It’s that time of year again: when I read something new related to Advent and Christmas to inspire me for the upcoming season—especially in preparation for all the sermons and devotionals I’ll need to create.
This year it’s Timothy Keller’s new little book, Hidden Christmas. Halfway in, it’s excellent.
For instance, here he’s careful to distinguish the gospel as good news, rather than merely good advice:
Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted. Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.
However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers, and the Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.
He goes on to say that the biblical Christmas texts are not moralizing stories like Aesop’s Fables, which tell us how to live. Rather, they are descriptions of actual events in history. “The birth of the Son of God into the world is a gospel, good news, an announcement. You don’t save yourself. God has come to save you.”
I would argue that other religions and many churches, when they talk about salvation, understand it and proclaim it as advice. Salvation is something you have to wrestle and struggle for, you have to perform. It comes only if you pray, obey, or transform your consciousness. But the Christian Gospel is different. The founders of the great religions say, in one way or another, “I am here to show you the way to spiritual reality. Do all this.” That’s advice. Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, comes and says, “I am spiritual reality itself. You could never come up to me and, therefore, I had to come down to you.” That’s news.
The distinction, Keller says, between Christmas as news, versus Christmas as advice, “changes everything.” What does it change for you?
1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 21-2.
2. Ibid., 23.