December 19, 2004

IF ANGELS CAME THIS CHRISTMAS

An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. Luke 2:9

Do you ever envy the shepherds of Bethlehem? Sometimes I do. Their Christmas was a lot more exciting than mine.

When I go to church for a Christmas celebration, I can usually predict what’s going to happen even before I get there. I know most of the songs that will be sung. I know the message will be about the baby Jesus, with references to the usual supporting cast: Mary and Joseph, the shepherds or the wise men, maybe some angels. I’ve heard it all before.

Some churches seem to realize that Christmas has become too predictable, so they try to liven things up. They might have a choir stacked in a pyramid shape and call it a singing Christmas tree, or they may have actors in shepherd’s costumes or angel wings. A big budget church may even have live sheep and camels walking around dropping authentic manure on stage. But let’s face it: no matter how well the show is produced, no matter what gimmicks are used, it can’t compare with a visit from real angels.

In addition to church celebrations of Christmas, we also have shopping, office parties, family dinners, gift exchanges, and so forth. It’s all part of the celebration. Often sweet, sometimes hectic, but not surprising or life-changing. Just another Christmas. The carols are old and familiar. The atmosphere is full of nostalgia and warm feelings. Christmas is usually as predictable as a juicy turkey roasting in the oven: it tastes good like it’s supposed to, it tastes like all those other delicious turkeys–and then it’s digested and gone for another year.

Once the pageantry and parties are over, the niceness ends. Reality returns. You’ve got all the ordinary things to think about: surviving school long enough to graduate, keeping your job in a changing economy, working through struggles in relationships, dealing with minor worries and major griefs. You’re up to your ears in everyday challenges, and Christmas doesn’t seem to make much difference. That’s when the questions begin.

Christmas is sweet, but life is often sour. Christmas is familiar, but life holds some nasty surprises. Why would the grinch want to steal to steal Christmas when he’s already got the rest of the year? For many of us, Christmas is a nice holiday, a sentimental break from reality, but it doesn’t do much to help us deal with reality.

We might start asking deeper questions. Is there anything more to Christmas than our predictable celebrations? Even if we enjoy Christmas, what about Christianity itself? Is it for real? Was the child of Christmas really God made flesh, as the Bible claims? What about those who say that Jesus was just a great but short-lived teacher? What about those who say that Jesus is sweet—but dead? As pleasant as Christmas usually is, there are times when it doesn’t seem to help with our everyday lives. It doesn’t do much to answer our doubts and questions.

That’s when I envy the shepherds.

The night Jesus was born, shepherds near Bethlehem saw and heard angels. They were treated to a dazzling supernatural display. Heavenly light dazzled their eyes. Heavenly choruses rang in their ears. But what about us today? Texas ranchers and Ontario factory workers aren’t seeing angel brightness. Chicago truckers and Lagos cab drivers aren’t hearing angel choruses.

Why no angels for us? Why did the shepherds get a stunning appearance by heavenly visitors, while we get just another Christmas, with nothing but carols, lights, trees, and predictable pageants? If Christmas is anything more than a nice holiday, why doesn’t God light up the sky for us? Why leave us in the dark, with all our troubles and questions? If we could only see what the shepherds saw, if we could only hear what the shepherds heard, it might be easier to get excited about Christmas.

In Luke 2 the Bible tells about that first Christmas night. Mary gave birth to baby Jesus, wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room anywhere else.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

I love that story, but sometimes I envy the shepherds. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see what they saw, if we could hear what they heard? What if angels came this Christmas?

Reacting to Real Angels

Try to imagine our nice, predictable Christmas celebrations being interrupted by real angels. Suddenly everyone in the world is squinting at a brightness their eyes can’t handle. Their ears are filled with a voice like none they’ve ever heard. It’s the Christmas angel, come back to tell us the same thing he once told the shepherds. Now imagine a TV camera going from person to person, picking up the various reactions.

The camera shows a couple who have loved and believed in Jesus for years. They are staring upward in fear and wonder. They were expecting just another Christmas; they never expected this. But the shock soon gives way to smiles of delight as the angel says, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” These followers of Jesus have heard those words many times in many different Christmas pageants, but coming from the mouth of the angel, it’s like hearing the message for the first time. Good news! Great joy! Yes, indeed! It’s all true. It’s all real. Now, at last, they can actually see and hear something that removes their doubts and fears, something that confirms faith and sets their hearts aglow.

The camera then zooms in on a humanist. This person has ignored God and made humanity the measure of all things. How does he react to the angel? His eyes are wide with shock. He’s always thought that angels don’t exist, that the supernatural is only superstition. The cosmos is all that was or is or ever will be. But now a light blazes from beyond the cosmos, and there’s no scientific explanation for it. His head starts spinning, and he topples over in a dead faint

When he returns to his senses, he hears the angel saying, “A Savior has been born to you.” Those words hit the humanist hard. “A Savior?” he wonders. “What for? Humanity is basically good. We don’t need a Savior. If there’s any saving to be done, it’s up to us. We’re the only ones who can save ourselves and our planet—at least that’s what I’ve always thought. But I was wrong. Oh, was I wrong! All that stuff I laughed at is true.”

