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Monday, December 31, 2012

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why the Christmas Story Matters to Me (Is 11, Lk 1-2, Mt 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 24, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Pastorale (from "Messiah") (Handel)
Prelude: "Once in Royal David's City" (Behnke)
Prelude: "Carol of the Bells" (handbells) (Leontovich/Peninger)
Hymn of Praise: "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (ADESTE FIDELES)
The Word in Music: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (choir) (Andrews)
The Word in Music: "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" (worship team) (Enfield)
The Word in Music: "O Holy Night" (choir) (Adam/Rene Clausen)
The Word in Music: "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" (worship team) (Peterson)
Hymn of Response: "Sing Aloud on This Day" (PERSONET HODIE)
Candlelighting Hymn: "Silent Night, Holy Night" (STILLE NICHT)
Hymn of Sending: "Joy to the World" (ANTIOCH) 
Postlude: "Noel" (Louis-Claude Daquin)

"Why the Christmas Story Matters to Me"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 11:1-5,9-10; Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-8; 2:8-20; Matthew 2:1-12

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

I’d like to do something a little different for my Christmas Eve message tonight.  Rather than preach the usual kind of sermon, I’d like instead to share briefly about each of the scripture lessons you heard read (and sung) tonight and why they collectively matter to me.

Prophecy (Isaiah 11:1-5,9-10)

This passage from the prophet – the preacher – Isaiah, like several others we’ve heard in the past few weeks, speaks words of hope and promise to those who are suffering and struggling.  God will send help, says Isaiah, and it will be a fulfillment of earlier promises God made to King David. 

I’ve been struck in recent weeks at how gritty and real the messages of Isaiah are.  It is clear that Isaiah the preacher knows his audience and the depth of suffering they are enduring as a conquered, displaced, and discouraged people.

Unlike the people of Isaiah’s day, we have already seen the Messiah, God’s Promised One.  We don’t have to wait for that like they did.  But the promises about righting all wrongs and no more suffering and no more sadness?  We’re still waiting on that.  So, in a way we have the same two things Isaiah did – 1) trust that God will come through in the future as he has in the past; and 2) a very long wait.

Bottom line, the prophets give me HOPE in a God who knows the human condition and delivers on His promises, and who waits with me in the meantime.

The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38)

The Annunciation is the account of a very ordinary girl being given an extraordinary message.  And while none of us will be asked by God to do anything quite so extraordinary as bear the Son of God, we are nonetheless asked to bear the Son of God into the world!

One of the descriptions we use at Good Shepherd is “ordinary people, extraordinary God.”  Mary’s story reminds me, as do many of the people God called upon in biblical times, that God uses everyday people like you and me to accomplish the really significant things He is doing even now in the world.

Mary challenges me to respond with faith and obedience, to say ‘yes’ – “may it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7)

What shall I say about the short account of the birth of Jesus.  It’s actually only half of one verse – “and she gave birth to her firstborn son.”  All around that are the mundane details that any of us might be dealing with around the birth of a child.  We had to submit our taxes; we had to register for baby gifts; we had to drive a ways to the hospital.  If anything, this birth was a little less than ideal – out of town, area crowded with visitors, a feeding trough for a place to sleep.

I suppose there are a number of things to say about the birth of Jesus, but if I just look at this account what probably stands out the most is that God didn’t just come to earth, but came all the way down.  Jesus wasn’t born like Moses, God-directed into the family and court of the King of Egypt.  He was born into a family of little means, from the country, and without connections. 

One of the really meaningful things I take away from the birth story is that Jesus is one of us.  And that’s a big deal.

Angels and Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)

I preached on the angels and shepherds a few weeks ago, so won’t repeat all that tonight.  The thing that stood out to me so much about this part of the story was the way Heaven opened up and connected with earth in that moment.  It was like a Heavenly birth announcement and gave us a little bit of a preview as to what Jesus would be about.  He, too, would be Heaven come to earth – and it’s what he would eventually talk about so much in his earthly ministry.

It is a continuation of the birth narrative: we just split it into two readings for tonight’s service.  But it continues right after the birth of Jesus and also reminds me that Jesus came for ordinary people like shepherds – working-class men just out doing their thing.  And they responded faithfully.

The shepherds challenge me to pay attention and respond to what God is doing all around me.

Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-12)

The wise men, or magi, are an interesting part of the story.  Best we can tell, they were scholars of another nation and religion who were paying close attention to world events and were led to Jesus, eventually finding him and even hearing from God in a dream.

