The Shepherds and the Angels
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”1
Provoked By A Chorus of Angels
The story of the shepherds and the chorus of angels is the centerpiece of many Christmas songs and stories. A Charlie Brown Christmas looms large in my own childhood memories of Christmas. At the center of that story is Linus telling of the shepherds and angels from the Gospel of Luke. “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” Think of your favorite Christmas songs. How long does it take for you to get to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing?” If you have any taste in music, it shouldn’t take very long (I am only mildly kidding). Or maybe you are more partial to “Angels We Have On High.”
The fact is that our familiarity with the story puts us in danger of domesticating it. Think about the scene without our 2000 years of cultural baggage. Lowly shepherds were keeping watch in the middle of the night. Suddenly, an angel appears in the sky with the glory of the Lord shining around it. The shepherds were fully justified in their fear. What would you do? I am under no delusions that my own response would have been calm and measured.
But the angel tells them to “fear not.” He brings a message of good news and great joy. And then a multitude of heavenly hosts appear singing glory to God in the highest. I am not convinced that I would have been soothed by the angel’s first words. I’m pretty sure that I would have still been a little scared even after the angels had left. But the shepherds resolved to see this thing the angels proclaimed. Read Luke 2:15-20:
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us. ”And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
If only we all had the faith of these shepherds, who heard the good news and responded. They went to the Christ child and returned glorifying God for all that they had seen.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
The Incredible, Almost Incredulous Journey
The story of the magi is a little different from that of the shepherds. These wise men saw the star rise in the sky. Somehow, they knew that this star signaled the birth of a new king. They travelled a great distance to bring gifts and worship this new king. Again, our familiarity with this story might keep us from recognizing its almost incredulous features.
Magi saw a star, which they believed told of the birth of a king. How did they even know? They then travelled to Palestine to see this king. Given that Herod tries to kill all the male children under two in Bethlehem, it is likely that this journey took them two years. Remember that travel in the ancient world was both arduous and dangerous. It is incredible that the magi took this journey at all, picking up their lives and traveling to a small Roman province all because their astrological charts changed by one star. Think about the magi approaching their neighbors before the trip. “We’ve seen a new star, and we are going to go worship a new king in a far off land.” The ancient world was a different place, but I’m pretty sure reasonable people would have advised them to stay home. But their faith was rewarded. Read Matthew 2:9b-11.
And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Seeing the star, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” That is actually a mild translation of the Greek ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα. In the Greek, Matthew has packed in as many superlatives as he possibly can. This is not the joy you feel at finding a $20 bill in your pocket you didn’t know you had. This is the joy you feel at the birth of your first child. It is the ecstatic joy at your wedding to your true love.
For the magi, “We Three Kings” is a really great song to symbolize their journey. The verses are in a minor key that reflects their travels in the wilderness. It is somber and plodding. However, the chorus breaks through in a major key. It is bright and bouncing. The somber verse in minor key resolves itself in the bright major key of the chorus. The long journey resolves in joy and worship.
Faith Comes By Many Roads
Rich and Poor
A common weekly theme for Advent considers faith. The contrasting stories of the shepherds and the magi can teach us a lot about the faith God has called us to. For starters, shepherds were not on the top rungs of society in the ancient world. The Bible does not tell us their exact financial situation, but it is likely that these shepherds were not rich and not respected, if they were considered at all, by the upper echelons of their community. The story of the shepherds reflects Luke’s concern in general for the poor and downtrodden in society.
The magi were most likely men of means. They had the resources to take the journey in the first place. They also brought with them gifts of value. Yet they came and fell at the feet of the same child that had drawn the lowly shepherds. This comparison highlights that God in Jesus has called all people to himself. We easily divide ourselves by socioeconomic lines. However, Jesus has no regard for our physical wealth. Rich or poor, we are all one in Christ Jesus.
In the Blink of an Eye
Another point of contrast is the length of their journeys to faith and worship. The shepherds were in the fields surrounding Bethlehem. They received a message from an angel. Their night sky was filled with the light and glory of a multitude of heavenly bodies singing of the glory of God. They were very quickly at the stable and in the presence of the baby Jesus in a manger. Their journey is analogous to the faith that is the result of a dramatic epiphany. Sometimes we are that fortunate. Sometimes God makes our path as plain as a chorus of angels in the night sky.
On a Long Journey
By contrast, the journey of the magi was long and hard. The shepherds took a night; the magi took two years. The shepherds’ night sky was filled with heavenly glory. The magi only had a pinpoint of light to follow across the wilderness. Faith is sometimes analogous to the magi’ wandering. It is a long and hard path without much to go on.
The beauty of both journeys is that they resolved themselves in joy and worship. I cannot explain why our journey is sometimes easy and other times hard. We simply don’t have the perspective that would lead to understanding. But we do have the examples of the shepherds and the magi. We have access to the same Jesus that they came to worship in Bethlehem.
This week of Advent we celebrate faith. We celebrate the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ, who came down to us as one of us to save us from our sin. We thank God that grace is available to us through faith in Jesus. Faith is sometimes an epiphany. It is sometimes a slow drip. It is sometimes easy. It is sometimes long and hard. Thank God that these many roads to faith in Him all lead to joy in the presence of Jesus.
1 All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).