Meanwhile, the angel continues speaking: “A Savior has been born to you. He is Messiah.” At that moment, the camera shifts to a Jewish woman. She is stunned. Messiah? She’s heard the ancient Jewish tradition that the Messiah would come, but she’s had a hard time taking that Messiah stuff seriously. She certainly hasn’t believed the Christian claim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One promised to the Israelites. It hasn’t helped that some people calling themselves Christians have treated Jews badly. How could this Jewish woman ever accept Jesus as the Messiah of Israel?

But the angel leaves no room for doubt. All the Christmas trees and manger scenes in the world couldn’t convince her of the meaning of Christmas, but that word “Messiah” in the mouth of the angel is enough. Suddenly she knows that Jesus fulfils the ancient prophecies. She understands that the Messiah many Jews have been waiting for was born already 2000 years ago in the village of Bethlehem.

The camera shifts to someone else. This person believes in a religion which teaches that God exists and that Jesus is Messiah in some way, but has never believed that Jesus is himself God in the flesh. A camera zooms in on this particular person’s reaction at just the moment when the angel is just saying, “To you is born a Savior. He is Messiah, the Lord.” At that word “Lord,” this person’s head jerks in amazement. His religion has always taught that Jesus is special in some sense, but Lord? How can Jesus be Lord? That title belongs to God alone. But that’s what the angel is saying. As the angel speaks the word “Lord,” those who once rejected the deity of Jesus can do so no longer. The unthinkable is true. Jesus is Lord. He is God. It can’t be denied.

As the angel finishes speaking, the camera shifts back to those who were already followers of Jesus. Their faces are shining. What joy! They always claimed it was true, they always hoped it was true, but they never quite dared to think it was this true. If angels came this Christmas, if people today could just see and hear an angel as the shepherds did, our doubts and errors would be erased. Boredom and predictability would melt away in heavenly radiance. At least that’s how I like to imagine it.

So What?

But now imagine with me a bit further. The appearance of the angel turns out to be such a hit that God makes it an annual event. Each Christmas the angel appears in heavenly splendor. Each year he declares that Jesus is Savior, Messiah, and Lord. Before long, there’s nobody left who doubts what happened in Bethlehem so long ago. Nobody questions who Jesus is. And as the years pass, it’s no longer a surprise when the angel appears. People follow their usual routine, except that whenever Christmas approaches, they clear their schedules, so they can be ready for the angel’s annual visit.

Then, one Christmas, as the angel makes his usual announcement, a child blurts out one of those embarrassing questions that little ones are famous for: “So what?” At first, everyone is aghast at such a question. Then it begins to sink in. So what? Even if angels come, even if everything they say is true, so what? What difference does it make?

A Christian believes certain facts about Jesus which other people don’t believe. Is this disagreement the only thing that makes Christians different from others? If an angel removed the doubts of Christians and convinced non-Christians that Jesus really is God, what difference would it make? It could turn out to be just another Christmas after all. The angel might be more dazzling than our usual preacher; he might even persuade us of things we wouldn’t otherwise believe; but what’s the difference after Christmas?

So what? If we can’t answer that question, Christmas won’t do us much good—not even if angels came this Christmas. And once we can answer that question, once we know the “so what” of Jesus’ coming and have our lives changed by him, we just might find that we don’t need an angel visit after all.

God With Us

You see, as long as we’re preoccupied with the angel, as long as we’re looking for a supernatural display of divine power, we’re going to miss the impact of Christmas. Christmas isn’t first of all about angels in the sky; it’s about a baby in a manger. It’s not about God dazzling us with his splendor; it’s about God the Son laying aside his splendor to become a humble infant.

The great news of Christmas is not simply that a glorious, all powerful God exists, surrounded forever by splendid angels. That’s true, of course, but our greatest need isn’t just to know that God exists somewhere out there, but to know that he is present right here: to realize that he has lived and walked among us, that he has known our griefs, that he has carried our sorrows, that he has felt the temptations we feel, that he was made like us in every way except for sin, that he can help us in our weakness.

Jesus was born bloody and wriggling in a wooden manger, and he died bloody and writhing on a wooden cross. In between he grew up in the family of a lowly woodworker. He befriended shame-filled prostitutes and respectable teachers alike. He rubbed shoulders with lowly fishermen and lofty synagogue rulers. He showed his love to helpless widows and powerful army officers. He knew hunger as well as feasting, laughter as well as grief. He knew loneliness and betrayal and rejection and pain. He became one of us in every way, he made our situation his own, and ultimately he took the sins of a broken world upon his shoulders and suffered hell on our behalf as he hung on the cross.

