This past Sunday, I preached on the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, declaring the good news, the gospel, that the Lord had been born. The essential teachings about who the Lord is and what the gospel is are contained in the angel’s words: “I announce good tidings to you of great joy that shall be to all the people. For to you is born today a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David” (Luke 2:10,11). Here’s the sermon; the readings are Jeremiah 23:1-8, Luke 2:1-20, and Arcana Coelestia 468.
“And I will bring together the remnant of My flock out of all lands whither I have driven them, and will return them to their homes; and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” (Jeremiah 23:3)
The remnant will return, and be made fruitful. The word “remnant” means those who remain. It’s a promise at the heart of the Old Testament. Every time the people is captured by an enemy and carried away from their homeland, the Lord promises that he will preserve those few who remain faithful. He will take that remnant and return them to their land, and will rebuild His people from that small remnant. Even before the time of Israel, we see the same thing play out in the story of Noah. The entire world had become evil, and so the Lord sent a flood to destroy the world – but he preserved a few, those who had not completely shut off their interiors against Him. A remnant was saved, and from them, the earth was repopulated.
The Writings for the New Church explain that in a deeper sense, these stories about remnants being protected and restored represents the way that even in the darkest times of a church, the Lord preserves a few who have not completely destroyed their faith and love in Him. When the Lord raises up a New Church, it is raised up with that remnant of the old church, along with a people from outside of the church, who had not been able to twist the Lord’s Word because they had never heard it before.
It had been prophesied that when the Messiah came, He would save a remnant of His people, and establish them as the hope for the world. At the time of the Lord’s birth, the people was in spiritual captivity. Fewer and fewer people were able to tell right from wrong. The religious leaders had placed their own traditions above the basic commandments of love and mercy and justice. The world was becoming darker and darker, because the Lord’s Word was less and less able to reach people. Meanwhile, the forces of hell were multiplying in the spiritual world, infesting even the lowest levels of heaven, where simple spirits were not able to distinguish between those who were truly good and those who were only pretending in order to get what they wanted. Unless the Lord had come, to fight the forces of hell and to show Himself as a Divine Human, the human race would have been completely destroyed.
The world was dark. But there was a remnant, a few who remained, who had not destroyed the goodness and truth in themselves. These were mostly not the learned class, the priests and the rabbis, since these had perverted the teachings of the Lord. Most of this remnant were simple people who were not experts in the Word, but who had some amount of natural goodness and natural understanding of truth. But even though they had not destroyed everything good in themselves, they were still surrounded by that same darkness. They did not have much knowledge, and not much goodness – only enough, enough that they were open to the Lord.
And so when Jesus was born, there were shepherds in the same country. Shepherds in the Word usually represent people who teach and lead, and we still use this description – the word “pastor” actually just means “shepherd.” But the teachers and leaders of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees and rabbis and priests, were mostly corrupt. In our lesson from Jeremiah, the Lord made a promise that when He came, He would bring up good shepherds. And these literal shepherds who the angels appeared to really did become the first preachers of the gospel, the good news that the Lord had come.
But at first, they were simple shepherds. And in addition to representing teachers, shepherds represent an affection for truth within a person, since it is an affection for truth that inspires us to be taught and led. The shepherds represent the kind of person or the attitude of being humble enough to acknowledge that they need truth. They seem to have been part of that remnant.
But they were living in darkness – they were out watching their flock by night. And this is not necessarily as peaceful a scene as it can sound: they’re literally described as “guarding a guard” over their sheep. They were taking shifts to stay awake throughout the night to watch for whatever unknown predators might come to attack their sheep. We can imagine that it was already a tense situation, to be sitting in darkness, not knowing what could come out of the darkness – a bear, or a wolf, or a lion.
But they were guarding their sheep. They are a picture of true innocence – a trust and willingness to follow the Lord. And we need to fight in defense of that innocence. This is what these shepherds are pictured as doing – the light has gone, darkness has come on them – but they are still going to guard and protect whatever innocence they have left in themselves and the world.
We can imagine whatever shepherds were awake sitting up, peering out into the darkness, trying to stay awake, trying to catch a glimpse of any wild animals that might come and attack their sheep. And while they’re straining to catch even the glimpse of a movement in the darkness – suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. And they feared a great fear.
Imagine that – being along in the darkness, and suddenly surrounded by an incredibly bright light, the glory of the Lord. That glory is heavenly light; it is Divine truth. And the first time a person really sees the truth, it can be overwhelming. Swedenborg describes a time when person in the spiritual world heard something from the internal sense of the word – and his eyes filled with tears, and he was not even able to keep reading because he was so profoundly moved. This is a picture of the kind of awe a person can experience as they realize for the first time in their lives: I am seeing the Lord here. That is the glory of the Lord – the Lord’s Divine Truth. And it can be almost frightening, because it is so intense, so brilliant, and so much bigger than our own idea of the truth.
