That first Christmas night, the shepherds on that Judean hillside were properly terrified by the Identified Flying Object blazing above them. They weren’t learned men steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, but any Jewish kid knew that when an angel shows up, things happen, and they aren’t always things we like.
It had been four hundred years since the prophetic voice had gone silent in Israel. And the last thing the last prophet had said is that when God did show up again in Israel’s history, it would be terrifying indeed:
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty.
“Not a root or a branch will be left to them…. See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:1, 5-6).
All the prophets sounded like that. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel…they all were forever shouting imprecations on Israel for its manifold sins in the most appalling language. Yes, there were some promising bits shining amid the spouting lava of prophetic fury. But they applied only to a remnant sometime in the future. And those four hundred intervening years had brought Israel mostly oppression and a lot of misery.
The shepherds themselves lived under Roman domination. But it was worse than that. Their immediate ruler was a Jew, King Herod the Not-So-Great, who collaborated with the Romans and oppressed his own people to build huge monuments to himself in the capital city, taxing the nation into poverty. Darkness layered on darkness, wickedness upon wickedness.
And now: an angel. Literally the word means “messenger,” and given what was going on in Jerusalem, the divine message was surely going to be bad news indeed: judgement again on Israel.
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