That’s why Christmas matters. That’s why the Son of God became one of us. He plunged all the way down to the depths of our misery and bound himself to humanity in every way. Then he rose back out of the depths, lifting humanity up with him into the life of God. In Jesus, God understands people fully, and he saves them completely. So Christmas isn’t just a sentimental break from our difficulties; it’s a time to celebrate that God has entered into our difficulties himself. Jesus came to enter our misery, to walk with us in the midst of it, and ultimately to lift us out of it.

What you and I need, then, isn’t a sentimental break from reality, and it’s not a dazzling angel to remove our doubts. We need God with us. We need God to convince us that he loved us so much he became one of us. We need him to convince us of our sin and to help us receive the salvation that only the God/man, Jesus Christ, can provide.

As long as you don’t accept what Jesus has done for you, as long as you don’t receive his forgiveness and welcome him into your heart, you’ll also find it hard to believe that this man is God with us—and even if you do believe that, it won’t make much difference to you. It will just leave you wondering, “So what?”

In short, we don’t need an angel to change our minds; we need Christ to change our hearts. We need the Lord’s help to recognize our sin and helplessness, we need his help to look to Jesus as the only one who can rescue us, and we need the Lord’s Spirit to be at home in our hearts. Then Christmas will be a time full of joy and celebration, a time that affects us throughout the entire year and for all eternity.

Having said all that, I have to admit that there are still times when I envy the shepherds, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Many of us wish God would do something startling or miraculous once in a while. What about that? Well, sometimes it does happen. God blesses us with events that amaze and dazzle us and strengthen our faith. Not as often as we’d like, perhaps, but it does happen for some people some of the time, and if you’ve been blessed in that way, you can thank God for it. But whether or not you experience a striking miracle, the Christmas message is that God’s greatest miracle is when his Son became a man and lived among us, and when his Spirit enters our hearts and lives within us. No other miracle can begin to compare.

Meeting Jesus

If you still want a visible display of God’s power and glory, you’ll get your wish. The day is coming when you’ll see all the glory you can handle—and more. Jesus is coming again, this time not as a humble baby but as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. The glory of God will be blazing forth from him, and his angels will be with him. That sight of angels with Christ at their head will be more dazzling than anything the shepherds saw that first Christmas. You will meet Jesus, and it will be astounding. As a Christian, there may be times when I think, “If only angels came this Christmas!” But my deepest desire is for Jesus himself to come soon—whether on Christmas or any other day he chooses. I don’t just want angels to add a little supernatural glory to this present world; I want Jesus to return and bring about a new earth. That day is coming, and as far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better.

But I know that Jesus has a reason for not coming back just yet. A lot of people aren’t ready to meet him, and Jesus is giving them time to repent and get ready for his coming. The glory of his face will be the supreme joy of all his people, but it will be the ultimate horror for those who never knew him.

Before you meet Jesus as the Lord of glory, you first need to trust the baby in the manger, the friend of sinners, the reject on the cross. You need to accept the miracle of God’s self-humiliation and believe that he went through all this for you. Trust Jesus as the only one who can deliver you from your sins, save you from hell, and make you right with God. Welcome the Spirit of Jesus into your heart. Once you’ve accepted what Jesus did for you in his first coming, and once his Spirit comes into your heart, you’ll be ready to meet him when Christ comes again in glory.

Is there room in your heart for Jesus? If so, then this isn’t going to be just another Christmas for you. It’s going to change your life.

We’ve seen that God doesn’t always give us the overwhelming experience we want, but he does provide the humble Savior we need. He doesn’t always dazzle us with an outward display of power as he did the shepherds, but he works the inward miracle of moving us to repent and believe in Jesus’ saving work, he lives in our hearts through his Holy Spirit, he walks with us through all our joys and trials. This is the great “so what” of Christmas.

Besides, for the past two thousand years God has sent an angel every Christmas. In the original language, the word angel simply means messenger, and every year God has sent messengers to tell the world about the Savior’s birth and to invite one and all to come to Jesus. In fact, you’re listening to one of God’s messengers right now. I’m not an angel of heaven, but as God’s messenger I bring you the same good news the angel brought the shepherds. “To you has been born a Savior. He is Messiah. He is the Lord.” It’s the same news the shepherds heard, and it calls for the same response. The shepherds immediately went to Jesus, and that’s what you must do: go to Jesus. You can do that right now through prayer? Will you join me in going to Jesus?

PRAYER

Lord, thank you for loving us despite our sin. Thank you, Jesus, for leaving your throne to become a tiny baby, for sharing our struggles, for suffering the punishment for our sin. Please hear every person who repeats with me this prayer:

“Lord, I am a sinner. I can’t live up to your standards. I can’t save myself. Forgive me—not because I deserve it, but because of Jesus’ precious blood. Raise me to new life with the risen Christ, and make your home in my heart, dear Savior. Then help me to honor you, to enjoy your peace, and to live at peace with others.”

Thank you, loving God, for answering this prayer. Make this Christmas a glorious one for all your people, and help us to echo the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.