Heralds of the Good News
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news ; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)
(well- known Christmas scripture… Handel’s Messiah)
Isaiah was a prophet, a herald, declaring the good news of the Kingdom of God. The people in the Christmas story are all heralds but they are not the heralds that you would expect to announce the birth of a King!
"Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son at 4.24 p.m. today. Her Royal Highness and her child are both doing well."
(official announcement for Prince George)
But Mary was no royal highness in her society and the birth of her son was not heralded by the official town criers… A poor girl, shepherds on the edge of religious society, an old man and an old woman… these are the heroes and the heralds of Jesus’ birth.. 30 years later, when Jesus began his ministry he preached to these very people – the social outcasts, the poor. He criticized the religious leaders and they hated him for it..but Jesus inherited his love for the ‘littlest folk’ from his Father. Way back when Jesus was born, God the Father announced his son’s birth to a very unusual group of heralds!
The message given by the angels in a blaze of light upon the hills that night was a message not heard since the days of Isaiah the prophet. That Jesus’ birth was announced by a flock of angels was very suitable for the Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. What was unusual was that it was given, not to Kings, or priests, or Nobles but to shepherds!! The significance of this point often escapes modern readers because we are not aware of the lowly social status of shepherds in Jesus’day. Shepherds of Jesus time were looked down upon. Their work made them ceremonially unclean because they had daily contact with carcasses of animals, contact with all sorts of unclean animals and they were unable to observe regular religious practices because of their isolation in the fields and needing to always be with the sheep when they were out at pasture. By choosing a poor, humble girl to be the mother of his Son, by wanting his Son to be born in the very lowliest of circumstances in a manger for cattle, and in announcing Jesus’ birth to shepherds, God reached out to the lowliest of society and showed us that the message of God’s love and redemption is for all…
But these heralds of Christ’s birth in the temple are equally significant. We see in Simeon and Anna, their devotion to the Lord and their sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's voice. It is clear from the narrative that the Holy Spirit prompted both Simeon and Anna on the day Mary and Joseph brought their son in to the temple to present him to the Lord. Both of them are righteous, God-fearing people whom God has sent as witnesses. Simeon has been anticipating this day for some time. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the coming of the Messiah and he was eagerly awaiting this day when he would see “the Consolation of Israel.” ‘Consolation’ is the Greek noun paraklesis which comes from the root word meaning “help, encourage, comfort.” The Holy Spirit is referred to in the Gospel of John as the parakletos, "mediator, intercessor, helper” and Simeon knew this baby was that paraklesis, that consolation and comfort and helper for his people and also for the Gentiles…
In the prophetic praise that follows, the child Jesus is equated with "your salvation" in verse 30. It is not accidental that Jesus' name, in Hebrew Yeshua (a form of the name "Joshua"), means literally, "salvation." So Simeon looks on the child named "Salvation" and says, "my eyes have seen your salvation...."
It is remarkable that Simeon sees Jesus' salvation as extending to all people -- Gentiles and Jews alike. This is the same message the angel spoke to the shepherds on Christmas night: "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (2:10).
The concept of the Messiah and Israel being "a light for the Gentiles" was first developed by the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2; 42:6; 60:1-3), especially in Isaiah 49:6:
"I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth."
Then there was the woman prophet Anna: "Coming up to them at that very moment, (Anna) gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem." (2:38)
We don't hear the words of her prophecy, but it seems, like Simeon's, to consist of (1) inspired thanksgiving and (2) speaking about the child to other believing people who are present. Both of the verbs here employ the Greek imperfect tense, indicating continued action in the past -- that is, she kept on thanking God and telling people. And this is very similar to what the shepherds did which we see in the verses immediately before these ones:
“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told to them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (v 17-20)
Thanks and praise to God and spreading the word…
We don’t know what the religious leaders in the temple thought of all this, Jesus would have been presented to one of them, but there is no mention of them at all… However, the prophecy given to Simeon gives us a glimpse of why..:
Israel/Palestine had a very structured, powerful, influential religious establishment and it is significant that God did not announce to them as a body the birth of the Messiah. But there were humble, holy men and women among them devoted to the Lord – Zechariah (who was a priest) and his wife Elizabeth were also called to be heralds of the incarnation and to bring another very important herald – John the Baptist - in to the story. God also did not announce his Son’s birth to the powerful and wealthy strata of society. When King Herod heard of the birth of Christ some time later when the Wise men arrived he tried to kill the child because he was a threat to him. The religious leaders, over 30 years later, became increasingly hostile to Jesus because he spoke out against them their wealth, their self-obsession with their status, and their lack of care and compassion for the people. They killed him for it.. and this prophetic word given to Simeon warns Mary that this is Jesus’ destiny…:
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed… so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword (he said to Mary) will pierce your own soul too.”…
Remembering that Simeon himself probably didn’t fully know what was going to happen – he was just speaking out the prophecy given to him by God the Father , it is poignant and significant that part of this prophetic word speaks directly to Jesus’ mother, Mary; the ‘sword’ that will pierce his soul will pierce hers also when he is rejected and killed… and anyone who has lost a child will identify with the deep anguish, grief and helplessness that Mary went through…
The prophecy declares that Jesus will be a sign to the people and the nation but they will oppose him. How people respond to Jesus and his message will determine their destiny. Many of Jesus' contemporaries receive his message but the religious community, by and large, can't bring themselves to believe that Jesus can be God's Messiah. Jesus becomes "a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall" (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16; Luke 20:17-18; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6-8).
