Al reminds us that life sucks and gives some depressing reflections on Advent joy.
Tigger & Eeyore
Have you ever met a super-happy person? One of those folks that just seems to have a good attitude all the time, glowing about life, full of energy, optimistic about the future? I’ve met a couple of them, though not many. They’re awesome to be around because their energy is infectious.
- When you are down, this person will have a dozen ways to pick you up.
- When you are hurt they will bend over backwards to try to make you smile.
- They’re the ones who, when they see you frazzled, instead of saying, “Wow, keep up the good work!” say, “Wow, you look stressed out, maybe you need a vacation.” because they’re not driving by needing to produce things.
- These people have all kinds of hobbies and interests and are forever sharing them on Pinterest and Facebook and Instagram and inviting you over to see them, and giving them out as gifts.
- When you share bad news, instead of commenting, they share a funny meme or cat video. If we were to use a character from Winnie the Pooh to describe them, we’d pick either Pooh himself or Tigger.
Have you ever met one of these people? Are you one of these people? If so, thank you for being you.
I kind of wish I was, but I know I’m not. If I’m anyone, I’m Eeyore… maybe mixed with a little of Tigger’s confidence… and a little of Piglet’s fastidiousness. I’m not really that cheery of a person. Keep in mind I’m the guy who wrote a sermon a while back called “Life Sucks and then you Die” reminding everyone why there is suffering, evil and despair in the world. And just a couple weeks ago I tried to cheer everyone up from the 2016 downers by reminding us of Super-Volcanoes, the Ice Age, the Black Death, and the atrocities of the World Wars.
My kids often accuse me of being “Mr. Bad News” since for every silver lining they come up with I tend to find a cloud. I have to be careful at dinner time not to bemoan the fallen state of the world, and it takes work for me to find the bright side of things. And I definitely utter the words “Wow, people suck…” too often in front of my kids. It’s sort of become my unofficial motto now. I’m not proud of it, but every day I read or experience something that keeps proving it right.
The Whole Truth
I know, right? You come to church today, listen to an Advent reading on Love, sing uplifting Christmas songs, and want hear something akin to “Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night!” Maybe you’ve come to be cheered up with a positive message, reminded about all the wonderful things about this time of year. You want to hear a story with lowing cattle and a glowing baby laid in a bed of clean straw – the light of the world come to grant joy and peace and hope to lowly shepherds, prostitutes and tax collectors alike. You want me to tell you all about how Jesus is going to give you answers to your deepest questions, make your life abundant, repair your heart, and give you everything you need because He’s promised to. And I don’t blame you.
Everyone likes the cheery people. They flock to the Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars of the world to hear uplifting messages about how God is going to make them happy, healthy, wealthy, and pain-free. But I can’t do that. I won’t, because it’s not the whole truth.
That’s the thing, there is some truth to the prosperity gospel message, but it’s not a whole truth. Does God care about you? Is He concerned about your daily needs? Does He promise healing? Will He give answers and freedom from tears? Yes to all of that! But the thing is, as true as those statements are, God is clear that it doesn’t usually happen the way we think it will – and it usually doesn’t happen when we want it to.
All of this confusion is an unmitigated mess that comes from a complete misunderstanding of the salvation that Jesus offers. At its heart is the false hope of the prosperity gospel touted by so many false preachers. And people are desperate to believe it – and always have.
From Adam and Eve to you and I, people have been trying to get things from God that we aren’t supposed to have and twisting His Word to fool ourselves into believing it’s a good idea. God will speak, and we will listen to half of what He says and then go with that. You’ve experienced that, right? Where you tell someone something in two parts, but they only take the first part?
This happens to every single person I know that has tried to make Kraft Dinner. I’ve heard the story multiple times. The kid is left alone with a box of Kraft Dinner and is brimming with confidence as they are now allowed to “cook”. They figure, “I’ve got this. I’ve seen it done a million times! Easy peasey!” So they fill a pot with water, put in noodles – and then turn on the element. Oh wait, how long do we cook it for? Dig the box out and look for the number. Oh, 7-8 minutes. Throw out the box. Then, add the cheese powder directly to the water, right? Now what else? Get the box out of the garbage again. Oh yeah, milk and butter. Toss some into the lukewarm water. Ok, it took 7 minutes just to that all that gunk to boil. “Oh well, I’m just following the directions!”, they figure. “The water does look kind of gross though – I don’t remember that.” Now what? Get out the strainer and pour it all into the sink. And what are they left with? Nothing anyone wants to eat. Oh well, that’s why God gave us ketchup, right?
