Many years ago I attended a Christmas concert that included, among other excellent things, a haunting arrangement in Latin of a song that began with a triumphant "Gloria in excelsis Deo" -- and then, at a precise moment, the chorus became somber, minor-key, haunting and a thin voice sang "et in terra pax hominibus." The announcement of the angel stands counterpoint to our daily reality: There is little peace on earth, and one wonders who those humans are on whom God's favor rests.
The angel has appeared to Zechariah and to Mary, and each has heard the admonition not to be afraid. Now, for the first time in Luke (and a rarity in all of scripture) the angel appears before multiple people, and then is joined by "a multitude of the heavenly host." It seems that the announcements are changing in character as well as in breadth. This time instead of announcing what will happen, the angels come to proclaim what has happened. "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
The shepherds are an unlikely audience for such an announcement -- low on the social hierarchy, tied to their ignominious work, ritually unclean -- but as we should expect by now, God chooses that which is unlikely, even disgraced, and they respond in trust and obedience. "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." It is likely lambing season, else the sheep would be in the fold overnight, not in the hills. Do all the shepherds come, or do they leave some to tend the birthing ewes? The Old Testament is full of shepherd imagery, from David himself to many passages within the prophets (e.g., see Ezekiel 34). For a number of reasons, God has a special tenderness for sheep and shepherds.
These days if you visit Bethlehem its dominating feature is a massive wall that nearly encircles the city. It's a wall of self-protection, dividing the Palestinian West Bank (including Bethlehem proper) from Israel, out of concern that bombers and terrorists and knife-wielding attackers will attack the Jewish state and its people. These fears are not without cause. But there can be little better example of how desperately we need a Savior, how we need to be reconciled to God and to one another, how the walls of enmity and hostility need to be broken down, how the spiritual powers of hate and alienation need to be defeated in and for us. All of that language is found in Paul's explanations of what happened at the cross when this swaddled infant was crucified thirty-some years later.
So the announcement of the angels is not a wistful longing that there should be peace, but rather a confident proclamation that the plan of God to deal with human sin, to heal the brokenness of his creation, has been put into play. This is not a tender nativity scene as much as it is the opening invasion in a war; less a Christmas concert than it is the bloody landings at Omaha beach.
Et in terra pax hominibus. Truth is, the angels tell us, this is all of us. We are the ones God loves, the ones with whom God is pleased, and he invites us to join the chorus and proclaim his radical, healing love to all the broken of creation, not based on a beautiful Christmas story but based on the radical self-giving love of God who will not stop until it has taken our brokenness into himself.