I did not mean it as criticism, but I once said to a young pastor, “Good sermon. I enjoyed it. But there’s just one thing.” He perked up, knew something was coming, and said, “Yes?”
I said, “You gave us the prescription before you had finished the diagnosis.” I paused to let that sink in, then said, “Everyone enjoys your preaching. You have great presence and a good style. So this is about the sermon itself and not you.”
“The audience is not prepared for the good news of the Gospel until you tell them what the bad news is.”
He got it, and nothing more was needed.
Of all the Christmas Scriptures, my favorite is the line the head angel uttered to the shepherds while mid-air above the Bethlehem meadow: “I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people….” (Luke 2:10)
You and I know about news. We have 24-hour news radio and television stations. The “news” paper arrives in our front yards every morning.
For an occurrence to make the news, it must meet three qualifications: it must be real (it’s true), recent (it didn’t happen last year), and relevant (it has some meaning to the hearers).
Real, recent, relevant. It happened, it just happened or we just found out about it, and it impacts us.
The remarkable thing about the news the angel uttered that night is that it’s still news. It’s still true, it’s always brand-new, and it affects every aspect of our lives. News that goes on being news is in a class by itself.
When the angel said “good news,” he (or she or it) was using a form of the word which we translate “Gospel.” Good news is so welcome in our age because there’s so much of the bad kind. As I write, workers have been searching for the lost hikers on Mount Hood, and have just located one of them frozen to death. Each night’s news brings reports of more American soldiers being killed in Iraq and more strife in a dozen of the world’s hot spots. Political in-fighting. Diseases out of control. Terrorism alerts. Crime, corruption.
It’s worth remembering that good news is only good because it addresses bad news.
At the exact moment the angel was making his announcement to the shepherds, the bad news was that people were sitting in darkness (Isaiah 9:2). Jesus was the Light. They were lost; He was the Savior. They were dead; He is Life.
Two years ago, the doctor said to me, “We’ll be doing surgery on your tongue. Then, we’ll follow that with 30 treatments of radiation.” Now, I could have said, “I don’t think so. Why in the world would I want to undergo such a scary thing?” He would have answered, “Because you have cancer, and it’s a killer.” Oh, well, that’s different.
“Your cancer is gone and we find no evidence you have any anywhere else.” That statement of good news, uttered a few weeks later, only had meaning because until then the bad news was taking over my life.
A phone call today brought disturbing news. The husband is leaving his wife and children for his girl friend, a co-worker who has already abandoned her family. The man said to the wife, “I’m torn between my own happiness and my love for my children.”
Aside from the warped concept of life’s purpose this young man is voicing–that his happiness is what life is all about–he’s doing one of the most disastrous things I can think of: following his heart.
Now, I’m a citizen of the United States of America and in many ways a product of its culture. I know that “follow your heart” is a truism preached by a hundred talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists, by movies and novels and television shows.
The only problem is it’s the surest route I know to disaster.
Friend, your heart is messed up. It is unreliable and it’s a liar. It’s deceitful, wishy-washy, and undependable. It’s screwed up, twisted, and warped. We could go on and on.
Now, that’s the truth, but it’s not news. Five hundred years before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah put it like this: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick–who can understand it?” (17:9)
Here’s a guide who is tricky and a liar and very sick. And you’re thinking of following him? I don’t think so! And yet, that’s the situation when you “follow your heart.”
The good news is that the Lord can create within you a new heart, a clean one, one that wants what He wants. (See Psalm 51 and II Corinthians 5:17 for starters.) But there’s something else you need to know…
Even after the Lord does His work of grace within you, forgiving your sin and giving you a new heart, even then you don’t want to start “following your heart.” It will forever be prone to caving in to the emotions and going after what “feels” correct. That’s why the Father has given us three great–I mean, great, great!–helps for living this life, forces that take our decision making out of the realm of following your heart and make it sure-footed and reliable.
Number one: God has given us the Holy Spirit to indwell us. Number two: We have the Holy Bible to inform us. Number three: We are members of the congregation of believers, the Church, here to intercede with us.
There’s good news for people who have chosen to follow their hearts and have gotten themselves lost. Jesus Christ came “to seek and to save those who were lost.” (Matthew 18:11)
The only people who appreciate that are those who admit that they are lost.
I guarantee you the survivors on Mount Hood–if indeed there are any–want nothing in all the world more than to be rescued. To be saved.
Bring news to their families that they have been found alive and are being brought down off the mountain and this will be the greatest Christmas those folks will ever experience.
Good news has a way of changing everything.
“I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all the people. For unto you is born this day, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
Joy to the world. The Lord is come.