the night to a group of shepherds out under the stars.  Was it to avoid a panic that might have ensued had a battalion or legion of angels appeared in the middle of downtown Jerusalem?  Could be, but I don’t think so.
Consider who the shepherds were.  They were not the most beloved people of the community.  They spent their days and nights amongst the sheep.  They probably smelled a lot like the sheep.  They were often forgotten.  Consider when Samuel came looking to Jesse for one of his sons to anoint as king of Israel.  Jesse brought all of his sons forward except for David who was out in the fields taking care of the sheep…the forgotten son…the one who was too small and insignificant that later when Goliath arrived on the scene, he remained at home while his brothers went to war.  This is who the angel and the heavenly host went to, to carry the message that the Messiah had been born.
Why?  Several possible reasons.  First, the Psalmists and the prophets had used a parallel of God as shepherd…God being the one who would gather and care for His sheep, providing for their needs.  Yet, and I think more importantly, it is because the shepherds would have been the humble, forgotten, “least of these,” of their time.  Remember the message of the angel when he arrived, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of a 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.”  The message the angel brought is for all people.  Have you ever been in a situation where something is declared to be for everyone, and you think that means everyone else but you—that you aren’t important enough, you are good enough, you aren’t special enough for it to include you?  That’s how the shepherds might have felt if they overheard the news from someone having spotted the angels in Jerusalem—yet in this field there is no mistaking who the angels are talking to—the “all” of the people includes them—the angel says, “to YOU” is born this day.
Hear that this Christmas Eve morning….especially if you have ever, or even now, felt like you weren’t important enough, special enough, significant enough for anyone, much less God, to care about…that message to the shepherds is a message for you—important enough that God would send a whole legion of angels here to declare it…”for to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  He has come…he has dwelt among us…He has been, is, and always will be with us…each of us…all of us…thanks be to God!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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