Absurd Heraldry (On the Way to the Cross - Part 11)
Scripture: Luke 2:8–2:20
Synopsis: Shepherds in their fields keeping watch over their flocks by night when angels appear heralding the birth of Christ. There is something absurd in this story that we miss because we have heard it so many times. Once we recognize the absurdity, we can understand the real glory of this scene.
There is a psychological test of perception where a group is asked to view a video of people bouncing basketballs and instructed to count how many times the balls bounce. Then at the end of the video, the professor asks, how many times the balls bounced and then to their surprise, “Who saw the gorilla?” The response of almost everyone there is, “What gorilla?” So the professor plays the video again, and to their surprise, they see a guy in an absurd gorilla suit walk into the middle of the ball bouncers, beat his chest, and walk away. The gorilla was there in plain sight, but nobody saw him! Something similar happens in our passage today.
We all know the story of the shepherds and the angels, but there are great big gorillas in that room that we tend not to notice! Even further, these absurd gorillas in the text have life-changing consequences for us today. There is a message in this simple passage that you cannot live without. I titled this sermon “Absurd Heraldry” because there is something absurd about this story that we tend to overlook.
Read Luke 2:8-20
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and 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 among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 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.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
When I read this passage, I imagine it’s the middle of the night in Spring season, since that would correlate better than Winter with the biblical evidence. Out in the countryside around Jerusalem, it’s quiet as shepherds take turns sleeping and watching their flocks. The smells of sheep and shepherd are in the air. Suddenly, an angel appears before them, gloriously lighting up the countryside, blinding the eyes of the shepherds for a few moments as their eyes compensate for the sudden brightness. Naturally, they are startled, hearts pounding, and afraid. Consider that an angel appearing in their time would be just as uncommon and disconcerting as if an angel appeared among us today. I imagine the angel spoke in a thunderous voice that echoed across the countryside and made the shepherds jump, “Fear Not!” The angel then announces the arrival of the long expected Messiah sent by God, and where to find him.
As if this were not enough, suddenly it seems as if heaven, unable to contain joy of this event, has burst open with the appearance of a multitude of the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest! And on Earth, peace to all with whom God is pleased!” Then, as suddenly as they all appeared, they are gone. The night is quiet again, though I wonder what the condition of the sheep must have been.
The shepherds, as they recover from this glorious spectacle, decide they had better go check out this thing that God has announced to them. The text says they went with haste to find Mary and Joseph, and after finding the baby Christ, they went and proclaimed what they saw all around. I wonder how many believed them at the time. “Those shepherds are a few sheep short of a flock, if you know what I mean..”
The angel of the Lord accompanied by the heavenly host came and heralded the incarnation of God to shepherds in their fields. How amazing, how wonderful and yet, how absurd. I believe our passage today has three 3 absurd things related to the heralding that happen in plain sight that we tend to look right over without noticing. The points of the heraldry that once we realize the absurdity of it we can seek out the true beauty and wonder of it. We can find them simply by asking the questions Who, What, and How.
1. Who Was Heralded?
We see in the text that God sent a glorious host of angels to herald the birth of the Messiah, to shepherds in fields outside Jerusalem. The question is why shepherds? It’s absurd if you think about it. Why didn’t God send the angels to the temple in Jerusalem? After all, that was the religious center of Israel whose savior had come. Or why didn’t God announce His incarnation at the royal palace in Jerusalem? Surely that was where the political power of Israel was to whom God had sent His new anointed King. Why would God ignore the most important people and places in Israel and opt instead for shepherds in their fields at night?!
Imagine with me for a moment that the queen of England came to visit the UAE. Naturally there would be a lot of commotion at the English embassy to prepare for her majesty’s arrival. Naturally, it would be the expectation of everyone involved that the Sheikh would be notified and that when the Queen arrived, she would greet him first. Now, imagine what would happen if the queen arrived in the UAE totally unannounced to the embassy or the Sheikh, on an economy class flight, dressed as any other elderly woman. Then, imagine her royal envoy showed up at a labor camp in Mussaffa to let them know where to go and meet the Queen. Certainly that would be unheard of! It would be a scandal!
