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Our great God is capable of turning the most humble substances into the most beautiful things. This fact is displayed in his creation at nearly every turn. In the earth’s mantle, under intense heat and pressure, black carbon is transformed into sparkling diamonds. When a bit of sand finds its way into a clam, it is surrounded by layer upon layer until it is transformed into a shimmering pearl. A grain of dust floating through a cloud in the winter sky is surrounded by a sheath of frozen water that gradually crystallizes into the gorgeous and intricate shapes we know as snowflakes.
When the creative power of the Lord comes into contact with the humble elements of this world, astounding and beautiful things result.
When the glory of the Lord came down to mankind in the form of the Christ Child, the result was the same. On the first Christmas, God’s glory met our darkness, and two things happened: God was glorified, and sinful mankind received peace.
Luke 2:8-15 (NKJV)
8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”
In this account, Luke paints a beautiful picture of dramatic contrasts. The story of the shepherds is one on great darkness, and one of brilliant light. We’ll start with the darkness.
These were shepherds. We might imagine a kindly band of working men, maybe a boy here or there, snuggled around a fire out in the countryside. But that image is more from our idealized nativity sets and Christmas decorations than from reality. Shepherds were outcasts. They were considered among the lowest classes of society, and not to be trusted. Sure there were trustworthy men among the shepherding class, but the number of unscrupulous ones led to a harsh stereotype. At the time when these events took place, shepherds could not serve in judicial positions and they were forbidden from being witnesses in a court of law.
Reputations aside, lets take a look at why these men had to be out in the fields at all. They were tending sheep. Sheep that were easy prey for predators, thieves, or simply harsh weather. After the fall into sin, the world became an ugly place of struggle, death, and robbery. Sin’s effect on the world was what made shepherding necessary.
This is the scene as Luke paints it to begin with: Out in the night, a band of rough shepherds, guarding a flock of sheep from death and theft. That’s a pretty dark picture.
But then into the scene enters an angel of the Lord, and with that angel, the glory of the Lord. If you search the Bible for that phrase, “the glory of the Lord” you’ll see it in the Old Testament most of all. The glory of the Lord was a brilliant light that appeared when the Lord wanted to make his presence known.
At Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, the glory of the Lord is described as being “like a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17). This awe-inspiring sight was often accompanied by a mysterious cloud. When the prophet Ezekiel received a vision of the Lord sitting on his throne, he saw the glory of the Lord and said it was like the vivid brightness of a rainbow. When Solomon dedicated the first Temple of the Lord, the glory of the Lord filled the Temple making it impossible for the priests to enter it.
Here in the countryside outside of Bethlehem, the shepherds found themselves SURROUNDED by this brilliant and vivid glory.
And before long, that single angel of the Lord standing before them received backup. Luke says that all the sudden a multitude of the heavenly host appeared. That word, “host” is the same word used to describe an army arrayed for battle. That is to say, an angel army appeared before these shepherds, and with one unified voice they praised the God of heaven.
This is the contrast that Luke presents. A dirty, rag-tag bunch of sinful shepherds and a brilliant and powerful band of angel messengers—accompanied by the light of God’s glory. And to add to the contrast between these two, Luke tells us that the shepherds were filled with fear, while the angels were filled with ecstatic joy. “Don’t fear!”, the first angel said, for we bring you GOOD NEWS!
If we attempted to actually put this scene on a canvas, we could start by simply putting a huge swatch of black on the bottom half, and huge swatch of light on the top of our canvas.
And on the line between these contrasts we find the message of the Christ Child’s birth. Where the glory of God meets the darkness of sinful mankind we find God-made-Man. Human, yet sinless. Laid in a humble manger for his first crib. This was one through whom the whole universe had been created.
And in this Child, the glory of the Lord was expressed in a way that was far more glorious than the brilliant light shining on the fields and flocks and shepherds. Here in this Child the glory of the Lord was expressed in his GRACE.
What a gift was being given to mankind! This Child was to be a source of joy for all the people of the world, for he had been born for the specific purpose of being their Savior from sin. God’s promise to send salvation for sinners was being fulfilled. And the angels praised the Lord for what he was doing. They said…
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14 NKJV).
Now, I want to clear a little something up here about verse 14. Some English translations have the angels saying something like, “peace to those on whom his favor rests” (NIV), or “peace among those with whom he is pleased” (ESV). These translations fail to capture the meaning of the original Greek. They make it sound like the angels are saying, “peace be to SOME of mankind, namely, on those whom God is pleased with”. That’s not the meaning of the Greek.
The New King James Translation does a better job expressing what the angels said. They weren’t saying, “peace be to you humans who have made God happy”. They were saying, “peace be TO YOU MANKIND, because GOD IS SMILING ON YOU TODAY! By HIS goodwill, GOD is giving you ALL the gift of a Savior!”
When the glory of the Lord met the darkness of sinful mankind, two things happened: the Lord’s glory as the powerful and yet merciful God was shown, and peace was given to mankind.
And then the light was gone. The angels went away from the shepherds, back into the realm of heaven, back to the Lord who had sent them.
And the shepherds who had seen the brilliant light that was the glory of the Lord, agreed that they should go and see the other glory of the Lord. The one that was wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger.
As we approach the manger this Christmas, let’s remember the details of this account. God sent his glorious angel messengers to dirty, sinful shepherds because this Savior was for them. No matter what sins stain your past, this Savior is also for you. The first angel made it clear enough even for the uneducated shepherds to understand—
“…Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to ALL PEOPLE. For there is born TO YOU this day in the city of David A SAVIOR, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 NKJV).
And the angel army repeated the message—
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth PEACE, goodwill TOWARD MEN!” (Luke 2:14 NKJV).
The creativity and power of God is revealed in nature in a million different and breathtaking ways. But in the birth of our Savior, God’s glory is revealed in a way that far exceeds the diamond or the pearl or the snowflake. For these things may make us stare in awe or smile with joy, but the forgiveness that comes to us through the Christ Child gives us PEACE WITH GOD.
This is what Christmas is all about. Glory and praise being given to God from all his creatures, because peace has been given to us, from our all gracious King.
Prayer: Father in heaven, strip away from our hearts and minds all the second rate tinsel that the world litters around Christmas. Help us to see the glory of your forgiving grace when we see the Christ Child again. This Christmas drown out the darkness of our guilt and shame with the light of your Son, and fill us with the unshakable peace that his forgiveness brings. Amen.