The Bad News and the Good News at Christmas

Published: Tuesday, 26 December 2017

This sermon was preached by Geoff Pound on Christmas Day 2017.

Reading: Luke 2:1-20

A man was farewelling his wife one morning at Melbourne airport. She was leaving for a short holiday in England. But later that afternoon their pet dog died.

That evening when the woman arrived in New Zealand she telephoned home to ask how everything was. The man blurted out the news: "The dog’s dead!"

She was very upset. She was absolutely devastated. Through her tears she chided him for being so tactless.

"What should I have said?" he asked.

She said: "You should have shared the news gently, perhaps in stages. So, when I phoned from here in Auckland you could have said," The dog is on the roof.". The next day when I call from LA you could say, "The dog has fallen off the roof." The following day when I call from New York you could have said: "I've taken the dog to the vet." And finally, from London I could have been informed, "The dog has passed away."

Her husband was absorbing this advice when his wife asked: "By the way, how’s mother?" The man paused…and then he said: "She's on the roof!"

There’s real art in sharing difficult news

The Christmas story is full of difficult news.

For instance, we see Mary. She’s engaged. She’s a virgin.

She’s wrapped up with all her wedding plans. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door:

The messenger says: “Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1: 28f)

“But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

The Christmas story comes first of all as bad news.

The Christian message often appears to be disturbing and unwelcome.

To be fair, the messenger says to her: “Don’t be afraid Mary.”

That’s comforting - but then he goes on to say: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.”

This news is a bombshell!!

The Christmas message is at first confusing, for Mary asks: “How can this be?”

The story goes on to tell of Mary’s challenge of breaking this news to her fiancé.

Joseph takes this badly.

He’s thinking of the shame this news will bring so he hatches a plan of putting her away.

Breaking off the engagement. Getting a divorce.

But he sticks with her. Then, just as Mary is due, there’s another announcement of bad news!

The Emperor decrees a census.

Mary and Joseph must travel to Bethlehem.

Then, there’s a shortage of accommodation, which is rough when the baby’s coming.

Amidst all the carol singing and gift giving of Christmas it’s important to recognise the tough and troubling news that many are contending with this season.

Singing ‘Silent Night, all is calm, all is bright’ sounds phony when you’ve just had a family blow up.

‘Joy to the world’ rings hollow when you’ve just lost your job.

In a Christmas letter we received last week, the woman writes that her mother died in June, she herself had a fall and broke her arm. In this last month, her brother was killed in a car accident and while they were getting ready for the funeral, the guy’s mother had a turn and died eleven days later. How ever do you wish a couple like that a merry Christmas?

Yet I noticed that their letter read:

“We hope that Advent and Christmas will be a time of celebration, joy, laughter and peaceful reflection for you and the family this year as it will be for us.”

Yes, there’s bad news at Christmas but there’s also good news. Wonderful news even in the midst of trouble, bereavement and loneliness.

How many times in your life have you said: “I’ve got some good news and some bad news?”

I need your advice. Should we give the good news before the bad or should we let the happy follow the sad?

Who thinks we should start off with the good news?

Who thinks we should start with the bad?

You’re very helpful. Now I know exactly what to do!

Some people start with the good news first. Because it’s uncomfortable giving bad news so you want to ease into it. You don’t want people to think you’re a killjoy by aggressively dropping bad news on people first.

Most important is that giving the good news first offers a comfortable cushion.

We’re building a soft feathery doona of good feelings to cushion against the coming hammer blow.

But the science tells us that when people are on the receiving end and they hear us say, “I have good news and bad news”, four out of five of us prefer getting the bad news first.  Why is that?[1]

Because given the choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate.

We prefer rising sequences to declining sequences.

We prefer endings that have some uplift rather than endings which go downwards.

So, the next time you are in this situation and you say:

“I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news”,

Give the bad news first, follow-up with the good news and you’ll create a happy ending for yourself and everybody else!

This is the sequence we find in the Christmas story.

With the bad, troubling, confusing, shameful news that Mary received, she hung on in there until she finally said,

“Here I am, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1: 38)

Soon we hear Mary singing this good news: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1: 47-48)

Instead of bowing out when she received the bad news, Mary hangs on in and the bad news is transformed into the good.

We see this with the shepherds.

They’re sitting in the fields one ordinary night keeping watch over their flocks.

Suddenly the heavens open like a curtain.

The inky night turns into a blazing light. They were terrified.

This seems like bad news. But they heard a voice saying:

“Don’t be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

(Luke 2: 8-11)

Instead of being terrified and turned off by the bad news they said:

“Let’s go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.”

We don’t have to look far this Christmas to see plenty of bad news. Even the Christian message looks like bad news to begin with. But Mary and Joseph inspire us to stay with our disruption and confusion and our broken plans until the good news is born.

The shepherds show us how to take our terror and our fear and in checking it out for themselves to see bad news turned into the good.

It’s no wonder that these reports were written up in what they called ‘The Gospel’, meaning Good News.

So, however terrible and troubled and bad is the news that we experience today, may we enter into the joy and the wonder of the good news that has been born into our world.


[1] Dan Pink, Pinkcast 2:9, ‘Which should you give first—good news or bad news? Dan Pink.