Good News of Great Joy
The angel who appears to those shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem the night of Jesus’s birth tell them he is bringing “good news of great joy.” Most of us here tonight are pretty sure we know what the content of that joyous good news is. Even those who aren’t sure they really believe it, who are only here to make Grandma happy and are hoping just to get out unscathed—even they know what the good news is supposed to be. Jesus came to die to save us from our sins … the end. But that news doesn’t seem particularly relevant or fresh, and it certainly doesn’t produce much in the way of joy. For some, this service is a test of endurance, not an occasion for rejoicing.
Even those of us who do believe the good news sometimes find ourselves wondering what’s so good about it, and thinking that it sounds a little stale after all the repetition. If Jesus died to save us from our sins, why do we still sin so much? Why is there still war, racism, hunger, addiction, crime, disease, and so on? Instead of good news of great joy, it often feels as if we’ve got secondhand news of mediocre ho-hum.
Well, I still think it’s good news. In fact, I think it is still the best news the world has ever heard. But you may be surprised when I tell you why I believe it’s good news, and what I think it means.
The good news the angel announces to those terrified shepherds has everything to do with the underweight baby born to the anxious and impoverished teenage parents from Galilee—the one who keeps waking up and squalling because the straw in the manger is so scratchy. It has everything to do with this child who is born in a borrowed cattle shed, who will be a refugee before the age of three, and who as a man will have no place to lay his head. As Rich Mullins points out, “The hope of the whole world rests / on the shoulders of a homeless man. / You had the shoulders of a homeless man.”
But the good news also has a great deal to do with another figure named in this story—a man at the opposite end of the spectrum from this poor infant in almost every imaginable way. This figure cannot really be called a character in this or any other story in the New Testament gospels, but his shadow looms large over everything Jesus says and does and suffers. Let me take you back to verse 1 of the second chapter of Luke to introduce you to this influential, though absent, figure. I’m talking, of course, about Caesar Augustus.
Luke writes, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (v. 1) … in order to make squeezing taxes and tribute from the people easier and more efficient. The good news comes to these shepherds because a guy in Italy told the kid’s father to go to Bethlehem to sign up so he could pay more taxes.
To understand the significance of Jesus’s birth and why the angels describe it as good news of great joy, consider some of the exalted titles Augustus takes on after he becomes emperor. He is hailed as Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the World, Son of God, and God Incarnate. Do any of those sound familiar? These are some of the titles we give to Jesus, but Augustus has them first.
After his death, Julius Caesar is declared divine by the Roman Senate. As Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus becomes the son of a god. Later in his reign, people begin to worship him not only as the son of the divine Caesar, but also as a god in his own right: God Incarnate. Because his military victories bring an end to the civil wars, he is hailed as a redeemer, a liberator, and the savior of the (Roman) world.
These titles acknowledge Augustus’s great power. He is the absolute ruler of his empire; his word is law. And his word is backed by the Roman legions, the most formidable fighting force in the ancient world. He has brought peace—the celebrated Pax Romana—but it is a peace achieved by military victory and maintained at the point of a sword. Augustus rules over the greatest empire in history, and those who benefit from his rule have good reason to celebrate and even worship this Son of God.
But there are many others—in fact, the vast majority of his subjects—for whom Caesar Augustus’s reign is far from benevolent. They are the defeated, humiliated, oppressed, overtaxed, and mostly impoverished 99% throughout his far-flung empire who try to scrape by and keep themselves and their families alive and in possession of at least a semblance of dignity. People like Joseph and Mary, huddling over that manger, trying to block the wind and keep their fragile child warm. People like these shepherds, shunned and despised by “respectable” society, who consider them ceremonially unclean and most likely also criminals and rogues.