We do that all the time with God’s word! We read part of it, close the book, and figure we can figure the rest out on our own.
No matter how many times I try to teach people about God’s promises they keep mishearing me. Maybe I’m not as good of a teacher as I think I am, but there are times when someone will come with deep questions I’ll say something like, “Pray, read the Bible and talk to your Christian friends and I believe God will give you answers.”, and I’ll try to explain what that means, but they hear “If you do this God is going to explain everything to you in detail and give you a perfect roadmap for your life.” That’s not what I said, and isn’t what the Bible says. God is under no obligation to give us detailed answers, but as we pray and read the Word, He will often help us learn to trust Him, His plan, and His goodness – even though we can’t see what He’s doing.
They’ll read or hear me say, “Following Jesus will give you an abundant life.” What do they hear? “Jesus is going to make your life like an adventure movie: heart-pounding excitement, dramatic romance, and you’ll always come out on top.” That’s not even close to what “abundant” means.
Someone else, with deep hurts, will hear, “God can repair your heart”. But they hear, “God will fix your relationships, make your marriage strong, keep your kids close to you, and give you lots of friends.” That’s not what I said, and isn’t what the Bible says either.
They read or hear a Christian teacher say, “Trust God to give you everything you need.” And too many people hear, “God will give you everything your heart desires because the desires of your heart are obviously what you need.” And then they blame themselves, Christians, the Bible, or God for not delivering on His promises. But again, it’s not God that is wrong. You’re just only listening to half of the truth.
Or, “God has given you good things to do and doing them will bring blessings to your life.” and they’ll hear, “Karma is real. Do good things and good things will happen to you. Do bad things and bad things will happen to you. God is all about balance.” That’s not what the Bible teaches at all.
Reading the Other Half
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the verses we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks, which are Isaiah’s prophecy about how Jesus the God-Man would come as a child destined to be our Great Saviour.
Isaiah 9:2’s gives the promise that “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.” And that’s great! That’s what everyone wants, right?
And that’s great! That’s what everyone wants, right? Light, multiplied blessing, increased joy, harvest celebrations, glad hearts and spoils. But all of that requires something… it requires the next verses…
“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.” (vs 4-5)
In order to have a Great Deliverer, we must have something to be delivered from! God says that because our world has turned their back on Him, over and over, and preferred ourselves, sin and evil to Him and His light, we will walk in darkness. Because we have rejected Him as king, we will be overwhelmed with oppressors and experience great burdens. Our lives will be filled with war, our clothes covered in blood.
This is the flipside of faith in Jesus Christ – the admission of sin, guilt, and need. The admission that we are in trouble, that we cannot save ourselves, and that we need someone outside of this world, untouched by the effects of sin and death, to deliver us from them. Without that admission, there is no salvation, because we will not have acknowledged that we do, in fact, need a Saviour.
Let’s keep reading,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder…”
Why? Because the government, no matter what country they are or what system they use, is going to be corrupted by sin. And even if, for one generation you get a ruler that does everything right, they are going to die. Jesus is our Saviour from corruption – but that requires us stop putting our faith in the belief that salvation will come from any world government – that all we need is the right leader, the right party, the right Prime Minister, and we’ll be saved. We must admit that we need a ruler beyond this world, and that is Christ.
“…and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”
We need Jesus to be our Wonderful Counsellor because we are surrounded by a lot of awful counsellors who, no matter how hard they try, and how great their intentions are, cannot fully save us, will eventually leave us, will pass along false information, and sometimes simply get it wrong. Faith in Jesus requires us to admit that we are lost and confused, and put away our belief that the perfect earthly guru or emotional support system will solve all our problems.
We need Jesus to be our Mighty God because we are utterly weak and require divine intervention. To admit Jesus’ power is to admit our lack of it. We have to admit that we will never be smart enough or strong enough to pull ourselves out of the troubles of this world. We will never have the willpower to conquer all our sins. We will never be able to stop all the wars and hatred happening around the world and in our hearts. We require someone of perfect strength that never fails. We must admit our powerlessness and allow Jesus to be our Mighty God.
