From a human perspective, this angelic concert didn’t happen where it was supposed to happen.
Imagine the rush of sound. I love our choir; I love what our new music director and pianist have been able to accomplish with our choir and our worship music in general. But let’s be realistic. If a choir of angels—in Greek, literally an “army” of angels—were to show up and start singing, we would all be astonished, tears silently flowing, each of us wanting to hear every note. I have no doubt a multitude of angels can out-sing a choir of 100,000 of the most talented singers on earth.
With that kind of talent, you would think the angels would have played the palaces, hovering above Jerusalem and then moving on to Rome for an encore. But instead, God sent the angels about as off Broadway as you can get, to a field occupied by stinking shepherds.
Yes, for the record, biblical shepherds stunk. It’s hard to work among the sheep and the sheep dung, far away from a bath for weeks on end, and not stink. When they arrived to see the baby Jesus in the manger, I suspect the holy family smelled them before they saw them. Ancient sources also indicate shepherds were considered “sticky fingered” when in town, and they were considered so unreliable that they could not testify in court.
So, our first lesson from these verses reinforces last week’s lesson. God often begins his work in what human beings consider the lowest places, emphasizing his power and his love for all of creation. The best choir you could hope to hear unleashed its most glorious cantata in the middle of nowhere. But at the same time, we must note its effectiveness. We still talk about the performance.
There is more going on here, though.The angels’ song also reminds us of the true nature of worship, of worship’s true audience.
To whom do the angels sing? Well, listen to the words again: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”
The angels sang first of all to praise and glorify God. It didn’t matter where they sang; God is everywhere. This truth should shape us whenever we worship, wherever we are.
Ministry professionals need to learn this more than anyone. Clergy, musicians—we sadly are sometimes guilty of thinking we’ll one day move on to a church more worthy of our education, elocution and liturgical temperament. But the primary audience, God, is always before us. God can be glorified in a cathedral, but he is equally glorified in a little country church, or a field of stinking shepherds.
There also is that other part, “Peace, good will toward men.” Well, of course the angels sang that. There was a baby in a manger, and his presence changed everything.
Despite our sin, despite our repeated resistance, God still loves us, so much that he came among us in flesh. And in Jesus’ growing, and ultimately, his dying, God made peace possible. We even believe this radical idea that peace will come in full—we are moving toward it, despite the violence and sadness we see around us.
I think the ideas of praising God and looking toward peace are deeply related, too. They belong together in this song.
When we worship rightly, we are brought into contact with the mind of God. We are changed. And perhaps, over time, our mind works more like God’s mind. We find ourselves more inclined to choose the path God would have us follow. We begin to exhibit the grace and mercy we sense in him while we worship.
And ultimately, there is movement, action. The story goes a little beyond what we read today. When the angels departed, the shepherds got up and went to see what had been declared; they found the baby. And then, in voices much smaller and rougher than what they had heard, they went on praising God.
The featured image is “Angel and Shepherds,” by Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924) public domain, via Wikimedia Commons