Good News of Great Joy

The brightest star in the sky: Sirius

The brightest star

At Christmastime, Christians celebrate the greatest event that has ever taken place—the greatest event that ever will take place. It is not a victory in war. It is not a world championship in sports. It is not a triumph of medicine or technology. It is not a great scientific breakthrough. It is not a political or economic breakthrough. It does not fit into any of our usual categories of great events. It is in a category all its own. It is unique in history. Though the world is still not sure exactly what happened, we number the years of our history forward and backward from this event.

What is the great event that forms the centerpiece of our world’s history?

It is the birth of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Not a great, flashy current event that would, in our day, have its brief moment of fame in the media and then be forgotten a few days, weeks, or years later. The birth of a baby. A birth that was noticed only by a few shepherds, prophets, and wise men who were told by angels. A birth that took place, not in the ornate halls of a royal palace, but in a village—and in that village, not in a comfortable bedroom in a house or inn, but in a place where animals lived.

That is how the God of the universe chose to come to us. “A bruised reed he will not break,” says the prophet (Isaiah 42:3). God did not want to overwhelm us with grand miracles, forcing on us a belief that would be only skin deep. No, God came to us gently, with the innocence of a baby—not demanding, but asking graciously for our faith, our love, and our obedience. The Lord stands and knocks at the door, waiting for us to open it and let him into our lives (Revelation 3:20).

The power of the event

Yet behind that gentle innocence there is a power that goes beyond all our finite human conception. The soul of the baby Jesus was God, the infinite, omnipotent creator of the universe. Within that tiny being that Mary held in her arms was all the power of divine love and wisdom—all focused on that one, small time and place.

We may wish that we could have been there to witness the wondrous events of Jesus’ birth and life. The angels heralding his birth; the wise men from the East bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; the boy Jesus in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions; the colorful and compelling preaching; the teaching given with authority and power; the loving work of healing the sick. Wouldn’t our faith be so much stronger if we could only have seen the Lord with our own eyes? If we could have heard his powerful words? If our loved ones could be healed by the touch of his hands?

The Lord gives us something much more precious than physical healing or the sound of his voice. He does not leave us desolate; he comes to us in spirit and in truth (see John 14:15–18). After nearly two thousand years, we continue to celebrate the physical event of God’s birth as a baby on earth. Yet it is the spiritual event within that gives that physical event power. It is God coming to each one of us today—right now—that is the real reason we continue to celebrate an event that took place so many centuries ago.

Physically, the Lord needed to be born only once. But spiritually, he is born just as often as we receive him into our hearts in a new way. He gave us an example for all time: the example of his life on earth. That example is recorded in the Bible for us to read and learn from. We know the story of the Lord’s birth. We know something of his teachings in the Bible. We know that he taught us to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12).

Knowledge is not enough

Our knowledge of Jesus’ teachings is good. It enables us to live as human beings rather than as animals. It gives us a moral and ethical horizon that goes beyond the mere instinct for survival and reproduction. It beckons us to live from higher principles—principles of love and mutual understanding.

But the mere knowledge of these teachings is not enough. We may know that we should be honest in business. But if we do not bother to put it into practice, it means nothing. We may know that we should treat other people the same way we would wish to have them treat us. But if we cannot get outside of our own feelings of hurt or annoyance enough to empathize with the way others feel, our knowledge of the Golden Rule means nothing. We may know that we should live by the Lord’s teachings, but if we do not follow through with action, our knowledge is mere words, signifying nothing.

The power of love . . . and action

What is the difference between knowing and following the Lord’s teachings? The difference is love. By itself, a knowledge of the wonderful events of Christmas—as magical as they are—will not change anything. But if we love the Lord our God and love other people with a warm, sympathetic, and caring love, then our knowledge about the Lord’s birth is transformed into a real and living birth of the Lord within our hearts and minds.

This is a birth that cannot stay inside of us; it overflows into every part of our life, and into every relationship. It is a birth that transforms us, not from the outside, like a political or scientific breakthrough, but from the inside—from deep within our soul. When we accept the Lord God Jesus Christ into our hearts in welcoming love, then the great power that was focused on the baby Jesus can also be focused on us. We can never fully receive that power as Jesus did. But as much as we do receive it, we become new people—people born, not from mere human decisions and actions, but from God (see John 1:12–13).

This is the good news of great joy that will be for all people. It is the good news that Jesus was born, not just once two thousand years ago, but is born as often as we accept his love and his teachings into our hearts, and express them in our lives. It is a birth of new appreciation for our family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. It is a birth of new joy and contentment in serving the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others. The Lord’s birth in us is our own rebirth as a new person, moved by mutual love and understanding, and serving our fellow human beings with kindness and joy.