We need Jesus to be our Everlasting Father, because there is no perfect father out there. A lot of people in this world start out fatherless, abandoned by their dads before they were born. Many more have bad, ungodly fathers. And in the end, even if we have a great dad, unless we die first, we all eventually end up fatherless. We require someone who loves us, knows us, protects us, provides for us, and won’t ever leave us – and that’s Jesus. But, that means we have to stop believing that there is someone out there who can give us all that. We have to realize there is no girl or boyfriend, no wife or husband, no friend or coworker who can give us all that we need.
And, in the same way, we have to admit that we cannot be that for others! We are not the fount of all wisdom, the great defender, the perfect provider who knows exactly what our family and friends need – only Jesus is. And we have to point people to Him, not us.
Jesus Prince of Peace
And, we need Jesus to be our only Prince of Peace. As I’ve said, needing a Saviour means we need to be saved from something. If we need a Prince of Peace that means that we must be in the middle of war. And we are. I told you about the historical context of the Christmas story last week, but consider the trouble that Jesus’ coming into the world wrought.
Mary was chosen, not because she was perfect, but because she had found favour with God. She was a good woman who loved God. But what did Jesus bring her? Joseph thought she had cheated and almost divorced her. She ended up giving birth to her first child in a room intended for animals and laying him in a feeding trough. When she presented her baby at the temple, Simeon, a perfect stranger came up to her and said, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35). And he was right. Her son’s life would bring her much confusion and pain.
“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35).
And he was right. Her son’s life would bring her much confusion and pain.
Then, within a couple years, Magi from the East mistakenly go to Jerusalem and inform the insanely jealous King Herod that there is a contender to the throne, and discover he was in Bethlehem, causing him to fly into a rage, killing all the boys in Bethlehem that were two years old or younger.
Meanwhile, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee the country to live as immigrant refugees for a few years in Egypt, only to return after Herod had died. Who knows the troubles they had there.
Jesus’s birth was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the one that would come and be the Prince of Peace, but those closest to Him certainly didn’t have Peace – at least not the way we would define it.
And there’s my point. If we only go half way, read it like a prosperity preacher, then we end up confused. Jesus brings Peace, but Mary, Joseph, everyone else closest to Him for the rest of His life, and Jesus Himself experienced great troubles and pain. Does that mean Jesus wasn’t the right guy? Or that we are wrong about how and when Jesus will bring Peace?
I believe that it’s the latter. It’s not Jesus who hasn’t fulfilled His promises, but we who are importing our own ideas, preconceptions, and selfish desires onto His promises.
The Hero Has Come
Think of it this way: Have you ever watched a movie where someone was kidnapped or trapped somewhere by the bad guy, and the whole plot of the film was to have the hero track them down and get them back? Whether it was a princess in a tower, a wife held by terrorists, or a daughter sold to slavery, the whole point of the movie was that the prince, husband, or dad, was doing everything they could to save their beloved from the hands of evil.
How did that movie make you feel? Nervous, scared, anxious, sad… but you kept watching, right? And then came that moment when the hero finally caught a glimpse of the one they were rescuing? What did you feel then? I bet you smiled. The guy has been through hell and back, followed clues and fought enemies just to get to the point where they can hide behind the box, or peak through the window, and get a glimpse of the one he has come to save. It’s in that moment we feel the mixed emotions of hope and anxiety, but we grin knowingly. We know that it’s going to have a happy ending, we just don’t know how.
The girl was still in danger, the attackers weren’t dealt with yet – but we feel a sense of joy and hope. Why? Because we know that the hero has finally come and justice is about to be served.
There’s often a moment in those movies where the hero and the victim secretly lock eyes without any of the bad guys noticing. The prince winks, the husband mouths “I love you”, the Father, “I’m here.” She nods without letting anyone else see. They share a brief but powerful moment, and we all know it’s going to be ok. Why? Because her hero is here. The bad guys are as good as done. Salvation has come.
