Maybe I spend too much time on the internet, but there seems to be a fair consensus that 2016 wasn’t anyone’s favourite year. Political insanity, environmental disasters, racial tension, war, famine, terrorism, genocide… plus Alan Rickman and Gordie Howe died… argh. It was kind of a lousy year.
I’ve personally been through a lot this year too, as I’m sure you have. I know what some of you have gone through this year.
- You’ve had to face death, loss, and deep sadness.
- You’ve had your whole life turned upside down with sickness and pain.
- You’ve faced financial troubles.
- Your heart was ripped out of you by the betrayal of a loved one.
- You’ve lost your job and faced the uncertainty of unemployment.
- You’ve faced personal battles that have all but crippled you physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
- You’ve felt the shame and fear of being caught doing something you shouldn’t have, and worry about the long-term results.
- You’ve had pressures put on you unlike you’ve ever faced before, and you’ve buckled under them, and you’ve felt like you let everyone around you down.
And that’s just some of the troubles the folks in our little church have faced in 2016. This really has been a rough year.
I read an article this week called, “Is 2016 the worst year history?” that tried to put a little of it in perspective by saying it could have been worse. It’s not always the most helpful thing to do, but it has its place.
The media in 2016 may have made it sound like the world was ending, but we could be living thousands of years ago around the time of the Volcanic Super-Eruption that had the power of 1.5 million nuclear bombs sending gigantic rocks all over the world and bringing about an ice age that killed most humans on the planet. So that’s worse.
1348 was worse too, since it was when the Black Death took hold which killed thousands of people every day. Death came so quickly and numerously that they didn’t have time to bury people, so they were left piled in the streets to be torn apart by dogs. That’s worse than 2016.
1917 would be a good contender as the worst year ever as it was the middle of seeing the atrocities of the First World War.
Or 1943 when the Holocaust of World War II was on its way to killing more than 1.3 million Jews. Feeding the European soldiers came at the cost of bringing famine to countries like India where 3 million died through starvation. The death count of WWII would eventually be over 60 million people, or 3% of the world’s population. Add to that the race riots throughout the US, and the forced encampment of 22,000 Japanese-Canadians.
Regardless of what we’ve faced this year, I think we can agree that living through those times would have all been way, way worse. Sometimes it’s important for us to step back for a moment and get some perspective, right?
But, there were a lot of good things that happened this year too! There was a tonne of scientific progress, especially in space and travel technology. Cancer research and solar energy are getting some big breakthroughs. A bunch of animals were taken off the endangered species lists. The ozone layer is apparently repairing itself. And some really good movies and shows came out this year – though maybe that’s just important to me.
When I look back at 2016 in our church I see a lot of good things too. We’ve grown in faith, number and love over the past year. We’ve seen people dedicate their lives to Jesus, be baptized, and become members. We’ve seen good things happen in the small groups and bible studies, have had some really great events, and have worked together in community outreach projects. We’ve had a good year financially, new people have been elected to key positions in the church, and we’re on our way to upgrading some of our technology here. The Sunday School program is bursting with kids and I’ve heard a lot of positive things from the teachers. I’ve heard people say they have become more passionate about sharing their faith, private prayer and bible reading this year.
I’m sure if you look back at 2016 you can pick out some good things that God has brought into your life this year too.
Keeping things in perspective, by which I mean recognizing and mourning the effects of sin and evil in this world while keeping an eye toward what is good and hopeful, is an important Christian discipline. It’s one reason that pastors and counsellors keep telling people to journal – so there’s a written record of the good we so easily forget when bad happens.
