One of my favorite things about the holiday season is Christmas carols. These joyful songs and hymns, some hundreds of years old, capture the awe and wonder of the story of Jesus’ birth in a way words alone cannot.
For example, my favorite Christmas hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” was written in 1737 by Charles Wesley. To this day, Wesley’s hymn is sung all over the world — from the doorsteps of suburban homes to inner city churches and orchestra halls packed with thousands of people.
Yet the setting for the first Christmas carol couldn’t have been more different. It was performed in a field in the middle of nowhere in front of the unlikeliest audience you could think of.
The Gospel of Luke tells us the first carolers were not a group of neighbors traipsing across snow-covered streets or a 300-person choir but an army of thousands of angels on a field outside Bethlehem. And their audience was not a crowd of churchgoers wearing their Christmas best, but a ragtag group of lowly shepherds who were scared out of their wits by this heavenly invasion.
This is how Luke describes it: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” (Luke 2:8-9)
The angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid because he brings them “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” — that very night in nearby Bethlehem, the long-awaited savior of the world, Jesus the Messiah, has been born!
At the sound of these words Luke tells us that “suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
This must have been quite a sight! If it were put on Broadway today, tickets for such a performance would sell for a fortune. But what really captures me about this whole scene is not the supernatural ensemble but the ordinary audience God chose to hear the most important announcement made in human history.
You see, shepherds were not exactly part of the elite class. In fact, they were at the bottom rung of the social ladder. They had no political clout or powerful business connections. These were humble, lowly men whom the upper class tried to avoid. They spent their days away from their families following their flocks day and night — and when you spend that much time with animals, you end up smelling like them. It was a poor, lonely life.
Can you think of a more humble audience for the very first Christmas carol ever sung?
But when Jesus was born, the heavens opened wide and the sky was filled with angels singing with voices beyond imagination. These lonely men were the audience for this most beautiful of songs.
As we look in the Bible at places where God touches Earth — where heavenly beings come into contact with people — we find that it very often happens in extremely humble circumstances. This becomes even clearer as we look at the story of Christmas.
The announcement of Jesus’ birth wasn’t made at Caesar’s palace in Rome. It wasn’t made at the high, holy Temple in Jerusalem. The first announcement was the small cry of the child in a stable, and the second announcement was by angels above a humble pasture with an audience of lowly shepherds.
I want you to remember this: Jesus came for ordinary people, just like you and me.
No matter where you are in life, how you live, or what you have done, God can meet you right there. Don’t think you have to clean yourself up first to connect with God. He’s available to you right now, and he can bring peace into your life — the kind of peace that surpasses circumstances and is present even in the middle of chaos.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you,” Jesus said. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like good news to me.