A Scandal to Heaven and Earth, by Phil Tiews

Angels&Shepherdsmilling

There was a moment in this year’s community Christmas pageant [one of the best ever, by the way, thank Rachael Varblow & Amy Campbell] when the shepherds and angels were all milling around the manger trying to get a look at the baby Jesus. The fact that his part was being played by a real baby provided the motivation for these young method actors. As I Iooked at these representatives of heaven and earth jostling and elbowing for position it occurred to me that this might be closer to that moment in Bethlehem than our usual static tableaux. We read in Luke 2 of the ‘great company of the heavenly host’ praising God and of the shepherds going off to see the baby and to our mind’s eye come the serried rows of a choir and an orderly hike ending in a reverent circle of kneeling shepherds. It may not have been so orderly! After 2000 years and untold paintings, Christmas cards, crèche scenes and carols the shock value of Jesus’ birth has largely worn off for us. It is hard to imagine just how thunderstruck those shepherds must have been. Sitting quietly by the fire, swapping stories and gossip when KAZAAM!!! the heaven’s open and God’s glory blasts down on them and from the midst of it an angel shouts out his greeting. He could see the impact he was having because the first thing he says is ‘Don’t be afraid’! When they get over the shock of the first angel, a whole mob of them (biblically known as a ‘great company') belt out their message – and then are gone. As they are recovering their wits the shepherds begin to remember what they were told and then they realize this is all wrong! Hallelujah, the Messiah has come! Angels are proclaiming his arrival – that is as it should be. But what is this about the baby wrapped and lying in a manger, that can’t be right. He is the great king, greater than David. Where is the palace, where are the courtiers, where is the earthly glory? They rush off to see and I imagine that their curiosity and confusion caused them to press in for a really good look and press Mary and Joseph for explanations about who this baby was.

And how about those angels. Maybe they had been rehearsing their part for weeks, but I think that they were as stunned as the shepherds at this development. One moment they are worshipping the Word Who was from the beginning, Who was with God and was God, and the next His glory is cast off and He has come to earth as a squirming bundle of human vulnerability in the straw of a Bethlehem hovel. Shocking! An unimaginable scandal. And why? Because of the non-understandable, gracious love of God for people, people who just a few years later would reject, abandon, and crucify Him. Wouldn’t this ‘blow their celestial minds’? I know this isn’t the way the biblical text reads, but I hear them singing ‘Can you believe our God? His ways are beyond us. Can you understand how great his favor is toward men? His peace is on them! Astounding!!!’

Luke tells us that after they deliver their message the angels left the shepherds and returned to heaven, and so it must be true. But I wonder if some of them took a side trip to Bethlehem on the way back to see what they could not have conceived, the Eternal Word, through whom all things were made, weighing in at about eight pounds and unable to care for himself, wrapped up in some cloth, lying on straw where animals have fed. How many angels can crowd around a manger? What about when shepherds start showing up to shove in for a look, too? Heaven and earth dumbfounded and scandalized by the God whose ways are not our ways, and are as far above our ways as heaven is above the earth.

Today the message of Christmas has become commercialized, trivialized, Hallmark-ized, and even for us Christians, sometimes too familiarized. We can lose our grip on the magnitude of the scandal that the Son was united with human flesh – an overwhelming demonstration of the depth of His gracious love for us, sinners. This message is so scandalous that is it rejected by secularists, by Muslims, by New Agers, by all men – “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. “ John 1:12-13

Merry ‘Eternal Scandal of God’s Love’ Day to you all!