Luke 2:1-21

It’s a beautiful and encouraging thing, isn’t it, that the first ones to receive the good news of Jesus’ birth were, well, so normal, humble even.

“And . . . there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared . . . [and] said to them, ". . . I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.”

These were just good men doing their good work, sheep herders in this case, normal folk doing their normal jobs, when the angel came. The angel didn’t come to the priests or the prophets to make this announcement; not to the holy ones and not to the ones who thought they were holy. The angel didn’t come to the palace and didn’t come to the halls of power to make the greatest announcement ever proclaimed. The angel came to regular people, who were simply doing their regular jobs, as they regularly would.

All of us here have jobs, even if we’re not paid for them or even if we are unemployed. All of us have work to do and we seek to do our regular work, whatever it is, well, as unto God. And sometimes that work might seem as tedious as sitting in the field in the middle of the dark, looking over things you cannot see and with no voices stirring in the night.

But here’s the first piece of good news from the story of good news . . . God has, he can, and he does break into our normalcy, and bring us messages that fill us with hope and joy and blessings for others. There is never a time when God cannot speak, even at the office or at home or while we’re driving. In fact, God seems often to prefer to speak when we least expect him to, like a burning bush in the middle of the sand. Moses was early in the long line of shepherds—regular folk doing their regular thing that got anything but a regular message from God when they weren’t even listening!

This message was “good news,” in the Greek language, euangellion. In Greek, eu means “good” and angellios, from which we get the word angel, means “message.” I love that here, that the angel brings the good message, the angelios brings the euangellion. Sometimes euangellion is translated as “good news.” At other times, it is translated as “glad tidings,” or “joyful message,” or, very simply “gospel.”

That’s the message that the messenger brought—good news of great joy that would be for all people, not just for the people who were accustomed to getting good news, but especially for those who weren’t.

This news was not a new idea. It was not a new insight or a new philosophy. No, this news was about a person, a little person, a baby, Jesus, Son of Mary and Joseph, Son of God, God himself come to earth in skin just like our own.

The angel said:

“For unto you [regular people] is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”. . . a redeemer who is the Messiah of Yahweh, a man who is Jesus of God.

The good news was about one who had come and what he would do. And he would do an awful lot. Jesus spent much time during his days not only being the good news, but telling this good news, and then doing this good news—forgiving people, healing people, loving people, suffering for people, dying for people. Jesus was the gospel and he brought the gospel and did the gospel.

Jesus meant and would mean so much that, in fact, the word “gospel” or the message of “good news” is hard to sum up in just one sentence. It would be like trying to describe the point of Victor Hugo’s 1,500 page novel Les Miserables in a phrase. Well, yeah, you could do it, but you would miss an awful lot.

Tim Keller writes:

“The gospel has been described as a pool in which a toddler can wade and yet an elephant can swim. It is both simple enough to tell to a child and profound enough for the greatest minds to explore.”

This magnificent breadth of God’s good news, this deep pool that an elephant can swim in, is hinted at when we look at the entire New Testament. The word euangellion comes up about 115 times in various forms like simply good news or gospel or Jesus’s preferred usage when he was always talking about the “‘gospel of the kingdom.’”

Tim Keller takes a shot at trying to distill what the gospel is in one sentence. How do you boil the ocean? Well this is his attempt:

“Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.”

Jesus does all this and even more, and this is good news for us indeed, if any of these things apply. If you feel far from God, or you feel like God is out there somewhere but certainly not near you, Jesus is good news. If you’ve got sin in your life, and you know it, and we all do and we all know it, Jesus is really good news. If you need forgiveness, and we all do, Jesus is good news. John Stott writes:

“The Gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales.”

If you’re anxious about anything, or if you have any hardship in your life, and we all do, Jesus is good news. A lot of people are afraid of death. Maybe you heard Larry King a couple of weeks ago at a televised dinner party, where he flat out said, and I quote, “Oh, I fear death . . . My biggest fear is death.” Well, because of Jesus, we do not have to fear death—we can know where we’re going. Jesus is good news.

If you so desperately desire the world to work as it should work, Jesus is good news. If you hope that the world that you love now will somehow be yours to enjoy forever, then Jesus is good news. If you want to live forever, Jesus is good news. If you want to live forever in a body, Jesus is really good news. If you want to see those again who have died in God, Jesus is really good news. If you’re sick or your body is breaking down, Jesus is good news.

Jesus IS the gospel. The gospel, friends, is not first a set of ideas, but a person, and his whole story is included in this good news. It’s interesting that when Paul, who uses the word euangellion more than anyone else in the New Testament by far, wants to be as simple and clear as he can about what the gospel is in 1 Corinthians 15, he tells a story about Jesus—that Jesus came, that he died, that he rose again, and that he started appearing to people, including Paul.

Rachel is a good friend of mine from seminary. She had done her undergraduate work at Grove City College, a Presbyterian school in Pennsylvania. When Rachel went to Grove City College, she was an atheist.  She went to Grove City with the specific purpose of converting Christians to atheism!

One day she was walking across campus, and she was particularly angry and frustrated that day, and it started to rain. So she ducked into an open chapel to just get out of the rain and wait it out.  She sat inside in a quiet stairway, all alone, when all of a sudden, Jesus himself showed up to her visibly. She saw him, and he said to her, “Rachel, you will be a theologian of my church.” That was her conversion! That’s why I met her in seminary. She went on to get a PhD and she did indeed teach, and now she’s pastoring in, of all things, a Presbyterian church.

Jesus was really good news for Rachel. And he is really good news for us.

When the angels announced good news to the shepherds, they pointed to a person. Before the gospel is a truth to be understood, before the gospel is a claim to be defended, before it is a truth to be asserted and fought for, the gospel is good news about a person—a person to be encountered, a person to relate to, a person to fall in love with and a person to be desperately loved by.

Friends, I want to suggest that as you read the Bible in the next few weeks, every time you bump across the word “gospel,” just replace it with words that are as accurate. Just insert “good news” and see if it reads differently to you. It will. It will take so much about the gospel that we approach with our head, it’ll just take that away and it’ll put it in our heart.

But more than that, in this week leading into Christmas, let’s all together endeavor to approach Jesus as a person, not as an idea. So let’s spend more time believing in him than questioning him. Let’s spend more time praying to him than reading about him. Let’s spend more time singing to him than singing about him. And let’s spend more talking to him rather than thinking about him.

Maybe he wants to get specific to you on how he’s your good news. And maybe he’ll talk back to you in a new way, when you least expect it.

And what about those shepherds, who got the good news while doing their good work, what did they do?

Well, they went back to work, different, and worshipping.  “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” (Luke 2.20)  May we as well, when the holidays are over and we go back to work, paid or unpaid, return different for being given the good news too.

The Rev. Bill Haley is the Associate Rector at  The Falls Church and Director of Formation at  The Washington Institute.

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