(Christmas Day Sermon for Kanata Christian Reformed Church Dec. 25, 2015)
Texts: Isaiah 9:6-7; Luke 2:1-20
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV)
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
Fear in Isaiah’s Judah
Every time I read that passage from Isaiah 9, I can’t help but think of Handel’s Messiah. You know that chorus, right? “For unto us a child is born, unto a son is given, unto us a son is given. For unto us a Child is born ….” And so it goes. And it’s a great song, as is the rest of the Messiah.
And of course, these words, as does the song, express joy, hope and optimism. On their own, out of their context! But when I understood the original context of Isaiah’s words, I see them in a different light. I still see joy and hope but I see them spoken in a context of fear and darkness.
The time range when Isaiah was prophesying these words was probably around 734-732 BCE. Israel has been separated by now into two kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom called Israel and the Southern Kingdom called Judah. Isaiah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah. And the king of Judah at this time was King Ahaz, who was not a very good king. You can read all about him in the Bible, in 2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28.
At this time, Judah was at war. Judah was at war with the neighbors to the north – Israel. But there was also a superpower empire coming from the East that threatens everybody in the region, and that superpower was Assyria. (Don’t’ confuse Syria with Assyria.) Assyria was stretching out its tentacles and conquering a whole lot of neighboring countries, and soon those tentacles will reach Israel and Judah. There was a lot of conflict in the Middle East back then. Some things don’t seem to change much, do they? There is a lot of fear and apprehension in Judah at this time.
So, Ahaz has two political choices – either make peace with the northern enemy Israel and combine forces with them to fight off Assyria, OR join forces with the superpower Assyria and beat his northern enemies. Either choice did not seem to end well for Judah. To fight the superpower Assyria, even with a tag team of Israel and Judah, your chances of winning are pretty bleak. And the price of defeat will be incredibly costly.
But, on the other hand, to make a deal with the Evil Empire Assyria will eventually drain you of your independence and your wealth. And who knows what else Assyria will want later in the future? The Evil Empire can always alter the deal. When that happens, Ahaz can only pray that they don’t alter it any further. Actually, that’s what Ahaz eventually did – ask the Evil Empire for help by giving tribute to them.
Now, Ahaz himself was not a nice guy either! He not only promoted idolatry but promoted a kind of idol worship that required human sacrifice! He even sacrificed his own sons! So there is a lot of fear and darkness in the land of Judah at that time.
It is in this time of fear, fear of enemies at your borders, and horrible atrocities happening inside the country – the prophet Isaiah gave these words to Ahaz and to all in Judah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” … I can just imagine the response that Isaiah will get from the people.
REALLY? A child? A baby? We have the Evil Empire Assyrians trying to kill us, and if they don’t do the job, we have mad king Ahaz here sacrificing our babies to his stupid idol-god, and you are giving us a baby?? Is this really a good time to bring a child into the world? Besides, what kind of promise is this?? How is this baby going to increase national security?
Isaiah continues … “and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” So, this child is special. This child will be a king. And the most wonderful king of all. He is full of wisdom – a wonderful counselor. He is divine – a mighty God! He is a caring and loving King – an everlasting Father. And finally, he will reign in peace – he is the Prince of Peace.
Isaiah continues … “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” In other words, this king will be everything that Ahaz is not. And his kingdom of peace will last forever!
And Isaiah ends with this clincher: “The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” In other words, God’s got this. Don’t worry about your national security problems – God has got this. God is going to do this. He will bring it about – this child, this Prince of Peace. God has got this.
So, that’s the plan. God’s solution to the problems of national security both within and without our borders is to bring world peace through the establishment of an eternal king! Great plan! Except for one thing …
It’s going to take at least 20 years in the making! I mean, unless this boy is going to walk and talk coming out of the womb, we are talking years of growing up here before any of this is going to come through! Israel and the Evil Empire are not going to wait 20 years before they attack.
What was Isaiah saying? God has got this. Trust in God. Have faith. Have faith that God will save us, despite it all – despite how crazy it sounds – despite the fears and dangers that lurk all around us – God has got this. Have faith instead of fear. Trust that God’s way – God’s crazy, illogical way of sending us a baby to be the bringer of peace, into the midst of death and destruction – trust that God’s way will bring peace, and will change the world. Maybe not right away, maybe not even in your lifetime. But God has his timing. This is God’s way. It’s the only way to bring true lasting peace.
(There was a mini-fulfillment of sorts with good King Hezekiah later restoring the fortunes of Judah. But the true fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy came much later.)