That’s a joy moment. That’s a Jesus moment. Yes, the trouble is still there. She’s still technically kidnapped, under the power of the bad guys, but the hero has given the wink and it’s going to be all good. All that’s left is for him to make the final move.
Therein lies our Christmas joy and the meaning of Advent. Therein lies the whole story of what it means to be saved by Jesus. Right now we are still under the power of evil and life really is painful sometimes. Right now, we face the bad counsellors, weak wills, unfulfilling relationships, and the war of life. But the hero has come! All we’ve done is sat tied up, surrounded by evil while He did all the work. Jesus has come, has given us the wink, has said, “I love you, I’m here.” and even though we are looking into the faces of our enemies, surrounded by trials and trouble, we are already saved. Regardless how bad things have been, we are absolutely sure we are about to be free. Why, because we trust our hero to save us.
That’s the full Christmas story, the gospel story: We have looked around and seen our desperate need, and we have looked into the eyes of the only one who can save us. He has come, and is coming again to finish His work.
Chad gives us some Advent reflections the love of Jesus Christ.
Steve gives us some reflections on Advent hope.
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.
We’re continuing our annual advent tradition by taking some time to give some personal, devotional reflections on the season. Steve, Chad and I thank you for listening this year and hope you have a Blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas.
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Just this week we celebrated the birthday of someone that has touched all our lives – though most of us have never heard of him. On December 11th, 1792, Joseph Mohr was born in Salsburg, Austria.
His childhood was one that was filled with strife and shame. He was his mother’s third illegitimate child. His father was soldier who deserted from the army and fled when he learned that his mother was pregnant with him. His mother, Ann, had to face the consequences alone.
One of the consequences she had to face was a fine. She had a little income from her boarding house and knitting, but it would take a year’s wages to pay her fine. In a bid to help his reputation, the town’s executioner, who was hated by everyone, said he would pay the fine for her… if he could be the child’s godfather. Unfortunately this only meant more humiliation for the boy. He would be ostracized wherever he went and no school would accept him. No employer would hire him. No one would teach him a trade.
One thing Joseph could do was sing. One day a Benedictine monk and choirmaster overheard him singing as he played games on the steps of the monastery. The monk obtained his mother’s permission to train the lad as a singer, and Mohr blossomed under his care. By twelve years old he was well on his way to mastering the organ, guitar and violin. Despite his social disadvantage, he held his own among the elite students, always placing near the top of the class.
He continued his training and eventually decided to become a priest. However, because his father had deserted him, he needed a special dispensation from the pope before he could be ordained. The pope agreed and Joseph entered the priesthood at twenty-three.
One Christmas Eve, in 1818, in the newly constructed Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, nestled in Austrian Alps, Father Joseph Mohr sat preparing for the midnight service. He was distraught because the church organ was broken, ruining prospects for that evening’s carefully planned music.
Father Joseph prayed and sat down in front of his desk. Out of nowhere a new song came into his mind, one that could be sung without the organ. He hastily wrote out the words that flooded into his mind and rushed over to his organist, Franz Gruber, and explained that though Franz wouldn’t be playing, he needed him to compose a simple tune for this new song.
That night, playing his guitar and accompanied by one other person, Joseph sang for the first time: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Shortly after, Joseph was telling the story of the near-disaster of Christmas Eve to the organ repair main, who took a copy of the text and tune and spread it through all through Austria. The charming little song seemed perfect for the snow-clad region, and perfect for the Christian heart. Soon folks singers throughout the area had taken up the tune, even using it to drum up business to sell gloves at local fairs and festivals.
Soon, even the king and queen were singing the song after it was sung during a royal performance, assuring the carol’s fame.
Silent Night has been translated into well over a hundred languages and is one of the most beloved songs of the holiday season.
Here’s why I tell you this story today: Silent Night, Holy Night… one of the most beautiful, meaningful and peaceful songs we sing each year… came from very unpeaceful circumstance. Were it not for a broken home and a broken organ, we wouldn’t have Silent Night. It was because God knows how to bring beauty out of chaos, joy out of shame, peace out of frustration, hope from hopelessness, that we are able to sing that song each year.