Behold, I bring 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 Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10–11)

This post is edited from a talk originally delivered on December 24, 1996. Photo credit: Greg Parker, New Forest Observatory.

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Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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9 comments on “Good News of Great Joy
  1. Doug Webber says:

    Hello Lee,
    Not sure what happened, but all the google+ comments have disappeared on the blog article about the Trinity ( I know you left good comments there, but they have somehow disappeared. This is the second time I have seen odd behaviour from Google, so I have disabled the Google+ comments and switched back to the old commenting system.

    Other than that (sorry for he bad news), hope you are having a happy holiday. As for the birth of Jesus, he was probably born in the Sept-Oct timeframe during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, fulfilling the symbolism hidden behind that Jewish ritual (which can be proven by analyzing the timeframe when John the Baptist was born in the gospel of Luke). Thus John 1:14 says the Word “tabernacled” among us. Christmas time is probably the time in which he was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Doug,

      Sorry to hear all those comments are gone. That was a lot of material! I don’t make much active use of Google+. Mostly I just have my posts here on WordPress automatically mirrored over to my Google+ account so that they can reach a few more people.

      About the birth of Jesus, I don’t get too worried about exactly when he was conceived and born historically. Though history is interesting, the Gospel accounts are not history. They are the Word of God, intended to convey divine truths to us in a form we can understand.

      As such, the Gospels, like the rest of the Word of God, consist of a human container with divine contents. The human container draws from the finite contents of human minds and cultures–which may include historical error. However, despite any literal error, the divine contents are infinite. Though it is important to Christian belief that God was incarnated, it is not so important at which precise moment in history this happened.

      It is the words of the Bible text itself as it comes to us that are important for our study and understanding of the divine truths they convey.

      • Doug Webber says:

        Actually, I am not interested in it from a historical perspective, but rather as understanding the Jewish rituals from a symbolic perspective. Passover was fulfilled by Easter, firstfruits was fulfilled by pentecost, but the feast of tabernacles always puzzled me until I figured out this was the timeframe Jesus was born. I will have to look it up, but Swedenborg explained these three rituals as the three steps of spiriual rebirth – beginning with purification from evil (Passover), living by the truth (Pentecost), and God dwelling in us as a temple (Tabernacles).

    • Lee says:

      I would add that regardless of what time of year Jesus was actually born, Christmas is the time most Christians celebrate that birth. I don’t have a problem with that. We sometimes celebrate our birthdays on a day other than the actual birthday, for various reasons. Just because Christmas may not be the actual time of Jesus’ birth, we can still pick a day to celebrate it. If God and the writers of the Gospels had thought that the particular date of birth was very important, it would have been included in the story.

      There are some Christian groups and denominations that think it is very important to celebrate Jesus’ birth on the actual date he was born (if that could be determined), the Sabbath on the actual, literal day of Sabbath (which is disputed among Christians), and various other events at the literal time and in the literal way that they are described. To me, this shows a material focus that partakes of the letter that kills, not the spirit that gives life (see 2 Corinthians 3:6).

      From my perspective, the important thing is not when we celebrate these things, but that we celebrate them. And there can be as much variation in those celebrations as there are different people and cultures. The variation adds to the fullness and richness of the celebration of the Lord God Jesus Christ.

      • Doug Webber says:

        The Seventh Day Adventists are probably the most particular about worship on the Sabbath. I looked at their material, and they may be right about continuing worship on Saturday. The important point they make is that it is still important to follow the 10 commandments. I looked up Swedenborg on the matter, he is more interested in the most symbolic and universal meaning of the Sabbath, but interestingly he marks the commandment of the Sabbath as “optional” to follow, and not abrogated. the only other point he makes is that Jesus changed it from a day of rest to a day of instruction. And if so…that means we should still gather on the Sabbath. Not absolutely required, but it is a “plus.”

        My interest in the Seventh Day Adventists is some of their eschatology lines up with the time period in which Swedenborg began receiving visions, and the time frame of the last judgment in the spiritual world. You will find some blog entries on some of my interpretations on these prophetic time periods. Unfortunately, they know nothing about the spiritual realm or life after death, and took one line of scripture to conclude that there is no life after death, we all just fall asleep until some future physical resurrection, which is unfortunate.

  2. Doug Webber says:

    Hello Lee: some good news, and somewhat strange, I am posting this here as well: I have manually recovered the lost comments you and I made at

    The only way for a comment to disappear like that is for someone to hack in and delete it. As to why someone would have an interest in doing that, it is probably from the very last one:

    “Besides visions, the other big reservation I see out of others is the topic of extraterrestrials. Unfortunately, the public has been conditioned against it in the media by the CIA. I think I have taken care of that issue with that article on Epsilon Eridani, but still there will be resistance due to psychological conditioning (even I had trouble believing what I was reading).”

