“For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord! And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
— Luke 2:11-12
Imagine yourself for just a moment sitting with those shepherds of Bethlehem on a grassy hillside tending their flock of sleepy sheep. It is late at night, and the shepherds are tired from their day’s work. The grass is wet with dew; the crisp night air, in spite of its stillness, pierces through their cloaks; and the shepherds move yet closer to the glowing coals of the watch fire, trying to keep warm. It is so quiet there on the meadow under that clear, star-speckled sky, that the slightest complaint from a sheep or lamb would be a startling disturbance. Yet, barring the intrusion of a hungry wolf on the prowl, this night should be peaceful enough and should pass as easily as most.
—Suddenly, without warning, the sky is ablaze with blinding light, with “the glory of the Lord,” with a holy brightness that terrifies the shepherds! Could it be that the day of God’s judgment has come upon them?? They look up and see a figure standing in that light, a heavenly messenger who beckons for their attention to what he is about to say. “Sore afraid,” the shepherds brace themselves for the worst, as they no doubt anticipate the pronouncement of God’s just anger against them because of their sins.
The angel speaks with a clarity of a heavenly trumpet, but also with the sweetness of a shepherd’s pipe: “Fear not!” he says. “Don’t keep cringing and shrinking back in terror at what my message might be. Don’t hide your face from the light of God’s glory because of your sins and your unworthiness before Him.” What could this holy messenger be about to say that would make them less fearful of God’s justice?? What could possibly change things that drastically for the shepherds, that instead of quaking at this sight, they should now put away their fear and hearken calmly to the rest of the message?
“Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” the angel continued. Good news? Great joy? A Gospel message to us?? Those poor, humble shepherds needed some good news at that —not just good news about sheep prices, or about the political situation with the Roman occupation, or about the economy and heavy taxes— although most people, even in those days, would probably have welcomed that kind of news. No, this was to be a far better kind of news, because this news was to soothe away the “fear” of God’s justice! These “good tidings” were to calm the guilt-ridden heart and to replace grave terror with “great joy”! Oh, how those shepherds, those Old Testament believers in the coming, promised Messiah, had been waiting, yea, longing for just this very news!
And what about us, my dear readers? Do we long for the “good tidings” of the Gospel? When in the mirror of God’s holy Law we see ourselves as He sees us —vile, perverse, rebellious and vain sinners by nature. And when that Law indicts us as His enemies and pronounces the sentence of eternal death upon us according to our own deserts, do we long for that promised Savior, as did the shepherds on Bethlehem’s fields?? Oh, if not, then we must take yet another look into that perfect mirror and come to the inevitable realization that, on the basis of our works, no peace with God can ever be effected, no truce can be made, not even an approach to God is possible for us by nature, because even the best things we do as Christians reek like garbage in His holy nostrils as far as earning His favor is concerned! The Bible says that “[We] are all gone aside; [we] are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one!” (Psalm 14:3). Oh, we need some good news, all right, just like those humble shepherds, quaking and “sore afraid.”
But, whatever that good news is, is it intended also for us poor Gentiles?? Or is it just for God’s “chosen people,” the Jews, or just for those trembling Jewish shepherds to whom this message was announced? Listen to the angel’s unmistakable words, dear convicted and contrite sinner: “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people!” Yes, that includes also you and me! —We, whose forefathers were not God’s chosen people, whose barbaric, idolatrous ancestors did not have the sacred Oracles of God, the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament – or those of the New Testament– to point them to the Savior — yes, we too are the intended recipients of these “good tidings,” thanks be to God and His unmerited grace! How our hearts, too, burn with hopeful anticipation, as we perk up our ears with the shepherds of old to hear what that “good news of great joy” is all about.
“For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord!”
In that one simple sentence of our title-text, the Christmas angel brings not only the tidings themselves, but the sure and certain proof that this Babe is in fact the promised Messiah, the Anointed One of God, that He Himself is God, manifested in the flesh. — “Born”—the miracle of miracles that God should become man to take our place under the Law (Galatians 4:4-5), and to give His life a ransom for our sins (Matthew 20:28)! — “This day”—now, today, an accomplished fact and no longer just a promise to look forward to. The Messiah was actually here on this earth, just as the prophets had foretold! — “In the City of David”— “Of what significance is that??” we might ask as Gentiles, as “outsiders” not versed in the Scriptures of prophecy. But those shepherds knew. Not only were they presumably from the City of David themselves, the town of Bethlehem, the ancestral home of King David, from whose line the Messiah was to come. But they well knew the prophecy of Micah, chapter 5, verse 2: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me, that is to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” The promised Messiah, the eternal Son of God Himself “from everlasting” was to come forth from that little, seemingly insignificant town of Bethlehem just to fulfill sacred prophecy! This was indeed the proof that the shepherds could readily see and understand!
