SERMON: The Hope of Christmas (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; 40: 1-2, 9; Micah 5:2-4; ; Matthew 1:18-22; 2:1-12; Luke 1:26-33, 38; 2:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20)
Six more shopping days until Christmas; seven more sleeps. And probably, for many, still a lot of preparation to do. It seems that most of us at Christmas have a long list of things to do. And that no sooner do you cross off one item, then you think of another five to put on—a present for someone, something you’ve missed for the table… and the list goes on.
But, of course, that is only one side of Christmas. It’s what in the west we’ve been taught is expected of us—at least in the last hundred years or so. But even then, those expectations do not always relate well to reality.
After all, there are many people today who cannot afford that kind of Christmas, but yet are still actively encouraged to participate in that kind of celebration. There are people who are going through a tough time, and are finding that kind of Christmas all too much. And there are people for whom Christmas brings back bad memories—and can’t wait for the celebrations to be over.
Christmas can be a happy time, and it can be a sad time. And it isn’t always helped by the expectations that have been placed on us over the last hundred years or so.
But how about you? How are you preparations going this year? Well to put our feelings and our preparations into context, what I’d like to do is to reflect on some of the situations behind the readings that we’ve had today.
B. PROPHECIES OF THE COMING MESSIAH
1. Reading 1: Judah under attack by Israel and Aram (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)
And I want to begin with the first reading from Isaiah.
Now it’s about 725 BC. Israel had been a divided kingdom for a little over two hundred years—there was Israel in the north centred on Samaria, and Judah in the south centred on Jerusalem. And at this point of time, Israel had allied itself with Aram (centred on Damascus) to invade Judah. In other words the background to the reading is a war.
Now Ahaz, the king of Judah, was not a faithful servant of God. He preferred worshiping other gods. But despite that, God sent his prophet Isaiah to him, to tell him that he had the situation in hand. What Ahaz had to do was to trust God. And God even gave him a sign—a child would be born—after which the conflict would come to an end. And of course that is exactly what happened. Mrs Isaiah got pregnant, gave birth to a son, the war came to an end and the captives were returned to Judah.
As a consequence, our first reading reflects part of that story. It describes the sign that King Ahaz was given—the baby that was born—the proof that God would come to the rescue of his people. Which he did. God provided hope in a very difficult situation.
However, how much understanding there was, at that time, of a deeper meaning behind that prophecy, we can only guess. What we do know is that seven hundred plus years later, those words formed part of the expectation that a Messiah was to be born.
So how about that for a background to the Christmas story? A war.
2. Reading 2: Judah under attack by Assyria (Micah 5:2-4)
But it doesn’t end there, because move forward fifteen years, to about 710 BC, and we find another war.
Now, at this particular time, the northern kingdom of Israel was no more. The Assyrians had conquered the land, and the people had been taken into exile. But Judah, centred on Jerusalem, was still there, and this time under the rule of King Hezekiah. Now unlike his father Ahaz, Hezekiah was a faithful king. But, despite that, he and his people were noted as being proud, arrogant, and self-sufficient. They had entangled themselves in an alliance with Assyria which had gone terribly wrong. So they rebelled against them, and now they faced attack from the Assyrian army.
And this time, it was the prophet Micah who delivered God’s message of hope. And because they were so proud, and self-sufficient, Micah told them that, this time, help would come from the most insignificant of places—from Bethlehem.
Now history doesn’t tell us who that person from Bethlehem was. Nevertheless the story assumes that someone from Bethlehem came, and the Assyrians returned home. Prophecy fulfilled. Except for, again, at some stage came the realisation that the prophecy had a deeper meaning. So much so that seven hundred plus years later there was an expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
Now that’s two readings we traditionally have at Christmas time, which not only prophecy about a Messiah, but also deal with the reality of war. Which may well put any struggles we have with Christmas into perspective.
3. Reading 3: Exile in Babylon (Isaiah 40: 1-2, 9)
But it doesn’t end there, either. Because move forward another one hundred and fifty years, and it’s about 560 BC. And the people of Judah are in exile in Babylon. Forty years before the Babylonians had attacked Jerusalem, and the city had been demolished. So now the people were languishing in exile—and could only dream of returning home.
So God sent another prophet to the people, with yet another message of hope. God’s people would return to Jerusalem. And of course, if we’d read the verses that we missed out, we would have read something which would be very familiar: “A voice of one calling ‘Prepare a way for YHWH in the wilderness; make straight the highway for our God in the desert.’”