That’s what God does. Turn with me to Luke 1:26 and let’s read the story of the birth announcement of Jesus Christ. As we read, I want you to look for how much disquiet there is. I want you to see how God took a life at peace – Mary’s Life – and turned it upside down on purpose.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:26-45)
Here’s where I want to park today. This is Mary’s Song, historically called The Magnificat. Let’s read it together:
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.” (Luke 1:46-56)
All at once, Mary’s life is turned upside down. An angel comes out of nowhere, which is terrifying enough, but his message is even more troubling – she’s going to have a baby. All her plans are put on hold. Her child will be the Messiah – which is amazing – but it’s also going to seriously change everything in her life. Mary, out of her love and trust for God, believes what will happen and responds with “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” From that moment, her life will never be the same.
This baby, even at the moment of conception, was causing a stir. Her reputation around town is shot because now she is with child but without a husband. Her fiancé, Joseph, is so troubled by the news that he is about to dump her until God miraculously intervenes. Mary must have been so happy to hear that there was another woman, and she was a relative, that also had her life turned topsy-turvy by God. She packs quickly and leaves town – albeit under a cloud of neighbourly suspicion – to be with Elizabeth, lend support and be supported.
Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were people who were angry about their circumstance. They must have had health concerns, social concerns, relational concerns, and a hundred other questions about how this would all work out, but we get no indication of any sadness, frustration or anger with God at their circumstances. No, what we see are two women that love God and trust His will.
Mary was a woman who put her faith into action. She responded to Gabriel with simple obedience: “let it be to me according to your word”, and then “hurried off” to go to the woman that Gabriel mentioned. Quick to trust, quick to obey.
Now, I’m not going to concentrate on all the troubled things that Mary must have gone through – rejection, fear, gossip, etc. – because, instead, I want to talk about the young woman who loved God and was excited for her Saviour.
The Magnificat is a worship song all about God helping and raising up the meek, humble, hungry and in need. It’s a song about God blessing His people in weird and wonderful ways, beyond what they would have ever considered or prayed for. She sings about how, even though she is young, poor, obscure, and meek, God has chosen her to be the bearer of something precious. And as she sings, her message expands to remind everyone who would read or sing this song that that is how God most often works!
“Looked on my Humble State”
She says “My soul magnifies the Lord”… that’s where we get the word Magnificat… because God had given to her something that she never felt she deserved nor expected. God looked at her “humble state” and didn’t think less of her as others would have, but instead blessed her.
She “rejoices” in what God has chosen to do to her, even though she knew it would be frought with difficulty. She knew that God’s plan, though confusing and difficult at the time, would end up being better than anything she ever could have asked for.
God doesn’t see people the way we do. When we have a job to do, a position to fill, are looking for help, a partner, a friend, a spouse, or anyone else – we look for the best. Why settle for second best? When we buy something we read consumer reports to see which is the best product. We cheer for our team and want them to win, so they can win the cup, so they can be the best. We train our children and want them to be stronger, faster, smarter, kinder, wealthier, more generous, more everything, than we are.
Many of us hold ourselves to the same kinds of standards. We want to be the best at something – or everything – and we feel inferior if we’re not. We have this strange, internal drive, to have the best, be the best, and be surrounded by the best.
God doesn’t do that – at all. He wasn’t looking for the best, most comfortable, richest, family to send Jesus to. He wasn’t looking for a place with the best health care, least risk, and highest probability for advancement. He wasn’t trying to find a dad with a doctorate and a mom with a master’s degree. God’s number one requirement was that the father and mother be faithful. He didn’t want the best by our standards. He wanted a trusting, willing, obedient, humble people that He knew would allow Him to work through them. Not self-minded, strong, prideful people who think they knew better.
God had decided to do something special, something unique, something beyond anyone’s capacity to plan or understand – and He wanted someone who would be willing to carry it out. He asked young Mary to be integral to the plan, knowing it would cause her great upheaval, but wanting to bless her and the whole world through her work. She agreed, and the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus within her.
I find her attitude is truly amazing. In our days, unplanned pregnancies are more often seen as inconveniences, rather than opportunities for blessing. Many times, surprise babies, aren’t seen as good news, but instead something to be dealt with, figured out, and even discarded. God blesses a woman with the opportunity to bring forth a new life, a new person, a new being, brimming with potential for great things – and too many women don’t see the potential, they only see the problem, and they murder the child. It’s awful. Babies are always good news.
