And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 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 among men with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:9-14 RSV)
Angels are "servants of those being saved" as defined by Scripture (Hebrews 1:14) and messengers by the definition of their name. Sometimes they show up to rescue, help, and encourage. However, we most memorably see them in Scripture around the times God's "big stuff" is about to happen. (I know "big stuff" is not very sophisticated or theologically precise, but it covers a much broader range of experiences than epiphany and is cornbread English most folks can understand — so no disrespect or lack of reverence should be attached to the paraphrase, just ultimate and profound appreciation!)
One fascinating passage describes angels as "standing on tiptoe" (that's my paraphrase for the phrase underlined below) waiting to see what God was going to do to save humankind through Jesus:
They [the prophets of old] wondered what the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ's suffering and his great glory afterward. They wondered when and to whom all this would happen. They were told that these things would not happen during their lifetime, but many years later, during yours. And now this Good News has been announced by those who preached to you in the power of the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen. (1 Peter 1:11-12 NLT)
Now I share all of this because I have always wondered how the angel felt when he was told he was going to go deliver the big message about Jesus' birth to the shepherds in the field. Think about it a minute. This is one of the top two messages angels ever got to deliver — "he is not here, he is risen as he said" has to be in the top two with this one and the angelic pronouncements to Mary and Joseph are in the top four as well, I would think!
So here's the big deal. We come to the tuning fork of all history and you are the messenger of God, the servant who comes from the very presence of God, that is chosen to deliver this incredible message! Wow, anything after that is going to be pretty anti-climactic. But that's not the point. The point is, you are chosen to announce the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, the Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God, to earthlings who had no idea when he was coming! Incredible! Unbelievable! Stupendous! What's that word from Mary Poppins? Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious! But words can't begin to describe the honor, the joy, the delight in being chosen for such a moment!
But how was this angel chosen? Did he earn it because of faithfulness, or extraordinary valor in the line of duty, or did God just choose him by grace? Did they cast lots, roll dice, or draw straws? I find that hard to believe. Were the other angels jealous or just delighted to get to go along for the "blow-the-shepherds-out-of-their-minds" big sky chorus praise trip?
You see, we're so used to hearing all of this stuff around Christmas time each year, we lose the wonder, the awe, the amazement on the part of angels who had been standing on tiptoe for ages waiting to see when Yahweh, the only true and living God Almighty, was going to do his amazing work among the rebellious human creatures. Now it was happening! Now the rebellious Lucifer would be totally defeated! Now the scars and systemic decay that had infected this beautiful blue planet that the angels had been assigned to serve could be reversed. The Most Holy Majesty on High, the one and only God, was now going to reveal himself as a baby among these "humanlings." Unbelievable! And you get to declare it. Incredible!
I come from a religious heritage that really never knew what to do about Christmas. We all knew, like most everyone else who pays attention to history, that Jesus was not born in December and that date was chosen for lots of reasons, good and bad. But still, it felt awfully weird only celebrating the pagan side of Christmas with Santa and the gifts and the elves and other stuff. So Christmas on December 25 was kinda one of those do-it-if-you-want-to deals or don't-do-it-if you-don't-want-to deals, just as long as you don't bind your tradition on others. (I know that may seem weird to a lot of you, but the whole discussion was really based in trying to be honorable to the will of God.) So maybe you've thought all about the angel who got to deliver the incredible words to the shepherds; but you see, I've only been thinking about it for awhile and I'm still amazed and bewildered and full of questions like a wide-eyed little kid on Christmas.
To be honest, I don't care if the angel said those words in the cold of December or the dry heat of August or the soft sweet humidity of Spring or the dusty winds of October. I only care that the angel said them! And yes, sometimes I wonder how this special angel felt when he got to say them ... and if he still gets to feel that way again every time someone reads this story. After all, through all those centuries, the angels were all "eagerly watching these things happen" waiting to see God's biggest deal of all. And then, it happened! And one got to be the head messenger and a bunch of others got to sing in heaven's praise team declaring the glorious grace of God to the most unlikely congregation in Judea.
So whether you celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 or not is just not that big a deal to me. What is important, however, is that you do celebrate it sometime. That you stand on tiptoe with the angels looking into God's promises in the Old Testament and feeling God's burden for the sin and lost-ness of humankind and then you get the message that God's biggest deal is going to happen and you celebrate. You celebrate long and loud and lovingly with the unknown angel who got to say the words the first time ... the very words that forever shook the walls of hell and changed the eternal destiny for "humanlings" like you and me:
"Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."