In other words the prophecy not only told the people that their exile was at an end, but it showed them how they would be brought back to Jerusalem. Now we don’t know who that “voice calling in the wilderness” was, but we do know is that the people returned to Jerusalem.
But more than that, over the next five hundred and fifty plus years the understanding of the prophecy grew, so that there became an expectation that the Messiah would be preceded by a messenger who would show the people the way.
So two wars, and living in exile, provide the context to three very traditional Christmas readings. But I wonder how often we think of that? In each case God gave an immediate message of hope, and in each case he asked the people to trust in him. But more than that, God’s promises provided an expectation, a hope, for well into the future as well.
Which would tend to suggest, that if we are struggling, if we are going through a hard time this Christmas … Well, we may not be facing a war, we may not be languishing in exile, but we can still have hope. But if only we put our trust in our creator.
But let’s move to what may be more familiar territory.
C. THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH
1. Reading 4: Mary (Luke 1:26-33, 38)
Because, move to about 7 BC, the Romans occupy the land, and the expectations about a Messiah are rife. A child is to be born, he is to come from Bethlehem, and he is to be preceded by a messenger leading the way.
Now imagine the scene … Mary, a devout believer in God—a girl, of about 12 or 13 years old—is engaged to be married, and she is visited by an angel who tells her part in bringing Jesus into the world. Now that was good news, in terms of being chosen by God. But now the bad news. Becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a recipe, for being stoned to death, or at the very least, living as an outcast, with a very bleak future, or having to resort to prostitution to survive.
Life would have been far from easy. But she was a young woman who was very strong in her faith. And despite the consequences was all too willing to do her part.
2. Reading 5: Joseph (Matthew 1:18-22)
Enter Joseph. Well when he discovered that Mary was pregnant, he was faced with a dilemma. He knew he would be expected to publicly end their engagement. Mary would then be open to face ridicule and shame—or even being stoned for her crime.
But that was something that Joseph, a man of God, did not want to do. So, he thought about it, and decided it would be far better to just quietly sign the papers needed to break the engagement, and go their separate ways.
But then Joseph was visited by an angel too. This time it was in a dream. And the angel told him to abandon his traditions, to abandon all his cultural sensitivities—no matter how difficult that would be—and marry Mary anyway. And being the man of God that he was, that was exactly what he did. And God blessed them both because of it.
3. Reading 6: The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7)
Now move on to about 6 BC (yes, someone can’t count), and all of Mary and Joseph’s nightmares come true. They were required to go to Bethlehem for a census, where suitable accommodation was not easy to find. Indeed, whatever plans they had for the birth of Jesus, and whatever preparations they had made, needed had to be set aside for their attendance in Bethlehem. And it was there that Jesus was born.
4. Reading 7: The Shepherds and Angels (Luke 2:8-14)
So finally, the expectations of the Jewish people were met. Yes, John the Baptist still had to do his job as the messenger, but being born six months earlier God’s plans were well in hand.
But for now the Messiah had been born. And the prophecies and the expectations of the people are summed up in the visit of the shepherds and the angels.
Having said that, however, I’m not sure even then, seven hundred plus years after Isaiah’s prophecy, that the people really understood what it all meant.
5. Reading 8: The Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)
But it was an event that even some astrologers—probably from Arabia or Persia—recognised had great significance. As a consequence they journeyed to Jerusalem, were sent on to Bethlehem, and were led by a star to the child.
Now Old Testament wars and exile aside, even in the New Testament Mary and Joseph did not have an easy time. The first Christmas was not an easy event. The things they were asked to do by God, in many ways went against the grain of the expectations of society. And even the delivery of the baby was not in the best of circumstances.
They had a tough time. And yet, the promises of God brought hope. They gave something to live for, something to get excited about. But like those who faced war or exile, did they even then fully understand what it was that God had promised?
D. WHO IS THE MESSIAH?
After all, at the time of Jesus’s birth, the land was under Roman occupation. And many of the Old Testament prophecies, as we have seen, promised God’s help in difficult physical situations as well as providing that longer term hope for the future.
There was a common expectation, then, that the Messiah would do away with the Romans. And, whatever else he did, that he would restore sovereignty to the Jews. As consequence, when some of those expectations weren’t met, the people’s disappointment was to play a major role in his execution. What the people didn’t get, even in the early pages of the New Testament, was that the primary focus of God’s promises was not about rescuing his people from an aggressor, but on restoring his people’s relationship with him.
