A Surprise Announcement

journeytobethlehem-small

Luke 2:8-12 (New Living Translation)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

It was late winter in 2013, and the evenings were just starting to get warmer in Washington DC. My husband Chuck and I had met after work for dinner at one of our favorite DC restaurants. The night was perfect, clear and lovely, so after dinner we decided to take a walk before heading to catch the Metro back to Alexandria. We were still pretty new to the city, and didn’t really know our way around. We had been walking for a little while when we saw a large group of people heading down a street. And another group. Then another. We decided to follow to see what the excitement was about. We walked down, made the turn, and there, right in front of us, was the White House.

We hadn’t realized that we had wandered so close. I remember being in awe that night of the fact that I lived in a place where I could just, by turning down a random street, be faced with such a distinctive, beautiful building.

In the years we were in DC, I sometimes thought how strange it must be for the people who live in the White House. Not many of us live in a place that is photographed hundreds — perhaps thousands — of times each day. Few live in a building so famous, so historical, so public. Every entrance or exit you make scrutinized, every area of your living space guarded and watched, every visitor to your home carefully vetted and security checked. It must be incredibly surreal to live there.

But there definitely are perks. For instance, if you are a resident of the White House, you can invite just about any musical group you like to come and entertain you and your friends… and they will most likely show up. Out of curiosity this week, I googled what musicians have played at the White House during President Obama’s tenure. Here’s a partial list:

Alabama Shakes, Cyndi Lauper, Justin Timberlake, Ray Charles, Diana Krall, BB King, Mick Jagger, Los Lobos, John Legend, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson, Joshua Bell, Esperanza Spaulding, Gloria Estefan…

Wow, right?
Can you imagine just having those folks over to your house to sing?

And that’s not even the whole list! Man, would I have loved to be there for some of those performances. And, you know, even though we lived in the DC area for a good part of Barack Obama’s time in office, he and Michelle never invited us to attend even one concert?

(What is up with that?)

If I had a time machine, there are performances I would love to go back and experience:

Mehalia Jackson singing on the steps
of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
performing in Salzburg in 1777.

Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show
for the first time in 1956.

(And, yes, I did just mention Mehalia, Wolfgang, and Elvis at the same time. I get to choose my dream artists. You choose your own!)

But out of all the vocalists, out of all the bands and performers and choirs in the world and throughout history, if I had just one shot at moving through time and space to be there for a musical experience, there is no question: I would go back to a starlit hillside outside of Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. When, out of pure joy, angels sang to a group of shepherds.

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 Savior 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 favor rests” (Luke 2:8-14, New International Version).

Try to picture that scene for a moment…

It’s dark, a clear night, with a beautiful star shining brightly overhead. The shepherds are doing what they do every night: checking on their flock as they prepare to bed down for the night. It’s a night just like any other night. Ordinary. Nothing special. They know what to expect.

Then, suddenly, an angel appears, shining with the glory of God’s power! They are — not surprisingly — completely freaked out! These are people living on the periphery of society, outsiders, outcasts, and they’ve got to be thinking that an angel appearing among them cannot possibly be good news for them!

But the angel does something remarkable, immediately offering words of comfort.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel says.  The Greek word used here for “afraid” is phobeó, together with the negative particle .

Μὴ φοβεῖσθε
Me phobeisthe
Fear not

Do not be filled with dread at my arrival, the angel says. Phobeó also means to withdraw from, to flee.  “Don’t run away!” the angel tells the shepherds, “Don’t take off!” Another translation of phobeó is “to avoid.” To the shepherds, the angel says, “Don’t avoid this!” Don’t miss it!”

“Do not be afraid. For see,” the angel says, “this is good news!”

“For see.” Idou in Greek. It’s a funny, awkward, difficult-to-translate little word. Some Bible versions render it as “Lo!” or “Behold!” Other translations choose leave it out entirely.

But it’s a really important part of what the angel says to the shepherds. Don’t be afraid, they’ve been told. Don’t run away, don’t miss this, they’ve urged. And now the angel tells them to see. Look! Pay attention! Don’t avert your eyes and walk away! Harken to what I have to tell you!

That is when they learn that they are the first to hear about the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior. Them! A bunch of shepherds hanging out with their herds on a hill!

And the child has already arrived, and is waiting in a stable in the town of Bethlehem.

While the shepherds are probably still reeling from this jaw-dropping announcement of the Messiah’s birth, the angel is suddenly joined by a “multitude” of other angels, and they burst into joyous song. Has any song like it ever been heard on earth since then?

Now, likely, our image of this moment has been formed by Christmas cards we’ve received over the years, paintings we’ve viewed. The shepherds standing in the dark on the hillside, craning their necks up to the sky, as a large number of angels break through the clouds, overwhelming but still safely removed from the men far below.

