Scripture Reading • Luke 2.1-20 (NIV)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch 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 terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
In between finishing college and starting seminary I played bass guitar in a band with my brother and some friends. We practiced all the time and played as many concerts as we could find. Back then there weren’t all that many places to play live music in Colorado Springs … It was actually kind of weird … we played for church youth groups in Colorado Springs and we played at really sad and worn out bars in Denver. (I’m not sure we were the right for either audience!)
We wound up playing at a church in Colorado Springs a couple of times.
It was an interesting place. The church bought their building from an old bank … it had this strange-fluorescent-lights-corporate-worn-out-vibe. Before one of those concerts we talked with one of the leaders of the church. He wanted to make sure we shared the good news of Jesus, and said he wanted someone from the band to give some sort of altar call … he told us one of the recent successes of their ministry was a guy who had started coming to their church was really starting to clean up his act … he had just gotten a respectable haircut and was starting to wear jeans without holes in them.
He shared more about what was happening in the church and this sinking feeling came over us.
It was like he wasn’t paying attention to who he was talking to … It was a strange moment.
We were trying to be rock stars and we looked like it. We had long hair. We wore ragged clothes.
To that guy, we must looked more like people who needed to hear the good news than like people who should be sharing good news. They asked us to come and share the gospel through music and it didnʼt really seem like we fit their definitions of people who had heard and responded to the good news of Christ.
It felt like their good news was just a different set of rules … or good advice on how to be more presentable.
The good news of great joy those Christmas angels shared with those shepherds is more earth-shaking and heart-shaping than that.
It’s not new rules.
It’s not helpful advice.
NT Wright, a pastor and Bible scholar, writes:
In many churches, the good news has subtly changed into good advice: Here’s how to live, they say. Here’s how to pray. Here are techniques for helping you become a better Christian, a better person, a better wife or husband … The whole point of advice is to make you do something to get a desired result. Now, there’s nothing wrong with good advice. We all need it. But it isn’t the same thing as news. News is an announcement that something significant has happened. And good news is what Jesus and his first followers were all about (N.T. Wright, “Simply Good News,” pp. 4-5).
The message those shepherds received from an angel that night while they worked in their fields, keeping watch over their flocks, was not advice … it wasn’t suggestions or methods for living a better life … it wasn’t a new and updated set of rules.
Because of what God was doing in Jesus, that baby born in Bethlehem, wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger … the world would never be the same.
God was up to something big and from that moment on, the world would be profoundly different.
That was the good news.
God was sending the one who would fully and forever establish God’s kingdom of peace and righteous … love and joy. The one, the prophets had long hoped for … the one who would live and embody God’s purposes … the one who would surprise and shock everyone by giving himself to the world … dying on a cross … and who would, three days later, rise again. Something had happened … God was up to something big.
It was “good news that would cause great joy for all people.”
A few years ago, I got to be friends with Curtis, a missionary who was serving people in hard-times communities in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. My friend told me about changes he was seeing in people’s lives. He started to tell me about a high school kid who had really long hair that always covered his face … I anticipated that the story was moving toward the kid getting a haircut … I thought of that church in Colorado Springs … and I got kind of sad.
But the story surprised me.
Curtis’ story didn’t go where I expected … he said the kid had long hair that covered his face because he wanted to hide from everyone. He felt like he wasn’t good enough … like an outcast … he wanted to disappear.
Somehow that kid got connected with a church where he experienced the good news … the good news that something amazing had happened … the good news that God had become one of us … the Word took on skin and bones in Jesus Christ to show how incredibly valuable and worthwhile we are to God. The good news shook him. After that, the kid didn’t feel like he needed to hide any more … he didn’t want to disappear … he experienced the good news and his life, his relationship with God, his orientation to the world … his connection with his community … his understanding of himself was different. He was God’s beloved and he didn’t have to hide from anyone.
Tonight we celebrate in awe and wonder the good news … not good suggestions … not good advice … we celebrate the good news those Christmas angels first proclaimed to those shepherds … “Do not be afraid … I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Something has happened … and the world … and we won’t ever be the same.