“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (Luke 2:8-9).
Sometimes English translations of the Bible can mask the bluntness of the original. Our contemporary Bible versions seem to tame many of its stories for the modern reader. But, not here in Luke’s Christmas morning story of the shepherds. This time, the narrative is very blunt. It is, then, left to December preachers to tame the story for Christmas messages that are G-rating and family safe. Almost every version, however, even the paraphrases, leave this text as it should—raw, straightforward, and blunt. And, we need to hear it this way.
In Luke 2, these shepherds were afraid, frightened, and as the Greek indicates, “They feared a great fear.” I do not imagine a bunch of skinny, youngsters, mulling around the hillsides, holding quaint staffs, warming their hands over an open fire, and patting lambs on their heads. These were shepherds, men ready to fight off wolves, lions, and bears. The text doesn’t say they were startled or caught by surprise or even awed. They saw the Angel of the Lord, and their response: these men “feared a great fear.” As the translation here records, “they were terribly frightened.”
I don’t know about you, but I would have been afraid to say the least, and I am hardly a burly shepherd. Problem is, we know the Christmas story all too well. Our version is tame, cute, winsome, merry, fit for a Christmas pageant at a church building. I call our churchy versions the Hallmark Card story of Christmas. It was going to take a lot to alleviate these shepherds’ state of being terribly afraid. Our sentimental versions would not have done the trick. The Angel knew: They needed a sign. Something big. Something bigger than the fear itself.
“This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.'
“When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds (Luke 2:10-18).
Although America still boasts of a vast population of Christian believers and church-goers, society as a whole would prefer that we keep our “religion” and Jesus out of public life—out of school boards, out of government, out of the bedroom, etc. But, not out of the major retail season for the season. Even when the corporate-world seeks to take the word “Christmas” out of their stores, they still want to keep the “spirit,” the Christmas-grin from the invisible Christmas-Cheshire cat, to keep the retail flying off the shelves and showroom floors. They want just enough “belief” to treasure the concepts and images of a virgin birth, angelic choirs, and that baby in swaddling clothes in a manger to make sure people are inspired to buy, buy, buy.
In an article entitled, “The History of Christmas,” G. K. Chesterton describes how it is that modern man has exchanged the wonder of the Christmas story for commercialism:
“Moving step by step, in the majestic march of Progress, we have first vulgarised Christmas and then denounced it as vulgar. Christmas has become too commercial; so many of these thinkers would destroy the Christmas that has been spoiled and preserve the commercialism that has spoiled it.”