    There are certain three letter agencies that have been trained to hack in, and they do monitor all things extraterrestrial on the internet. Not sure what the thinking was here, either someone who was very bored decided to do something, or they do not want the Swedenborg church to be involved in this area. That would be a problem for them: in the past (and present) religious cults have involved themselves with UFOs and that helps them. With Swedenborg and the New Church, that is another matter, as it is a very well thought out rational religion: people just might start to take the issue of extraterrestrials seriously.

    So if there is any material you want to save, have at it. I always keep copies of articles I write on the blog elsewhere for situations like these.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Doug,

      Glad to hear the posts are back. Though I have no need to save them, I’m glad the time I put into them will continue to bear some fruit.

      About extraterrestrials and the activities of “three letter agencies” to suppress the knowledge of them, quite honestly I just don’t have much interest in either one.

      I know UFOs are fascinating and significant for many people. They open the possibility of a wider universe than we’ve been aware of previously. I’m also a great fan of sci-fi, and love a good ET flick. But for me, the new spiritual worlds opened up by Swedenborg are far greater and more significant than anything we might discover by contact with aliens.

      It’s not so much that I don’t believe aliens exist or could potentially travel to our planet. Modern scientific knowledge suggests that it is very likely that there are many inhabited planets in the universe besides our own. However, as fascinating as it would be, I doubt that contact with an alien species would change my outlook on life all that much. My view of the spiritual and material universe is already very comfortable with the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

      • Doug Webber says:

        Hello Lee,
        The only reason why I started to do research into UFOs and extraterrestrials, is that I saw several comments and at least one book written on Swedenborg by outsiders, and typically when it comes to his views on extraterrestrials, they IMMEDIATELY reject anything Swedenborg has to say. They ignore what he said on the theological front. One wife told her husband about him and when she brought up extraterrestrials, I think he said that Swedenborg belongs in some mental institute. So when I read that, I said enough was enough, I started to gather the evidence and now at least I have some to counter the argument. It is a problem that the Swedenborg churches have failed to address. Even I had problems with it. Because if he is wrong on that, he could be wrong in other matters. But if he was right, and if we have proof to show he was right, then more will pay attention.

        At this point I have enough evidence, I am beyond the seeking proof stage, but when someone hacks in and deletes comments on my blog it is a bit of a nuisance. Something similar happened before on the blog, so hopefully after this it will be the end of the matter.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Doug,

          I understand your concerns about Swedenborg’s book Earths in the Universe. I’m old enough to remember something of the excitement among Swedenborgians when we humans first went to the moon, and the shock when we didn’t find any life, or even possibility of life, there. I think the main body of Swedenborgians has been in denial ever since.

          For me personally, it has never been much of an issue. Swedenborg’s enlightenment was spiritual, not material. The science embodied in his works is not revelatory. He wrote according to the best science of his day–his own earlier formulated science being in some respects much superior to what other contemporary scientists had come up with.

          For me, the issue of Earths in the Universe is fairly simple. In the spiritual world, Swedenborg met the spirits of beings from other planets, and was even allowed to see their physical planets. No problem there. Modern scientists commonly think that there are likely to be many other planets in the universe inhabited by advanced life forms. Swedenborg simply mis-identified these spirits as coming from the other planets in our solar system. And the cosmology of the day was not sufficiently advanced to show how planets that don’t support life could contribute to the goal of the universe as Swedenborg saw it, which was to create a heaven from the human race.

          We now have a much greater awareness of the incredible complexities involved in producing planets capable of supporting intelligent life, and the vast spaces, process, and resources required to produce such planets. For example, several generations of stars had to be born and die before inhabited planets were possible. We now know that many uninhabited planets are necessary to produce inhabited ones. For example, the gas giants are chemical laboratories that produce the organic compounds that seed future solar systems with the building blocks for life.

          All of this was unknown to Swedenborg. His main point was to support the idea that the purpose of the universe was to sustain human life. He simply didn’t have the science at his disposal to discern how uninhabited planets would contribute to that, so he made a very understandable mistake in thinking that all planets must be inhabited.

          Rather than detracting from his writings as a vehicle for divine truth, I believe this scientific error enhances it. It points out to us that just as the Bible doesn’t exist to convey scientific and material-level truth to us, neither do Swedenborg’s writings exist to convey scientific and material-level truth to us. If someone is going to reject Swedenborg because he was limited by the science of his day, then they probably aren’t capable of thinking deeply enough to get the real, spiritual message that Swedenborg delivered to the world.

          In this way, Earths in the Universe serves as a guard to keep material-minded people from learning and corrupting the divine truth contained in Swedenborg’s writings.

          (For those reading in, I do not think Swedenborg’s writings are equal to the Word of God. But that’s a whole different issue.)

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