There is a modern saying about this story, that “wise men still seek him.”  I think that gets at one of the things I take from this part of the story.  If there is something so compelling and true about Jesus – something that will even draw those who did not grow up surrounded by the community of faith – then surely He is worth seeking and finding.  And for my part, surely he is worth making known.

The wise men challenge me to do a better job studying and seeking the one in whom I already believe – they put me to shame a bit.  They also challenge me to make Him known, as one worth seeking.

Much More…

These Christmas stories are so much more than stories, more than fables or myth; and they are more than a tradition that means a lot to many people.  These purport to be the story of God – the very story of God come among us, and I believe them to be true.  More than that, I don’t just believe them to be factually true, but True with a capital ‘T’ – that is TRUTH… the kind of thing that you not only can live your life by, but stake your life on.

As you turn to these stories again and again – and to God’s Word in general – I hope they will encourage you and strengthen your own faith, perhaps inviting you to listen to them in a new way and respond to them with fresh ears.  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Joy at Christmas (Isaiah 35, Luke 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 23, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Carol Medley" (arr. Mark Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "Good Christians, All Rejoice" (IN DULCI JUBILO)
The Word in Music: "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" (arr. Poston)
Hymn of Response: "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" (HYFRYDOL, refrain Youngblood) 
Offering of Music: "Come, Lord Jesus" (Behnke)
Hymn of Sending: "What Child is This?" (GREENSLEEVES)
Postlude: "Let All Together Praise Our God" (Paul Manz)

"Joy at Christmas"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 35: Luke 2:10-11

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

“I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people!”  That’s what the angel said to the shepherds (Luke 2:10-11).  We’ve got two days to go to Christmas and I wonder if you are feeling it.

What is IT – stress? hurried last-minute shopping? family dynamics on overdrive? national and world events closing in like a dark cloud?  What about the joy?  Is it possible to experience joy at Christmas? Or any time anymore?

Luke recorded the message of the angel – an announcement of joy tied to the birth of Christ.  But if you’re not feeling it, you’re not feeling it.  How do you get it? How do you find it?  Is it actually out there for all people like the angel said?

For those kinds of questions, let’s turn back to Isaiah the preacher.  He also spoke of joy and he was speaking to people and times like ours.  We talked about that a few weeks ago.  His audience had lost their homes in a crushing economic and political defeat, which included war and death and loss.  Their families were scattered and their faith in a shambles.  Isaiah was no rosy peace-time preacher; he was facing some serious darkness.  And yet he spoke of joy.  I’d like to take a look at that with you today.

The initial visual paints the whole picture: the desert blossoming with flowering life will be like the joy of God’s glory coming.  I don’t know if you’ve seen Judean wilderness and desert before, but it’s about as bleak as you’d imagine desert to be.  And here’s the picture, with imagery and emotion all wrapped together: “it will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy.”  Do you remember how I’ve said that in Hebrew you repeat things for emphasis, like we bold or underline or use exclamation points?  Did you hear it there… “rejoice with REJOICING and SHOUT OF JOY!!”  There’s some joy to be had; the question is how.
The Hard-Pressed

This text is packed with reality and the human condition.  Listen to all the folks Isaiah names and see if you don’t identify with one or more, which range from the literal to the metaphorical:

The exhausted (v. 3) – Work, school, family, sickness, debt, depression, recession, expectation, travel, bills, news, disappointment, and more.  It is exhausting; my guess is that a significant number of you, of us, feel completely exhausted.  Ironic, isn’t it?  You finally made it to Christmas break or vacation and you just want to crawl into bed for a week?  And we’re not just physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally exhausted. 

The feeble (v. 3) – Not too much past exhausted is “feeble.”  Sometimes we don’t bounce back and we get borne under.  Or our bodies have failed us; or our will has failed us.  And we are beyond exhausted to feeble.

Those with anxious heart (v. 4) – In a different but related vein, we can be full of anxiety and fear.  That can either come with the exhaustion or can create or make it worse.  As bad as the present may be, we fear the future even more.  And that can be debilitating.

To each of these, Isaiah’s message is “Hold on; take courage; do not fear. God is coming with strength to take on that which oppresses you. God will save you.” In the case of Isaiah’s audience, this was a generation or more of literal defeat and captivity from an opposing nation.  And the salvation would require the repentance and turning back to the Lord of His people.  But help would come.  Death, defeat, and darkness did not (and do not!) have the last word.

