Every time I hear the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds, something within me can’t help but notice what a colossal waste of resources this is. I mean, you trot out all the heavenly fire power to make the greatest announcement in history and who is the audience? Shepherds. Out in a field. Outside of Bethlehem. Who was the advance team on this? It doesn’t make sense.
If you are going to announce the birth of a king who promises “peace on Earth, and good will to all” then shouldn’t you do it in the capital city at a palace? But it’s not announced in Rome, not even in Jerusalem, but some little backwater place called Bethlehem.
But you don’t just make the announcement in Bethlehem. You make it outside of Bethlehem. Could you imagine this today? You can almost see the skeptical television reporter, can’t you? “Well, it seems, in a trailer park just outside of Yuma, Arizona, that a bunch of people are reporting that they saw angels who announced the coming of a King who promises peace to everyone. Hmm. Back to you in the studio, Bob!”
But that’s how the story goes, right? The Shepherds are watching their fields by night outside of Bethlehem and an angel of the Lord shines before them saying, “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news of great joy for everyone! The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born tonight in Bethlehem, the city of David!”
And then a multitude of heavenly hosts say, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth to all..” It’s about peace on earth, and good will to everybody, right? It’s not a local thing. It’s big.
Okay, Bethlehem. Not exactly the center of the world, but why tell this to a bunch of shepherds? What can they possibly do about the lack of peace in the world? What difference will an announcement make to them. Shepherds were the lowest economic class of people in Jesus’ day. They had no power, no influence, most of them, no homes. It would be like Jesus showing up at 6 AM to a group of day laborers and making an announcement about changing the world. I mean its good news and all, but why tell them?
Why the shepherds? Why them? What could they possibly have, What could they possibly have done to deserve this? Why would God announce the coming of the savior of the world to a bunch of poor, lowly shepherds?
I asked this question to some kids. Some smart kids. These kids have all been in our Sunday School and come from Christian families. I told them all about the shepherds and how poor they are and how insignificant some people would have thought they were. I told them that in that society they would be somewhat like the people who sometimes cut our lawns or clean our homes or dig the ditches or work as bus boys or at car washes. And then I asked them, why do you think that the angels appeared to them?
And you know what they answered? Because they are nice. Because they are humble. Because they are simple and kind and hard working. I was really touched. Here was a bunch of pretty rich kids in one of the most expensive towns in the wealthiest country in the history of the world and they could see the goodness, the worthiness, the dignity of people who like shepherds don’t often get a break in life and they said, in effect, “The angels appeared to the shepherds because they deserved it. That’s who God should send his angels to tell.”
It was very sweet. And, really, it was the wrong answer.
I am so glad that those kids could respect and genuinely appreciate those who have so much less than they do or may come from another country or may struggle to speak English, but who work hard and love their families and are grateful for what they have. I am glad they could see the dignity in all people. It’s the same experience we had going to Africa last year and see so many poor people who have so little but were so generous, so filled with faith.
But that’s not why the angels appeared to the shepherds. In fact, there is not one reason given. Not one rationale about their faith, or humility or trust in the midst of their outcast condition. Not one place does the Bible say that in anyway the shepherds were better people than the high priests, or Pharisees, or townspeople or the inn keepers who had no room for the baby Jesus.
They are not better. They were blessed. The angels didn’t appear to the shepherds because they were blessed, the shepherds were blessed because the angels appeared to them.
It’s like infant baptism. When we baptize a baby we are not saying that the baby is somehow better than other babies (though the proud mom and dad may think so!). We are also not baptizing the baby because it is good, or innocent, or because we know he is going to live well for Jesus someday. The baby is not better, the baby is blessed. In a world where so many children have no one who loves them or prays for them, no one
My children have been prayed for every single day since the moment we knew we were expecting them. (I can promise you that because when I saw the pregnancy test result, I said, “Oh my God!) They are not better but they are blessed. They are blessed to grow up surrounded by all of you, they are blessed to be part of this community of faith. They are blessed to have surrogate grandparents and Sunday school teachers and youth leaders and examples of the faith all around them to encourage them, watch over them and yes, tell their parents if they even think about going down the wrong road in life.
But they don’t deserve this blessing. No one deserves it. It’s just grace. The same is true of the shepherds on that most Holy Night that Christ was born. They didn’t deserve this grand visitation one bit. It was nothing but grace. Merciful, grace. God’s unmerited favor. God’s completely undeserved presence. God’s unwavering and unconditional love. That’s what the angels declared to the shepherds that morning. That is the “good news of great joy for all the people.” The grace and mercy, acceptance and love, care and commitment of God is available to you and to me freely.
If we will simply receive it.