But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
I invite you to turn your attention to the screen; this “First Christmas” video offers us an imaginative rendering of the reflections of one of the shepherds.)
(First Christmas: Shepherd video)
I have good news for you! Do you get those automated phone calls that begins with a cheery, excited exclamation, “Congratulations?” And then proceeds to announce that you have been chosen to receive some great prize that is said to be free. I wonder if we hear the Angel announcement of “good news of great joy” in the same sort of way we do those automated calls of congratulations. We are suspicious. Is it really for me? Automation feels so impersonal. Reports that shepherds, of all people, had heard some good news “for all the people” seems like the automated call—looking for those who will take the bait.
But there is something that tweaks in our hearts nonetheless. When we first answer the phone and hear the cheerful voice, “Congratulations, you have won,” it is like a switch that throws a light on. The constellation of words—congratulations, you, winner—ignites the imagination and for a brief second or two flashes that image of yourself on the set of some game show with streamers falling all around with music playing and people cheering. But the actuality of life quickly shocks you awake from the dream. It’s an automated call—a lot of phone numbers got dialed before mine and a lot more will follow after I hang up.
“I am bringing you good news of great joy,” said the angel. Is it? Is it, really? Oh, we want it to be. On Christmas Eve sitting in the warmth of a beautiful church, brightly decorated for the season, next to family and friends, surrounded by the delightful sound of much-loved carols, the joy of the story of Jesus born, anticipating what Christmas day will bring—the switch in our hearts turns on that light of hope and we sense it is good news. But the actualities of life will soon envelop us. A tenuous employment relationship, a business deal that has soured, the financial challenge that right now ends will not meet, a marriage that is going sideways and about to topple over, the disease that cannot be cured, the emptiness that follows tragic loss, the frailties of mind and body that are robbing us of life, deeply seeded feelings of inadequacy—these and many others seem to burst the dream of this night. Is this really good news? Is this good news really for me?
The gospels—these four books of the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus’s life , death, and resurrection—assert that Jesus is God’s autobiography, in a way of speaking. Jesus is God come among us. At bottom of the assertion that this is good news for you and me is that God is good and in coming to us he wants good for us. There are a myriad of accounts that we humans give for the hope destroying stuff of life; the Bible asserts that this is a good world in which something has gone terribly wrong. Humankind’s rebellion against God has had devastating consequences and at the heart of that rebellion is our denial of the goodness of God.
And so when God comes with good news he has to predicate that with “fear not.” We think God is coming to destroy; projecting our own images on to God we distrust because we think, if God knows what I did God would reject that person because that is what I would do. Or we think we are doing fine with nothing that a minor adjustment here or there would easily solve—I am capable of making my own good news for my life.
The story in scripture from cover to cover is the story of God’s reaffirmation of his holiness in the wake of our denial of it and the re-establishing of our holiness in the wake of our contradiction of it. Holiness includes goodness; you could also say that scripture’s story is the story of God’s reaffirmation of his goodness in the wake of our denial of it and the re-establishing of our goodness in the wake of our contradiction of it. And that story of reaffirmation of God’s goodness is reaching its climax at the manger in Bethlehem for in Jesus we see who God really is and what he is really like. He is one who will go to hell and back for our sakes to free us from the power and penalty of our rebellion.
The shepherds had to decide—did they believe that God wanted good for them. Will they go to Bethlehem to see for themselves? Every day in our newspapers and other news agencies you read what some editorial team thinks are the important stories of this world. Is the story of this world only the one told by our news media or our history books? Or is there another realm, another source of good news, another history, which tells the truth about this world and our place in it? We are invited, with the shepherds, to come to Bethlehem and see for ourselves.
Do we believe that God wants good for us? We have much sad news in our world that makes us wary. If God is good and wants good why did he let things get so messy? We could ask the same question of ourselves as humans—if we know the good to do why do we let things get so messy? God’s love for us is shown in that he comes into this mess with us as one of us. The announcement of Bethlehem is that God is good and wants good for us—good news indeed! In Jesus we see what God is really like—God so loved the world he gave his only son.
In the sermons Christmas I have taken as a theme Christmas decorating—that is, the Christmas furnishings of our minds and hearts. Tonight I invite you to hang the “good news” banner..
Do you believe that God is good and wants good for you? I take it that by being here tonight your answer is, in some measure, yes. Countless believers throughout history and today bear witness that relationship with Jesus has sustained them throughout the many trials and troubles of life; they affirm with the Psalmist that it’s true—“taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) Friends, faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. Faith continues in that rhythm throughout our lives. Tonight we are summoned to Bethlehem to see this one born into the world; this good news of great joy. Of course, for those whose faith began a long time ago we find ourselves joyful to once again take the journey with the Shepherds. To see the child born who is our Saviour.
But the angel said to them (and us), “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” May the great joy of this good news flood your hearts this Christmas and always.