Blocked Off from God

Isaiah also names four physical limitations, which in context speak beyond the literal to the spiritual.  Let me mention why I say that.  It is indeed possible that God’s people contained numerous blind, deaf, and similarly disabled people; and it is true that Jesus performed miracles of healing on people just like this.  But Jesus made the point that the healing was just a sign of something greater.  In healing a lame man one time he asked, “Which is harder, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up and walk.’?”  To help their belief, he healed; but what he was doing (forgiving sin and reconciling people with God) was the real miracle.

These limitations, taken as descriptors of one’s spiritual condition, actually block us off from experiencing God.

The blind (v. 5) – You’ve heard the line in “Amazing Grace” – “I was blind, but now I see.”  This is one of the most easily understandable metaphors for coming to faith.  Until we believe and trust God, we are blind to so much of who God is and what He is doing.  God’s glory and handiwork can be all around us and like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book, “The Last Battle,” we only see mud and straw and refuse.  “I can’t believe until I see,” we cry; but in reality, we can’t see until God opens our eyes.  And that is just what Isaiah describes with God’s salvation: “the eyes of the blind will be opened.”

The deaf (v. 5) – Likewise, we can be deaf to God’s Word and Spirit, both of which speak words of life and help.  It is a double-curse, is it not, that we suffer so in this life and are spiritually blocked from seeing or hearing the One who could help us?  Yet, that is the human curse – to be deaf and blind toward God.  And yet, Isaiah’s good news is that God will one day unstop the ears of the deaf.

The lame (v. 6) – He continues, with the lame promised to “leap like a deer.” How well being lame describes those who are crippled by the exhaustion and anxiety we’ve already mentioned.  We can hardly stand, much less run after God.  Like the man by the pool of Bethesda that Jesus healed, we are stuck on our mats waiting for the equivalent of a magic pool rather than looking for the true hand of God to lift us up.

The mute (v. 6) – And we are mute.  That’s a strange one.  Most of us don’t know too many mute people.  But I do know people who are so bound up that they can no longer speak words of love to a spouse or admit to the truth because of a web of deceit.  With all that binds and weighs us down, is it any wonder that we are mute and unable to profess love of God, sing praise, or be free to worship sincerely?  And yet those are the ones – the mute – who will “shout for joy!”  Not just croak out a sound here or there, but shout for joy!

Isn’t that what we want?  More than just to not be afraid or discouraged – though that at the very least – but to see, hear, walk, run, and shout?

A Final Picture

The scorched land (v. 7)  The rest of the passage is one more word picture, building on the initial image of wilderness and desert.  Isaiah comes back to that in verse 7 and describes “the scorched land.”  I know there are some of you that are way past exhausted, anxious, or feeble; you feel like scorched earth… blasted and blasted and there is simply no life or hope left.  Isaiah is talking to you!

He speaks of scorched land, thirsty ground, haunted by scavenger jackals and threatening beasts.  And in the midst of all that, Isaiah paints a picture of hope.  It’s not just rosy, “Trust Jesus and life will be wonderful.”  It is a gritty and real description of a God who knows right where you live, and walk, and suffer.  And there he describes scorched and thirsty land filling with life-giving pools of water.  In the midst of jackals and lions, he describes a path of safety and rest.  In the lost place of the wilderness, he describes a way that has a destination and a purpose and those who travel on it experience joy and gladness, such that sorrow and sighing flee away.

Isn’t that what we want?  Well yes, and no.  I remember talking to the Confirmation class about the lame man on the mat.  “Of course he wants to walk!” we always say on first reading the story.  Then we dig in and think about how long he’s been there – 38 years.  We think about his mat and his space, reserved day after day.  It’s a horrible existence… but it’s familiar.  What would walking mean?  What would picking up his mat mean? 

The Jesus Factor

As we read this mini-sermon from Isaiah, we see a promise of joy, which as we’ve seen elsewhere was sealed at Christmas with the birth of the promised Messiah.  And we see the promises of God to help, to encourage, to lead, and to save.  But we also have plenty of opportunities to turn away: to close our eyes to God’s work, to shut our ears to God’s Word and Spirit, to lay down and refuse to follow.

