This article and the next are guests posts by Kirk Zylstra, pastor of Everton Park Church, a Presbyterian Reformed Church in Brisbane. They’re an abridgment of a Christmas message.

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The birth of a child brings joy

The birth of a child brings great joy. My wife Simone and I have four children. The birth of every single one of them brought us amazing joy. I remember with one of our births, when the child was born I actually started laughing. I think it was an overflow of nervous energy – I was just so relieved that the child was here, and everyone was safe. So I laughed. I was just so happy.

In Luke 2:10, the angel told the shepherds “good news of great joy”: the saviour is born. And that saviour is Jesus, born in Bethlehem.

But what’s interesting is – in this instance, the joy doesn’t come merely from the fact that a new baby is born into the world (as joyful as that is). It’s got to do with who that baby is, what he’s come to do, and who gets to rejoice in his birth. In this post, we’ll explore that last point – the unexpected group of people who get to rejoice in Jesus’ birth. In the next post, we’ll see how and why Jesus brings them joy.

Good news for bad shepherds

Luke 2:8 says the angel made his announcement to a group of shepherds. This is significant because at that time, shepherds, as a class of people, were not regarded as people of good standing. They had a bad reputation.

Their job meant that they were almost always ceremonially unclean, because they so often came into contact with carcasses, and certain types of animals which the Old Testament Law considered to be ceremonially unclean.

And they were considered morally unclean too. They had a reputation as having light fingers – they were apt to steal things from the properties they passed through as they grazed their sheep. Indeed, because of their bad reputation, shepherds were not permitted to give testimony in a court of law.

So these shepherds are not “good” people. They’re not upright, moral citizens. They’re “bad” people. Social outcasts.

And they’re the ones who hear this good news of great joy.

Good news for bad tax collectors

Later on in the book of Luke, Jesus gets criticised for hanging out with bad people: the tax collectors – Luke 5:27-32; 7:34-35; 15:1-2; 18:9-14; and perhaps most famously, Luke 19:1-10. Back then, tax collectors were another group of social outcasts, who were considered “bad” people. They collected taxes for the imperial Roman power – so they were traitors, turncoats, working for the foreign overlords. They cheated by over-taxing people – basically stealing from them. But they got away with it because the Romans protected them.

So tax collectors in those days were traitorous thieves who profited from people’s misery. And Jesus ate and drank and partied with them…!

But Jesus explains why in Luke 5:31: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

What Jesus is saying is: I didn’t come for people who are good. I came for people who are bad.

A doctor’s clinic doesn’t have a sign out the front: “all healthy people welcome!” Doctors are there for sick people. And Jesus has come for bad people.

The same thing happened when Jesus is born. The angel appeared to people who everyone knows are bad. And the angel said: “I’m here to announce great joy for you.”

Good news for bad sinners like us

This is good news for all of us, because the truth is, we’re all bad people. We tend to be selfish, and put ourselves, and our well-being, in front of others. We gossip, we lie, we’re foul-mouthed. And because of this, we hurt people. Sometimes we feel bad that we’ve hurt them. A lot of times, we don’t care. They deserved it.

But the worst thing about us is: we ignore God. We usually don’t think about him, and his claim on our lives. We just go about our daily lives, thinking we’re in charge of our little world. And that’s really, really, rude. It insults the God who made us and loves us and keeps us alive and gives us our daily bread.

But the good news we remember at Christmas is that in Jesus, God offers joy to people who are ready to admit that we are bad. This is what the Bible means by “confessing our sin”. It doesn’t just mean admitting we do bad things. It means admitting we’re bad people – that we’ve rejected God, and therefore hurt and damage each other.

These are the people to whom this joy has come. If I want to find true joy this Christmas, then I need to be able to humble myself before God and admit that I’m a bad person who’s rejected him. And, you need to be able to do that too. It’s the kind of thing the Apostle John says in 1 John 1:8-10, especially verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”.

But what’s so special about the birth of Jesus, more than two thousand years ago, that should bring me joy here, today, in the twenty-first century? That’s what we’ll look at in our next post.