Justo González observes that North Americans tend to think of the family in terms of the nuclear family, while historically more traditional cultures (such as his own) have thought more broadly. He says: “During most of human history, the ‘normal’ family has been the extended family.” He shows that much is lost relationally, psychologically, economically, and, yes, spiritually when we thin down family to biological ties, when we forget that we are “no longer strangers and aliens but are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). When we shrink the family, we lose mentors and drain our material resources and more easily forget our heritage.
Similarly, we can lose much when we shrink the range of voices to whom we listen as consumers of news, of analysis, and of educational materials. We may talk sometimes of selectivity bias, the tendency to listen to those with whom we agree. Right or left. Boomers or millennials. The 1% or the 99%. We can tend to aggregate and, frankly, to segregate our attention spans. Algorithms online nudge in this direction constantly. And sociologists and theologians alike will point out that we’re the worse off for living in echo chambers. We aren’t challenged at our weak points, and we aren’t incentivized to explore where we might grow or be corrected. Shrinking our sources can also limit us.
Luke 2:8-20 signals our need to lean against an even larger selectivity bias. We are not left merely to listen to songs from saints on earth, but here God send us witnesses heralding the gospel from heaven on high. Others will sing of God’s grace and faithfulness and might, and we do well to join in song with Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. But nothing so stuns us with the almighty power of the gospel like hearing it sung by heavenly hosts. The very thought of angels singing to shepherds probably strikes many of us as fantastic. Yet this story and their song is one of God’s good gifts to us, a pinprick to alert us to our need for help from beyond: from beyond our own wisdom, beyond our own resources, and beyond our own justice. So it is no small thing that the gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that heaven itself has come down.
“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” –as we prepare to receive the gift of Jesus Christ, let’s be reminded by their song that he has come from the far country of heaven to bring God’s peace on earth.