The Gifts of God: Good News

christmas-presents

As I was preparing the sermon this week, I ran across an article that references a song from my childhood. I think the article by Chet Flippo of CMT and the song by Anne Murray are as apropos as ever and I thought I would begin today’s message with the piece.

In country, rock and pop music, there’s never much real good news in the broadest sense. In the way of bad news, it’s usually heartache, and death, and cheating, divorce and betrayal — if it’s not outright mayhem. Good news is usually defined as the occasional true romance, drinking and dancing and driving a pickup and partying.

I don’t mean songs about personal emotional knitting-up, such as “The House That Built Me.” And I don’t mean the occasional powerful song about national healing, the main example being Alan Jackson‘s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” Or the “what-if” songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Or the antiwar songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and the Dixie Chicks‘ recording of Bruce Robison‘s “Travelin’ Soldier.” But songs that truly spark the human spirit of altruism and have the power to bring people together seldom come around. I’m talking about the rare song like Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

…In country, the song that has best managed to tap into an emotional current about the national psyche in recent decades has been Anne Murray‘s “A Little Good News,” which takes on the national angst of the entire American population. When I turn on the radio or TV and all I hear is a cacophony of angry voices arguing with each other and calling each other vile names, I want to hear a song that reflects and shows the other side of that. I want to hear a song that brings people together.

Of the 50 songs that topped the Billboard country songs chart in 1983, the one song that I can still easily quote is “A Little Good News.” The lyrics from such other 1983 No. 1 songs as “Paradise Tonight” or “Faking Love” or “Inside” don’t come tumbling into my brain quite as readily. The year 1983, after all, was when the first Hooters Restaurant appeared.

I rolled out this morning
Kids had the mornin’ news show on
Bryant Gumbel was talkin’ ’bout the fighting in Lebanon
Some senator was squawkin’ ’bout the bad economy
It’s gonna get worse you see, we need a change in policy.

Murray didn’t write the song. “A Little Good News” was written by Charles Frank Black, Rory Michael Bourke and Thomas Rocco, but Murray’s expressive performance forever made it her song. And it won a Grammy for best female country vocal, was also the CMA’s single of the year and the album A Little Good News was named CMA album of the year. With that last award, Murray became the first woman to win the CMA album of the year honor.

So where are such songs today? I submit that they aren’t being written and recorded because no one will play them on radio. So why bother? Who cares about trying to capture the national mood? Where’s the profit in that?

There’s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band
One more sad story’s one more than I can stand
Just once how I’d like to see the headline say
“Not much to print today, can’t find nothin’ bad to say”, because

Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town
Nobody OD’ed, nobody burned a single buildin’ down
Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain
We sure could use a little good news today.

There was a music video shot for “A Little Good News” in 1983 and it was shown then on TNN (The Nashville Network), but it is no longer available for streaming and downloading today due to issues of rights and clearances. We have it in the video archives here, so I watched it a couple of times recently and concluded that the song is better off today without the video. Why? Country music videos at that time operated on the principle of closeups of the artists. Many closeups, no matter how badly they were shot or miked. But you had plenty of those, and then you threw into the background some action footage or some news clips or whatever the hell you could clear without having to pay for it. So, today the video looks very dated. But the song “A Little Good News” still stands very capably and strongly on its own.[1]

People Needing Some Good News

To follow up on this theme of having some good news, let’s see if we can look at the text today from a standpoint of whether we are dealing with good news. If the news from Isaiah were being broadcast in the ancient world, would the people watching see this as a good news story? Would they want to change the channel? Would they run to HebrewBook and post a link to this?

There is an art to newscasting and having a marketing background I can tell you that there is a certain methodology to setting up, delivering, and closing a news story: the lead, the story, the close. According to the University of Florida,

Few people read an entire newspaper story, but most people listen to the entire TV and Radio news story, so keep it interesting and in the lead:

  • Capture the essence of the story without giving too much detail
  • Make the lead simple and whet the appetite
  • Command the attention of the audience
  • Grabs the listener´s attention – the rest of the story should keep that attention
  • Make the listeners want to listen to the rest of the story by giving them just enough in that first sentence that they will want to know more
  • Think about what the story is and in the lead start with whatever carries the most impact
  • Ask yourself, what is it that is in the story that makes it newsworthy? And then use that for the lead

Part of setting up a good story is knowing your audience. As we have talked about before, the audience for Isaiah is a people who have been captive in a foreign land and are now readying to return or have recently returned home. Several generations have lived and died in Babylon, Media, and Persia, and now are being given the opportunity to return to a land, for some that they only know in stories from their elders.