The inner thoughts of many will be revealed… they would all show their hand eventually and ‘come down’ on one side or the other. They might support some of the things that Jesus said to a point, or pretend to for the sake of popularity, but eventually they would have to make a decision – for Jesus or against him… and that decision would reveal what was in their hearts – their inner beliefs, desires, pride and ambition.
This has happened many times throughout history where a person or group of people or a whole society are faced with something so powerful, so life-changing, so… threatening that they have to face up to it and make a decision… almost 80 years ago, the people of Germany and surrounding nations had to make a decision to stand up for or against Hitler.. the horrific genocide that was happening to the Jews and many others could no longer be ignored… this is what we are seeing in Iraq and Syria and many other Muslim nations now… Moderate muslims and others having to stand up against a group who have a culture of death, brutality and cruelty, discrimination, intolerance…like Nazi Germany… like Apartheid..
Sometimes those people and groups who stand up for what is right and good, for love, tolerance, equality, justice find themselves speaking out against incredible odds, they are joined by others and eventually they too can’t be ignored .. people such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero but Ghandi, who is one of the greatest examples of active non-violence in recent times, once said that the greatest example of active non-violence in history is Jesus Christ. People who stand up for equality and social justice are a threat to people with political power, wealth, status, control who stand to lose their way of life if there is equality etc…. the secret desires of everyone’s heart will be revealed because everyone will have to make a decision.. Jesus would become such a threat to the powers that be in his day because of his stand for the poor, the marginalised (the ‘sinners’ as they are referred to in the gospels), non-Jews, and women… but of course it wasn’t just his radical stand for social justice in a very traditional culture it was that he claimed to be speaking from God’s heart, he claimed that this radical upside-down kingdom that he was preaching is God’s kingdom, and that he knew that because God is his Father.. and this was a total threat to the religious of his day…
We can see in the Christmas story that God the Father confirmed the gospel that his son proclaimed 30 years later by the heralds that he chose to announce the Incarnation…
Many, many years ago I read a book about Richard III refuting that he was the villain that history and Shakespeare claimed him to be because, you see, history is written by the victors and his ‘story’ had been told by the Lancastrians who had defeated him and they totally discredited him to enhance their own claim to the throne… and ever since I refuse to see Shakespeare’s play Richard III… but in the Gospels, Jesus’ story is written and heralded by the little people, some of them peasants virtually!… God sent His message to the humblest. The shepherds had no status in society, nor did a young poor girl, pregnant and not married. Simeon and Anna were two older folk – devoted to the Lord and humbly listening to the Spirit of God and being willing to do what He asked them to do. For 2000 years, every Christmas and indeed every day, these heralds have been heard although at the time they were considered insignificant. God sent his message to those humble enough to hear it who were unconcerned about their social standing and self-importance. It is when we can embrace such simplicity, devotion and humility that we can hear God most clearly.
Thanks and praise to God and spreading the word…
We are the heralds of his incarnation… we are the ‘little people’, if we believe in him with open hearts in simplicity and humility, the ‘little people’ whom God the Father is calling to be his heralds of the good news of the Incarnation:
Go on up to a high mountain…, heralds of good news ; lift up your voice with strength, …heralds of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities (and towns around you), “Behold your God, (incarnate among us)!” (Isaiah 40:9)
(Jesuswalk Bible study series)