Just about the time I am envisioning the shepherds abiding in the fields with their flocks during the night watches, my reverie is lost with the sound and sight of an angel entering the inky night sky. Scripture clearly states the shepherds were frightened and I have no doubt that I would have been as well. The sky may have been dotted with stars, but suddenly an angel floods the night sky with light and the sound of an unearthly voice. Picture your response to a UFO if an image of an angel is a bit too hard to capture.
I might think the shepherds were frightened because they did not know what they were seeing. There was likely more than a little shock going on as well, but as I reflected on it a bit more I wondered about another possibility.
Could it be their knowledge of the history of Israel reminded them of other times an angel or angels appeared? If so, they might have recalled that it was not always simply to share good news. Sometimes they came to bring judgment under God’s orders such as when strangers appeared to Lot with the news that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. The shepherds did not know whether the message was for their good or their destruction until the angel speaks.
One example that can give me a possible glimpse happens in the movie series of the Lord of the Rings where Cate Blanchett appears as Galadriel. In some scenes she appears as one meant only to help and guide. In other scenes her appearance reminds me of a power within her that I cannot fully understand nor trust.
Clearly, they were not aware of what had already happened in Bethlehem or that a lamb more precious than those they tended had picked them to first behold Him. These simple shepherds are the first to see Him, not the wise men or anyone of high station.
I also need to remind myself that the earlier scene of the birth in Luke is now converging with the scene of the shepherds that have been abiding in the field.
How would the reverberation of an angelic host sound? I wish I knew.
I cannot help but believe that the stillness of the night and the dark starlit vaulted canopy under which they tended their sheep would have provided the perfect setting and acoustics for the dramatic entrance of the angel and then an angelic host.
In that singular moment, the shepherds receive a momentary taste of the sounds of heaven.
I can perhaps only get a glimmer of that sound when I think of how Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus never fails to cause my eyes to well with tears as it sweeps over me each time I hear it.
And what does the angel share with them? First, the angel seeks to calm their fears. They are told not to be afraid because the news they are about to hear will bring joy not only to them, but will be for “all the people”.
What a seeming paradox! These least likely shepherds, considered to be of no account by the people of the day, will not only be the first to hear but will also be potentially the first to tell others about this miraculous event. After so many years, prophecy has been fulfilled on this night. That is made clear by the declaration it occurred at the right spot, the city of David.
The Messiah has come. Nothing will ever be the same again. A Savior, their Redeemer, our Redeemer, has been born.
The news is so breathtaking that an angelic host enters the scene singing praise to God. When I see “heavenly host” in the passage, I do not immediately think army, but that is what is meant. An army in the night sky? Almost any one of us would be shaking as we see an army appear in the sky.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased”
Then, nearly as abruptly as they appear in the sky, they return to heaven leaving the awe-struck shepherds once more alone under a starry night sky. The evidence of their faith comes when their response to the heavenly messengers is to go to Bethlehem to see what has happened and what the Lord has made known to them.
Some images we see show the shepherds gazing up into the sky at a bright star, but the sign the angel spoke about is not a star. The sign is a baby lying in a manger. Sure enough upon entering Bethlehem, they find just such a scene with Mary, Joseph and the baby. I wonder if Mary and Joseph were stunned with the appearance of these visitors.
What I do know is that the shepherds went away praising God and made this discovery known as well as what the angel had spoken to them. They bring the Good News.
So many hundreds of years later, when anyone of us first discovers the Good News, we too go away praising the Lord and telling anyone we know.
Even if this news is not new to you, I pray you will see it with fresh eyes this season so you experience the joy of the shepherds. No matter what your station in life, know He has chosen you even as He chose the shepherds.