“A Savior” —not just an earthly Rescuer from the Romans, for that would not be good news to “all people,” but only to the Jews. This Savior is the very source of “good tidings of great joy” to all people, of all times, and of all places — sinners like you and me! He is the Savior of our sin-corrupted souls, as well as of our bodies, the ransom-price of our redemption, of whom the Prophet Isaiah wrote some 700 years before: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities,… and with His stripes we are healed. The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all!” (Isaiah 53). That, my dear fellow-sinners, is a Savior worthy of the name; for He saves from sin, death and the devil —a feat that could neverain be accomplished by a mere man, for the Bible tells us of human beings: “The redemption of their soul is precious!” (Psalm 49:8).
And this Babe of Bethlehem is not just any Savior, for the angel calls Him “Christ,” that is, the Messiah, the One chosen of God to save His people from their sins, “whom God hath set forth,” writes the Apostle Paul, “to be a propitiation [that is, a payment] through faith in His blood” (Romans 3:25). This was the “Branch” that God Himself had promised to raise up unto David, the King that was to “reign and prosper” over the hearts of men with His righteousness to cover their sins (Jeremiah 23:5). —“Good tidings”?? “Of great joy”?? Oh, indeed, of joy unspeakable, both to the leaping hearts of the shepherds and to ours as well!
And the crowning word in this brief sentence of joy now comes forth: “Which is Christ, the Lord!” This, too, had been foretold; for the Prophet Jeremiah had written: “This is His name whereby He shall be called: The Lord, our Righteousness” (23:6). This was no mere man-Savior, no mere human being chosen for a special task, as was John the Baptist, the Savior’s forerunner. But this was “the Lord” (cf. Isaiah 42:8), Jehovah Himself, as we confess in the Nicene Creed: “The only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” — This was “Immanuel,” “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).
And the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation and humiliation is also declared by the angel, for the “sign” he gives to the shepherds, the identifying mark by which they would be able to recognize “God manifest in the flesh” (I Timothy 3:16) was that they would find this Babe “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Think of the immensity of this news: “A Savior, Christ,” the Messiah, “the Lord,” God Himself, was to be found in the lowliest of poverty-stricken conditions, —with nowhere to lay His precious head but upon rough hay, —with nowhere to make His bed but in the feeding trough of common farm animals, —with nowhere to call his home but a rude stable! What a miracle indeed, that “though He was rich, yet for [our] sakes He became poor, that [we] through His poverty might be rich!” (II Corinthians 8:9b).
Is it any wonder then that the angels of God, sinless though they are and thus unable, in the truest sense, fully to appreciate the magnitude of this gracious gift of God, though they desire to “look into” it and to understand why Christ had to suffer for God’s glory and for man’s salvation (I Peter 1:11-12) — is it any wonder that these celestial beings burst forth with a heavenly song of praise— multitudes of them, filling the sky above the awe-struck shepherds? “Glory to God in the highest,” they sang, “and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). Yes, glory to God, whose love and mercy to sinful mankind in Christ Jesus made this gift and its glad tidings a reality! No credit for any of it is due to miserable mankind, wallowing in their sins, shame and utter helplessness. For the Bible tells us: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them” (II Corinthians 5:19). This was God’s doing alone, and all glory was due to Him alone!
And what was the result of this glorious reconciliation in and through the precious Babe of Bethlehem? “Peace on earth,” the choirs of angels sang —not earthly peace which lasts only for the brief interval between wars and rumors of wars— but real, lasting peace on earth, “peace with God” through His forgiveness of our sins; —and “good will toward men” God’s good will toward us, not ours to Him, lest we puff ourselves up to be our own Saviors! No, God’s good and gracious will toward us caused Him to reconcile us “unto Himself,” to send His only-begotten Son to be the price of our redemption, so that His perfect justice was thereby satisfied, and that, by faith in our Redeemer, Paul writes to the Romans, chapter 5, verse 1, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is the peace of which the angels sang on that first Christmas night: “Peace on earth and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled!” (TLH 94).
Is all of this really “good news” to YOU, my dear reader? Do you feel so weighed down with the guilt of sin that these words of the Christmas angels really mean something to YOU personally in your heart of hearts? Do you, by God’s grace, with those humble shepherds on Bethlehem’s fields, long to hear those “good tidings of great joy” again and again in the precious Gospel of salvation, realizing full well that the Babe of Bethlehem is your only way to God in heaven? Oh, then take these “good tidings” into your heart by faith, trust them as God’s own reliable message of “peace,” His peace and His good will, His everlasting mercy and grace “unto you,” as well as to all people! And then hasten with those shepherds of old to the manger bed in Bethlehem’s stall, shouting aloud in the words of that cherished Christmas hymn: “Oh, come, let US adore Him, Christ the Lord!” — Hasten to the manger bed of the sweet Gospel where your Savior lies for you! Take Him up into your arms of faith and hold Him fast to your trembling breast, and pray with Dr. Luther:
“Ah, dearest Jesus, Holy Child,
make Thee a bed soft, undefiled
within my heart, that it may be
a quiet chamber kept for Thee.”
(TLH 85, 13)
— D. T. M.