So when the angel appears in that field, the light of God’s glory emanating from him, setting the sheep bleating like mad, no one is more surprised than those rough, hardscrabble shepherds. They are struck dumb not only by the awesome sight of the angel, but also by the idea that anyone, let alone a messenger from God, would go out of his way to tell them anything. They have been kicked around so long they have begun to assume they deserve it. The angel’s message to them is, No, you don’t deserve that. You don’t really deserve God’s grace and love, either, but the good news of great joy is that you’ve got it in spades.
Imagine with me the scene around the manger a little later that night. The shepherds are there, fresh off the astounding experience of seeing thousands of bright angels like the first one, singing a promise of peace on earth and declaring that these ne’er-do-wells, not Caesar and his one-percenter pals, are the recipients of God’s favor. Mary and Joseph are there, exhausted and bewildered, not least by the tale the shepherds tell them when they show up, just as noisy and almost as smelly as the flocks they have left in the field. Mary and Joseph who hold their breath and try to remain calm as these filthy, profane men pass their newborn son around with their callused hands, cradling him awkwardly and cooing at him with touching tenderness and shining eyes. Mary and Joseph and these outcasts, stand-ins for everyone who has got the short end of the stick time and time again, everyone who has ever matriculated in the school of hard knocks.
And Jesus is there, too. He’s the oblivious object of all this noise and furor. He doesn’t know anything yet about his mission or his importance, why angels would hail him and call him Savior. He has no clue why these rough strangers keep jostling him, waking him up, making him cry, forgetting to support his head. He just wants to sleep.
But one day, not too many years from this night, he will feel a stirring within. He will watch as his parents and their neighbors try to keep their heads above water but are continually dragged down by the undertow of debt and injustice. He will see opulent mansions in the nearby city of Sepphoris, and the fat and complacent people who live there, while people he knows in his village of Nazareth bury another child who has died from malnutrition and poor sanitation. He will sit in the synagogue with his abba Joseph and hear the lector read the words of the law and the oracles of the prophets, declaring that God is a God of justice and compassion. And one day he will know.
One day everything he has experienced—all the unfairness, grief, poverty, toil, and suffering—will reach a boiling point. He will grow tired of hearing people say—of saying himself, maybe—that somebody should do something about all this, and he will decide to do it. But he will not fight the powers of the world with their own weapons. He will choose peacemaking over violence, community over alienation, love over hate. He will take on the religious authorities, challenging them to value people over rules. He will take on the rich, challenging them to let go of their greed and learn to share, which is the same thing as learning to love; the same thing as learning to be human. He will take on the warmakers, teaching and challenging his followers to find creative ways to neutralize their violence without resorting to violence themselves. In all of this, he will be taking on Rome and everything it stands for. He will defy Caesar Augustus and render judgment against his manner of exercising power.
And somewhere along the line, he will know. It will dawn on him that he is the Son of God. He is the Liberator, the Redeemer, the Savior of the World. And 2,021 years after his birth, give or take, it will be the frail child born in a barn to parents without two shekels to rub together, not the mighty ruler of the world Augustus, whom people in every nation on earth gather on this night to honor. To come and adore him.
We all come to the manger with mixed motives, with high ideals and dirty hands. You may have come here tonight out of true devotion or idle curiosity or a sense of religious obligation, or even under duress and in protest. I don’t care. More importantly, God doesn’t care. God cares not about how or why you came to this place, but how you will leave. Will you go from here unchanged, unmoved, still cynical or resentful or bored? Or will you leave rejoicing because you know you are loved beyond all reason and measure, and that all your wrongs have been forgiven? Will you leave emboldened by your encounter with the living God for whom love and justice are two sides of the same coin? Will you leave inspired to walk in the way of Jesus, in the grace of God, and in the certainty that the ugliness and death and suffering of the world are not the last word, but that love will always win in the end? Will you leave knowing that God loves this world and aches for all of us to come to our senses and realize it—to stop fighting and start sharing? Will you leave here with the conviction that you are a person of great value and that you—yes, you—have an indispensable role to play in God’s vision for the world?
If any of that happens, I would call that good news of great joy.