We invite you to return every day during Advent for this devotional series
Listen to today’s accompanying audio track. Note: This same track will play December 15, 16, and 17:
There Were Shepherds Abiding In The Field
“There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.”
“Christmas is a delightful disruption of the way things normally go”, says William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. Today’s Biblical text tells of a Christmas disruption of majestic proportions!
Here are shepherds doing what shepherds must have done on a cold Judean night. They poke at the fire, swapping stories while one of them softly pipes an ancient tune. One moment they are watching for wolves and jackals; the next moment an angel steps out of God’s presence into their presence without changing. The shepherds are suddenly overwhelmed by his glory, and engulfed in his blinding light. A heavenly messenger from another realm of reality, from another dimension, manifests before them.
This marks the third report of an angel’s visit in Luke’s Advent story. All three times people respond to an angel’s visit just as we would likely respond: terrified! It is the angel Gabriel who appeared to Zechariah, announcing the birth of Messiah’s herald, John the Baptist (Luke 1:11-20). It is Gabriel who returns to visit Mary, announcing Messiah’s birth (Luke 1:26-38). Perhaps this angel appearing to the shepherds is also God’s special messenger angel, Gabriel, back for his third earthly visit.
The angel appears to the shepherds in some tangible form, still carrying rays of heaven’s glory lighting up the fields all around. This is the first time in five hundred years, half a millennium, that God reveals His glory on earth. And God reveals His glory not to the high priests in the temple, nor to sages in the synagogues, but to lowly shepherds out in an open field.
The glory of God is the visible manifestation of God’s presence with His people. God does not have a body or physical form, so when He reveals Himself to human eyes, His presence is dazzling, incomprehensible light. It is the glory of God that appeared to Abraham (Acts 7:2), and went with the Israelites through the wilderness (Exodus 16:7, 10). It is the glory of God making Himself known on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:16), the glory of God that filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35), and the glory of God that filled the temple (I Kings 8:11; II Chronicles 7:1). His glory is His visible manifestation that He is with His people.
But the continued sin and rebellion of God’s people caused His glory to depart from His temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19; 11:22-23). For centuries the glory of God had not been revealed on earth. Until this night! Until this night, on a hillside outside Bethlehem, where God reveals to lowly shepherds that He is with them.
One must wonder why such a cosmic, world-shaking announcement was not delivered to the Caesar in Rome. Why was not the Roman governor of Judea notified? Why did the glory of God not descend on the religious leaders in the temple? Why was it that lowly shepherds were the first to hear the good news of Messiah’s birth, the first to behold God’s glory with them?
Might it be that these nameless, faceless shepherds stand for you and for me? Might it be that they stand for a whole world of ordinary people God loved so much that He sent His only Son?
The soprano solo begins with minimal accompaniment, only a few chords, suggesting yet another tired, uneventful night watching sheep. Then suddenly a dull night erupts in glory and wonder. To the bare solo narration Handel adds the rapid, whirring accompaniment of strings. In the strings’ rapidly rising notes we hear wings fluttering, whirring, as an angel suddenly appears.
Then just as suddenly, everything is silent, as the solo and accompaniment stop. We wait silently for what the angel will have to say.
- What do you sense that God might be saying to you in today’s Scripture text and music from Messiah?
- What do you want to say to God?
- Now take a few moments to be still in God’s presence.