Do you remember the first movie you saw with really amazing special effects? For me, my first memory like that was of the old Sinbad the Sailor movies with the monsters created by Ray Harryhausen. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch a sample here. Those were truly some epic special effects!
Unfortunately, if you actually take me up on that offer, you are likely to be disappointed. What was once spectacular can become commonplace and then something that is only background noise. Lucasfilms keeps updating the original Star Wars films with updated effects to try and make them more impactful. We can become numb to yesterday’s spectacle and ignore what was once miraculous.
The Christmas story can become like that. We hear it every you year, which is a good thing, but sometimes some of the amazing elements of the story get lost over time. I want you to approach it with fresh eyes. The audience for this feature had never seen a special effect. They had never seen an electric light, much less a Christmas light. Into the quiet of that silent night, sitting under the stars came something truly miraculous.
So many amazing things for these shepherds to experience. An angel shining with the Glory of the Lord followed by a heavenly choir of the armies of heaven. The only explanation could be supernatural. This was an unprecedented event in history. It was truly a God event. A group of shepherds, who had an essential role in society, but not one of great renown. Shepherds were definitely low men on the totem pole, but many Biblical historians have some other thoughts about these shepherds. They believe they weren’t just any shepherds, but they were the specific shepherds that took care of the sacrificial lambs. According to Jewish laws, the only shepherds who were allowed to watch over animals in the vicinity of town were those who were fulfilling the priestly duty of taking care of sacrificial animals. These sheep were kept separate from the other flocks because they were to be kept without blemish.
If this is true, we have shepherds watching over sacrificial lambs hearing this message of Good News about the birth of the Savior, who would be the ultimate Sacrifice. The shepherds’ fields outside Bethlehem, to this day, play a central role in the Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. Countless tourists have visited the fields between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The church historian Eusebius linked these fields to a unique biblical location called Migdal Eder, which translated means the “tower of the flock”.
The Hebrew prophet Micah also refers to Migdal Eder. “And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:8)
Based on that prophecy, prominent Jewish writers concluded that from all of the places in Israel, it would be the Migdal Eder where the arrival of the Messiah would be declared first.
That means when the angels appeared that night to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, it was not just a declaration of the Good News to simple shepherds. It was a powerful prophetic sign to all of Israel. God uses amazing imagery and symbolism at different points in Scripture. This one is no different. God wasn’t just fulfilling prophecy, He was signaling an amazing transformation that was taking place to the sacrificial system with the birth of this child.
See, these shepherds were a part of the animal sacrifice system of the church. It was their job to prepare the sheep for Passover and other Jewish ceremonies. Then, out of nowhere, breaking the silent night, an angel from heaven appears to them with an update to Moses’ Law. Though the shepherds probably weren’t fully aware of what was happening, the angel was hand-delivering a message telling them the time for animal sacrifice was nearly over, and they were the first to know.
The Christ, the promised Messiah the priests had heard about from the prophets, the Savior of the world was finally born. Animal sacrifices would no longer be necessary. Now, Jesus would be the ultimate and perfect sacrifice to pay for man’s sin once and for all through His death and resurrection. No wonder these shepherds ran “with haste (v.16)” to see the baby the angel spoke about. What a shock when they found a baby lying in a feeding trough, wrapped in swaddling cloth, just as the angel said.
One quick note on swaddling clothes. The term used here is the same one used for cloths that the lambs were wrapped in to keep them unblemished before the time of the sacrifice. All these details would’ve been incredibly relevant for the Jewish audience that received this message initially. While we might marvel at the “special effects” of the angels, it is even more remarkable how God aligned prophecy and history to come together for this event.
To the shepherds’ credit, they believed the message and believed when they saw the baby in the manger. They rightfully praised the Lord as their response to the Good News of His salvation. I wanted you to understand a little bit more about what this message meant to the hearers of that time, but what does this amazing message means for us today?
The core of this message, the message that God has for you and for all the world, including the family you’ll be seeing over the coming days and your neighbors and co-workers is this message: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!”
When we think of Christmas, this is what we must think about. We have simplistic phrases to help us remember this. Things like, Jesus is the reason for the season. But we have to remember just how good this news is. This tops whatever other good news you’ve ever heard. We think of good news usually in terms of victories and gains on this side of eternity, but one thing most of those examples have in common is when some people win, others lose. I might celebrate my team’s victory, but I’m sure I know many others who were grieving over their team’s loss. Some people’s budget surpluses are others budget cuts. This good news isn’t anything like this.
This was good news that will bring great joy to all people. I know there are those who don’t receive Christmas and Christ as good news, but does that negate it’s goodness? No, it doesn’t. The good news of salvation is still good to everyone, even those who reject it. God desires that none would perish and until people take their final breath, He continues to proclaim the opportunity for salvation to them. Everyone needs to understand that the foundation of our hope, our joy and our faith is found in this message.
When you go out to your holiday gatherings with family and friends, you can celebrate with true joy because you have something that is truly worth celebrating. This is the point of the Angel’s celebration in verse 14, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
If you are a child of God, His favor rests on you. The Christmas story is an amazing story, filled with many miraculous events, but the greatest part of the Christmas story is what God has done in bringing the opportunity of salvation to all people. In this season when people are focused so much on gifts that is the greatest gift of all. If you are missing that maybe you don’t understand the angels’ message after all. Maybe you aren’t seeing God for who He really is.
2000 years ago, God sent a message to shepherds in a field that they would understand like no other. This is the good news we share today and the good news that God brought into the world. It’s a message that is so great, it is better than any other gift, it is better than anything else you might gain. It is worth everything, even losing everything that you have in order to obtain it. This holiday season, we should be spreading this good news to others. As you gather with family and friends, remember what a great message it is and how it brings joy, hope and peace to all peoples.