Good Advice vs. Good News

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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

14.  News

Imagine that you have a child who is battling cancer.

It’s as if a shadow has fallen over your life.  Everything feels surreal.  It’s hard to eat or sleep.  Little things that used to bring joy now seem meaningless.

All that matters is that your child might somehow go on living.

As you sit in a hospital waiting room, a friend offers advice.  He’s just read about a new experimental therapy.  Perhaps you should give it a try.  And some people are having great luck reducing pain with hypnosis.  And have you tried megavitamins?

At that moment your child’s surgeon enters the room.  She takes your hand.  “The surgery went far better than we imagined.  We have every reason to believe the cancer is gone.  Your child is going to live.” 

Moments like that change your life forever.

As author and pastor Tim Keller points out in his book Hidden Christmas, there’s a world of difference between good advice and good news.  Many people think of Christianity as a list of heavenly suggestions.  Jesus is a life coach who offers take-it-or-leave-it recommendations for finding happiness and meaning. 

But from the very beginning, the Jesus Story isn’t advice.  It’s news.  It’s not the recitation of a few things that you ought to try to make happen, but the announcement of something that God has already made happen.

Consider the words of the angel of the Lord – backed up by a “great company of the heavenly host” – to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). 

It’s worth pausing to note that there are several kinds of “angels” described in Scripture – supernatural beings who exist to serve God.

Seraphim (the name means “burning ones”) appear just once.  In Isaiah 6:1-6, these six-winged creatures hover near God’s throne declaring, “Holy, holy, holy” – underlining God’s utter perfection of character.  Two wings are used for flying, two for covering their faces, and two for covering their feet. 

Cherubim are known to lovers of classical art as chubby, rosy-cheeked toddlers with tiny wings.  Rest assured such images do not have their origin in Scripture.  Cherubim appear in Genesis (where they guard the Garden of Eden), Exodus (where two of them are sculpted with massive wings stretching out over the ark of the covenant), and Ezekiel (where they are portrayed with four wings and four faces – the kind of creatures you might meet in a nightmare instead of a Rubens painting). 

Dozens of other verses in both Old and New Testaments describe what we might call “ordinary angels.”  What do ordinary angels look like, and what do they do?

Many people are surprised to learn that angels, as portrayed in the Bible, do not have wings.  Although most texts are stingy with details, they seem to appear as young men.  They occasionally assist God’s people – helping Lot and his family hightail it out of Sodom in the book of Genesis, and breaking Peter out of jail and escorting him to safety in the book of Acts. 

But their chief task is embodied in their name.  Angelos is the Greek word for “messenger.”  An angel’s job is to bring news from God.

In the four chapters that tell the story of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2), angels appear six times.  They almost always inspire terror.  Gabriel’s first words to both Zechariah and Mary are, “Don’t be afraid.”  Joseph and the shepherds are likewise reassured, “There’s no need to freak out.” 

You might want to rethink any fantasies about receiving your own angelic encounter.  Such episodes tend to scare people’s socks off. 

On the other hand, you may already have unknowingly been in the presence of one of God’s supernatural messengers, as suggested by Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

So why don’t we get to experience extraordinary angelic press conferences like those associated with Jesus’ birth?

The answer is that God’s good news, declared twenty centuries ago by his supernatural messengers, hasn’t changed. 

Anyone afflicted by hopelessness, fear, or despair doesn’t need good advice.  There’s more than enough of that going around already. 

But all of us hunger for moments in which we truly grasp that God has already accomplished everything we need in order to be the people he has called us to be.

Moments like that change your life forever