Fear in Luke’s Israel
Well, it took longer than 20 years, much, much longer. Try over 700 years. By this time, there was a new evil empire in town. The Assyrians are long gone. Now, it is the time of the Romans. Israel is now occupied by Rome. And the Jews hated it. They longed for freedom from the Roman oppression. Of course, the Romans called their oppression the Peace of Rome, the Pax Romana. This is peace that comes at the price of the loss of freedom; peace by knife point.
In addition, the local king doesn’t give much hope either. King Herod was pretty much despised by all as a brutal and immoral man, who only became king because he got favor from the Romans. He was seen by many as a Roman puppet and a usurper to David’s throne. There were many assassination plots against him but he was always smart enough to avoid all of them. So, you can see, he was not a popular guy at all.
So, once again, we find ourselves with fear and darkness all around – fear of Herod and fear of the Romans. And specifically, with Mary and Joseph, we have a great deal more fears.
Mary and Joseph are most likely teenagers at this point. Jewish girls on average got married around 14-15 years old during this time, and Jewish boys were probably around 17-18 years old. Imagine if you have to face your first birth as a teenager, and to experience this away from the comfort of home. Furthermore, they have to be anxious and wondering about their child. What child is this that has angels coming to foretell his birth – Mary got a visit from the angel Gabriel, and Joseph had dreams telling him what to do. They must be wondering, what will happen to this child? And what will happen to them? But despite their fears and their inexperience, they believed and acted as faithfully as they can.
The shepherds were also afraid at the sight of the angel. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said, which means they were probably afraid. But just like the prophet Isaiah did centuries before, the angels promised peace on earth. And just like Isaiah, this peace was centered around a baby.
You have to admit. There is something crazy about how God works. How could a tiny, helpless baby born to a poor, scared teenage couple, away from home, in a barn, laid in a manger – a feeding box – bring peace on earth? Peace, in the face of the evil empires and evil rulers, when fear is the order of the day?
Yet, that is how God works. God brings life in the unlikely places. God often uses the lowly, the unlikely, to bring about his purposes, e.g. God uses barren women to bring forth chosen children, God uses the youngest sons, rather than the oldest, to be his prophets, his judges, his chosen kings.
And the angels ask the shepherds to believe, to trust that God has got this. And trust the shepherds did. They acted. Their actions showed that they had faith, even though they were probably still a little afraid from their surprise encounter with the angels. They acted by going to Bethlehem to see the child.When they saw the child, they believed even more, when they started spreading the good news to others. Their actions showed their faith. They had faith in God, despite their own fears, despite the fears of Mary and Joseph, despite the fears of everyone about the threats and violence in the world, that God has got this. God has sent his promised Messiah into the world to save the world.
Fear in Our World
We live in a time of fear today as well. There are still lots of violence, conflict, injustice and oppression in the world today as in centuries past. We have the world’s worst refugee crisis ever. There are lots of fears about national security, about the threats from foreigners inside and outside our borders. There are terrorist attacks that strike fear in people’s hearts, afraid for the next surprise attack that can happen anywhere and anytime. Fear-mongering by politicians and the media have gone up lately due to all these fears, and people taking advantage of those fears for their own gain.
This is how the world deals with fear. In times of fear, we start to circle the wagons, so to speak. We start to build up our walls to protect ourselves and to keep outsiders out. Anyone suspicious on the inside we start to isolate them and to kick them out if possible. That’s how the world deals with its fears – it reacts in violence and in exclusion.
But this is not God’s way. God’s way of bringing peace is not through silencing our enemies, or getting rid of them, but by reconciling them through love. That may sound stupid and crazy to the world, but God says that is the only way. The world says that is stupid because it take far too long and too difficult to make peace by reconciling through love, but God says, this is the way even if it takes 700 years and more. The world will say that means we make ourselves vulnerable to dangers, but God says, I have made myself vulnerable as a baby, and even as a grown up, I went to the cross and died for you.
Today, we have a choice – to live by fear or to live by faith.
Have faith. Do not be afraid. I know it sounds crazy and stupid from the world’s perspective. But believe and act. Have faith, not fear. Act in love, not in hate. Be generous and hospitable to strangers, do not be excluding and suspicious. Break down walls that divide, do not build them up.
For unto us a child is given. To us a son is born. His name was Jesus – God with Us. He taught us to love, to care, to serve. He loved us to death on a cross. God has got this. Glory to God in the highest!