Nope! That’s not how it goes down in the scripture. The first angel, we’re told, stands before the shepherds. Close by, not at a distance. Then, after the announcement of Jesus’ birth, the other angels suddenly appear with the angel. Again, right there! And this isn’t just a few angels. It’s a stratia: Greek for an army of angels! And that word is magnified by the Greek pléthos: a great number, a multitude.

Imagine, if you will, these shepherds being completely surrounded by God’s angels — every direction they turn — all singing praises to God for the inbreaking of God’s love into the world in the form of a tiny baby.

Then… just as suddenly in our scripture, it’s all over. With the angel’s song ringing in shepherds’ ears, the night must have seemed deafeningly quiet.

They look at each other, and say, “Okay. So, let’s go — right now, this moment — to Bethlehem and see this for ourselves. C’mon! Let’s go!”  I’m paraphrasing, definitely, but it gets the mood of what they say. They are really anxious to get moving!

I have to admit that I have a rather comical image in my mind about this moment, with the shepherds falling over each other as they rush down the hillside toward Bethlehem, tripping each other up in their urgency to reach the stable first.

It’s no wonder that, following such a dramatic announcement, the shepherds are in such a hurry to get to Bethlehem. They’ve heard about the Messiah — but now they want to see him for themselves. So they take off at a run toward that manger. They rush into the village.

And it is just as the angel had promised. They find Joseph and Mary, and there, lying in Mary’s arms, a newborn baby boy.

How overwhelming it must have been for these simple, rough shepherds to see the promised Messiah not in a palace, but in the squalor of a stable. Could the message have been clearer to them? This Messiah was for them! It was for every person, no matter how high or how low. This gift of majesty, glory and honor was brought down to the level of the shepherds: humble, earthy and plain.

When the shepherds leave Bethlehem, they carry with them this truth, and they share the story with everyone they meet.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the shepherds’ lives would never have been the same after this. How could it be? What happened to them was remarkable, beautiful, life-transforming.

It’s a simple, very short story, just 13 verses in Luke’s gospel. But what we can learn from it is so important.

Because at every turn of the story, the shepherds had choices. And they chose: (1) to listen, (2) to move, (3) and to share.

First, they listened…

They didn’t cower on the ground, curled up in fetal position, eyes tightly closed, fingers stuck deep in their ears. When the angel told them not to be afraid, they listened. They didn’t run away, didn’t avoid hearing the truth. They believed — they trusted — in the power of the angel’s message. They listened with great attentiveness.

This year, I pray that we would listen… really listen… to the beautiful message of this season. Pay attention. Don’t be afraid. Oh, please, don’t miss it!

Next, the shepherds moved…

That night, the shepherds were just living their lives, going about their business. They knew what their days, their nights would entail. They knew what to expect. That night was ordinary, nothing special.

But after they listened to the awesome news, they didn’t hesitate. “Let’s go right now down to Bethlehem,” they said. They didn’t have to do that! They could have just said, “Wow! That was pretty amazing,” and then have simply gone on with their lives. They could have tweeted about the experience, posted a picture of the angels on Instagram or Facebook.  They didn’t have to actually DO anything in response to the angel’s proclamation.

But they did. They truly listened to the message. They took it to heart. And then they took action. They wanted to see for themselves the truth of what they had heard. They wanted to test it out, to check out the facts. They moved.

I pray this year that we would not just listen to the Christmas message of grace and hope and then… move back on with our lives. Instead, may we be moved to loving action!

And, finally, they shared…

Verse 17 tells us: After seeing Jesus, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. (New Living Translation)

They were so excited, they just couldn’t keep it to themselves! They were overflowing with delight, and the news just bubbled out of them every where they went. That news — it’s the very same news we will celebrate in a just a week’s time.

It is truly good news, of great joy, that is for all people. In the town of David a Savior has been born to us; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

So, as we close, I have a few questions I’d love for you to consider this week, as we finish up our journey to Bethlehem together.

1st: LISTEN.
What part of the Christmas story is speaking to your heart this year?
What message of love and hope does God have for you?

2nd: MOVE.
What might God be calling you to do in response to God’s incredible gift of love?
How will you allow God to use you to bring healing and hope to this world in pain?

And 3rd: SHARE.
With whom in your life would you love to share the story of Jesus’ birth?
Who might you invite to come with you to a Christmas service this weekend?

I don’t have a time machine, no matter how I’ve fantasized about it. I can’t go back in history to stand with those shepherds on that hillside outside Bethlehem as the angels sang in the dark of the night.

But I can stand with you — here, now — as together we celebrate the birth of Jesus with our voices raised in joy and thanksgiving, praying for healing and peace in our world.

May God bless you as we continue to prepare for Christmas, and for the coming of the Christ child!

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