June 3, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Luke 2:8-14.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
In this short passage Luke sets out the broad themes of his gospel: the good news is brought to the poor and least powerful; Jesus is savior, Messiah, and Lord; Jesus is sent to feed us; and he brings peace.
The angel could have appeared to members of the Sanhedrin, but he didn’t. God dispatched him or her to deliver the good news to those tending animals and living in the fields exposed to the elements and to marauding predators and thieves. As Barclay points out, “Shepherds were despised by the orthodox good people of the day. They were quite unable to keep the details of the ceremonial law; they could not observe all the meticulous hand-washings and rules and regulations.” That made them sinners. Why did the angel appear to them? They had nothing to lose — not status, not privilege, not money, not influence, not authority. With nothing to lose, they had everything to gain by listening to and believing in the good news that the least would be first in the kingdom of God. The good news and great joy that would be offered to all people. Great joy for people whose lives were hard too often marked by poverty and suffering. These were the lambs that Jesus commanded Peter to feed, to tend.
Luke is the only one of the gospel writers to call Jesus savior. Right from the beginning Luke wanted his readers to realize that Jesus was God come to earth to redeem, to save humanity from its sins, to initiate a new covenant, to restore God’s people from alienation to his loving care. Jesus was to fulfill the longing for the promised Messiah who would deliver them from oppression. “Lord” is his favorite title for Jesus, which is also the title used for Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the Greek Bible as Luke does in these verses. It was the angel of the Lord, Yahweh or God, who appeared, which is equated with the savior who is also the Lord.
The coming of Jesus heralded peace on earth. Peace in spirit, in mind, and in our relationships with one another. Significantly for Luke, “Peace be with you” were the first words that Jesus spoke to his apostles after his resurrection in Luke’s gospel. The reign of peace for those who follow Jesus’ teachings and submit themselves to God’s will.
The angel appeared at night, a symbol for ignorance, sin, evil, corruption, fear, and death. Then the glory of the Lord shone all around the shepherds, so bright that they were terrified. The light represented goodness, love, enlightenment, truth, and life. Luke deliberately used this imagery to establish the contrast between old and new, death and new life. Nothing was ever to be the same again
God was the initiator. He sent His angel to announce that He had arrived to live among us. God brought the shepherds to the verge of something new, something different, something awesome. I have felt something like that the last few months and more intensely on a retreat this weekend titled, “Deepening our encounter with Christ.” I wrote in my journal during the first reflection that I felt like God has been trying to break me down in the sense of breaking down my walls, my defenses. I’ve had more recurring awareness of God’s presence that often brings me to the verge of tears. In my last entry I wrote that it feels like God is washing over me like the waves of an incoming tide, rushing up to partly submerge me and receding, then rushing back to entirely cover me. It’s not the sensation of drowning. It’s not accompanied by fear but more like wonder. I wrote that I feel like I am on the verge of something, but I don’t know what. I can imagine the shepherds feeling like that, being on the verge of discovering something new, something wonderful but not knowing what exactly.
It could be joy, the great joy of hearing the good news. I had a revelation on the weekend that God wants me to be HAPPY! I’ve never aspired to be happy. That’s not what life intends. The angel of the Lord is telling me not to be afraid. And just maybe he or she is telling me to be joyful, to be happy, by reveling in the good news, by allowing myself to be submersed in God’s love. Maybe I’m on the verge of happiness and that’s what brings tears to my eyes — me on whom His favor rests!