As Christians, when things are anywhere from merely annoying to truly terrible, we make the choice to turn to God and His Word for perspective. It is within God’s Word that we are reminded that despite the evil we see and feel, there are still abundant blessings in this world and that we are people who have a great and glorious hope. As Romans 12:12 would put it, Christians “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
That’s the recipe for hope. We don’t pretend tribulation doesn’t happen – but instead, look at it through the lens of hope and ask God for patience. Constant prayer keeps us connected to God who gives us the strength we need to endure and reminds us of what He has planned for us and the world in the future. This is part of what Jesus meant when He said,
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
If our treasure, meaning that which we value most, is on earth, then we’re in trouble because there’s no way it’s going to stick around. The world around us is full of moths that sneak in to ruin things. Even if we leave it alone, eventually all things succumb to time, turning to rust and dust, and losing their appeal. And for the few things that aren’t eaten by moths and time, we still face the evils of humanity that tries to wreck or steal our treasure.
Jesus teaches us to have the right perspective on this world – that no matter how good or bad things are here, it’s all passing away. Therefore, by “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in tribulation, and being constant in prayer.” we “lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven”, which will never let us down.
It is this connection to Jesus which lets us repeat with conviction the famous line from Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” Are we in the valley? Yes. Must we walk through it? Yes. Are we surrounded by death and evil? Yes. So why do we not fear? Because of our Christian perspective that Jesus, our Great Shepherd, is with us no matter where we go (John 10:11).
The Drama of Christmas
This very personal story of facing trouble while pursuing hope is the back-story to Christmas. Turn with me to Isaiah 8.
I read somewhere online about someone who was complaining that he’s not a big fan of the Christmas story because there isn’t enough drama to hold his attention. Where’s the excitement in a young woman being inconvenienced by having to give birth in a stable because the government wanted to collect some taxes? If you get your picture of Christmas from your average Christmas carol, then Jesus was born on a silent night, during a midnight clear, while all was calm and all was bright, while the ox and lamb were sleeping, and even baby Jesus, no crying he made. We picture Jesus sleeping in on an extremely clean bed of hay, surrounded by baby lambs, smiling shepherds, softly singing angels, while three aged wise men slide expensive presents over to Joseph and Mary. One song even goes so far as to calls the time of Jesus birth, the “age of gold”.
If that’s your picture of the nativity scene, then there’s no wonder that it gets a little boring – that it lacks drama. But that’s not the picture that the Bible paints of Jesus birth at all.
In Isaiah 8 and 9 we get a picture of the cosmic drama that was playing out over 2000 years ago. The prophet Isaiah lived over 700 years before Jesus was born, but prophesied in amazing fashion about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Let’s read to together starting Isaiah 8:11, where we’ll see that Israel wasn’t in the best of states.
In my Bible this section is entitled, “Fear God, Wait for the LORD”
“For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: ‘Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.’”
Here you see the land full of fear and dread because they are surrounded and penetrated by pagans and enemies, which they have even married and made treaties with.(The word “conspiracy” is also the word for “treason”). The whole nation is in upheaval because of these surface level crises, but they had an even greater problem. They had lost their fear of God and had stopped worshiping Him. It continues:
“Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”
We see here how hard their hearts are. They are desperate, but they don’t turn to God’s Word, teachings, testimonies or prophets, but to the evil arts of mediums and necromancers who talk to demons.
Because they have rejected God and allied themselves with pagans, have stopped praying to God and instead consort with demons, they lose God’s blessing and their whole lives turn into a wasteland, the land reflecting the destruction within their hearts. And this makes them angry, but instead of turning to God, they turn “against their king and their God”. And when they look back down to earth, all they feel is “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish”.
To put it another way, they have jumped headlong into the valley of the shadow of death, but they have done so without their shepherd, and they are now almost utterly lost.
And it didn’t get much better over the next 700 years!
They would experience some peace under the Persian Empire, but then Alexander the Great came through and conquered Persia. Alexander allowed the Jews to practice their religion, but brought in a lot of Greek corruption to it. When he died it really went downhill. In around 168 BC Antoiochus Epiphanes wanted to quash Judaism, banned their religion, overthrew the priesthood, and desecrated the Temple. The Jews fought back and there was much war. The season of Hanukkah celebrates when the Maccabees rose up against him and reclaimed the Temple. In 63BC Rome conquered Israel putting it under the control of Caesar, leading to the rule of the very evil King Herod who oppressed, taxed and controlled the Jews with an iron fist. King Herod was the one who ordered the slaughter of every child under 2 in an attempt to kill Jesus.