Yet, this is precisely what happened in our text today. Christ came into the world, God became flesh and the angels gloriously heralded his coming to some random dirty shepherds outside Jerusalem. It would behoove us to know “why shepherds? Why not kings and priests?”
Remember that Israel was established by God both religiously and politically. It would stand to reason then that God would have sent His heralds to the religious and political authorities. Unless, that is, something had gone terribly wrong with the authorities of Israel. I think we can find a strong answer to this question in the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. Specifically what God said through him in Ezekiel 34.
Ezekiel 34:1-4,10, 15-16
1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
10 Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
The shepherds of Israel, that is the monarchy and the priesthood, had become corrupt and self-serving. They no longer fed, cared for, and protected the people of Israel, but exploited them for their own gain. They no longer sought God’s glory to be known among the nations, but only their own glory. Therefore God rejected the monarchy and priesthood that he had established. In their place, he promised to come and shepherd His people Himself.
Why shepherds in fields? I can’t be certain except to say that when the time came for the Good Shepherd to be born, God did not send angels to the palace or to the temple because He had long ago rejected those shepherds of Israel. Perhaps it is a kind of poetic justice that God sent His messengers to proclaim the fulfillment of prophecy, not to the shepherds of Israel, but to actual shepherds of sheep. That is, the normal people who were despised and exploited by those in power. Because God himself would seek the lost sheep of Israel.
2. What Was Heralded?
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
There is a great big gorilla here which the angel precedes with the proclamation of great joy for all people. The original language orders the words this way: “born to you all this day is a savior, he is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.”
Now, Christ is a word that has no natural meaning in English, but was imported from Greek “xristos,” which was in turn translated from the Hebrew word “meshiah.” To understand the full meaning of the word ‘meshiah’ would take a long survey of the Old Testament that we don’t have time for. Suffice to say that any Israelite who knew their scriptures well knew that themes and prophecies throughout scriptures seemed to culminate in this figure called Messiah who would rule on the throne of David, bring restoration to Israel, and salvation to the nations. The angel announced, the long awaited Christ is born in the city of David.
Even they however missed the full implications of God’s promises. Remember that prophecy we read from Ezekiel, God said, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” Add to this the prophecy through Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” That is, she will call him ‘God with us.’ The angel called him ‘Christ the Lord,’ again adding the element of divinity to the person of the Messiah. In other words, God Himself bursting into the world He created to rule and save is the fulfillment of the prophecies and themes of the Old Testament! And it happened that day!
If this doesn’t utterly astonish and bewilder you, then you haven’t understood this! God incarnate is the single most mind-bendingly amazing and absurd event in all history! God became man! God, the creator who spoke the universe into existence, who decreed the laws physics, the One who laid the foundations of the earth and determined its measurements while the heavenly host shouted for joy! God who directs the constellations in their paths and sustains all things by His great power! God whose voice thunders over the waters and who brings His people peace.. This same God entered His creation and was born as a human baby.
The child named ‘God with us’ is the message of Christmas and the biggest absurdity heralded by the angels in our passage today. Jews say this is blasphemy, Muslims say it is impossible blasphemy, Athiests say it is foolish nonsense. If however it is true that this child was God, it changes our whole life and all of our responsibilities. It means the universe is not meaningless chaos, it means that God is not aloof to human concerns, instead there is order and law built into the universe and there is hope because God loves His creation. If the message of Christmas is not just a nice story, but something that actually happened, it is the responsibility of every human being to sit up and pay attention to this Creator and His requirements of us.
3. How Was it Heralded?
Our text tells us there was a sudden, bright light, an announcement by a heavenly messenger, and then a heavenly choir singing “Glory to God in the highest!” After our previous point, this makes sense. Rejoice for God has come in the flesh! But look at verse 12:
12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Jesus' birth was so humble, marked by the same trouble as any ordinary person’s birth. God came into the world claiming no special advantage over common people. In fact, if you look back at verse 7 which comes right before our passage today there is another description of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Now, I am of the opinion that the word ‘inn’ is better translated as ‘the upper room’ since that is how it is rendered elsewhere in the New Testament. This makes sense of the fact that Joseph brought Mary back to his own town to be registered with Mary. It seems more likely that they would have stayed with Joseph’s family rather than an inn. There was no space for them in the upper room because the whole family had come back to be registered. They had to stay downstairs in the mejliss, if you will, where animals were also kept at night when it got too cold.