There is joy to be found at Christmas, as well as any time of the year.  What is more accurate is to say that there is joy to be found in Jesus, and it is his birth that is in focus at Christmas.  The Good News – declared by God through Isaiah and throughout this Bible – is that God has made a way where there seemed to be no way.  God has spoken and acted, and invited, and leads.  That doesn’t mean there is a magical money tree waiting for you, or a sudden reversal of years of sorrow.  But it does mean that there is a way for you in the scorched desert.  There is hope in the darkness and help for the helpless. 

Will you look, listen, get up, and follow?

With all this in mind – this whole passage – listen to one more thing.  This is what Jesus read, from another part of Isaiah (ch. 61), when he began his public ministry as an adult.  It should give you a good idea of why the birth of Jesus is such a joyful thing in God’s history.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

What do you hear? What do you see? What will you do? What will you say? 

The answer to those questions has everything to do with joy at Christmas.  Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Message: Do I Get It? (Luke 2.8-20)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 9, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "People, Look East" (Susan Slade, flute) (arr. Powell)
Hymn of Praise: "Angels, from the Realms of Glory" (REGENT SQUARE)
Hymn of Praise: "I Wonder as I Wander" (I WONDER AS I WANDER)
The Word in Music: "Behold the Lamb of God" (arr. Andrew Peterson)
Offering of Music: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (Susan Slade, flute) (arr. Powell)
Hymn of Sending: "Angels We Have Heard on High (GLORIA) 
Postlude: "Oh Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee?" (Paul Manz)

"The Message: Do I Get It?"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Luke 2:8-20

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

The scripture text we heard this morning is among the most familiar in scripture.  It is part of the Christmas story.  It is the text that Linus quotes in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  It’s the text we read every Christmas Eve as a part of our hearing of the full Christmas story.  It’s the text that many, many songs about angels and shepherds have been written.  And it’s all about a message – hearing it, acting on it, and passing it on.  So, I want us to ask ourselves this morning: “…about that message, do I get it?”

Hearing the Message (vv. 8-14)

The text divides out into several parts.  The first is the sharing of a message, from angels to shepherds.  The scene opens with the shepherds out in the fields, doing what shepherds do (v. 8).  And suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before them (v. 9).  That would be enough to startle anybody, but the really frightening part – and we are told how terribly frightened they were! – was the “glory of the Lord” around them.  We often gloss over that, thinking that angels are imposing enough on their own… which they are.  But this was beyond that.  The “glory of the Lord” is what was present at the burning bush, on top of Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments, in the vision that brought Isaiah to his knees in complete repentance and awe.  It is the very manifestation of God’s presence.  At the appearance of this angel (and this is underscored a few verses later when the multitude of heaven appear) it is as if a curtain was pulled back and Heaven itself was briefly present on earth.

The word angel means “messenger” – and that’s just what this angel did; he gave a message.  Here’s the message:
Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (vv. 10-12)
Let me start with “Do not be afraid.”  This is typical for angels to say because people are usually terrified.  But again, this is more than just the angel.  This is heaven opening and the glory of God engulfing the shepherds.  THAT was what “undid” Isaiah and what few humans ever encountered.  Realize how unusual and new this was – for God to reveal His very glory to a group of human beings.  But that was exactly what God was about to do through Jesus.  No longer would God be primarily confined to the holiest of holy places, but revealed for the world to see through Jesus, whom John later described as “God’s glory among us” (John 1:14).

Next, the angel brought “good news of great joy for all the people.”  That’s a world of significant stuff right there.  We can understand “good news” quickly enough.  We’ve all received good news and we’ve all received bad news.  But this is beyond good; this is the BEST news of all, because it is from God, it is for the world, and it involves a Savior.  (We’ll get to that in a minute!)  But think about what “great joy” might mean.  Most of us have trouble understanding “joy.”  We know it’s different than “happy.”  The Bible says it often comes in the presence of suffering and sorrow when we recognize God’s presence and power with us.  And that’s just what this message is all about.  God is with and around the shepherds and God is about to come into the world through the birth of Jesus.  It is great joy not only because of the nature of the news – a Savior! – but because of the scope of the gift – for the world! 

