Published in The Calhoun Times Saturday, November 28th
Think about all the Christmas cards you receive each year. Imagine for a moment that everything we knew about Christmas was based on the images pictured on those cards. I call that Christmas card theology. Many of the cards feature snowflakes or Santa Claus but even the religious ones create a certain mythology. A study of those cards suggests that Jesus was born in a small stable made of wooden boards, he had a full head of blonde hair, there were a few shepherds present and exactly three wise men. I’m not suggesting that we should stop sending Christmas cards with popular art. But in addition to our cards and carols, I would like us to look into scripture and reconsider some of these scenes.
The Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about angels. They are often portrayed as either beautiful women or chunky naked babies. In Luke chapter 2, there were shepherds watching their flocks in the fields outside of Bethlehem. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and they were filled with great fear. Anytime in the Bible an angel appears the initial response is always fear. There are occasions where angels come disguised as regular men, but if one appears in its true form the first words spoken are always “Do not be afraid.” Luke says the sky was then filled with the heavenly host praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” We often imagine a glorious angel choir. But let’s look again at what the scriptures actually have to say.
There is no verse in the Bible that describes angels singing. I can’t say for sure they don’t, but if so the Bible never mentions it. Isaiah 6 records a vision of God on his throne very similar to what John wrote in Revelation 4. In both cases angels flew overhead; in Isaiah they “call out to one another”, in Revelation they “never cease to say ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.’” Just like in Luke 2:13 angels throughout the Bible cry out, call out, declare or simply speak their message. God’s people are given the gift of singing and commanded to use it to glorify him. It seems to be a blessing reserved for the human race.
So the angels were not singing to the shepherds. What else can we say for certain? Joshua gives us a clue: “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord.” (Joshua 5:13-14a) While angels do not necessarily have gender, the few names given – Michael, Gabriel and Lucifer – are male. Joshua did not meet a beautiful angel with a hymnal; he met the commander of the army of the Lord holding a drawn sword! We know that Jacob wrestled with an angel was not able to overpower him. Luke mentions the heavenly host; anytime the Bible talks about a host it always refers to an army. So let’s reset the scene.
Instead of beautiful women in choir robes, imagine the sky being filled with mighty warriors in fine armor. Put away the hymn books and give them swords. The shepherds trembled in fear as the heavenly host spoke in unison of God’s glory. And when they commanded the shepherds to go to Bethlehem and seek the child, it’s worth noting they got up and went!
So why an army? The birth of Jesus took place in a quiet little village far away from the religious capital in Jerusalem and went largely unnoticed. We know that at every opportunity Satan interferes with God’s plans. He was in the Garden tempting Eve to eat the fruit. When Jesus went into the wilderness to fast, Satan came and tempted him three times. He later entered the heart of Judas the betrayer. Think about it; the Son of God came into the world as a newborn baby. He would never be smaller, weaker or more helpless than the night of his birth, which was the turning point in all of history as heaven drew near to earth and the immortal put on mortality. This was the best chance Satan was ever going to get to derail God’s plan of salvation. Nothing less than heaven’s finest army would do.
Next week we’ll consider the wise men. Just something to think about as you open those cards this year.