Good Tidings of great Joy
What would be your response if you suddenly had an encounter with one of heaven’s angels? Angels are super beings; they are more powerful and intelligent that we are, but they are not omnipotent and omniscient like God. Therefore, it is only natural for any human being who encounters an angel to be “greatly afraid.”
The shepherds were not the only persons to be “greatly afraid” when they encountered one of God’s heavenly messengers. Both Zechariah, the Father of John the Baptizer, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, reacted in similar fashion. In the case of Zachariah Luke tells us: When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him” [Luke 1:13]. With Mary it was not quite as traumatic, but Luke 1:30 tells us, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What a calming effect the words of the Angel in all three instances must have been, as He reassured those He visited, “Fear not.”
Whenever sinful people enter into the glorious presence of our holy God, it is intuitive to react in fear. The shepherds were surrounded by “the glory of the Lord.” They were overcome by His inherent majesty, His power, His greatness, and His authority as Creator and King of the Universe. His holiness is also a part of His glory; and oftentimes the holiness of God and the glory of God are synonymous. Holiness is purity in character, and when applied to God it denotes His perfect purity.
In contrast to God’s perfect, moral purity, all human beings are sinful creatures, and holiness and sin simply can not co exist side by side. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah also encountered the glory and holiness of the Lord: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of His robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above Him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of His glory.’
“The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.” Isaiah’s response was much the same as the shepherds: “And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Only the grace of God can calm His peoples’ fear when they encounter His holiness and glory. With Isaiah one of the seraphs cleansed his lips with a live coal from heaven’s altar, and reassured him, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” With Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds God’s reassuring grace came in the words, “Fear not.”
The shepherds’ fears were calmed because the angel brought them “Good tidings of great joy.” Their joy was centered in the Person of the Saviour Who had been born in the City of David, and this joy was meant not only for them but for “all people.” God intends for all of us to live in this same joy.
The theme of the Third Sunday in Advent is “joy.” This joy is symbolized by the lighting of the pink or rose candle. The purple candles stress the theme of “penitence and fasting”; pink or rose invites us to concentrate more on the joy of celebrating the Season. What is this joy that the Saviour brings not only to the shepherds but to all who open their hearts to Him?
Jesus is the source of the shepherds’ joy and of ours as well. Note these important parts of the angel’s message. “A Saviour has been born.” “He is God’s gift to all people.” “He is the long promised Messiah of Israel.” The new born Saviour is the fulfillment of the Promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” That was the first promise in Scripture that the Messiah of Israel, the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would be the Saviour of all humankind.
God chose the Jews to give all the nations the only Saviour of the world. I love the way Paul shares this truth in Romans 15:8-12 so clearly, especially as translated by Messianic Rabbi David H. Stern in THE COMPLETE JEWISH BIBLE: “For I say that the Messiah became a servant of the Jewish people in order to show God’s truthfulness by making good His promises to the Patriarchs, and in order to show His mercy by causing the Gentiles to glorify God—as it is written in the Tanakh,
‘Because of this I will acknowledge You among the Gentiles
and sing praise to Your Name.’
And again it says,
‘Gentiles, rejoice with His people.’
‘Praise ADONAI, all Gentiles!
Let all peoples praise Him!’
And again, Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse will come,
He who arise to rule Gentiles;
Gentiles will put their hope in Him.’”
We rejoice with the shepherds because the Messiah of Israel is the Saviour of the human race.
Our Saviour, our Messiah Jesus, is the reason and source of our joy. We rejoice with the shepherds, because He is our Saviour from sin. An angel told Joseph in a dream recorded in Matthew 1:21, “. . . you will name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’”
We rejoice with the hymn writer Pricilla J. Owens and declare with the angel and the shepherds: “We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!”
We rejoice because Jesus saves us: (1.) from the guilt and power of sin; (2.) from eternal death; and (3.) from the punishment and misery of the consequences of sin. We rejoice because Jesus gives us eternal life and joy in His Kingdom.
We rejoice with the angel and the shepherds because “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” We rejoice with the angel and the shepherds because “whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Therefore, everyone needs to call on the Name of the Lord to be personally saved from the guild and power of sin, from eternal death, and from the punishment and misery of the consequences of sin.
John Wesley did not have the assurance the Jesus had saved him from his sins until he was nearly 35 years old. He was a good moral person but not a Christian even though he was an Anglican priest and missionary to Georgia. Wesley shares his encounter with a Moravian Christian August Gottlieb Spangenburg in Georgia on February 7, 1736. Spangenburg knew Jesus as his personal Saviour, but John Wesley did not. Wesley recounts their conversation:
“My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have
you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness
with your spirit, that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and
knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, “Do you know
Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know He is Saviour of the
World.” True,” replied he; “but do you know He has saved you?”
I answered, “I hope He has died to save me.” He only added,
“Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were
vain words.” [SOURCE: Thomas Jackson, The Works of John
Wesley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979) 1:23.]
The ultimate question every single person must honestly answer is, “Do you know Jesu has saved you?”
On May 24, 1738, in London John Wesley came to know Jesus as his personal Saviour too. His personal testimony is powerful:
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in
Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the
Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, I felt my heart
strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for
salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away
my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
[SOURCE: The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 1979) 1:103.]
This is the joy the angel told the shepherds found in their Messiah, Jesus Christ, the one born to be the Saviour of “all the people.”
John Wesley lived almost 35 years without knowing Jesus as his personal Saviour and lacked the joy only Jesus can give to anyone “who calls on His Name.” Many who claim to be the spiritual descendants of John Wesley exist today just as Wesley did until May 24, 1738, they do not know personally that He has saved them. Maybe you are such a person this morning.
Has your own heart been “strangely warmed” by the One born in the City of David? Has He been born within your heart? That’s why He came into the world—to give you this joy and assurance. There is no doubt when it comes to personal salvation. “Whoever calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved.”
Charlotte Elliott gave us the great invitational hymn “Just As I Am.” Her niece Emily Elizabeth Steele Elliott was also a great hymn writer and poet in her own right. Emily Elizabeth penned the beautiful lyrics to the Christmas Carol “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” To receive the joy the Saviour brings, we only have to come to Him in the spirit Emily expresses in her carol:
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus;
There is room in my heart for Thee.
Make that the prayer of your heart this morning, and you will experience “the good tidings of great joy.” You will come to know that “Jesus Christ has taken away your sins, even yours, and saved you from the law of sin and death.”