Between an Angel and a Manger

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.”                         Luke 2:10-11

Whenever I get into a discussion about angels, I like to take people to the tenth chapter of Daniel.  The angel which appeared to Daniel was apparently a lower level angel – perhaps one of the foot-soldiers of the heavenly realm.  And yet his presence was so powerful, that although the people with Daniel saw nothing, still they literally ran for their lives.  They had no idea what was going on, they just knew something was present – something extremely powerful – and they weren’t going to hang around to find out what.  Even with Daniel himself, it took him a bit of persuasion to get him up off his hands and knees.

Why is it that the first thing an angel must say is “Fear not!”?  Why is there that kind of reaction?  Possibly for two reasons:  The first is because when an angel appears, we become very clearly aware that as powerful as we like to think of ourselves, simply the raw power of an angel’s presence can blow us away.

We humans are very proud of our accomplishments, after all we take tons of metal and throw it into space into orbit; we have created machines which can think at a phenomenal rate, a stream of data processed at the rate of thousands of bits of information per second; we can influence the mind and attitudes of millions through our news and television and radio media, stirring them up to support a cause whether it be true or not, or lulling them into apathy with vague entertainment.

But let a circuit on a power-grid get overloaded, and down it goes, starting a chain reaction that pulls down other areas, and suddenly we have a black-out – a power-outage.  And suddenly we can’t even heat our homes, because the furnace won’t work, because it needs electricity to turn the burners on.  We can’t buy in a store because the cash registers don’t work, credit cards are useless.  Many of us can’t cook on our electric stoves, we can’t pump the gasoline for our vehicles, we can’t light our homes when it gets dark.  All of mankind’s wonderful power is instantly brought to its knees.

So when an angel stands before us, with power even in just his presence, it terrifies us, for our feeble abilities mean nothing to him.

But there is another reason that often strikes terror in the hearts of people who encounter an angel.  Suddenly they cannot avoid facing the fact that this universe also has a spiritual dimension to it.  With crashing reality comes the awareness that if an angel, then there is also a God.  And if there is a God, then there is accountability in regard to the way that we live our lives.  And suddenly we are back in the Garden of Eden, trying to find a bush to wrap around us, trying to camouflage ourselves, trying to hide so that God would not notice us.

We are afraid, because if God were to hold us accountable, then He must come in judgment.  If an angel’s presence can make us collapse in fear, then what will God’s presence do?  Just how can we explain to God Himself our actions?  When He asks of us WHY we did what we did, or didn’t do what we knew we SHOULD HAVE DONE, we know that we must answer, yet all those good excuses which we have rehearsed over and over until they sounded so good to ourselves – those excuses just evaporate as we have to tell HIM Who knows even the secrets of our hearts and HE will judge our reasons and excuses.

This thought doesn’t excite us.  It is a lot easier to put this off to some time in the long distant future when we die.  But when one is suddenly confronted with an angel, that far off future time can become perilously close.

So imagine the reaction of the shepherds, who with about as much advance warning as a sudden death, abruptly came face to face with an angel, and all of these awarenesses come crashing down on them.

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Face to face with God’s messenger, the shepherds could  rightfully expect God’s judgment.  But instead, they heard a message of mercy.  The angel is saying, “Don’t worry about being afraid, because I’m not coming with a message of judgment.  Oh, I could!  But not this time.  Oh, no!  No, this time I come with a message that should make you rock back in laughter and amazement, it should make you want to shout out loud and sing for joy.”

Imagine those poor shepherds having to switch gears and realize that the message the angel brings is not of condemnation, but is one that will save them.  “To you is born this day a Savior.”  You mean, not just to Israel?  not just to the Roman Empire?  not just to the world?  not even just to the whole universe???   But to ME??  To ME who’s hiding in the bush, trying to look like a leaf, because I don’t want God to notice me?  You mean He has noticed me all along, and still He would come with such Good News – for ME??

Think of the utter contrast: here is power, might, justice, accountability, penetrating insight In this angel – a fearsome collection of qualities – and yet of all things he points to a manger, to a Baby wrapped in swaddling cloths – what is there fearsome about a Baby?!!  I have seen intimidating people become awkward and flustered when handed a baby.  Indeed there is nothing condemning about this Baby.  Then, as you watch Jesus enter His ministry, who does He attract but precisely the people who would expect (and many have already experienced) condemnation, people who find welcome, grace and compassion in this Messiah born in a manger.  Children fearlessly want to approach Him.  This is a Baby Who is humble and throughout His life reaches out in risk-taking love, Who would even offer such forgiveness so that even His murderers might repent.

No, Christmas is not about the Christmas tree, it’s not about the decorations, it’s not about the gifts, it’s not about family get-togethers, it’s not about the traditional Christmas meal.  Christmas is the story of judgment and of mercy: it is the story of how we stand before God, accountable for every single thing we have done, and have not done according to His command.  It is how before God every reason and excuse evaporates as we must tell Him what really has been the most important things in our lives, and why we chose to do and to not do the way we did.

But it is also the message of how God had long before this devised a wonderful plan of love.  Yet it is a plan that would cost Him.  How often we have we hesitated when it came to giving the Lord anything, whether it be money, or an hour or two, or the use of our abilities.  Yet a Baby was born this night with the full intention to die, God the Son would trade His life for you and me.  Can you put Christmas in terms of your own life?  How much would you have to give up to parallel what Jesus gave up to become a BABY, much less a Man Who would literally give up the very glories of heaven, Who would willingly stretch out His hands on a cross for you and me?

So often we come at things with the question of what we will get out of it.  Even Church activity often has that undertone if we are going to do or be anything.  Yet Jesus was born, not for what He would get out it, but for what you and I would get out it.  It would mean agony and death to Him, but it would mean mercy, love, eternal life to us.  He would go back into heaven and have restored all that He gave up before, but for us, we would receive something that we would never have had otherwise.  We wouldn’t get what we deserved – we are to receive mercy.

We are here today not to celebrate a tradition.  We come because of an angel and a manger.  What a joy it is to be directed by this angel not to the judgment hall, but to the true heart of God; that when we rightfully most expected condemnation, the message of God is astonishing mercy.

Come to this Baby here wrapped in bread and wine, the same Person Who gently touched those in physical pain, those who have suffered in spiritual anguish, those who have been humbled by circumstances, those who find life empty, those who have been driven to Him as their only last option.  And here discover the power which is far greater than the might of the angel, discover the very core depth of God’s steadfast and unbreakable love for you.

Come to this manger and lay down before Him Who was born therein all for which we had so feared judgment, and discover again the One Who welcomes sinners, the One Who has forgiveness and life now and forever for you, the One Who still comes into this world to be with you always.

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