December 23, 2007
Sermon by: Robert Austell
What do you want for Christmas?
Are you a long-list-to-cover-your-bases kind of Christmas lister or an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket kind of person? My brother was the first kind, listing as many as twenty or thirty things. He never got it all, but he was sure to get several things on his list. I figured if all I ever mentioned was one big thing, and I gave no alternative smaller options, then my parents were bound to have to get the big thing.
We usually think of asking for the thing we want the most. What about what we need the most?
The thing about needs and wants is that we usually can identify our wants pretty easily, but we can often be blind to our needs. Our emotions and appetites can drive our wants, and those things hover around the surface of our thoughts. But our needs run deeper. Yes, we can identify basic needs like food, water, air, and sleep. When we are in trouble, we can identify that we need help. But we often are blind to the solution, the particular form of help that we need.
Sometimes, it is helpful to see our need played out or described differently, through story or analogy.
God’s people, Israel, have a great need. They have turned away from God and do not realize the tragic significance of that decision. Isaiah has been warning of judgment, but his words fall on deaf ears. This passage holds out hope for what could be, if only they would see their great need.
The first illustration of their reality is in terms of darkness and light. They are “the people who walk in darkness” (v. 2). What do they most need? It is to see God’s “great light.” Unfortunately, at this point in their history, Israel did not seem to recognize that they were stumbling around in the darkness.
The second illustration of their reality was far more literal and immediate. They were at war, with the great Assyrian Empire pressing in on them. They would have understood the needs described in verses 4-5 well, because they had literal oppressors and battles to fight. I wonder, though, if they saw the spiritual realities behind these struggles. Isaiah certainly made the connection many times. Israel had effectively declared themselves enemies with God and what they really needed was peace with God.
A third illustration in this passage is for us. It is the story of the Israelite people and the way they illustrate our own relationship with God. While their immediate struggle was with a foreign military power, their deeper struggle was with God, Himself. If we can recognize our own story in theirs, we will see that this whole passage is God’s Word to us this morning.
We are the people who walk in a dark world. In fact, ever since the original sin, the ‘lights’ have gone off. It is only the light of God’s Word and face that shines any light into our world. That’s the story of the Bible – that the human race lives in darkness. We are not intrinsically good; we are not morally innocent; we are born into darkness, separated from God.
Even more than that, each of us replicates our first parents’ original sin as we disobey and rebel against God. Who among us has not lied, cheated, stolen, or even killed in some direct or indirect way? Even more significantly, we frequently break the first several of the Ten Commandments when we serve ourselves over serving God. While it may sound over-dramatic, it is not a stretch to say that because of sin humanity is at war with God.
We may not realize our own greatest need, but it is laid out before us in this Bible passage in the life of Israel. We live in darkness and are at war with God.
The Power and the Promise
The great hope held out in this passage is not that we will somehow stumble into the light or negotiate our way into some kind of peace, but that God will save or rescue us. God will give us what we need.
For one thing, God is powerful. The ‘child’ identified in verse 6 is the same Immanuel from an earlier chapter. Immanuel means “God with us.” Thus, it is God being described with these names. God is “Wonderful Counselor” – He is on our side, working on our behalf. God is “Mighty God” – strong and powerful, able to accomplish His will perfectly. God is “Eternal Father” – forever and infinite, yet personal and loving as a father. And God is “Prince of Peace” – the personal and present ruling One who brings peace at last to a people fundamentally at war with Him.
If anyone can and will accomplish a peace that will last, it will be this great, strong, and eternal God who is on our side, who calls us family, and who has promised to come save us.
This promise is ancient – made by God even in the moments after Adam and Eve disobeyed for the first time. God continued to promise salvation, to Abraham and later to King David. It is this ancient promise that is held out as hope in this passage in Isaiah, that a child will be born to “sit on the throne of David” and restore peace.
That God can and will bring this peace is affirmed in verse 8, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” Zeal is what I would call a “first commandment word.” The first commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). That is God’s zeal speaking. There is only God; there is no other power, no other force, no other ruler, no other deity; there is God alone, worthy of all worship, glory, and honor.
Who could do all that is promised here? God alone!
The Lord of Hosts” is an ancient name for God. It signifies not only the power of God in and of Himself; it also signifies that all the company of Heaven and earth stand behind God in support. All the angels, all of creation, all that is… serve the Lord. Nothing can stand against the will of God. That is the basis for the encouraging words of Romans 8:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 38-39)
… neither debt, nor doubt, nor cancer, nor age, nor weakness, nor frailty, nor any other thing you can name…
What can hinder or thwart the promised peace of God? Nothing!
Peace for Us
All those who believed and trusted God before the birth of Christ lived in expectant hope that God would one day do what He had promised.
The Good News of Christmas is that 2000 years ago God did just that – He was born into the world to keep His ancient promise and accomplish what only He could do.
All those who believe and trust God since the birth of Christ look back on a promise fulfilled. Yet, there are still those who have not heard and have not believed. And we still have moments – perhaps even long months – where we do not recognize that God has given us what we need most.
God’s peace means two things for us as we hear about it today.
One is that if you are “walking in darkness” there is hope. Whether darkness for you is unbelief, depression, doubt, or any other kind of darkness, there is hope. I know… I know how trite it sounds for me to say, “Just trust in Jesus.” But that is the source of our hope.
How do you trust Jesus? It is a matter of choosing to believe and trust that God has done in Jesus what He has promised to do. And then it is a matter of acting on that trust in the way we live. It’s like the chairs you sit on (but much better). We believe that they will support us. Trust, or faith, is acting on that belief… actually sitting on them. The details of how to do that with God are spelled out in the teachings of Jesus – and in the rest of the Bible. The encouragement and support are around you, in the Church – the family of God. And the power to make it so is in the Almighty God and Father, who loves you and offers you His peace.
The second implication of God’s peace is for those who have believed and trusted in Jesus Christ. If the Bible is true, then we are surrounded by people who live in darkness and who are at war with God. And we have the news about Jesus. This is why we have used the analogy of a lighthouse and searchlight to describe our church and our mission. It is imperative that we show Jesus to those around us.
God’s peace means two things for us. It invites us to come and see, to know the peace of God personally through belief and trust in Jesus Christ. And it challenges us to go out and share that peace with others.
Come and see; go and tell. That is our call and response.
May you trust in the Prince of Peace and know the peace of God this day and this Christmas season. Amen.