Bo Wagner is pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church of Mooresboro, NC, a widely traveled evangelist, and the author of several books. His books are available on Amazon and at www.wordofhismouth.com
Since 1862 Christians all across the world this time of year have been singing some version of the song, “Angels We Have Heard On High.” We have our dear friends in France to thank for the foundational tune and James Chadwick to thank for the English lyrics. It is based on the words of something much older than that, though, namely the words of the gospel of Luke, specifically Luke chapter two, which was written by Luke the physician and historian a few years before Paul was martyred, which dates it to around AD 60.
Here are those words. Luke 2:8-14, “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 Saviour, 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.”
Without getting too technical, the way their praises are formed is indeed a song. So when Chadwick wrote of angels “sweetly singing o’er the plains,” it was an accurate bit of lyrics. But, with all due respect to the hymn and the hymn writer, the one thing the hymn does not really capture is the intentionally out-of-place assemblage this really was and how God intentionally kept it that way time and time again during that entire first Christmas.
In other words, though I cannot begin to figure out how we would ever give it a proper rhythm, rhyme, and meter, we could just as accurately sing, “Angels we have heard on high, but what in the world are they doing way out there to begin with?”
There were five instances of angelic visitation surrounding the two-year or so period that we regard as the first Christmas. And in every case, angels, the most glorious, powerful, and spectacular beings in God’s creation, were sent not to the halls of power but to the least likely people and places imaginable.
The first visitation was to just one man, a very old man named Zacharias, all by himself offering incense in the holy place. This man was no one special, just an old minister trying to do his job for the day, a man who did not even have a son to carry on the family name. No one saw the angel come or go, no one but Zacharias even heard him or saw him, and Zacharias was unable to speak for the next nine months and therefore could not even tell of the experience.
The second visitation was a few months later, way up north in Nazareth. Nazareth was as far from prominence and prosperity as a place could possibly be. It was a violent, crime-ridden place that most everyone wanted to move out of and very few ever really wanted to move into. And the recipient of that visitation was a simple young lady who had thus far been utterly anonymous to the world. When the angel showed up to Mary, it was to an absolute nobody, a young lady who in Luke 1:47 acknowledged that she herself needed a Savior.
The third visitation was right back up in Nazareth a few months later, this time to a simple carpenter who, based on the offering they later gave in the temple, was a poor man. Another angelic visitation, another nobody.
The fourth visitation was that in Luke 2:8-14, the whole “sweetly singing o’er the plains” episode. But those “plains,” in less poetic terms, were in our vernacular, pastures, places that animals graze and sleep and poop. And those shepherds tending to them, in Bible days, were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. When Joseph was in Egypt, he had to remind his brothers in Genesis 46:34 that “every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians.” That Christmas-carol-inducing night was another instance of angels showing up in the least likely places to the least likely people.
The fifth visitation was once again to Joseph, this time in a house in Bethlehem, warning him of Herod’s intention to kill the Christ child. Bethlehem was down south not too different from what Nazareth was up north, a place with no real opportunity, a place where people wanted to move out of rather than into.
And realizing all of that makes the message of the initial angel out there o’er the plains in Luke 1:10 make perfect sense, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
All people. Christ came to die for and redeem whosoever will. He lived and died and rose again for every white person, black person, brown person, red person, yellow person, no matter your melanin level, He came for you and yours. He came for both males and females. He came for young and old. He came for rich and poor. He came for the garbage collector and the fast-food worker and the store clerk and the assembly line worker and the accountant and the waitress and the guy that works the booth at the flea market.
There is no white gospel or black gospel, no poor way of salvation or rich way of salvation; there is just the Lamb of God, born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, and hung on a cross. Angels continually showed up in the least likely places when He came to earth to show us that He came for everyone, not just “the important people.”
Pastor Wagner can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his books, audio downloads, and other resources are available by clicking the “Store” link above.
Feature photo by Pastor Bo Wagner