Have you ever been out in the countryside at night, away from the city lights? I used to live out in the country where, when you step outside at night, you disappear into the dark. The only light was from the stars and when you looked up at them it was like you could see a billion of them all at once. The longer you looked the more you could see. It was quiet, dark and lonely. That's pretty well how I imagined it was for the shepherds on the day of Jesus' birth, when God surprised them.
When I read how the glory of the Lord shone around them at the angel's sudden appearance I can understand why Scriptures say they were terrified. To have the pitch black of night go to the brilliance of the day in a second would be enough to frighten me but then we add to that the appearance of the angel. It was believed that if you saw God you would die because no sin-filled man could ever survive the brilliance of the purity of God. This is why the messengers of God always started with "Do not be afraid". But the message of the angel was more than that:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8)
Note the part where he says that he was bringing good news of great joy that is for all people. The good news goes beyond the manger scene and takes us to a life lived in the Spirit as an example for us, to a cross and then to an empty grave. We have to tell people the whole story which we are not very good at any more.
We are more into one line zingers; catch phrases that people will remember. "Jesus is the reason for the season" was popular for a while, but why is Jesus the reason for the season? That's the problem with these marketing ideas, there is no substance. We are trying to reach the whole world whereas we should be taking the time to reach a few people with the substance of the good news. We need to take the time with people, one on one, and explain why we celebrate Christmas. When they come to know Jesus they will be so excited about the "good news of great joy" that they in turn will tell people they know. We can't win the world with slogans but we can by making disciples.
Notice that the angels only went to a handful of shepherds. They could have gone to the whole world at once or to the governments at that time, but perhaps God knew that only the shepherds could appreciate what was happening here and respond correctly. They went to verify what the angel told them; he basically told them to when he told them where to find the baby and how to recognize him. After they saw it with their own eyes they had to tell everyone they met:
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. (Luke 2:17-18)
Now if the shepherds hadn't verified it with their own eyes they would have only been able to tell people what the angel said. That's what it is like for those who have never encountered Jesus for themselves but instead live off the testimony of those who have. That's what slogans produce. But those who have sought God and seen his face, have encountered Jesus for themselves, know exactly how those shepherds felt. You just can't keep that good news to yourself and you want to share it with everyone you encounter.
Let's throw away the slogans, the signs and the bumper stickers this year and actually share what that good news means to people. Let's share more than the manger scene, more than the fact that Jesus was born. Let's actually explain to people why Jesus was born, what it means for them today and how it impacts our eternity. Let's surprise a few people this season with how much God loves us and what he did for us because of that love. Then indeed it will be "good news of great joy".