(originally delivered as a Christmas Eve devotional at Sun River Church, Rancho Cordova, on December 24, 2019)
Let’s talk about the angels and the shepherds, and the song, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. First, in case you’re not sure, the word “Hark” basically means: Listen up! Check it out! This is important! You know the word, because of the song. But you probably don’t use it in your everyday language. It’s kind of an interesting word though. It’s almost onomatopoeic. Yup, that’s a real word, too. It means “a word that sounds like what it means.” Like, “bang,” or “sizzle,” or “bark.” Hark! It definitely gets your attention. Especially when yelled. Or when coming out of the mouth of an angelic being!
But what about “Herald”? That’s not a real common word these days, either. No, the song is not called Hark the Herald Angels Sing because the lead Angel singer was named Harold. The word “Herald” means to proclaim or announce. This is why so many newspapers have the word Herald in their name. The Daily Herald, the Herald News. These angels were proclaiming the most important news ever.
But what about the shepherds? Why shepherds?
It’s only been in the last three years or so that I’ve seen how prevalent this message is throughout all of Scripture. It’s a recurring theme that, once my eyes were opened, I can’t believe I missed it before. The Bible is replete with examples of God giving special favor to people who are lowly and downtrodden, not to mention the specific descriptions of how God opposes the proud but “shows favor to the humble and oppressed” (Prov. 3:34) and how “he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23). And then there are the many passages where God commands us to show favor to the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant (Deut. 10:18-19). It is clear that God has a special place in his heart for those who suffer and who are abused or oppressed by others. He loves the underdog, the outcast, and the rejected. And here, in the story of Jesus’ birth, it’s the stinky, despised, shepherds, who lived outside the city, whom God highlights and brings right into the middle of the narrative.
I have found it helpful when reading scripture to pause and try to picture myself there in story, to view the story from inside. When I read the story of the shepherds and the angels heralding the good news, I picture it being very bright and very loud. But let’s back up, and consider how it all came about. How did these shepherds end up in this story? I’m taking some creative liberties here, beyond the scriptures, but it could have been like this…
God is preparing to send Jesus to Earth and he calls in a few of his senior Angels and shares the news with them, that the time has come. He says, “guys, I’ve got a special assignment for you – you know how I have a special place in my heart for the lowly, the poor, the outcasts. Well, I’ve identified a group of shepherds just outside the city of Bethlehem, and they’re about to become the ultimate insiders. They are special to me – these shepherds are the ones who are assigned to take care of the unblemished lambs that are used for sacrifices at the temple. And they’re about to hear about the birth of Heaven’s sacrificial lamb. I want you to announce the news of Jesus’ birth to these shepherds.”
Of course, the Angels are elated – first because this is the moment they’ve been waiting for; the night when the hope of the world is born. And these angels can’t wait to sing His praises. They draw straws and one angel is selected to be the first to announce the news. After all, it’s scary enough for humans when one angel appears, it would probably scare them out of their minds to spring the whole company of angels on them all at once.
So this first angel appears to the shepherds and, although the shepherds may have later remembered that moment as “Angels sweetly singing o’er the plains”, the first thing to seize them was fear. The angel appears, with the glory of the Lord shining around him. “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! Seriously! This is not a test, I’m not joking, this is for real! Would I lie to you? Ok, I’ll prove it. This is how you’ll know I’m telling the truth – You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. A Manger! Who puts a baby in a barnyard feeding trough?! And not just any baby, this is the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords! In a manger, I don’t know where God comes up with this stuff. And get this, the baby is the offspring of a virgin’s womb! Yeah, conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is the one you’ve been waiting for: the desire of nations, God himself, veiled in flesh, the incarnate deity. The prince of peace, the son of righteousness, he brings light and life to all.
It doesn’t make sense, but God has found it pleasing to dwell among men. He has chosen to lay aside his glory and to be born a man in order to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth! Trust me, it’ll make more sense about 33 years from now, but this means peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Then the other angels get tired of waiting in the wings and they show up and start singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Who knows. It could have been like that.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King”
Christ by highest heaven adored; Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of the virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King”
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth
Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King”