Time after time, the people had strayed in their relationship with him, and each time God had come to their rescue. He had rescued them from their enemies, and given them hope. But each time his main focus, was the need for his people to trust in him.
But it hadn’t worked. Because no sooner did people return to him, then they strayed again, and the whole process began all over again. So this time, he was looking for a more permanent solution to the problem of sin.
2. Reading 9: The Supremacy of Christ (Colossians 1:15-20)
Which is why I’ve chosen the poem or hymn, written or adapted, by Paul in his letter to the church at Colossae, to conclude our readings. Because in a letter written about 60AD, we find Jesus, as the Christ, summarised in two ways.
Firstly, he is described as the one through whom God created the universe (vv. 15-17). And then secondly he is described as the one rules the world, through God’s saving love. (vv. 18-20).
Now of course, there had been hints about who the Messiah was, reaching far back into history—as we’ve seen. But it probably needed Jesus to begin his ministry for some of the pieces to be properly understood. And even then, it evidently took some time for everything to click into place.
Jesus was the solution to mankind’s problem. He was promised by God, and he came to make possible our relationship with God. Indeed, Jesus is the reason we celebrate Christmas.
So in the midst of disaster, there is hope. When things go wrong there is always something to live for, and get excited about. Indeed God has gone to great lengths to come to our rescue and to give us hope.
So how is our Christmas going? Have we got everything that we’ve been told that we need? Or is this year a bit of a disaster, when nothing’s going right? Or is this Christmas a time when all we want to do, is to have it over and done with?
Well if it is all getting too much, think back to 725 BC. Think of the time when Israel and Aram attacked Judah. Think back to 710 BC when Assyria attacked Judah. And think back to 560 BC when the people were languishing in exile. And if that is the kind of Christmas that you’re having, then think of the prophecies of hope—of a baby being born in Bethlehem, and a messenger who will lead the way.
Think back to Mary and Joseph in 7 BC, and the issues they had to face. The problems that Mary’s pregnancy invoked, and the less than ideal circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth. And if that’s the kind of Christmas that you’re facing, then think of the fulfilment of the prophecies of hope.
2. Hope in the Christmas Story
Because in each of our readings is a message of hope.
Our first three readings reflect God’s promise to his people, who were in dire need of his help. And he responded not only to their immediate needs, but he gave them hope for the future as well.
Which means that no matter what our circumstances, and how our preparations are going for Christmas this year, we should have hope. Hope in God that he will see to our physical needs. But hope in God that he will see to our spiritual needs too. And we can only have hope if we are people of God.
3. Our Modern Society
Yes, of course, our society encourages us to go to the shops. Yes, the adverts on television provide us with the modern expectations that only the last one hundred plus years have brought. But that is not what Christmas should be all about. Christmas should be about a baby being born in Bethlehem. It is about God coming to the rescue of his people. And it is about God giving his people hope.
So how are your preparations going this Christmas? Is everything on track, or are you getting flustered, and everything seems to be going wrong? Or is this a time that’s just too traumatic, and all that you can think about is getting it over with?
Well, wherever you sit this year, think of the Christmas story. Think of the wars against Judah—by Israel and Aram, and then the might of the Assyrian Army. And think of the people languishing in Babylon. All situations where God provided prophecies that dealt with the current situation, but provided hope for the future as well. And then think of the traumas of Mary and Joseph. Now does that put your Christmas into perspective?
Well if it does, then think of the fulfilment of those prophecies—the birth of the Messiah. The response of God to the deep spiritual need of his people. The need of all people for God’s grace, and for a relationship with the one who rules the world. Because that is what Christmas is supposed to be about. Indeed to coin an old and commonly abused phrase, “That is the “true” meaning of Christmas.”
The challenge this year, then, is to focus our Christmas—not on presents, or food, or drink, or family—but on hope. We consequently need to put the expectations of our day into perspective. But we also need to grab that hope.
We need to approach the Messiah as the one through whom the universe was created. And we need approach him as the one who rules the world, through God’s saving love.
Posted: 16th December 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Making A Godly Decision (Isaiah 40:21-31)
1. Decision Making
Every now and again we all face turning points in our lives—ones that requires major decisions. It might involve something to do with education, and the decision about which stream to take. It might involve employment, and what kind of career to pursue. It might involve having a partner, and the decision about whether to commit or not. In addition, there is housing, children, retirement, etc., etc., all of which require major decisions which may require drastic changes to our way of life.
