Angels are scary. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to come face-to-face with the fact that any time a denizen of the unseen world crosses into the seen world, people flip out. Even in a culture steeped in the myths of pagan gods and fantastical beasts, God’s messengers always inspired a special kind of terror in the men and women they spoke with.
We’d like to think that fear was simply the product of the messenger popping into existence out of nowhere—after all, most of us aren’t used to strangers materializing right next to us. But in nearly every instance of an angel appearing in the Bible, it’s not just their sudden entrance that leaves the watchers in fear—it’s the sheer brilliance of power on display.
Throughout the course of the Bible, God’s messengers often arrive to announce the impending birth of a promised baby. From Sarah’s conception of Isaac to Samson’s promised power and all the way to Mary, it seems like angels were the original storks. And when we get to the story of the shepherds every Christmas, we often lump the announcement in with the feel-good scenes of Mary and Sampson’s mother and Sarah.
But that’s not the picture that Luke paints of the poor herdsmen watching their flocks by night. The passage has become so familiar to us, however, that it’s really really hard to catch the full weight of what happens in those few verses. In order to feel the angels’ words in our gut as Luke hoped we would, we have to take a step or two back and look at what the big deal with angels really is.
Our English word comes from the Greek word that simply means messenger—angelos. The same’s true of the Hebrew word also translated angel: malach. We don’t get a robust description of these messengers, but when they do appear, it’s usually in the form of a human man. That’s not to say that those human-like divine messengers were plain as dry toast. Quite the opposite. Even the messengers who announce the births of Isaac, Sampson, or Jesus left quite the impression.
It’s tempting when we come to the shepherds in Luke to think that we have just one more hey-a-baby-is-coming-just-so-you-know announcement from the divine messengers. And it kind of starts out that way—one angel with a message about a birth. In our mind’s eye the angel’s dressed in long, flowing robes and shakes his mane of glistening golden hair before speaking. He’s tame, if a little shiny.
We’re not really sure why the shepherds were “sore afraid” as the old King James would put it. Maybe their eyes had adjusted well to the dark and the bright light made them feel like a freight train was headed their way. Whatever the excuse, we move on with the story like nothing really happened. But something did.
Not every angel in the Bible announces good news. Many announce judgment. Angels are warriors above all. In the early pages of Joshua, Moses’s lieutenant faces down his first real military engagement without the wizened sage. On the evening before he sets out to tackle the walls of insanity surrounding Jericho, a warrior shows up in front of him.
Joshua’s convinced that he’s an enemy who’d managed to give his guards the slip and was there to assassinate him. But when the impressive soldier responds to Joshua’s question about who’s side he’s on, the angel answers neither. He fights for Yahweh alone.
That’s not the last time—or the first time—the angels showed up for war. On his way to curse Israel, Balaam nearly got his head cut off by an angel blocking his donkey’s way. The messengers who announced Isaac’s conception sauntered down to Sodom to destroy it the next evening. A captain in God’s armies found bumbling Gideon wiping the barley chaff from his eyes in a panic. And, by the time we get to the prophetic books of the Old Testament, the God of Israel’s angels take on a whole new role.
The army of God gets an encore when the Syrian army shows up at Elisha’s doorstep wanting to destroy the prophet. While his helper quakes in his boots looking over the sea of soldiers, Elisha asks God to open the terrified man’s eyes. And he does. There on the ridge surrounding the Syrians waits the assembled army of angels. The heavenly hosts weren’t singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” They were prepared for war.
So when we get to the book of Luke, the poor shepherds have a reason to be afraid. The encounter follows everything we’ve come to expect as a result of our trek through Scripture. Sure, an angel announces the birth of an important figure in God’s plan. And, true to form, the shepherds panic.
But then God shows his immense kindness—this new hero is not a Samson come to slaughter the Romans. He’s not a judge or general. He’s an Isaac—the firstborn of a new race of people. And like the nomadic Abraham and Sarah, the first to hear of the newborn Messiah are sheep-herders.
And when the host of angels that join the first announcer appear, everything in us as readers of the Bible should start shaking. The assembled army of heaven only ever appears for war. But here—here in the dim coolness of an early spring night—a song of blessing leaps from their throats. We and the shepherds with us expect a war cry, but instead our ears fill with words of peace.
The messengers who for so long brought news of strife and bloodshed now sing a different song—peace is coming. Peace on the earth broken by the stain of sin. Peace for the people whom God loves dearly. Peace and not war.
In the course of Scripture, the appearance of the angels to the Bethlehemite shepherd stands like out like a candle in the darkness. At some point in the future, the angelic armies will once again take up arms against the kingdom of darkness. But for now, in the still quiet of night, there’s only peace.
And in the fading of their fear the shepherds spring into action—leaping to their feet to find the infant king of angels, and to proclaim to those in the darkness that a light has come.