We’ve been looking at angel stories in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel this past month, beginning with Zechariah, a priest in the temple, and then moving to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each one was visited by the angel Gabriel. To each one Gabriel announced the birth of a baby in extremely unusual circumstances – Zechariah and Elizabeth being quite advanced in years, and young Mary being a virgin. By the time we turn to today’s text, later on in Luke 2, both John (Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby) and Jesus (Mary and Joseph’s baby) have been born. And now it’s time to spread the best news of all. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) 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 just minding their own business, watching over their flock by night, in other words, doing their job. I wonder if a contemporary equivalent would be night watchmen, 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.” If you’ve been around for the last couple of sermons, you can guess what happened next. The angel said to them – what did the angel say? … Right: “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.” A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out all of our favorite children’s Christmas books for the season, and one of them had a really striking illustration of this part of the story. Rather than a human looking angel, this one had 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 shone around them.” The Old Testament Scriptures offer us all kinds of light imagery to accompany the glory of God. God’s radiance is pictured in a burning bush, in a pillar of fire, in Moses’ shining face when he talks to God at Sinai. So the shepherds are out there in the dark – perhaps huddled around a small fire to keep warm, and suddenly: BAM! 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.
Why does the news come first to shepherds, do you suppose? You’ve got to figure that whoever heard first would pretty 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 and age, be spreading their good news? They certainly didn’t have an all-access pass to the halls of power. They hardly hobnobbed among the rich and famous. In fact, shepherds weren’t even welcomed in regular people’s homes. They were considered dirty and disreputable. 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 imagine it was other poor and vulnerable folks, perhaps even those living on the streets. Isn’t that a beautiful image? The last and the least already – in the very first hours of Jesus’ life – getting a chance to be first, for a change.
Of course, we are all included too. The best news of all, delivered by the angels, is that the Christ child is born for every last one of us, no matter our situation. Remember - the “good news of great joy” the angels bring is “for all people.”
And speaking of large audiences, I feel we’d be remiss today if we didn’t invoke that most eloquent interpreter of Luke 2, Linus van Pelt. If you’re a fan of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as I am, you may even know this part of the story nearly by heart, from the King James Version:
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.
I’m indebted to blogger Jason Soroski for a rather brilliant insight about that scene, where Linus walks onto the stage, and quotes those verses in the spotlight. Soroski talks about memorizing that same section of Luke’s gospel for a pageant of his own at school one year. “But,” he says, “while working so diligently to learn those lines, there is one important thing I didn’t notice then, and didn’t notice until now. Right in the middle of speaking, Linus drops the blanket.” He continues:
"Charlie Brown is best known for his uniquely striped shirt, and Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. 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. I sure did. And he’s absolutely right. Linus walks onto that 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 separates us from our fears… The birth of Jesus allows us to … drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to [God] instead.
The world of 2015 can be a scary place, and most of us find ourselves grasping something temporal for security, whatever that thing may be…2015 is a world in which it is very difficult for us to “fear not.”
But in the midst of fear and insecurity, this simple cartoon image from 1965 continues to live on as an inspiration for us to seek true peace and true security in the one place it has always been and can always still be found".
He makes a good point. “Sore afraid” we may well be, at this juncture in the history of our nation, of our world. Glance at the news on any given day and you can come away as terrified as those shepherds were. “Sore afraid” we may be from individual, personal troubles too. Anything from medical difficulties to financial challenges to family conflicts can leave us shaking in our shoes.
It’s easy to worry, to fear and fret, to channel our inner Charlie Brown – remember his pantaphobia? The fear of everything? But hard as the media may try, as hard as the politicians may try to keep you in fearful Charlie Brown mode, I challenge you to look instead to Linus this Christmas. To hear again his angelic “Fear Not!” No more pantaphobia, people of God. Enough.
Fear not, for here is good news of great joy for all people. Unto us all is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Fear not, for God has come to be with us, Emmanuel.
Frederick Buechner reminds us that the beautiful 23rd Psalm, the one that begins “The Lord is my shepherd,” also includes the powerful line “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The psalmist “does not pretend that evil and death do not exist. Terrible things happen, and they happen to good people as well as bad people. Even the paths of righteousness lead to the valley of the shadow. Death lies ahead for all of us, saints and sinners alike, and for all the ones we love. The psalmist doesn’t try to explain evil. He doesn’t try to minimize evil. He simply says he will not fear evil. For all the power that evil has, it doesn’t have the power to make him afraid.”
The good news is that God’s messengers, God’s angels, can find us even in our darkest, most fearful moments. That is God’s light you see, shining in the darkness. So put down your blanket – even if only for a moment – and celebrate with us this good news of great joy.
Luke’s angels have been saying it to us all season long. So Linus must be right.
Fear not! God is here.
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
 Jason Soroski, “Just Drop the Blanket,” blog entry for December 3, 2015
 from Secrets in the Dark.