Of course with all these major turning points in life, in order to make a decision, you need a certain amount of information. You need to ask questions so that you can make an informed decision. And those questions can be about both facts and opinions. And they can be asked of a friend, a family member, a neighbour, an expert in a particular field, and even of God himself. But only when all the information is in, can a proper decision be made.
Some decisions will be easy and others difficult. But procrastination, and non-decision can be just as bad as the wrong decision—and can lead us down the completely wrong path.
Unfortunately, in asking questions—in gathering the information we need—we may not always get answers with which we are comfortable. However, if our decisions are to be the right ones, not only do we need to ask the right questions, but we need to have the courage of our convictions too. And that is despite the fact that the right decision may well make us very uncomfortable indeed.
So, how do we make our decisions? Do we tend to get all the facts together first, or are we happy with only a limited amount of detail? And when we do have all the facts, what do we then do with the ones that suggest that we should make ourselves uncomfortable? And where does God fit in to our decision-making processes?
2. The Exiles
Now to consider some of these questions, I’d like to refer to the passage from Isaiah. Because it’s a passage which has as its background a picture of God’s people who had found that what God had asked of them was too much. In fact, it made them so uncomfortable they decided to take another path. God wanted his people to put him first, but it was not a concept that the people found easy. So they made a decision on which way to go in life—and it just happened to be the wrong one. And as a consequence of making the wrong decision, they had to live with the consequences.
And the consequences of their wrong decision were two-fold. Firstly, they were taken captives to a foreign land; they were split up from their families, homes, and the things they loved. And, secondly, being a long way from home, they felt terribly abandoned by God (and that is despite the fact that they had abandoned him). In other words, faced with the major decision of whether to follow God or not, they made the wrong decision. And they consequently had to live with the consequences.
Having said that, however, they came to realise their predicament. And as a consequence, they started the process of decision making all over again. They began to ask questions all over again—to gather data. And having adapted themselves to the local way of thinking, their questions began at a very basic level.
B. TWO QUESTIONS
1. Is God Just One of Many Gods?
Because the very first question they asked was: “Is God just one of a number of gods? And if so, in contrast to others, how powerful was he?”
Yet to that question, they received an answer through the prophet Isaiah. And although Isaiah provided no new information, he repeated the things that they should have already known, because the character of God had been passed down from ancient times (21).
Indeed, God was not just A creator, but THE creator (22). It was God alone who had created everything. He had designed, pre-planned, and knew everything from the beginning to the end. He alone was responsible for his creation and for the care of the world that he’d created.
And, yes, there were many others who claimed to be gods (23), but they were nothing in the scheme of things. Some of the rulers of the earth may have claimed divine status, but they were nothing—less than specks—in comparison with God.
The essential character of God, Isaiah claimed, was that he was holy. That was how he revealed himself to his people. In comparison, the so-called Babylonian gods may have been identified with the heavenly bodies, but the heavenly bodies were really only part of the created order, which had been assigned their proper and limited functions by God the creator himself.
The conclusion to the question about God, then—about whether he was just one of many, and how powerful he really was—was that God was the absolute power over the whole universe. Indeed, he was the sole creator, for all of creation was confined to the activity of the one God.
And, having received that reply, which simply restated what they should already have known, one could easily have expected that God’s people—facing this point in their lives—would simply make the decision to follow God. To re-commit themselves to God, and, at the very least, to reinstate their past worshipping practices. However, like all decision makers, getting the facts right does not necessarily mean they were willing or ready to make the right decision.
They were still uncomfortable with the decision they should logically have made. So, in this case, rather than make a decision at all, they hesitated. They then added a further question, aimed at blaming God rather than themselves for their predicament.
3. Or, Is It That God Is Unwilling to Help?
OK they said, if God is the only god—which they were inclined to believe—then was it that God was unable to help them in their predicament, or was it that God was just unwilling to do so?
In other words, having been reminded of the past regarding God the creator, they recalled that God had made certain promises to their ancestors, about making them a great nation etc, etc. And they pointed out that, in their current predicament, God was actually ignoring their rightful claim to the fulfilment of those promises.
The issue, therefore, was that either God was deliberately refusing to see the fate of the exiles (27), or that he had so confused his people that they had lost their way.
And in that question, not only did they seek to blame God for their situation, but they seemed to have conveniently forgotten the whole reason they were exiled in the first place. That is, because that they had turned their backs on God, which is why he could no longer offer them his protection. Indeed, it was they who needed to repent and turn back to God, not the other way around.