But the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” And he said, “Behold, I bring unto you good tidings of a great joy that will be to all the people.” Great joy that would be to all the people. This was the “good news,” or the gospel: that there would be great joy to all the people. Literally, all the people here could be taken to mean all the people of Israel; but a people in the internal sense represents those who are willing to receive the truth of the Lord, and so this is a promise of great joy to all those who receive the Lord’s truth. This is the Lord’s ultimate purpose in everything: we can talk about goodness and truth, we can talk about sin and evil, but the purpose of dealing with all those things is so that the Lord can join us to himself, and bless us to eternity in heaven – to give us great joy.
And the angel told the shepherds that this would be a sign: they would find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Those swaddling clothes represent those first, most basic truths – the truths of innocence, of trusting the Lord and following Him. These would be the first truths those shepherds were able to grasp. He would be lying in a manger, a feeding trough for horses. A horse represents a person’s understanding – and so the Lord’s lying in a manger represents instruction from the Lord’s words. Visiting the Lord in the manger represented the way that He would instruct those who wanted to be instructed with truths from His own Word.
But most importantly was that this was a newborn infant, a human being. The people of the most ancient church were able to have a direct perception of the Lord, but since that time, people had had a cloudy image of who He was. By coming as a human being – and throughout the process of His life, making that Human Divine – the Lord could enlighten even people who were not able to think about the most natural level. He could save even them.
So these shepherds, who represent people who want to be good but don’t know how, were given hope of a Saviour. But still, the remnant was only with a few – and maybe these shepherds still felt alone. But suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, glorifying and praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Just as in the story of Elisha and his servant, when they saw that the Lord’s army vastly outnumbered the enemy army, the shepherds saw that they were not alone at all – that all the army of heaven was rejoicing at this birth. And this was not an army that sought out war; instead, they declared, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”
So the shepherds had heard this good news – but they wanted to see it for themselves. So the journeyed to where the Lord was, and saw the baby lying in a manger, just as the angel had said. That manger, as a feeding trough, represents the Lord’s Word, through which the Lord feeds our mind just as the food in a manger feeds a horse. And they made it known abroad – they went throughout the land to spread the good news – and they returned, “glorifying and praising God.”
So we see that these natural shepherds – who because they are simple, unlearned people, are humble enough to accept the Lord – we see them acting as spiritual shepherds, declaring the Lord’s glory, declaring the good news of the great joy that would be to all the people. In the same way, the Lord later called simple fishermen to be His disciples, saying that they would become “fishers of men” – that is, that they would teach truth. The shepherds didn’t have a deep, complex understanding of the Lord’s glorification, or the different levels of the Lord’s Divinity and His Humanity – but they knew enough: that He would redeem the world, that He would make it possible for people to be saved, and that He was the Lord. They had that innocent desire to follow Him as the good shepherd.
And here we come to our place in the story. At His birth, the Lord came to establish a new church that would worship Him as the one human God. But along the way, that church lost its focus. Kings and emperors began to use it as a justification for their own power. They split God into three, and they lost the focus on love to the Lord and to the neighbour as the two primary things of worship. And so, the Lord came again, but this time not in person. He came in a revelation of Himself within the internal sense of the Word. And in that, He helps us to see not only His body, but the deeper levels of His mind. And He again has showed us what He showed those shepherds: that He is both human and Divine, and that because of this, He can be present with us. And He comes to us as the glory in the clouds, the internal sense within the literal sense of the Word. He comes when we seek for Him in His Word – when we see everything in His Word as an expression of His love and His wisdom, and as instruction for how to bring those into life.
He defeated the power of hell, and can now keep it in check to eternity. But to receive that, we have to have the attitude of those shepherds. If we think we know everything, the Lord cannot come in. If we think that we can save ourselves, the Lord cannot come in. The world was dark at the Lord’s second coming, and we still see a lot of darkness in the world. Like the shepherds, we can fight in this darkness to protect the sheep, to protect what is good and innocent in this world. And if we continue to come to the Lord with humility, we can see the Divine Human – we can see the Lord in the pages of His Word just as the shepherds saw the infant Jesus in the manger. And we can behold the glory of the Lord. It doesn’t happen often, but from time to time we can catch a glimpse of that intense truth – truth that all has to do with love. That glory is the internal sense of the Word, seen within the cloud of the literal sense.
And we do not need to be great scholars to see that glory. Sometimes we can get lost in the intricacies of trying to understand exactly how the Lord glorified His humanity, trying to explain logically why it’s important that He is Human and Divine. It is useful to try to understand these things – but it is much more important to simply come and see. It can never be fully explained even to the comprehension of the highest angels what a difference it makes to worship Jesus as God. But if you innocently trust His Word and just do it, to try as much as you can to worship Him as God, you can experience a difference that is difficult to describe – as long as you are at the same time trying to glorify Him in your life by living in charity toward the neighbour. Simple shepherds saw more clearly than the greatest scholars why the Lord’s presence as an infant would bring great joy to the world. And like the shepherds, when we see the Lord, we can glorify Him. This is not just about singing His praises, but also about living by what He teaches – being a living expression of His love. The Lord said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” When we live in obedience to the Lord’s Word, we glorify our Heavenly Father, and we contribute to true peace and true love in this world. As the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Amen.