And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
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.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
- Luke 2 verses 8-20
Jesus was born at night. That’s not surprising. Studies show that spontaneous births most commonly occur between midnight and 6 am. But the timing of Jesus’ birth in the hours of darkness has a symbolic significance beyond the statistics. His birth shone God’s light into the darkness of human sin.
This three-part early Advent series began with Isaiah’s prophecy of a great light shining in the darkness and the challenge to step out of the darkness of sin and into the light of Christ. The second post reflected on the image in John 1 of the light of life shining through Christ’s deeds and words of grace and truth and the challenge for Christians, as children of light, to be the light of the world, through good deeds and gospel words. Having thought of the light of Christ shining on us and in us, this final post will think further about the light of Christ shining from us.
The glory of God is often described in terms of light. Luke 2 describes it shining around the shepherds. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. When the light of God’s glory shines, the natural response is awe and even fear. We find our internal narratives of our own goodness or greatness exposed as the figments they are. The sin we had hoped to excuse and ignore is revealed. Caught in the spotlight of God’s majesty, we are bedazzled.
The situation only seemed to worsen for the shepherds when they discerned within this light of glory the shape of an angel. Angelic appearances were not, it seems, commonplace among first-century shepherds. To understand their terror, we need to peel back the memories of school nativity plays with cute little girls in ballet dresses and tinsel. An angel is a warrior of heaven, so impressive that those who saw them in biblical accounts were often tempted to worship them. For a shepherd – not known as the most upright members of society – this seemed like bad news indeed.
How wonderful then, that the angel declared not bad news, but good. The angelic army (for ‘army’ is the proper meaning of ‘host’) that appeared with the first angel had come not to wage war but to declare peace. A delegation from heaven announcing favour to people on earth. And not to respectable people in palaces or synagogues, but to marginalised shepherds in the fields.
The subversive nature of the gospel is clear. God’s glory would shine not merely in the salvation of those who were regarded as righteous but supremely in the rescue of the ungodly. This is the wonder of the incarnation. Have we forgotten it in our familiarity?
The shepherds’ response was swift. They hurried to see the sign of the baby lying in a manger. Having seen him, they went on the first New Testament mission trip, telling everyone who would listen what they had seen and heard. Through these unlikely evangelists, the amazement spread, although we do not know if anyone else visited the manger in response. What we do know is that this experience was transformative for the shepherds. They went back to their work with a renewed attitude – “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).
Ministers of the gospel are supposed to be like these shepherds. We are people who sat in darkness until the light of God’s glory shone upon us in Christ. When we heard the gospel, we came to gaze on Jesus, not lying in a manger, but hanging on a cross and emerging from a tomb. That experience changed us so that we glorify and praise God, and go to tell others. At least, this is how it should be. I suspect it is how it was when you first trusted Christ and when you started out in gospel ministry. What motivated you was the wonder of the gospel and the joy of God’s undeserved favour. If it is not that way now, it can be again, but only by gazing on Jesus.
Jesus was born at night. It was also night when he was betrayed. John 13 verse 30 tells of Judas going out to betray Jesus and adds, “And it was night”. It was night time both literally and metaphorically. Luke’s Gospel records how Jesus called the moment of his arrest the hour “when darkness reigns”. He was crucified in the daytime, but the sun refused to shine for three hours as he bore the wrath of God for our sins. Then his body was laid in darkness in a tomb of rock sealed by a stone.
On the Saturday that followed, the gloom enveloping his followers was heavy. It seemed that the light of the world had been extinguished. But in the light of Sunday’s dawning, they saw an empty tomb. He was risen! The light of life could not be overcome by the darkness of death.
If the shepherds of Bethlehem could not help sharing the wonder of what they heard and saw, can we refrain from doing the same when we have seen so much more?
Gospel ministry is telling others about the glory of God in Christ. We preach Jesus Christ as Lord, presenting God’s truth plainly, knowing that the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness in creation shines his light in the hearts of people to bring new creation. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4, when Jesus is proclaimed people see the “light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ”.
Our motivation to preach the gospel is our joyous discovery, like the shepherds, that all we were told when it was preached to us is true. We find Jesus to be all that he was claimed to be and more. Captivated by his majesty, we tell others about him. Those of us who preach regularly from Scripture must remember this is our task. We must show people Jesus and lead them in glorying in God through him. Our preaching is primarily an act of worship. It has more in common with the man who extols the virtues of his wife to his friends than the lecturer who explains the intricacies of his subject to his students.
If this is not your experience as you preach, there is no remedy other than returning to gaze on Jesus. Discouragements and unrealistic expectations from others, perfectionism and people-pleasing, personal sin and unfulfilled ambitions, frustration with the shallowness and hypocrisy of much that passes as Christian, a feeling of embattlement from the world (and perhaps even within our denominations). All of these can rob us of joy in Christ, but all pale into insignificance when we consider Jesus.
I hope that as Christmas approaches, you can find time to glory in him so that when you come to preach about his birth you can do so with the eagerness of the shepherds.