Good News, Great Joy

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Good News, Great Joy, A Saviour who is Christ the Lord

Luke 2:10-11

The world is always looking both for good news and for great joy.  The world also knows that there won’t be great joy unless there’s first good news.  Everyone wants good news.  Everyone is aware that newscasts are 90% bad news.  “All we ever hear on TV or radio is bad news” people complain.  “Why can’t we hear good news for a change?”

   The answer isn’t hard to find.  We live in a fallen world.  The “prince” of this world, says Jesus (not king, to be sure, but certainly prince) is characteristically a liar and a killer.  Omnipresent evil means that lethal falsification riddles everything.  Sophistic savagery is always ready-to-hand.  It’s no wonder that newscasts announce troubles of every sort in every place.  Nevertheless, we long to hear good news.

   But we don’t want “good news” that’s make-believe.  We want good news that’s good because true.  There can be such good news only if in the midst of evil and evil-quickened conflict there is the profounder reality of God’s definitive incursion into human affairs.  There can be good news only if he who is prince of this world is bested by the one who is king.

   Christmas is this good news.  Christmas isn’t wishful thinking or sentimental froth or saccharine make-believe.  Christmas is that good news which is true, real, profound; good news good enough to engender great joy – and all of this just because there has been born to us a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.

 

“Christ” the Lord?  What does “Christ” mean?  The child whose coming among us we celebrate in Advent isn’t named Jesus Christ in the way that I am Victor Shepherd.  “Christ” isn’t his family name.  It’s a description.  It means “anointed”.  Our Lord is the anointed one, anointed by his Father for our blessing.

   Throughout Israel ’s history three figures were anointed: priests, prophets, kings.  When we are told that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, we know that he gathers up in himself what priests and prophets and kings embodied, as well as that to which they pointed as they too looked for the coming one.

   Since we have good news and great joy only because of the anointed one, Christ, we must probe what it means to say that in him priests and prophets and kings find their fulfilment.

 

I: -- Let’s begin with the priests.  Priests ministered in the temple, where sacrifices were offered daily.  The sacrifices were the core of worship inasmuch as sincere worshippers knew themselves to be sinners.  They knew that defiled sinners had no right to approach the holy God.  They knew that defiled sinners couldn’t survive approaching the holy God.  The temple sacrifices were the God-appointed means whereby people who could claim nothing and merited nothing except God’s judgement could nonetheless find a Father who cherished them and a Forgiver who pardoned them – and all of this without in any way compromising his holiness or denying their unrighteousness.  The sacrifices in the temple gave people access to God precisely where they knew their sin otherwise barred them from him.

   Today, of course, we are fastidious people.  We are careful to use deodorant, perfume, shaving lotion, cologne, air-wick.  Today we should find the temple scene repulsive.  Think of the sounds that animals make when they know their end is upon them; the smells they make.  Think of the priest gathering a basinful of blood and throwing it over the steps surrounding the altar.

Alas, I fear we are too fastidious.  We are shallow in our self-understanding: either we don’t think ourselves to be sinners at all or we think our sinnership to be trivial.  We are cavalier in our approach to God: of course he’s going to forgive us, since that’s the business he’s in – said Voltaire on our behalf.

   Ancient people knew better.  They knew that sin is lethal. (Exactly what sin kills you and I could list for the next six months.)  They knew that sin breaks God’s heart, provokes God’s anger, and arouses God’s disgust.  And because it does all this, the forgiving of sin is never cheap.  Forgiveness is always and everywhere costly.

   Costly for whom?  The animal brought to the temple was the best the worshipper owned.  It cost a great deal to give up.  And because it was a male animal, invaluable for purposes of breeding and therefore lucrative for the owner as well, when that animal was offered up to God the worshipper knew she had renounced her ticket to superiority of all kinds and was casting herself and her entire future on God.

   What’s more, as the priest sacrificed the animal in the temple the worshipper placed her hand on it as a sign of her personal identification with the life offered up on her behalf.  Sobered now at what her reconciliation to God cost, she surrendered herself anew to him in gratitude and adoration.

   The day came when the woolly lamb in the temple was no longer the sacrifice.  The day came when the curly-haired baby in the manger grew up and offered himself as the Lamb of God.   Plainly he is the sacrifice by which a rebellious world is reconciled to God.  Yet because he has offered himself, he is also the priest who offers up the sacrifice.  As priest he’s the anointed one.      
   Because he’s the anointed one offering himself for our sakes, you and I all humankind have access to God.  We have an access to God we don’t deserve yet which God has fashioned for us in his mercy, thanks to his Son.  While our sin breaks God’s heart and provokes his anger and arouses his disgust, the sacrifice our “great high priest” offers up for us gathers up God’s heartbreak and anger and disgust and defuses it all, thereby allowing any and all who want to go home to go home.

   “Oh, Shepherd”, someone objects; “Why do you get into something this heavy at Christmas?  Why don’t you say something light at Christmas and save the ‘heavy’ for another day?”  As a matter of fact there are several reasons why the Advent sermons should be substantial.

[1] There are usually people in church at this season who won’t hear the gospel announced for months, and they should hear something besides froth.

[2] We always administer Holy Communion in Advent.  The service of Holy Communion graphically depicts our Lord’s sacrifice.  Surely no one is going to tell me that the truth of the cross may be seen in the Lord’s Supper at Christmas but it mustn’t be heard in the sermon at Christmas.

[3] We sing carols at Christmas, and the best hymn on our Lord’s sacrifice happens to be a Christmas carol, “Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing”.  Listen to the words:

Hark!  The herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn king’.

Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled.

Or listen to another stanza:

Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more should die;

Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.

The baby in the manger was born precisely in order that he might become the offering on the cross.  He is the lamb of God, given us by the Father for the reconciliation of any and all who place their hand on the anointed one himself.  Jesus our Lord is sacrifice and priest together.

 

II: -- Not only were priests presiding at sacrifices anointed; prophets were too.  Prophets were those who spoke for God and thereby acquainted their hearers with God.  Prophets teach; as they teach about God, God himself takes over their teaching, as it were; God himself surges over hearers so that hearers are overtaken, then overwhelmed, and finally constrained to confess that God-in-person has addressed them.

   The prophets were aware of much that modernity has forgotten.  For one, the prophets knew that no amount of gazing inside ourselves will ever inform us of the truth of God or acquaint us with the  person of God.  They knew that every last human being is a bundle of contradictions.  Looking inside ourselves, therefore, will only inform us of a bundle of contradictions.  Two, the prophets were aware that no amount of gazing outside ourselves will ever inform us of the truth of God or acquaint us with the person of God.  Looking outside ourselves informs us of what’s “out there”: suffering, grief, propaganda, treachery, waste, and war.

   To be sure, the prophets never denied that self-contradicted people living in a convoluted world could nevertheless do much that is marvellous; they would readily have admitted that we can do, and do superbly well, philosophy, engineering, science, music, poetry, mathematics.  The prophets denied, however, that we can inform ourselves of the truth of God or acquaint ourselves with the person of God.  For this to occur something else is needed; specifically, what’s needed is someone who has faced God, has heard him, and now turns to face us to speak for God. 

   One thing above all else makes the Hebrew prophets “tick”: they have heard God speak.  Having heard God speak, they find themselves constrained to speak on his behalf.  All the Hebrew prophets are aware that they have been admitted to the Besoth Yahweh, the council of God.  They’ve been admitted to the throne-room of the heavenly court.  They aren’t presumptuous, engaging God in casual chit-chat.  In fact once admitted to the throne-room, they don’t speak to God at all.  They describe it all as overhearing; they overhear God talking to himself, as it were.  They listen in, reverently, attentively, while God thinks out loud.  Suddenly God takes notice of the prophets and speaks to them directly.  At this moment the truth of God is stamped upon the prophet; the judgement of God is seared upon the prophet; the mercy of God and faithfulness of God and patience of God are imprinted upon the prophet indelibly. 

   At this point the prophet turns around from facing God in the throne-room and faces the people in the community.  “The Word of God is fire in my mouth”, Jeremiah cries to his people; “I have to let this word out or my mouth will ignite.”  Amos says laconically, “God has spoken.  Who can but prophesy?”

   And so the prophet speaks.  He has stood in the council of God.  For this reason he can speak authentically of God.  As the prophet speaks on God’s behalf, God himself empowers the prophet’s word and renders the prophet’s word a vehicle of God’s self-giving and self-communication.  At this point hearers become aware that they aren’t hearing one man’s religious opinion; they aren’t even merely hearing someone speaking on behalf of God.  At this point they are hearing God himself.

   Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one.  He stands in the tradition of the prophets.  He speaks for God.  Yet as the Incarnate one he speaks for God in a way that no Hebrew prophet could; he speaks conclusively for God just because he is God, Emman-u-el, God-with-us. 

   A prophet to be sure, yet more than a prophet, Jesus Christ speaks for God as God.  Then he is the one we must hear and heed and cling to if we are to know the truth of God and remain fused to the person of God for ever and ever.

