Angels and shepherds. It’s hard to escape them at this time of year. You’ll find them on Christmas cards, in shop windows and at the school nativity play; not to mention the carols we hear as we turn on our radios and TVs, or make our way through shopping centres and major railway stations.
‘Hark the herald angels sing’; ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’; ‘Angels from the realms of glory’; ‘Silent night! holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight’. At first glance, such a theme appears worlds away from 21st century Britain.
Sightings of shepherds are not everyday occurrences for most of us, and few, if any, of us would claim to have encountered an angel, still less witnessed a whole choir of them singing in the night sky.
In the fields surrounding first century Bethlehem, the sight of shepherds tending their sheep was nothing unusual, but the appearance of angels was as strange to them as it would be to us. These strong, hardy men had never seen anything like it before — and they were certainly not given to flights of fancy! If anything, they would have been sceptical about heavenly apparitions.
So the first thing the angel did was to reassure them: ‘Do not be afraid!’ The message the angels came to bring concerned the birth of a child. Nothing unusual about that, you might think. Around three-quarters of a million babies are born in the United Kingdom each year. And not an angel in sight!
But this baby was different, completely different; unique. There had never been another baby quite like him before, and there has never been one quite like him since.
In three simple words, one of the messengers from heaven explained the immense significance of the birth of this child: ‘I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour,who is Christ,the Lord’(Luke 2:10-11).
We use the word ‘saviour’ in a variety of contexts. The wealthy businessman who pumps millions of pounds into a bankrupt football club is hailed as its ‘saviour’. The health secretary who grants a reprieve to the local hospital threatened with closure at the eleventh hour is celebrated in newspaper headlines as its ‘saviour’. Or the boy who donates bone marrow to his sister in order to preserve her life is described as her ‘saviour’.
But the salvation that the child born in Bethlehem came to bring reaches much further and far deeper. Ever since the first man and first woman turned their backs upon God, all of us have been born with a nature that is inclined to rebellion against him.
We all fail to live up to our own ideals, quite apart from God’s perfect standards. Our sins cut us off from God and place us under his wrath. That’s why this baby was born — to be our Saviour.
That’s why he was given the name ‘Jesus’ (meaning ‘the Lord saves’). Jesus was born into this world, in order to get to the very heart of all our problems and put us right with God. He is the Saviour that we all need.
The title ‘Christ’, or ‘Messiah’ means ‘the anointed one’. Over a period of hundreds of years, at different times and in different ways, God had promised to send the ultimate prophet, priest and king. The angels came to announce that the long years of waiting were now over. The promised one had arrived.
The baby lying in the manger was a prophet, who would not only speak the truth about God but reveal God in his very character. He was the priest who would offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin, and through whom God would bless men, women and children throughout the world. And he was the king, to whom all authority and power in heaven and on earth would be given and whose kingdom will have no end.
In recounting the events of that historic night, Luke uses the word ‘Lord’ three times. He writes of ‘the angel of the Lord’ who spoke to the shepherds, and of ‘the glory of the Lord’ that radiated around them.
But then he goes further. In recording the words of the angel, he tells us that the child who has been born is himself ‘the Lord’. Yes, he was a real human baby with real flesh and blood, who needed the sustenance of his mother’s milk, and yet he was more than that. He also had a divine nature.
Incredible as it may sound, this baby was not only the Saviour and long-awaited Christ, but also God, the Lord over all. The Lord of heaven, the Lord of glory and of angels, had come to dwell on earth!
Having heard such astounding news from a heavenly source, the shepherds lost no time in following the angel’s directions to the makeshift crib. The baby lying there may not have looked any different from any other baby, but he was destined to transform the course of history and change the eternal destiny of millions of people in every generation, all over the world.
As a young man, this baby was to suffer a humiliating death in order to save his people from their sins. Three days later, he was raised to life again and is now seated at God’s right hand in heaven, with power to save all who put their trust in him.
The message of the angels to the shepherds remains as true today as it was on that momentous night 2,000 years ago. Jesus is, and will ever remain, the Saviour, the Christ, and the Lord.
Norman Wells is a member of Amyand Park Chapel in Twickenham