Now consider this: There was no room for the Messiah in the house of his own family. The first thing that comes to my mind is John 1:10-11
10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
What a way for God to enter His creation! How could this have been glorious for God? Was it not absurd for the angels to sing, “Glory” when King Immanuel was born in lowly circumstances? The light of the world, the fulfillment of all God’s promises to Israel and the world laid in a manger because there was no room anywhere else for him. What a scandal!
Glory mixed with humility would be characteristic of the life and ministry of Jesus. As we have seen, Jesus would do astounding things and make amazing claims. Some would believe him and others would try to throw him down a cliff. Massive crowds would follow him and a massive crowd would cry out for his crucifixion.
For a moment, let’s put a different spin on this story. Everything from Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension all happened according to plan. There were no mistakes, this was not God’s plan B. Everything happened exactly as God intended it should to accomplish His plans of salvation. Remember the parable of the mustard seed? It starts out so small but becomes large enough even for birds to take refuge in its branches. Jesus said that is what the kingdom of God is like.
Jesus, born in very humble circumstances with no advantages over other people, lived righteously, perfectly without sin. He fulfilled his familial responsibilities as the son of a carpenter until he was thirty years old and began his main public ministry. Everything he did after that took place in a backwater Roman colony in the space of only 3 years. At the time of his crucifixion and resurrection, he had a relatively small following and 11 men left in his inner circle.
Has there ever been a more humble beginning to movement that continues to grow worldwide 2000 years later? This was God’s plan from the beginning and it is not finished yet. Revelation 7 tells us that the day will come when a great multitude of people from every tribe, language, and nation shall stand before the throne of God redeemed and singing His praises. In the narrow context of Christ’s lowly birth the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” might seem absurd, but in the context of God’s display of mighty power to save humanity even with such a humble beginning, it truly is glorious.
God sent a host of angels to gloriously proclaim the coming of Christ the Lord, salvation and peace to all on whom His favor rests, to shepherds watching their flocks at night. God became man, He was born and laid in a manger because there was no room anywhere else. In the absurdity of what the angels heralded that night was also its glory.
We have heard this story so many times, but have we realized the life-changing implications of the fact that God chose shepherds instead of kings to hear about the birth of Christ. First of all, if God rejected the religious authorities and monarchy which He established, what does that mean for those of us who call ourselves Christians today? This is a stark warning for us that Paul made explicit in Romans 11:17-21
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
There is no room for boasting or complacency in the Christian life. Jesus said that the unfruitful branch is cut off. So ask yourself, are you bearing the fruit of salvation in Christ through your life? If you are not, you risk being rejected for one who will bear fruit. Work out your faith with fear and trembling.
Secondly, The reason for Christmas is Easter. Christ the savior has came to die on the cross to take away our sin and shame in front of God. If you believe Jesus is God the Son, that he died on your behalf, that he came to life again, and that he will return, you will have eternal life for God’s glory. Having heard the gospel, you must make a choice. Respond in faith and rejoice with the shepherds and angels, or not. But know that time is limited. Christ came into the world in an unexpected way and will return at an unexpected time.
Finally, Christmas reminds us that God’s Messiah must be proclaimed throughout world to everyone. As Christians eagerly expecting the second Christmas, the return of our King, our entire goal in life is the continued expansion of the great news of salvation throughout the world. The win for us will be that day when all nations praise and glorify King Immanuel. Let us go forth with the absurd heraldry of the angels in that first Christmas:
Behold, we bring you good news of a great joy for all the people. For unto you is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
More in On the Way to the Cross
April 13, 2014Glorious Injustice (On the Way to the Cross - Part 24)
April 6, 2014Peter and Judas (On the Way to the Cross - Part 23)
March 30, 2014I Will Send My Son (On the Way to the Cross - Part 22)