Usually throughout the Bible, angels show up on earth one at a time. Sometimes in pairs. On a very special occasion, in a company of three.
And then one night, there was a notable exception. (You can read the original story here.)
Nobody was there except some minimum-wage workers on night-shift, doing the same tasks they did every night. And then, initially, one angel showed up. As if that wasn’t enough (and it would have been enough), the glory of the Lord shone around the angel and his captive audience, whatever that looked like. The human beings involved wet their pants. The angel hastily said the standard angel-to-human conversation starter: “Don’t be afraid.”
Then he continued to do what angels usually do: opened his mouth and delivered his message to humanity. He sounded unusually excited though. “I bring you GOOD news of GREAT joy that will be for ALL people. TODAY…”
Apparently, the excitement of heaven was bursting at the seams. “Suddenly,” as soon as he finished his announcement, the seams ripped, and the angel party that was going on upstairs spilled out into the night sky. The one Speaking Angel was joined by an unnecessarily large number of Singing Angels. The chronicler Luke, after all his precise research into everything, settles on the description, “a great company” out of the cumulative “heavenly host” for the number of angels present. Certainly, and perhaps for the first time in human history, the angels-made-visible on earth outnumber the humans at the scene. For how many minutes–Five? Ten? Thirty?–the angels sing and there is a foretaste of the end goal God is working on:
For heaven to come to earth.
What the angels looked like or what their voices sounded like was never written down. But what was captured for us was their one-sentence song:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
The first half of that song sounds normal. That’s what angels do, right? They worship God, and “Glory to God in the highest heaven” sounds like the sort of song they’ve been singing since long before humans were created.
But while the first half of their song is about heaven, the second half is about earth. And it pronounces peace.
And that is unexpected. Unlike heaven, earth is a war zone. Satan has set up shop here. Humans are in rebellion. God has cursed this place. Every time angels visit, they see atrocities they never see at home. Sometimes the angels were even sent to earth to wipe some of the evil humans out. It shouldn’t even be possible for God to be pleased with humanity, let alone so pleased that angels are singing about it. And yet tonight, they sing exactly that.
Angels can probably sing the same song for a long, long time in human terms, maybe millions of years, but they had a new song written for tonight. Because something changed tonight.
Someone who belongs in heaven has just been born on earth.
If anything can reconcile our two worlds, it’s this.
If angels are like picture frames, showing up to draw attention to an important point God is making, then the angel theatrics tonight are the most dramatic picture frame in the collection. And what is the masterpiece that they display?
“A Savior has been born to you,” says the speaking angel. In the promised place, the city down the road, the city named for David centuries ago, the promise made to him so long ago is fulfilled, “TODAY.”
The angel reveals two more important pieces of information: this Savior is the Messiah, and this Savior is the Lord. The angel surely knows more than that; he knows that the newborn is also his own Creator, entering creation, God-becoming-human. But he stops, as instructed, and doesn’t reveal any more of the mystery tonight. Humanity can only handle so much at a time.
Then he gets personal. He knows who he is talking to. He isn’t just delivering a message to humanity, but to the specific group of petrified humans on this hillside. “This will be a sign for YOU,” he explains: they’ll find the baby wrapped in the same humble stuff they were wrapped in when they were born, lying in something they use every day, a feed box for livestock like those sheep they care for all night every night. The Savior has entered THEIR world, become poor and dirty and close and accessible and suffering and living next-door. They may have never seen a baby in a manger before, because even these shepherds’ struggling mothers probably had access to slightly better baby beds than that, but this Savior will go even lower than the lowest human in order to lift humans up to God. So they go off hunting for the sign designed just for them, a wrapped-up baby in a feed box, the sign that of all the babies in Bethlehem tonight, they found the right one.
Heaven has come to earth, and He’s holding nothing back. He’s come all the way down. Heaven’s most spectacular choir is singing about Him occupying earth’s humblest baby bed. It’s a masterpiece.
And Jesus will follow through with all the discomfort and inconvenience and hard work of life on earth, 365 days a year for 33 years, living out the lifestyle He has chosen to be born into. He didn’t choose to be born in America to parents with a white-picket fence and a microwave and a bank account and a two-car garage, but in a context closer to what we’d call “the third world.” He belonged there, and He lived there and He died there and He changed the world from there. And the fact that He had the most spectacular supernatural birth announcement ever proves that if He had wanted to be born into a bed instead of a manger, He could have been. But He wasn’t. He chose that life, and as He suffered beside us humans, His angel friends dropped in to encourage Him at the hardest moments and at the greatest moments and maybe in some of the unrecorded in-between moments, too.
As an adult, about to die on the cross, Jesus would reveal that all throughout His life, He’d had access to ask His Father for those angel armies to come back and rescue Him at any time, and He’d never taken it (Matthew 26:53). Jesus never asked for those angels to carry Him back to heaven or even teleport Him from town to town when it was really hot outside. And at the hardest earth-moment of all, He didn’t ask for them to save Him from the cross.
And so maybe that’s the role angel-servants and angel-friends will play in our lives, too. Their role won’t be to step in and save us from ever going through suffering and pain on the earth, but to show up and encourage us that we are exactly where God’s best plan is asking us to be and that it will be worth it.
Let’s look next at what we can learn from the way angels showed up in the beautiful life of our beautiful Jesus. And in the meantime, Merry Christmas. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.