The Good News Capital of the World

Luke 2:1-20
© Stacey Steck

Most etymologists believe that the word Noel comes from the French by way of the Latin, and is related to the word for birth, and thus became associated with Christmas, the birth of Jesus. In France, Merry Christmas is proclaimed joyeux noel. However, there is an alternative origin of the word Noel that helps make a little better sense of the hymn we just heard Charles and Alice sing. You see, if Noel means birth, they just sang “birth, birth, birth, birth, born is the King of Israel.” But if that alternative origin of Noel is employed, we sing the much more sensible, “News, news, news, news, born is the King of Israel” because the other possible origin of the word Noel comes from the French word nouvelle, which means “news.” And what was the first line of the hymn? “The first noel the angel did say,” in other words, the first utterance of the good news of Jesus’ birth came from that angel to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.” That was, and remains, the world’s biggest news story. The world’s greatest scoop. And yet it barely registered a blip on the consciousness of even the people closest to its occurrence. Sure, they were overjoyed and amazed, but it was a pretty local thing, and once Mary, Joseph and the baby returned to Nazareth, things just returned to normal there in Bethlehem. It would take another thirty years for that piece of Good News to resurface and start to spread like the wildfire it surely was.

Yes, for reasons known only to God, some two thousand odd years ago, an out of the way place called Bethlehem became, ever so briefly, the Good News Capital of the World. Not Rome, not Babylon, not even Jerusalem, but Bethlehem, a place you could only generously call a suburb of Jerusalem. In fact, Bethlehem is still making news, this week even, during the Christmas season when thousands of tourists flock to the Basilica of the Nativity, all in the midst of a great deal of uncertainty since the announcement of the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Yes, things are heating up again in Bethlehem and not in a good way. The news out of Bethlehem these days is of anger and protest, even as that city tries to signify the peace and harmony of the season. Maybe Bethlehem will always be in the news for one reason or another, and, God willing, may it once again be the place from which the very best news comes, but at least for this year, barring some last minute miracle, the title of Good News Capital of the World has to fall to some other locale somewhere else. And where, O where should that be? Some global capital? Some place like Switzerland? I mean, they’ve all those huge bank accounts for the world’s wealthiest people! Some place like Pyongyang, North Korea? They’ve got the newest nuclear weapons on the block? How about Hollywood? They’ve got the biggest blockbusters. Surely one of those important places should be selected, right? Some place that represents the power and the glory that angel announced.

Well, one of those places might work if it was human power and glory we were talking about, but in fact what the angel announced was the power and glory of God, and those only turn up where God wants them to turn up. So, if we take Bethlehem back in Jesus’ time as an example of the kind of humble place the power and glory of the Lord tend to turn up, where might that really be these days? Maybe it would be in that small village in Tanzania, where Justin, Kristin, Fiona, and Whitaker Raymer are serving as missionaries. That’s a pretty humble place. Or maybe in the village in Pakistan where the Ray family is serving. Or maybe Sumatra, Montana, the smallest town in that huge state, or Lake Wobegon in Minnesota where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Or how about Mill Bridge, on the outskirts of Salisbury, North Carolina. Maybe we could have the honor of being this year’s Good News Capital of the World. I mean, it has to be somewhere.

So let’s form a committee and make our pitch. I mean, that’s the way it works for the Olympics, right? Every so many years, cities from around the world compete to host the Olympics. Not only is it a pretty big economic boost to a city, but there’s a lot of honor associated with being able to call yourself an Olympic host city. Granted, it doesn’t guarantee you much. Just look at Sarajevo these days, but still, it’s a pretty big deal. So, maybe the Church should host a worldwide gathering every four years and invite every location to put its best foot forward and show why they should be named the Good News Capital of the World. The competition would be pretty strong, you say? Oh, I think we could hold our own. We got it going on here. I mean, we have the Young Disciples, and the tutoring ministry, and the Youth, and the Sunday School program, and the Scouts, and the Deacons. Nope, can’t forget the Deacons. They’ve brought us a lot of good news this year. We have centuries of Good News buried out there in the cemetery, and centuries more in the Museum. I mean, we’re not Vatican City, but we do OK. Besides, God tends to pick out of the way places. We got a shot.