At no point did it ever occur to Mary that the trouble she would face because of this unplanned pregnancy wouldn’t be worth it. Instead, we get a song of praise for God’s willingness to bless someone like her with such a great responsibility.
Her perspective was one of faith. She knew God is larger, smarter, mightier and holier than she is. She didn’t see God’s request to care for a baby as an inconvenience, but as His special gift to her. She knew that it was going to be a tough road, but she also knew that her obedience would allow the blessing of all people. All she had to do would be to obey and trust Him.
Mary Knew God Uses Humble People
So, where did this trust come from? She knew God. The next section of the Magnificat, from verses 50-55, shows that Mary wasn’t just a simple farm-girl with no knowledge of God, but was someone who knew who God well and was well acquainted with his resume.
When God asked her to do something, she knew Who was speaking and what He had done in the past. She trusted Him, but it wasn’t a blind faith – it was based on the evidence of all that God had done with her people.
She knew that when people “fear him”, meaning hold Him in reverence and humbly obey His word, that God does mighty things through them. She knew that God is merciful to those who trust Him and wrathful against those who make their own way. She knew her history. She knew that there had been generations that had completely fallen away from God and suffered, and those that turned to Him and prospered. As a student of her own history, she knew what side she wanted to be on, and knew that God would follow through.
Sure, it was an actual Angel had shown up to tell her what was going on – but remember that Zechariah, the old man who had walked with God a long time, and who was a priest, standing in the Holy of Holies, failed the faith test and was struck mute. Mary was a girl who knew God. Look at verse 50-52,
“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate…”
Mary is looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Her child was the same One who had flooded the world, stopped the son, and conquered armies. He’s the God who raises weak but faithful people up out of obscurity so He can demonstrate his power through them.
- He was the God who brought Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the world, to his knees.
- He’s the God that made Pharaoh obey by raising up the slave-child was doomed to die the moment he was born.
- He raised up Esther, a Jewish handmaiden and child of the exile, to become the Queen who would save her people from the evil Haaman.
- He raised up David, the youngest of his brothers, hated by King Saul, to be the greatest king of Israel.
- He raised up young, timid Gideon, the man who we first read of cowering in a pit, afraid of his enemies, to lead a small army to conquer the massive Midianite army.
Over and over we read how God uses meek but faithful people to accomplish amazing things for His Glory. It’s his preferred method, because then He gets the glory and praise. And Mary knew, instinctively, because she had a right view of her place in the world, that she was now one in the long line of people that God has “exalted out of a humble estate” and used to “full the hungry with good things” and “help” His people.
And therefore she knew, because the Angel Gabriel had told her, that God was about to do it again. He would use her son, who would be the Son of God, to save the world. And she got to be a part of it.
Let’s get to the application today. There are two questions that I’d like you to consider.
First, how do you see accidental, unforeseen, inconvenient things like unplanned pregnancies, needful people, distractions and interruptions? Do you see them negatively because they don’t fit into your plan, or do you see them through the lens of being potential, God-ordained moments full of opportunity to obey God and bless others?
Joseph Mohr was seen as an inconvenience by his father, and the rest of society. He was kept outside because of the circumstances of his birth. God saw something different and sent one of His servants to train him for ministry. Then Joseph used the inconvenience of the broken organ as an opportunity to write Silent Night.
Mary and Joseph were terribly inconvenienced by God’s plan for them – but out of it came the greatest blessing in the world.
Is there something that God is looking to bless you with – that has come in the form of an accident or an inconvenience? Will you embrace it and allow God to bless you with strange miracles and large responsibilities? Will you trust that He knows you better than you know yourself, knows the future better than you do, and has the strength and resources to see you through – if you’d be willing to trust Him?
And second, how well do you know God, His word, and His deeds? I would argue that your knowledge of God is about equal to your trust in Him.
If you want to know how God works and what God wants to do in your life, then I encourage you to read what God has done, read what Jesus did, and what His Spirit has done through His church for centuries. Read what kind of people He uses, and what He has done through them. Then, when you understand who He is, what He’s done, and the kind of heart He prefers to use, will you trust Him when He asks you to do something with Him.