Then comes the announcement of the actual content of the news, the joy, and the gift: “today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  This is all the detail of prophecy and promise.  Last week we talked about the prophecy of Isaiah, how God had promised a Savior, a light in the darkness of human reality and suffering.  These details all connect with the various prophecies about the Messiah, the one God would send.  “In the city of David” fulfills the covenant promise to David about one of his descendants sitting on an eternal throne and ruling an eternal Kingdom.  “Born for you a Savior” connects to the promise in Isaiah that we heard about last week: God’s promised light would come through the birth of a child.  “Christ the Lord” is actually a direct reference to the Messiah or “anointed one” from God.  “Messiah” is Hebrew for “anointed one”; “Christ” is the Greek translation often Hebrew word Messiah.

So the message is this: the promised Messiah of God, the Savior of God’s people, is being born right now near Jerusalem, in the town of David’s family; and this is for the world!  The angel even offers a “sign” – which is a something that points to God’s involvement, “proving” if you will that the message is true (as if the glory of God isn’t enough!).  And the sign is so ridiculous as to be a sure thing; wrapped in cloths, yes, but surely no King or Messiah would be lying in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.

Then though it’s not called a sign, there was one more thing, and it was not insignificant.  Suddenly a multitude of “heavenly host” appeared and began praising God.  These “heavenly host” were part of Heaven opening up and appearing on earth.  Through their praise, the multitude of angels added a bit more to the message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”  This was the birth announcement… more than that the announcement that the Great God of Heaven was coming to earth to establish peace and restore people of all nations to right relationship with Himself.  That word, “peace,” describes that right relationship, truly only possible through God’s involvement with us. 

Acting on the Message (vv. 15-16)

Now did the shepherds get all that?  I don’t know; I probably would have been in a quivering heap on the ground.  But they got the basics: God showed up, announced the birth of the Messiah-Savior, gave us multiple signs, and we’re still alive.

The shepherds collected themselves and decided to go see for themselves (v. 15).  After all, the angel had told them where the baby was born, given them a sign to look for, and this was the greatest news of all time.  So they went “in a hurry” (v. 16) and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.  And they found him “in the manger” just as the angel had said.

I only point all this out to say that it is not enough that a message be spoken, even if it is by an angel and all his friends.  It was also necessary that the message be heard.  Anyone who has tried to communicate with another person has realized that.  A parent can say “please set the table” in many different ways, but until the kids (or husband) tunes in, it’s just floating out there.

Listening means we take in a message.  And if we’ve truly listened, then we always act in some way.  Acting may mean disregarding or rejecting the message, but that’s still acting on it.  In this case, the shepherds acted more positively.  They listened, believed, and followed; and they did so in a hurry and with great excitement.  They also acted in one more way…

Passing on the Message (vv. 17-20)

After hurrying to see this baby and the sign the angel had described, the shepherds could have just gone back home feeling blessed to have witnessed such a thing.  But that’s not what they did.  In fact, the text describes several additional responses from the shepherds.  Having heard and acted on the message, they saw the object (or subject!) of the message with their own eyes.  And when they had seen this…

They made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.  Presumably that means they told Mary and Joseph.  Now an angel had come to Mary, but had not spelled out all the things that the angel had told the shepherds.  This was another reason that listening well was important.  The shepherds told the “good news of a great joy for all the people” to Mary and Joseph.  They, too, heard the connections back to prophecy and promises, and the announcement that this child was the Messiah-Savior of God for the sake of the world.  Mary and Joseph, and all who heard it – maybe others later – wondered at these amazing things (v. 18).  Mary specifically treasured this message and continued to ponder it deeply in her heart (v. 19).

Then, the shepherds went back home, back to their fields and back to their sheep.  But they went back “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (v. 20).  Another part of acting on the message, at least on this particular message, was to share it with others.  They first shared it with Jesus’ parents.  Then they shared it as they went.  After all, this was “great news!”

And finally, the shepherds went in an attitude of worship, “glorifying and praising God.”  I don’t know if they were serious worshipers before all this, but they sure were after.  Think about the two different ways they testified to God.  They shared the specific message with Mary, Joseph, and perhaps others.  But they also were changed into folks captivated by the glory of God.  If you’ve ever met anyone that takes God that seriously, that loves to worship God and does so freely, you know that’s yet another way of passing on the message.

Do I Get It?

So, where I want to end is with a question: “Do you get it?”

It’s easy enough to speak the message, though I can’t summon legions of angels as a back-up choir.  But it’s there in the text itself: God has come from Heaven to earth through the birth of Jesus, and that Jesus is understood and demonstrated to be, at least by eye-witnesses, the very Savior God promised throughout history. 