There wasn’t much good news around Bethlehem for that first Noel. There was a lot of suffering, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of taxes, and none of that was good news. There was a lot of anticipation of Good News, but probably not really much hope of hearing it. The census was the big news of the day, and all the shuffling around of people it seemed to require. Just like today, celebrities and scandals probably occupied most of the news cycle. A pregnant, unmarried teenager like Mary wouldn’t have moved the needle unless she was King Herod’s daughter. Who knows what the town crier was crying, but it wasn’t the liberation everyone hoped for. No, people were just accustomed to the same old bad news day after day, maybe even like it sometimes feels for us in our own time, with rising crime and corporate corruption, reports of war and famine coming from around the globe, neighbors and friends coming down with cancer and Alzheimer’s, jobs moving overseas, trains derailing, hurricanes and fires destroying cities and islands, a thousand bits of demoralizing news a day that just suck the life right out of you. We actually have it worse in our own time because our news comes from every corner of the world, 24/7, in so many more ways, always demanding a response from us. Yes, the Noel we usually get is the bad news variety. We need some good news don’t we?

Well, it’s Christmas Eve, the time to remember that first Noel, and its good news that that Savior of the world was born. So long ago, so far away, a child in a manger wrapped up in bands of cloth. Babies are always good news, aren't they? Especially in those days, but even now, the birth of a baby reminds us that we’ve survived, our family has survived to live another generation, and the mother has survived those perilous nine months. And word spreads that Mary’s given birth! It’s a boy! His name is Jesus, which means God saves! Yes, and Mary’s doing fine too, thank God. Joseph? Well, he’s still recovering, but he’ll be fine too. Life goes on. But of course, this birth comes with more good news than usual. This child is destined for great things, to move and shake a world, to “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…to bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly…to fill the hungry with good things, to send the rich away empty.” Good news, to God’s way of thinking. Good news that lifts people’s spirits, and sets their hearts free, and stirs up their imaginations about what could be, what could be. Good news that makes life livable against the onslaught of bad news.

Bethlehem may not be the Good News Capital of the World again this year, and there’s no competition to replace it. In fact, maybe the best news out of that good news of long ago is that when Jesus is born in our hearts, when we come together as the church in any locale to sing again the first Noel, we become centers of good news every bit as important as Bethlehem, and maybe even moreso precisely because we have at our disposal such a vast array of ways to share God’s good news. The good news is still good. And it’s still news. And who can’t use more good news?

I’m honored tonight to share with you some good news about what God is doing in this corner of the world. For the last year or so, we’ve been listening while God has revealed little by little the divine vision for this congregation’s ministry, how we are called to express our faith in Jesus Christ with all the unique gifts and passions of this group of people in this place, in this time. God has spoken, and we have listened, and the Session, after prayerful consideration, has affirmed that the vision God has for us is none other than to be the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County, to be the manufacturers, broadcasters, purveyors, peddlers even of the kind of good news that angel announced in the fields outside Bethlehem. If someone needs good news, we’ll have some for them. If someone wants to celebrate good news, we’ll share it. If someone needs help making good news, we’ll be their partner. And so on. Our vision is that when people around here think about good news, they think about Thyatira. This is the place they’ll come with haste, like the shepherds who heard the first Noel, to catch a glimpse of what God is doing in this world through the grace of Jesus Christ. And we’ll be so busy making and sharing good news that we won’t have time or energy for the bad news, and if we do, we’ll use it be thinking and dreaming about how to transform it into good news.

Is it a little presumptuous to call ourselves the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County when there are eight others churches on the road to Salisbury, and still others within shouting distance? Sure it is, but I don’t think God will mind that kind of pride. And hey, if it’s a competition, it’s a friendly one. This is the kind of distinction we won’t mind sharing, if they too want to get in on the action. But it won’t be a distinction any church in the county achieves if it’s just a slogan. No, this is God’s vision, an audacious vision that needs us to believe that God’s given it if it’s going to transform us and our community the way God transformed the world beginning in humble Bethlehem. On the first Noel, the angel did say, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.” For this Noel, let me say, “Do not be afraid; for see, God is bringing us good news of great joy for all the people: to you is revealed this day a vision in the city of Millbridge: to proclaim the Savior, who is the Messiah.” Because who can’t use more good news? Amen.