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.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
-Luke 2:8-15 (NRSV)
It could have been King Herod who got the news from the angels. "Messiah," the Anointed One, was a loaded term in his day. It implied royal power, kingly authority. If this child born in Bethlehem was going to be king, it meant that Herod's descendants would not be. You'd think, wouldn't you, that he would have been notified? But while shepherds are visited by angels, while the birth of the Savior is announced to simple herdsmen and their confused sheep, Herod sleeps in his comfortable bed. Unaware of the storm about to break.
It might have been the high priest to whom the angels went. If anyone should welcome the Messiah with open arms, it should be the man who was in charge of the people's spiritual well-being. He who offered the sacrifices on behalf of worshippers should have recognized the Lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world. But while the high priest dozed, the birth that would make the entire system of sacrifice obsolete was announced to the victims of those sacrifices and their keepers.
You might have expected the scribes and Pharisees to be notified. They were the faithful, the scrupulous, zealous for the Law and the teachings of their forefathers. They knew how far you could travel on a Sabbath, what constituted work and what did not, and the proper way to prepare food. Sure people who knew the Scriptures so well would have recognized the significance of the birth of a descendant of David in his city. They would have known the prophets' longing for the Messiah and joined in the angel chorus enthusiastically. But while the upright Bible scholars rested their pious heads and dreamed their righteous dreams, God sent angels to announce the birth of his Son to men who weren't trusted enough to be accepted as witnesses in court.
Or you might think that God would have sent his angelic ambassadors to Governor Quirinius, the Roman authority in the territory. Or even to Rome, to Caesar himself. You might think that God would get in the face of the Emperor, that the angels would sing a song of the conquest of God's kingdom over the human race's mightiest empire. But while heads of state rested from the cares of their offices, the birth of a new King was announced only to common laborers caring for someone else's livestock as far from the corridors of power as they could be.
Curious of God to announce the birth of his Son in this way. Curious that the One whom the church has believed for centuries to be God in flesh should come into the world in such an innocuous way. Wonder what the shepherds thought when the angels told them that the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord was wrapped in common cloth and lying in an animal's feed trough? Wonder what they thought when they arrived at the stable to find no one but a tired peasant couple trying to get a cranky newborn to nurse?
"Good news of great joy for all the people," the angel had told them. In a rich-get-richer-poor-get-poorer world, good news for everyone is hard to come by. But by announcing the birth of Jesus to simple people like these shepherds, God showed his commitment to creating joy for everyone. By going to the shepherds, God showed that average, everyday working stiffs matter to him. By believing and going to search for the One God told them had come, the shepherds showed their trust. Herod, we know, felt threatened and tried to exterminate the upstart king. The high priest, we know, eventually condemned him to death. The scribes and Pharisees were offended by him. A Roman governor passed off responsibility for him. And in his lifetime he was never important enough by human standards to attract Caesar's attention. All the important people of Jesus' time missed his coming, for one reason or another. But the shepherds were a different story. They heard and saw the angels, believed, and went to see.
As Christmas rolls around again, should we perhaps stop and ask ourselves if we too believe and go to see? It's ironic that in the "Holiday Season" that Americans celebrate Jesus is almost nowhere to be found. He makes an appearance in our Christmas carols, sometimes adorns cards, maybe is the centerpiece of nativity scenes, and yet very often it feels as if he's little more than a decoration -- one that gets put away with all the others when the season ends. But according to what the angel said to those shepherds, his coming is not just a holiday to be celebrated once a year. To those who put their trust in him, he brings "good news of great joy." He is exhibit A that God looks upon the human race with favor.
Only too many of us miss his coming. We go about our busy lives, raise our kids, do our jobs, even meet our religious obligations, and never see what those shepherds saw. We never see God Himself sleeping in a manger or nursing at the breast of a human mother. We never notice that the Creator became creature, that he traded heaven for earth: for a stable, a manger, a cross. We don't notice because few of us take the time to listen.
Hear that? A chorus of angels sings in heaven still, because one song won't contain the joy of the gospel. But this good news is not to be just heard. It is to be seen. Experienced. Lived. So follow the footprints of a scraggly bunch of shepherds. Go with them to the manger to see the Savior of the world, the Son of God who cares for shepherds and mechanics and admins and managers and accountants and students and wives and mothers and fathers and preachers just like me and you. Kneel beside them in the dirt and straw and dung to see the Savior who came into this world and took our sufferings on himself to save us. All the "important" stuff you have to do will wait. For now, let the song of the angels lead you to the Savior. To good news of great joy for all the people. Including you.