I could try to say that in different ways.  In one sense, every sermon, every Sunday school lesson, and just about every verse in the Bible speaks that message in one way or another.  But are you listening?  Have you heard?

And if you’ve really listened, how have you acted on that message?  Again, if you’ve heard it, you’ve acted… in some way.  How have you acted?  Have you gone to see?  Have you checked Jesus out?  Have you studied scripture and tried to learn more about this so-called Savior?  Has it changed you in any way? 

And finally, if all these things are true – that you’ve listened and acted in faith – have you passed it on? Has it made you more devoted to, interested in, in love with, however you might frame it… with God?  Can others see and hear the great news through you?

That’s what I mean by “Do you get it?”  Christianity is good news about God and humanity, meant to transform a person’s life in a way that will transform the world.  Do you get it?  Do you want to get it?  That would be a good start… and the way to get there is to really listen.

May God give you ears to hear and hearts to follow.  Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Light of Hope (Isaiah 9.1-7, Matthew 4.12-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 2, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "I Wonder As I Wander" (Niles;arr. Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (Wesley, HYFRYDOL; Refrain. Youngblood)
Song of Praise: "Of the Father's Love Begotten" (Prudentius, DIVINUM MYSTERIUM arr. Austell)
The Word in Music: "Comfort, Comfort Now My People" (15th c./arr. Youngblood)
Offering of Music: "Silent Night" (Rick Bean, jazz piano) (arr. Bean)
Hymn of Sending: "Lift Up Your Heads" (TRURO) 
Postlude: "Lift Up Your Heads" (Ernst Pepping)

"The Light of Hope"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7; Matthew 4:12-17

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we begin the period of Advent, coming up to Christmas. We begin today by looking at a text in Isaiah that speaks of hope in God’s promises.  Not only is it a great text because it is hopeful, but because it is grounded in reality, in the challenges, struggles, and disappointments of this life.  And yet, God holds out light in the darkness, something in which we can find hope.  That hope is grounded in the promises of God.  Let’s look first at Isaiah 9.

I Have Seen Your Sorrow

Darkness. It may seem a strange place to start our season of coming to Christmas.  Or it may be right where you are.  That’s part of our reality as human beings; in this world there is darkness.  And that darkness often seems to be a lot harder to bear at Christmas time.  It may be because you lost a loved one at Christmas time.  Or it may be the contrast between the happiness you THINK you are supposed to feel and the struggles that you face.  But this whole season can be a very difficult and even lonely time.

It is an unfair and untruthful characterization of God to say that God is distant from all that.  Now I know God may FEEL distant; but He is not.  Generations before the text in Isaiah God’s chosen people had known all the blessings of a prosperous nation, a powerful government, and a strong economy.  But they had run afoul of the powers of their day.  The Assyrians had risen up as a mighty empire and conquered most of the Middle East and known world at the time.  God’s people had lost their independence, prosperity, and perhaps even more crushing, had seemed to lose the blessing of God.

Did you hear some of the language used in this passage?  - gloom, anguish, contempt, darkness, and more.  But God sees and God knows.  God knows of the “yoke of their burden” and the “staff on their shoulders.”  God has seen the “rod of their oppressor,” the “boot of the booted warrior” and the “cloak rolled in blood.”  Does that seem possible to you? …that God has seen your gloom and anguish, your oppression, your suffering and loss?  God has seen all that has been lost, stolen, wasted, and crushed.

Sometimes, it is simply enough to know that you are not alone, that someone sees and someone knows.  God is not aloof, but has seen every bit of what they and we have faced.  But that is just part of what is said here.  Isaiah has another hopeful word from the Lord for His people.

Remember the Past!

Isaiah lifted up the past to give God’s struggling people hope for the present and future.  His words tapped into the cultural history of every Jewish man, woman, boy, and girl.  First was the promise to Father Abraham.  In the language of restoring the land taken from Zebulun and Naphtali (v. 1), multiplying the nation and their gladness (v. 3), and waiting on the birth of a promised child (v. 6), Isaiah reminded the people that God had been faithful to Abraham to provide land, children, and blessing, and God would not give up on these covenant promises.  God would again restore the land, the people, and the blessing.  God’s name and ‘zeal’ stood behind this promise (v. 7).

Second, as Isaiah spoke of God breaking the yoke of their oppressors, he tapped into the story of the Exodus, of God setting His people free from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  God had done it before, in a big way; God could do it again.

