Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
With a couple of angelic appearances already in Luke’s gospel (to Zechariah and then to Mary, both in chapter 1) perhaps we should expect, by this point in the story, that if there is important news to be delivered, God will send an angel for the job. And today’s text does not disappoint.
In fact, while the two stories of angelic pronouncements in Luke 1 feature an individual angel, Luke 2 pulls out all the stops with not just one angel appearing, but a great many – an entire heavenly host!
And I love the other narrative details Luke supplies here. There are the local shepherds, out in the fields minding their own business, watching over their flock by night, in other words, doing their job. I wonder if a 21st century urban equivalent would be night watchmen patrolling a shopping mall parking lot, or one of those construction crews whose task it is to work on the freeway all night to minimize the impact of their work on daytime traffic? At any rate, picture those whose job it is to work outside in the middle of the night. And suddenly, “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” The angel said to them what God’s biblical messengers often say to the gob-smacked recipients of those messages, which was what again? … “Fear not!” “Do not be afraid!” In this case, “Do not be afraid; for see – I bring you good news of great joy to all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Notice, too, that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” I once saw a really striking illustration of this part of the story in a children’s Bible. Rather than a human looking angel, there was a full page spread of bright white light, with just a hint of angel wings around the edges. “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shonearound them.” So the shepherds are out there in the dark – perhaps huddled around a small fire to keep warm, and suddenly: BAM! Extreme floodlights! No wonder they were terrified. But then those comforting words: Do not be afraid. This is God’s light you see, shining in the darkness. And here is good news of great joy. Emmanuel has come. God is near.
Why does the news come first to shepherds, do you think? You’ve got to figure whoever heard first would quickly run and tell what they’ve just seen and heard. God’s heavenly messengers are essentially appointing earthly messengers at this point in the story. So where would shepherds, in that day, be likely to spread their good news? They certainly didn’t have access to the halls of power. I wonder if shepherds would even have been welcomed in most people’s homes. So if shepherds come running to Bethlehem, to spread the word about the birth of this incredible baby who was also the Son of God, who would they tell, while those who were better-off bolted their doors? I like to imagine it was others without status or privilege, others without much in the way of creature comforts, perhaps even those sleeping on the streets.
In other words, the last people we might expect – in the very first hours of Jesus’ life – getting a chance to be first, for a change. If that’s what happened it would be a classic Jesus move. Known as he was throughout his adult ministry for foregrounding those too often left in the background, for seeking out those on the margins and inviting them into the very center of his story. Fortunately for the more comfortable among us, the “good news of great joy” the angels bring is “for all people” so we’re included too. As is everyone we might not think to include, as is anyone we might even resist including. All people means all people. To borrow a line from a Nichole Nordeman song I’ve been listening to recently, “Jesus loves us this I know, and there are no exceptions.”
Speaking of large audiences, I feel we’d be remiss today if we didn’t give a nod to that most eloquent interpreter of this morning’s Scripture text, Linus van Pelt. If you’re a fan of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” you may even know this part of Luke 2 nearly by heart from the King James Version. In which case I invite you to say aloud with me any lines you remember:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
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.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
A number of years ago I ran across a fantastic observation by blogger Jason Soroski about that very scene where Linus walks onto the stage and quotes those verses in the spotlight. Some of you may even remember me sharing it at the time. “Right in the middle of speaking,” he notes, “Linus drops the blanket.” He continues:
"Throughout the story of Peanuts, Lucy, Snoopy, Sally and others all work to no avail to separate Linus from his blanket. And even though his security blanket remains a major source of ridicule for the otherwise mature and thoughtful Linus, he simply refuses to give it up. Until this moment. When he simply drops it...Most telling is the specific moment he drops it: when he utters the words, 'fear not.'"
You’re not alone if you want to go back and watch it again now to see if Soroski’s right. I sure did. It’s fairly subtle, but once you see it, I bet you’ll watch for that blanket-drop every time after, rooting for little Linus to reach that climactic moment.
He walks on stage with his blanket held tightly, speaking his lines with great seriousness, but right in that instant when he gets to the angelic “fear not,” the blanket suddenly slips to the floor, and Linus’ face lights up. Soroski says:
Looking at it now, it is pretty clear what Charles Schultz was saying through this, and it’s so simple it’s brilliant. The birth of Jesus [has the power to separate] us from our fears… The birth of Jesus allows us to … drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to … cling to [God] instead.
The world … can be a scary place, and most of us find ourselves grasping something temporal for security, whatever that thing may be…But in the midst of fear and insecurity, this simple cartoon image … continues to live on as an inspiration for us to seek true peace … in the one place it has always been … found.
He makes a good point. “Sore afraid” we may well be at this juncture in the history of our nation, of our world, of this pandemic. “Sore afraid” we may be from individual challenges too. Even good transitions in our lives – new homes, new schools or jobs, new stages in growing older or new stages in our relationships - can trigger fears of various kinds.
It’s easy to worry, to fear and fret, to channel our inner Charlie Brown – remember his pantaphobia? The fear of everything? But as tempting as it may be to stay there, I invite us instead to look to Linus this Christmas. To hear again his memorable “Fear Not!” And to recall the angels on whose behalf he speaks, surrounded as they are by that glorious heavenly light.
The good news is God’s messengers can find us even in our most fearful moments. That is God’s light you see, shining in the darkness. So as we continue to live into this beautiful gospel story, first through our children’s pageant next week, and then again on Christmas Eve, I invite you to take stock of your own fears and to hear them addressed by God’s promises. Hear the invitation to unclench your fists, to put down your blanket – even if only for a brief moment – and to celebrate with us this good news of great joy.
“Fear not!” say the angels. “God is near.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “I’ve got you.”
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
 From the song “Dear Me” by Nichole Nordeman
 Jason Soroski, “Just Drop the Blanket,” blog entry for December 3, 2015