By Sigrid Fowler
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At the heart of the Christmas story is the concept of good news. Timothy Keller in Hidden Christmas, makes the distinction between news and advice: “Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done” (Viking, 2016, p. 21). His point is that the birth of Jesus was announced as good news. It was the proclamation of something that had already been done, not a message involving advice. Strange? There’s much that’s strange about the Christmas story. It’s very strangeness is its appeal, in fact, and we need not duck the unbelievable. The strangeness is intentional. God was announcing an impossibility, impossible in the dimensions of the natural. To accept the birth of God the Son as Son of Man is perhaps the hardest part. A sky full of angels, a newborn child delivered sans human father, a star that worked like a compass, Eastern sages who somehow learned that a glorious king was born in distant Israel (not their country)—these things don’t make sense except as deeds of the Almighty. The good news aspect requires similar scrutiny.
That Jesus’ birth is good news is a point most specifically developed in a section of Scripture we do not associate with Christmas. We love what the prophet Isaiah says about how God is to be with us, Immanuel in Hebrew. We are pleased to hear the familiar titles—Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Mighty God, Prince of Peace. And if anyone’s kingdom should last forever and never stop increasing, it certainly should be someone with those credentials. But Isaiah didn’t write just these stirring words. He also wrote twelve verses in the chapter scholars have numbered fifty-three. Here he explains why the coming of this eternal ruler will be good news. The prophet sees it as a fait accompli and Scripture agrees. God sees it whole, as a thing accomplished. Consider some of Isaiah’s points:
As a finale of this chapter, Isaiah directly quotes God, who says: “I will divide him a portion with the great, / And he shall divide the spoil with the strong (Isa 53: 12a). So far so good. The Hebrew Bible is full of heroes. This appears to be one of them. Isaiah’s sentence goes on: “Because he poured out his soul unto death, / And he was numbered among the transgressors” (Isa 53: 12b).” Odd? Very odd, it seems to me. This hero seems worthy of God’s praise and he was “numbered among the transgressors”? How can that be?
In the workup to these lines, the prophet seems so overcome with the details of the divine revelation that he abandons his third person and turns to address Israel’s God directly: “When you make his soul an offering for sin, / He shall see his seed. He shall prolong his days, / And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Isa 53: 10b). It’s as if Isaiah is saying to God, Am I getting this right? Is this what you’re telling me? This is the detail the prophet is trying to digest: “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; / He has put him to grief.” And the hero isn’t just bruised. He is killed: “For he was cut off from the land of the living,” Isaiah says, v. 8b. The hero is mortal. He has died, but doing so, he “prolongs his days”! Then this: He will be made an offering for sin! This offering, this sacrifice isn’t an animal, and the one pleased with the death is Israel’s God, famous for his loathing of human sacrifice. We find the deed, the feat that gives pleasure to the Almighty, in Isaiah’s final, breathless description: “And he bore the sins of many, / And made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa 53: 12)b). We can only wonder. These are astonishing details.
Astonishing and good news, the good news of Christmas because this hero, this Jesus, whose name indicates that he would “deliver his people from their sins” (Matt 1: 21), has himself taken the sins! This is the good news the angel brings to Joseph, the puzzled Jewish man who would raise this Son—his, only because trusts God and accepts the child of his wife, born before he married her. Good news? I would say so—for those of us who know we’re sinners. God isn’t angry with us any longer! There’s no longer a need for the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve to hide. The sin barrier has been removed—a deed only God could perform. How does that happen? By honest self-scrutiny, belief in the fix only God the Son could put in place, and an open-hearted welcome to the one who welcomes us.