In all the English language, there aren’t many turns of phrase better known than these lines from Luke’s gospel, in which an angel announces Jesus’ birth to a band of shepherds:
“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.’ … And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”
This passage may be famous, but that doesn’t mean it’s truly heard.
In keeping with the season, then, let’s pause a few moments to unpack this remarkable announcement. Let’s try to appreciate the angel’s message for what it actually says, as if it were sent from heaven as the angel claims:
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▪ Fear not. It’s both ironic and sad that as a youngster I was taught to be terrified of God. He was listening to every idle word that crossed my lips, adults warned me. He was judging every errant thought that flittered through my mind. He was always, always, always taking notes and keeping score — and woe to the poor boy who came up lacking.
Yet the angel’s first words to those filthy, lousy shepherds on that hillside — the lowest of the low on the ancient social scale — are that they shouldn’t be afraid. The mighty host from heaven hasn’t come to judge or punish them, but to bless them. God has sent a savior who will demonstrate God’s indulgent, extravagant love.
All the legalists said: “Fear God.” This angel proclaims the opposite: “Fear not.”
▪ Good tidings of great joy. Eventually the message preached by and about the adult Jesus will come to be called the “good news.” Similarly, the angel’s announcement isn’t a dire warning of approaching destruction. Instead, it’s a cause for rejoicing: that no matter how many times we’ve wandered away in the past or how many times we’ll wander away in the days to come, God isn’t holding our wrongs against us.
I’m always appalled that so many preachers seem so determined to turn this good news into bad news. What a shame. It was good news at the start. It presumably remains so.
▪ To all people. This news is for anybody who’ll accept the offer. No exceptions. If you’re smart, dumb, young, old, black, white, brown, yellow, red, American, Korean, Peruvian, Republican, Democrat, socialist, nationalist, liberal, conservative, male, female, transgendered, straight, gay, rich, poor, tall, short — God’s on your side. His love isn’t limited to some elite, self-righteous, priggish few. It’s for all people. All means all.
▪ For unto you is born … a Saviour. The words in ancient Greek that are often translated as “savior” or “salvation” are just as accurately translated as “deliverer” or “deliverance.” It’s reasonable, then, and sometimes illuminating, to think of Jesus as the deliverer.
Who delivers us from what, exactly? From whatever vexes or isolates or torments us, the Greek word implies.
From our own hubris, which might be the chiefest of our sins. From our pettiness. From our selfishness. From our restlessness. From our rage. From our vindictiveness. From our grasping. From our aforementioned terror of God. From every variety of hell, be it eternal damnation or the private hells we create for ourselves.
▪ Glory to God in the highest. Only God Almighty could or would undertake a deliverance this grand. It isn’t the work of mere mortals. We humans not only can’t practice God’s unconditional love and exercise his unlimited power, we can’t even imagine them. Our promised deliverance isn’t about us; it’s all on God, all the time.
▪ On earth peace, good will toward men. I used to know a preacher who liked to say that some Christians were so heavenly minded they were no earthly good.
Not so in this passage. The angel’s message certainly has heavenly and eternal ramifications, but it’s also for the down-to-earth, here-and-now reality of our daily lives. He’s saying we can experience peace in our souls, peace with the Lord and peace toward our fellow humans.
God’s intentions toward us are kindly, and if we take that revelation to heart, it will enable us to show good will toward our neighbors. We won’t be living guarded, fearful, distrustful lives anymore. We’ll become generous of spirit. We’ll become courageous. We’ll become joyful.
Amen. May it be so. In closing, let me wish you all — every last one of you, whatever your beliefs, whatever your situation, whether you buy anything I’ve said here — a merry Christmas.