Despite that, however, the prophet Isaiah, again, came to their rescue. But he did not offer anything new in this second answer either. He simply answered by appealing to the things they should already have known:
That God was an everlasting God (28); that his controlling activity extended throughout all time—past, present and future. That God’s power was equally unlimited in space. And if that was part of who God was, how could he possibly grow tired or weary? On the contrary the human mind was far too small to comprehend God’s mind or judge his intentions. Yes, God would act, but only at the appropriate time.
He reminded them of their history, and that that God had rescued individuals, and the people in general, many times in the past (29). And as a consequence he could be expected to do so again.
He reminded them that there was a huge contrast between the frailty and unaided human strength at its best (30-31), and the strength which God gives—and would give—to those who wait for the Lord. All they needed to do was to wait, with confident expectation and trust.
So in conclusion to the question of whether God was unwilling to help, the answer was that they needed to have faith, they needed to trust God. And if they did that, even in old age, it would be like they could grow wings and fly.
Of course the sad thing is that even having been reminded of who God was and what he used to mean to them, did not necessarily mean that even then they would make the right decision.
However faced with the dilemma—this point in their lives—they had sought out the answers to their questions, and in response they received some facts from Isaiah (facts they should have already known). And so they were now in a perfect position to make their decision.
So what this passage provides, then, is an example of the sort of processes that we can go through when we have to make one of those big life-changing decisions.
Because it reminds us of the need to get answers to our questions, in order to make the right decision. It reminds us that many of the facts that we may need to consider may well be already known to us. It also reminds us that many of the answers might make us feel uncomfortable.
However it also reminds us of what can happen if we make the wrong decision—that we will need to live with the consequences
In regard to our own decision-making processes then:
1. Asking and Listening
Firstly, when we ask questions of people, as well as of God, we need to make sure we are willing to listen to the answers. Because it’s no good dismissing some of the facts, simply because they make us feel uncomfortable.
For example, if we want God to guide us for the future, it’s no good putting limits and restrictions on the things we’re prepared to hear, because there are some things we are simply not prepared to do. Rather we need to be willing to hear every word, and have our hearts open to the things that God has to say.
2. Decision and Action
Secondly, when we’ve got all the facts together, it’s decision time. And no amount of indecision or prevaricating will make that decision any easier.
And in the context of following God, we need to look at the facts. We need to look at the things that he is asking us to do and the places he wants us to go. And we need to make the right decision.
Now, obviously taking any new track is likely to make us feel uncomfortable. And going along the path that God calls us to walk on will usually mean we will get very uncomfortable indeed. But we need to have the courage of our convictions. Because any decision making is pointless, if we deliberately choose the wrong way, or if we agree to something in theory and then refuse to put it into practice.
3. Living with the Consequences
And, thirdly, whatever decision we make, we need to understand that we have to live with the consequences. And it isn’t good enough to blame others, or blame God, for the poor choices that we make.
But in regard to any spiritual decision:
If our decision is to agree to do whatever God asks—whether we’ve done it before or not, and no matter how challenging or what others might think (and that can pretty uncomfortable)—the reward will be great blessings.
But if we decide to go down a different path—a path we think we can cope with, a path that is more acceptable to us and to others, a path that provides no real spiritual challenges—then we have to be prepared to live with the consequences.
After all, the Israelites maintained a deaf ear to the things they were uncomfortable with. They knew the answers, because all Isaiah had to do was to remind them of the things they should have known. The Israelites’ problem was that they were just unwilling to put their convictions into practice. Indeed, they preferred to blame God rather than themselves. And we have to make sure that we don’t end up doing the same thing too.
Now we all have to make decisions in life—and many of them. And part of the decision-making process is the need to gather all the facts in order to make the right decisions. But being willing to ask questions is one thing, being willing to act on the answers provided is another thing altogether.
So when we have a decision for the future to make—and it will different for each of us—it may be helpful to have the Israelites in the back of our minds. They were supposed to be the people of God. However in reality they fell far short of the mark. They made the wrong decision. They knew the answers but were frightened of making the right decision. They knew what to do, but they found it more comfortable doing something else. And as a consequence, they looked around for someone to blame for their own poor decision making.
So, yes, we can learn from their (poor) example. Because it’s not a picture that we should want anyone to repeat.
Posted: 20th March 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis