The Songs of the Angels and Shepherds

Luke 2:8-20
December 22, 2013
Joanna Harader

Once a month I write a little humor piece for a blog group I’m part of. A couple weeks ago I decided to re-write some famous Christmas hymns with more historically accurate lyrics. For example, you probably heard, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains.” Or the version in our hymnal which always throws me off, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing through the night.”

The first thing to note about this hymn is that it is written from the perspective of a shepherd, right? Angels we have heard on high. And one thing to note about the biblical story is that it is set at night, when it is supposedly dark and quiet. And I don’t mean Lawrence nighttime dark and quiet with streetlights and traffic noise in the background. Or even rural dark and quiet with the glow of the house and the hum of heater and appliances. These shepherds were in the midst of first century pastoral dark and quiet. Dark. Quiet.

Then, suddenly, light and singing.

So my alternative version of the song: “Angels we have heard on high, and we nearly peed our pants.”

I mean, can you imagine? It’s no wonder the first words out of the angel’s mouth are : “Do not be afraid.”

The angel choir has come to see a song of Good News. They bring good tidings of great joy for all people! But first, the shepherds have to get over their fear. And it all happens pretty quickly in this story–I suppose angel choirs are good at speeding these things along.

The fear comes first, and then the shepherds listen to the song of Good News. And then they go and experience this Good News. And then they go out singing the Good News themselves. This is the cycle of Christian conversion: to hear, experience, respond, and share.

I realize that a lot of us are pretty squirley about the term “evangelism.” It brings to mind the folks who come to your door with pamphlets and ask questions like, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”. And, most often when we hear the word “evangelical” in a news story there is something terribly un-Jesusy to follow. This week it was criminalization of homosexuality. Sometimes it is opposition to gun control laws or justifications for child abuse. I know an awful lot of people with an awful lot of Good News to share who will run screaming (or maybe just walk briskly and silently) away from any hint of evangelism.

But I don’t know how else to frame this story. “Evangelism” is the word we need. From the original Greek it means “good news.” So I don’t know how all the people spreading bad news–about judgment and hate and violence and prejudice–ever got ahold of this word in the first place. It’s not a word about making people live the way you want them to live. It’s not a word about how one particular group of people is more right and loved and holy than any other groups of people.

“Evangelism” is about Good News. Good News for everyone.

So I’m going to use that word. Because it is what this story–with angels singing and the shepherds praising–it’s what this story is all about.

The fear gives way to hearing the song which leads to seeking out the experience which draws out our own hymns of praise. Evangelism. Sharing the Good News of God-with-us in Jesus.

It is the Christmas story. Yes. And the Easter story. And the story of the Church for century after century.

Evangelism. Sharing the Good News.

Of course, it doesn’t always happen in a tidy twelve verses, and it doesn’t always follow in nice chronological order.

This proved to be a bit of a sticking point for one of the members of the Leadership Commission when we met for them to approve me for ordination. He asked when I was saved. And I suppose, were I one of the shepherds, I could have said, “Dec. 25, 0000, when the angels sent me and my pals to that stable and I looked baby Jesus in the face.” And I suppose lots of people today can answer that question, can name a specific place and time when they heard and responded to the Good News in a dramatic, life-altering way.

But I couldn’t answer the question. I couldn’t–and still can’t–point to THE moment that my fear faded enough for me to listen to the Good News; THE moment when my feet carried me into the presence of Christ; THE moment when I went into the world glorifying and praising God. For me, it’s not a matter of having been saved. It’s a matter of being saved–each day. Over and over. Weaving in and out of the fear with the song of Good News breaking through the static in little bursts of grace.

I recently finished a memoir by Nadia Bolz-Weber who has, to be sure, a more dramatic conversion story than mine. From fundamentalist Christian to agnostic alcoholic to Lutheran pastor–albeit a pastor with numerous tattoos and a pretty spicy vocabulary.

In reading her story though, it strikes me that even with all the drama, she didn’t have a “dramatic conversion” like the shepherds–there wasn’t one moment in time when she heard the song of Good News and responded.

For one thing, people are not angels. So when we sing the Good News, sometimes we don’t get it quite right. That, of course, is the reason that the terms “evangelism” and “evangelical” have such negative connotations. Not because the news is not Good, but because people get it wrong. Or, more often, partly right and partly wrong.

So Nadia did hear the song of Good News growing up in her fundamentalist family and church. But mixed in with the good news was bad news about all the things she couldn’t do if she wanted God to love her–like dance or swear or ask hard questions about the Bible. All of this bad news pushed her out of the church and into a world of alcohol and drugs and sleeping around.

She failed her first semester of college and soon after moved into a place she and her roommates called Albion Babylon. They moved from an apartment to a house and had an “open door” policy. The rule was that there were no rules–which manifest itself in a lot of grime, drugs, alcohol, and sleeping with each other’s boyfriends and girlfriends.

You could say that this was a dark time. And if Nadia were one of the shepherds, a light might have suddenly pierced the darkness while the song of Good News rung through the air. But instead what happened was that, for reasons she really didn’t understand, she would sometimes drag her hung-over self to a nearby Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings and just sit. Considering the state she was in, both spiritually and physically, the silence was welcome. And more welcome than the silence was the people’s acceptance of her. Finally, here was a group of people connecting with God in a way that did not mean they were also judging her and telling her about all of the things she shouldn’t do.

Sometimes, we hear the songs in the silence. And Nadia did hear the low rumblings of the Good News on those quiet Sunday mornings. But she didn’t immediately go running off to find little baby Jesus. There was a lot more fear for the angels to work through before she could open herself to the fullness of the song.

You realize, of course, that I’m speaking metaphorically when I talk about the song of Good News. (And I do appreciate your indulgence with my metaphorical tangents.) Sometimes the Good News is literally sung, I suppose. The Good News can also be spoken. Or it can be enacted in any number of ways–in silence, in embraces, in protests, in fresh-baked cookies, in kind glances, in shoveled driveways, in sustainable lifestyles, in open doors . . .

Whatever urges us into the presence of Christ. Whatever sends us running to the babe in a manger, to the foot of the cross, where we see the almighty God made vulnerable in love for us.

That is the Good News. That urging–that sending force–that is evangelism. And we share the privilege of evangelism with those shepherds who were watching their flocks by night so long ago. We share the privilege of hearing the Good News. We share the privilege of encountering the living Christ. We share the privilege of going into the world with a holy song in our hearts, with words of glory, words of praise, words of Good News on our lips.

Thanks be to God!

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