It was during the time of these occupations, as they fought for their temple worship, that the Pharisees and Sadducees came about, who not only dismissed books of the bible, but added their own religious rules, corrupting God’s word even further. In the year 0, the land of the Jews was, in all respects, a total mess.
That’s the bad news, so we’d better keep reading in Isaiah 9 to get to one of the best words in scripture. “But”.
“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”
“But”, God decrees, “this isn’t the end of the story.” They will not be in gloom forever, nor will they feel His anger forever, because God refuses to stay angry at His people. No matter how bad it is, and bad they are, and how lost they have become in the valley, God will make a “glorious way” to salvation! No matter how dark, they will once again see the light! No matter how oppressed, someone will come to save them. And what is that “glorious way”, from where comes the “light”, and who is that “saviour” from “Galilee”? The answer is Jesus. Let’s read together one of the most important prophecies about Jesus in the Bible, starting at verse 2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
Do you realize how big of a deal it is that an ancient Jewish Prophet just said that a child would be born who’s name would be called “mighty God”? The hero of the story is the God who would be born as a child. The land is in turmoil, the rulers corrupt, the families in ruin, their holiness stained, the people oppressed and impoverished. This is a land without hope, wherein there is only “the gloom of anguish” and “thick darkness” from which they couldn’t escape.
But God says there is hope, and that hope will come in the form of a child. A child who will take His place on the throne of King David, but will never give up that rule. One who could establish his kingdom for all time as the “Everlasting Father” and “Prince of Peace”. The one that all of God’s people had been waiting for; from Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, and everyone else since, would come.
Look at the last line in verse 7: “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” No human can save themself. The nation wouldn’t be required to clean themselves up, raise an army, restore the temple, fix their lives, or anything else. They wouldn’t and they couldn’t. They’d proven that over and over. Same with us. Our salvation is not dependent on our ability to clean ourselves up. The term “the zeal of the Lord” expresses the complex concepts of God’s love for His people, His covenant relationship, His jealousy, His preference for His people above all others, and His divine ability to get the job done. It is God who saves us.
This is the drama of Christmas. Our lives and spirits are a mess, our land becoming more corrupt, injustice and frustration abound. We today, sometimes feel very akin to those who lived before Jesus came, and we have similar hopes. This is why we lean so heavily on God’s promises. He promised a Saviour and delivered. And now, we wait in eager anticipation of His second coming, His second “advent”, where He will finish His work once and for all.
Christmas reminds us that no matter how bad things get, believers can have a different perspective on it than anyone else. We have a great and glorious hope, treasure in heaven, and a very present Saviour that is with us everywhere we go. We don’t have to walk the valley of the shadow of death alone, because Jesus offers to lead us through it. We will never be rejected if we come to Him. He will always listen to us and work on our behalf for our good and His glory.
We don’t despair at what the governments and global corporations of the world are doing because Jesus is the Lord of all and nothing gets by Him. Justice will be done. And we know that Jesus isn’t just a great King of the universe, but that He walks with us, weeps with us, comforts us, and provides wisdom, patience, and strength to get through each day. Nothing can separate us from His love, not even death (Rom 8:38-39). And He promises that even the worst things in our life can be turned around and used for good (Rom 8:28)
My invitation to you, over this Christmas season, is to work on your perspective. I’m not telling you to pretend everything is great, but to search your heart, your history, the Bible, and in prayer, for why you can have hope that will never disappoint you (Rom 5:5). And to allow the hope, joy, love and peace of Christmas to flood your hearts and bring you to worship – so you can glorify God and share what He has given you with others.