III: -- Kings were anointed too.  Kings were anointed to rule.  People today don’t like the sound of “rule”.  It sounds coercive, tyrannical, dictatorial, heavy-handed.  It sounds as if the king has colossal clout while subjects can only cower.  Nobody wants to live under such an arrangement.

   In Israel things were different.  In Israel the first responsibility of the king wasn’t to boss (let alone tyrannize); the first responsibility of the king was to protect the most vulnerable of the people of God.  Vulnerable people might be vulnerable on account of monetary poverty or social oppression or raging disease or military attack from outside the community; they might also be vulnerable on account of treachery from inside the community.  Regardless of the source or nature or occasion of the vulnerability, the king’s first responsibility was always to protect those most at risk.

   Some kings in Israel met their major responsibility.   Most didn’t.  Little-by-little it appeared that the only king who would honour this mandate consistently would be the king who was also shepherd, a shepherd-king.  David was the shepherd-king in Israel ’s history.  David defended the marginalized and vindicated the exploited and protected those at risk for any reason; in addition, in the course of doing all of this David brought glory to his people.  At least David did this more consistently than anyone else.  But even David proved treacherous.

   Little-by-little Israel came to see that God’s people were going to be protected, vindicated, and exalted conclusively only if a shepherd-king appeared who acted with the power of God himself.  Then what was needed most was a shepherd-king – human, to be sure – who was also God Incarnate.  And this is precisely what we were given at Christmas.

   We are the people of God.  We need to be safeguarded.  Since the world is a battleground of all sorts of conflicts, all of which are at bottom manifestations of the primal conflict, spiritual conflict, we are always at risk of becoming a casualty. 

   In military engagements casualties include the wounded, the missing and the slain.  In the assorted struggles in which we find ourselves and must find ourselves we are going to be wounded from time-to-time.  But missing?  How could any of God’s people be missing, unlocatable, when God-Incarnate is their shepherd-king?  And slain?  Wounded as we are from time-to-time, God’s own people can never be wounded fatally.  He who is our king, anointed such from eternity, is also resurrection and life.  Before God we can’t be slain and we can’t go missing.

   We make far too little of this truth, for undeniably events overtake us where we feel we’ve gone missing, and gone missing just because no one seems to miss us.  And events overtake us where we feel ourselves slain, unable to rise, unable to go on.  But in fact we aren’t slain and we can go on.  Our shepherd-king is resurrection and life.

   When I was a young man and diligently reading the psalms because I’d been told I should read them, I used to grow weary of reading about the psalmist’s enemies.  In every third psalm we heard again the trouble his enemies were causing him and how treacherously they had bushwhacked him and how close they had come to vanquishing him.  I began to think the psalmist paranoid.  But I see now that he wasn’t paranoid.  He was simply aware that nobody has life domesticated; nobody has life tamed; nobody has life under control, despite the fact that we’re all control-freaks.  We can find ourselves clobbered on any day, from any quarter, for any reason (or no reason.)  Life remains fragile.

   Not so long ago I was asked to deliver a guest-lecture at the University of Toronto on John Calvin, progenitor of all English-speaking evangelicals.  When I had concluded, the questions came quickly.  The ultra-feminists in the audience tried to paint Calvin as anti-woman.  I fended that off.  The Marxists tried to paint him as uncritical capitalist.  I fended that off.  On and on it went.   Plainly the special interest groups were looking for some way to dismiss him.  Finally someone asked, “What is the lens through which Calvin views life?   Since all of us have a psycho-social determinant, what’s his?” 

   “Calvin was a refugee”, I replied; “and like all refugees Calvin knew that life is precarious, earthly rulers can’t be trusted, betrayal is always at hand; above all, Calvin knew that like refugees we are haunted by an outer and inner homelessness that will be overcome only in the eschaton.”  The room fell silent.  I understood why.  Everyone in the room identified with what I had just said about Calvin the refugee. 

   Because we are finite and fragile, we are physically vulnerable.  Because we are wounded, we are emotionally frayed.  Because we are sinners, we are spiritually “in a far country” and need to get home.

   Who will get us home?  Who will safeguard us on our way home?  Who will ensure that our innermost core, our identity, remains intact?  Only he who is shepherd-king, and effectual shepherd-king just because he is God-with-us, Emmanu-el, shepherd-king-Incarnate.

 

“Be not afraid”, we are told; “there is good news of a great joy, for to you there is born a Saviour who is Christ, the anointed one, effectual priest and prophet and king.”  This one is Lord now, and ever will be.

Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                   Advent 2005