When I woke up this morning, it was cold out, so I started a fire in the fireplace. I cleaned out the ashes left over from previous cold mornings, went out to the wood pile, and gathered firewood. Before I stacked the firewood in the fireplace on the grate, however, I put an armful of dried leaves on. When I lit the fire, the leaves caught first in a spectacular conflagration that immediately caught the wood. Within seconds, I had a nice warm, steady fire in the fireplace. Without those leaves, however, I might as well have been rubbing two sticks together. The leaves picked up the tiniest flame and made it a big one; they spread the smallest aspect of a fire until it became large.
The Anunciation is the part of the Christmas story where the good news of Man’s redemption catches some fire among the people. What had been a small flicker of divine doings on the down-low becomes, in the hands of the shepherds, the first evangelism campaign.
8Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock at night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone all around them, and they were greatly terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not fear, for behold: I bring you good news of great joy, which is to be for all the people, 11that today is born to you in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign to you: you will find the baby wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly, there was with the angels a vast army of heaven, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15When the angels had gone from them into the heavens, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go indeed to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us. 16So they went in a hurry and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. 17When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about the Child. 18And all who heard them were astonished at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things, wondering about them in her heart. 20And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them. 21And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
Just like with Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph, today we find the Lord’s angel appearing before someone else: unnamed shepherds in a nearby field, doing their tedious and thankless job. This time, the angel is not alone: he’s brought some friends. The text here uses a word (στρατιας) that has sometimes been translated “multitude” in verse 13. However, this usage of the Greek carried a military connotation with it: a much better rendering is “army,” as in “suddenly there was with the angels a vast army of heaven.” What a stupendous sight that must have been! One minute, you’re minding your business in the bitter cold, watching smelly livestock and living out in the elements as the lowest rung on the social ladder (just above tax collector)—and the next, you’re in the presence of the “hosts” spoken of in the Old Testament any time you’ve read about the “Lord of Hosts” (Sabaoth). God chose these shepherds to carry this first message of good news. The ones who would most have appreciated a Messiah were the first to hear about Him.
A pattern that we’ve seen developed in earlier readings in the Christmas story is perpetuated today: people interact with God’s word, then immediately seek out a community of like-minded believers with whom to fellowship. We frequently point to the humble nature of the manger scene—and rightfully so—but another aspect of this setting that is so profound is that, once again, it is church. There, in the manger, is a concentrated collection of people who have been interacting with God’s word and are together with one another. There is praise, singing, and adoration—and there is the presence of Almighty God. And alongside this church paradigm is an evangelism one. The angel explicitly told the shepherds that he was the bearer of good news; the Greek word for “I bring you good news” (εὐαγγελιζομαι) is the root word for the English “evangelism.” The text tells us that the shepherds didn’t waste any time spreading this news around, and everyone who heard it was astonished. Long before the Great Commission, the first evangelists were shepherds, the ultimate metaphor for the God-Man relationship. The Child about whom they were so excited would grow up and claim to be the Great Shepherd. The lowly disciples He would befriend and train would be known as shepherds who were to “feed [His] sheep” (Jn 21).
God’s plan for the redemption of Man and Creation was executed brilliantly and powerfully. While the enemy no doubt rejoiced at the pagan rule over the known world, the defilement of the temple by the infamous pervert Herod, and the oppression of God’s chosen people, something awesome was happening in David’s old hometown:
God was made flesh.
The venerable theologian Anselm gave us the great Theory of Satisfaction that best paints the picture of God’s great Home Run that was hit in Bethlehem that morning: In Eden, Man offended God. He MUST reconcile to God, but is unable. God IS able to reconcile, but shouldn’t have to—since He’s the offended party. The solution: the God-Man, born in Bethlehem—fully divine, fully human. He is able to reconcile the unbridgeable chasm between God and Man in a way that leaves the enemy on the run for two millennia—in fact, for all eternity.
On this blessed morning, when it was dawning on the shepherds Who this child really was, there was church happening in that manger. There was evangelism happening thereafter. The Plan was in effect, and the hosts of heaven bore witness to it. Man’s only hope came into the world, guarded by the hardiest stewards of His creation, adored by a small community of fervent believers. From this tiny, unassuming flame, the conflagration of the gospel would spread.
As you and your family take some time this season to reflect on the God-Man’s birth, consider the community to whom you belong. Consider that you are part of a great flame that is even now burning through the darkness of history. Consider that your destiny is to help spread the good news that has come, “to give light to those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.” And consider how that darkness was banished once and for all by the Sunrise from heaven on this first Christmas morning.