Goodwill to all men?

On the day Jesus was born, a choir of angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests” (Luke 2:14).

Or something like that. The original language is a bit cryptic and it is difficult to translate it. Consequently there are many variations of this angelic hymn of praise.

The traditional rendering—the one you’ll find in the carols and Christmas cards—is “Peace on earth, Good will to men.” Whatever version you settle on, one idea comes across clearly. God “favours” us—he has “goodwill” toward us. Let’s think about that for a moment.

Earlier in my ministerial career I was privileged to work in Southeast Asia. My congregation was mainly young Chinese, whose previous experience with religion had been very different from my own. Most had come from a mixture of Buddhism mixed with ancestor worship and paganism. These dedicated young people had no difficulty understanding that God had to be obeyed, but the idea that God actually loved them was harder for them to grasp. When I visited the temples where they had once worshiped, I began to see why.

Although there were many gods, none of them seemed to be showing much goodwill toward humanity. Instead, they seemed to be the very opposite of what their names implied. The natural proclivity of the rain god was a drought, and in order for it to rain, he had to be persuaded with offerings and incantations. The same approach was needed to get a good harvest, or a healthy baby. From the look on the face of the Goddess of Mercy it was obvious that you did not want to catch her on a bad day.

The relationship people built with these gods was defensive. They assumed that the default mode of these “deities” was to withhold their blessings. You had to buy their favour with gifts or burnt offering or special temple money (that you had to buy with real money). So it was not surprising that members of my congregation were interested in what they had to do in order to win the favour and stay on the right side of the God of the Bible. Legalism came naturally to them.

Thankfully, most of us who have grown up in the Western tradition don’t have that problem.

Or do we?

Our relationship with God, although perhaps more sophisticated than burning incense or offering special money, often has the nature of a transaction. We believe God is displeased with us, and that Jesus came to be a sacrifice for our sins and to show us how to live to keep him from getting displeased with us again. If we accept Jesus, and then shape up to his example, he will put in a good word for us. Even then, it will be touch and go, since we have such a knack for falling short of perfection. And, of course, people who don’t accept him before they die have no hope at all. But is this so different from the temple worshippers who assume that the natural mode of their gods is to be angry, or at best indifferent to us?

Jesus did not come just to throw some wannabe good guys a lifeline. He came because God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—love us and want us. Far from wanting something from us, God put everything on the line to redeem us and make us new. Surely there can be no more sincere a demonstration of God’s positive feelings towards us than the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

As Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, “We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him” (Romans 5:7-8, The Message).

The gospel is not just good news. It is better news than we could have possibly imagined.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Christian Odyssey