News, Great Joy, A Saviour who is Christ the Lord
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.
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.
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.
’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
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.
-- 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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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:
The herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn king’.
on earth, and mercy mild; God
and sinners reconciled.
listen to another stanza:
he lays his glory by, Born that man no more should die;
to raise the sons of earth, Born
to give them second birth.
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.
-- 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.
-- 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.
things were different. In
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
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
’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.
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
Not so long ago I was asked to deliver a
guest-lecture at the
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,
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.