With that stage set, let’s check the lead-in. The writer of Isaiah 61 opens the first few verses with,

“The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoner, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.”[2]

For the Jewish people hearing these words, I think this would get their attention. God is doing something among us again. Someone has been called to speak a truth on God’s behalf. Those who are poor, brokenhearted, still captive in their hearts, and imprisoned by the circumstances listen up. I can’t say for certain, but I would imagine the list covers just about every type of person that would have been returning or have returned. I think we can safely say, this would get the listener’s attention.

Now, for the story. What is the crux of the message presented here, what are we hearing here? The big picture story that we are hearing here is one of being restored. Notice where the story goes from here,

They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the Lord to glorify himself. They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past. Foreigners will stay and shepherd your sheep, and strangers will be your farmers and vinedressers. You will be called The Priests of the Lord; Ministers of Our God, they will say about you. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and fatten yourself on their riches. Instead of shame, their portion will be double; instead of disgrace, they will rejoice over their share. They will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs. I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the Lord.[3]

The people who were once living as exiles are now a people who are being given back what they had lost and then some. The people will return, they will rebuild what has been left to ruin. They will have their relationship with God and their status among the nations restored and rejoice over God giving them a “double portion” of blessing.

The meat of this story is that what was once taken is being returned: the land, the relationship with God, the standing among nations, all of what was once lost forever, is being given back. That which was lost is found and return to its place. God, who seemed a distant memory in the foreign land, is now before them to show them the way home. The Jews repentance has led to rekindling the dead flames of their faith and as they turn back to God, God is waiting there. The things most important the Hebrew people: their God, their land, their temple, are being returned.

Finally, the close or conclusion of the story: those who have been given this mercy, the restoration, should worship. The close of the story is a call to action. Those who have been the recipients of God’s many gifts should respond with worship and praise,

I surely rejoice in the Lord; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the Lord God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.[4]

God has done great things for the Jewish people: what was taken has been returned, what was thought lost is now restored. So, the call is to answer this extravagance with praise for God’s mercy and worship of God’s person. It should be the response of all who have received the gifts of God that they should offer praise and worship to God. This was call in the days of Isaiah, this is the call today.

There is Still Good News to Tell

The lead, story, and close are essentially the same when Jesus picks up a scroll one Sabbath day and reads this verse to the synagogue audience with one caveat: It is Jesus himself who is the fulfillment of the promises in Isaiah. As Jesus finishes reading this, he announces that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”[5] Jesus is saying that in him, we find the ‘anointed one’, the servant of God who will bring about a reality of hope to the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned; the amnesty, liberation, and restoration that comes with the Jubilee Year found in Leviticus 25:8-12.[6]

Here is the Good News, or the gospel as it is called in Greek, that we have to share with the world: The God that was a God of Restoration for the exiled Hebrews is the God embodied in the life and redemptive work of Jesus and the God who continues to work through those who choose to follow the Way of Jesus. The good news, the best news that we can share is that the December child we celebrate in the manger, grows into the Easter man who offers us the resurrection of life to live beyond the base nature of our being.

As we celebrate this advent season, let us celebrate with the good news of redemption and restoration as the central themes, the basis for our walk with God and others. May we seek this gift of good news for ourselves, that we can know it so well as to be able to share it with others. That those who are poor, brokenhearted, still captive in their hearts, and imprisoned by the circumstances can know that God has made a way home for them in the life and person of Jesus.

In the words of the great American broadcaster Paul Harvey, that is “the rest of the story.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] http://www.cmt.com/news/1656341/nashville-skyline-anne-murray-was-right/

[2] Isaiah 61:1-3a

[3] Isaiah 61:3b-9

[4] Isaiah 61:10-11

[5] Luke 4:21

[6] Fred Craddock. Luke: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster/John Knox Press. Louisville, KY © 1990, p.60-61

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