Third, when he mentioned the “throne of David” and a kingdom established forever (v. 7), Isaiah called to mind another great covenant.  This one was a promise God made to King David, the greatest of the Kings of Israel, to maintain his kingly line forever.  This, too, seemed to have been lost when Assyria came in, but God reassures His people through Isaiah that this great promise had not been forgotten.

All of these promises and hopes would be a great light in the darkness, perhaps still far off as a point of light at this point, but nonetheless promise and hope to a struggling people.  And the hope, as with Abraham, was wrapped up in the birth of a child who would sit on the throne and who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (v. 6)  He would rule with peace, justice, and righteousness, and do so forever, with God’s blessing and power.

Jesus the Promise-Keeper

Hopefully your mind has already jumped to Jesus.  We understand him to be, and rightly so, this child born to us and the son (of God) given to us.  What we may miss is just how completely and amazingly Jesus matched up to what was promised some 700 years before his birth.  That’s one reason I included the passage from Matthew, but even it just scratches the surface.  Listen to it again and listen for the points of connection to Isaiah:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— “The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, And those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, Upon them a Light dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:12-17)
At the beginning of his earthly ministry, after John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus settled in Capernaum.  This region of Galilee, near the land of the ancient Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, had been taken by the Assyrians, but would one day, so Isaiah said, be the site of something glorious.  It was where Jesus conducted most of his ministry until the end, when he went to Jerusalem. It was literally “by the way of the sea” in the very area Isaiah described.  Matthew notes that when Jesus moved to this area, that’s when his public ministry began, with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  There is even a reference in Matthew to the “shadow of death” of Psalm 23.

Matthew is only one example of an explicit connection to Isaiah, saying that Jesus’ living and ministering in that location fulfilled the prophecy. It was another disciple, John, who made connection with the language of darkness and light:
He was in the beginning with God… in Him was life and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:2,4-5)
There are many other passages.  Have you ever wondered why those long genealogies are at the beginning of Matthew?  It was explicitly to trace Jesus' ancestry back to Abraham and King David.  God did keep His promise to Abraham and to David – He kept it perfectly in Jesus.  Would a descendant of King David sit on an eternal throne?  Indeed, Jesus was a descendant and would, as we discussed last week, sit on the throne of Heaven as the King of kings, greater even than David.  In fact, the whole reason Joseph and Mary were going to Bethlehem was for the census, because that was the “city of David” – and you had to go back to sign the census in the place your ancestors called home.  That and many other details about Jesus’ life connect him with the centuries’ old story and promises of God and His people.

Promises to You

And that’s the real connection point to you and me.  Jesus is the real connection point.  We aren’t suffering under the oppression of the ancient Assyrian Empire.  It would be easy to see only a disconnect with ourselves and Isaiah’s “light in the darkness.”  But that light was the Light of the World, the same Jesus who is our Savior and Lord.

That means that in our darkness – whether that is depression, loneliness, sickness, disobedience, or the evil or oppression of others – God has something to say.  Not only is God there with you, seeing the very rod of oppression and the blood-stained clothes of your struggles; but God has words and a promise of hope, of light in YOUR darkness, and that is through Jesus Christ.

What help is Jesus to my stuff or your stuff? 

As the “Wonderful Counselor” he sees, hears, listens, understands, and offers wisdom and discernment in our confusion and lostness.

As the “Mighty God” he is as bigger than, stronger than, whatever challenge you or I may face.  If he was bigger than the most powerful world empire of the time, he is bigger than a lost job, a medical diagnosis, a storm of depression, or any other darkness we face, big or small.

As the “Eternal Father” he is wise, present, and loving.  He’s not going anywhere.  Even when God’s people were at their worst in terms of disobedience, lack of faith, and outright rebellion, God did not leave or abandon them, but continued to pursue them in love.  Jesus pointed us to God as “Abba” Father: personal, close, compassionate, and not afraid to come running after us like the Father of the Prodigal.

As the “Prince of Peace” Jesus proves to be both warrior-king and gentle mediator.  He is strong enough to face anything, but wise and merciful enough to bring peace where we need it most.

Hear the Good News in God’s Word today. It is not a promise for a quick-fix, but all the hope of a steady light in the darkest of places: through Jesus, joy will replace anguish and gloom, the oppressed will find freedom, and we will come to know the strong but peaceful reign of Christ in our lives.

Cling to hope; cling to this Great Light; cling to the promise of God in Jesus.  Amen.