Have you ever witnessed overwhelming force? My senior year in high school, I watched multinational coalition forces liberate Kuwait on TV. The military operation was rapid, dominant, and overpowering.
This kind of campaign was later coined “Shock and Awe” by U.S. scholars.
Ancient Rome was also known for “shock and awe.” The Roman Imperial Army had vastly overpowering technology, speed, power and numbers. Two thousand years ago, Israel was a struggling middle-eastern nation that was occupied and ruled by the overwhelming force of Rome.
Israel longed to be independent from the pagan soldiers of Rome. They had been brought home from their geographical exiles by previous empires, but they longed for their complete freedom as a people.
The Hebrew Scriptures were full of prophecies and promises of freedom for the Jews. They awaited a leader who would be designated by God as a hero of his people. The Hebrew term for a God-marked leader was “Messiah,” and the Greek term was “Christ.”
It was into this context of Jewish longing for freedom that Jesus of Nazareth was born. The Gospel of Luke describes the shocking and frightening announcement of his birth in chapter two:
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, watching over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were utterly terrified. The angel said to them, ‘don’t be afraid, but look! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and 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 place, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’”
The word “angel” simply means messenger. The Old Testament describes angels as fierce monsters. They are often called “cherubim” and sometimes “seraphim.” The Bible books of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Hebrews describe flames of fire, faces of predators, and multiple wings.
Angels sometimes appeared as people, but generally took the form of “shock and awe.”
The heavenly “host” in Luke’s story means a heavenly army. The Jewish people were finally getting the shock and awe they had been waiting for.
A terrifying army of monsters had appeared to liberate God’s people. But the force skipped the palace and went to a working-class band of outsiders.
Then, adding to the surprise, the warriors functioned more like a choir than a military force. They were the chorus of this drama praising the real hero who had come in a manger. God writes great stories. We expected warriors slashing God’s enemies, but he came as a baby. Like the Israelites, we often misunderstand God’s prophecies. We think that we need to be rescued from the bad people, instead of recognizing that we all are the bad people. God held back the sword of the heavenly soldiers and instead gave them a song of hope, “Glory to God in the highest place.” This was fulfilled by the humility of God who took our lowest place.
The real shock and awe of Christmas is not the overwhelming force of a God who has every right to strike in judgment. The real shock and awe of Christmas is a God whose love is so radical that he was willing to enter into the place of suffering for us.
The heavenly warriors delayed judgment, and brought, “Good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Dave McMurry is pastor of Grace Bible Church in Killeen.