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Sunday, November 29, 2015

I Have Hope in God (Isaiah 9, John 1, Luke 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; November 29, 2015
Text: Isaiah 9:2-6; John 1:1-5; Luke 2:29-32

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

There are some audio difficulties in the opening minutes of today's recording, but they resolve after a minute or two.

:: Some Music Used ::
Song of Praise: Prepare the Way (Evans/Nuzum)
The Word in Music: Our Hope is in Emmanuel (Victor C. Johnson)
Hymn of Response: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (VENI EMMANUEL, arr. Austell)
Offering of Music: Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates (choir; Handel, from the Messiah)
Hymn of Sending: Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming (ES IST EIN ROS)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Testimony :: Marty McKenzie shared about Hope (audio link) 

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which marks a special season in the year of the Christian church. It is a time of waiting hopefully and faithfully on God. It is also special because the waiting has two layers. On one hand, we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ by putting ourselves in the place of those ancient people of God who were waiting for the coming of the Messiah. But on top of that hope and expectation, we remember the promises of scripture that Christ will come again gloriously at the end of things to make all things right.

In addition to scripture, we will also hear some of your stories over these weeks as members of the church family share on the week’s theme in answer to the question, “Where have you seen God?” So these weeks, will be full of scripture and promise, but not the kind of happy, sappy sentimentality that we sometimes hear, but an authentic hopefulness found in the reality of life in this world. That’s why it is truly Good News – because, as we will be reminded today, God sent Light into the dark places of this world through Jesus.

Living in Dark Places (Isaiah 9)

Isaiah 9 is famous for its hopeful and prophetic language. It is perhaps most known for verse 6 and following, the “For unto us a child is born” that Handel set to music in the Messiah, followed by the names that would be given to that child – “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” We will return to that verse and what follows in a few weeks. But today I want to focus with you on the first part of Isaiah 9, “The people who walk in darkness… and those who live in a dark land...” (v. 2)

This chapter points with hope to God’s promise to intervene and break in to life as we know it. As Christians, we believe God kept that promise through Jesus. But don’t miss the context of these verses. You get that in verse 4, which describes what God’s people were facing in Isaiah’s day: the “yoke of their burden… the staff on their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.” Going on to verse 5 we read of “the booted warrior in the battle tumult, and cloak[s] rolled in blood.” At the time of Isaiah, God’s people lived in a tough world, full of warring and loss and difficulty.

That’s why God’s promise through Isaiah rings with such strength and hope… it’s not another silver bow on a shiny Christmas present, it’s the news that this dark place that is the world they lived in was not all there was. There WAS hope to be found, even beyond the seemingly powerful and threatening powers of this world: those in the darkness “will see a great light… the light will shine on them.” (v. 2)

Isn’t that a timely word for us as well? Have you not had moments of wondering what is happening to our world, with news of terrorists, bombings, genocide, and more? Is it not real Good News that God is more than a happy hymn in a candle-lit church service? Rather, God is present and on the move on the battlefield, in the midst of oppression and slavery, in the dark, dark places of this world. That is the HOPE toward which Advent points us, that Immanuel – God is with us – is not just sweetness and light, but life-saving, life-freeing, evil-destroying, and dark-dispersing light in the dark places of this world.

The Light Shines (John 1)

It is no mistake that the Gospel of John picks up this same Good Word, this same prophetic hope. John begins his account of Jesus with the same imagery. Of Jesus, that Word in the beginning with and as God, he writes, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend (or overcome) it.” (John 1:4-5)

We are still the “people walking in darkness” that Isaiah named, but John tells us that God Himself stepped into the world to shine in that same darkness. John makes explicit the hope that was only envisioned in Isaiah’s day. Isaiah promised that a child would be born to usher in God’s promised light, but John tells us, “It’s this one – Jesus; he is the Light sent from God and is himself God in the flesh.”

John also tells us something else important – something intuitive to us, but also something that grounds all this in reality – we still live in a world of darkness and light. John’s Gospel is no dreamy vision of a Utopia where there is no evil or sadness or loss. He does have such a vision, set off in the future after Christ’s returns again – that’s the book of Revelation, no Utopia, but a final and eternal victory of God. But here – this account of Jesus’ birth and life and death in the first century, describes what we still see and experience: a world full of darkness and evil, yet one with God showing up and lighting the way.

We have a choice, then; we can live among the shadows, “walking in darkness” apart from God; or we can trust God’s promise, that Jesus is indeed the “Light of the world.” One of my favorite scripture stories describes someone with that hope.

Hope from God (Luke 2)

When we look at Simeon’s story in Luke 2, it is often after Christmas, because in it baby Jesus has already been born and Joseph and Mary are bringing him to the Temple to be circumcised. But focus with me on Simeon. He is an old, old man who lived in the dark and difficult time of the first century, when the Roman Empire ruled Palestine with a brutal efficiency. Simeon believed and hoped in those old prophecies though, and his prayer had been that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, the child that would be born to God’s people.

And that day when Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the Temple, Simeon saw his hopes fulfilled; not the final fulfillment of all things being made right, but the coming of the Light into the world. In his words you can hear the gap being bridged between Isaiah and Jesus, and an example for all of us who continue to hope in faith:
Now Lord, you are releasing your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
Isaiah’s message, John’s testimony, Jesus’ birth, and Simeon’s song – they all name and describe the HOPE that God promised us. They all represent the hope that comes from God. But there is more to consider…

Hope in God

Our part – YOUR part – is what you do with the message. What do you do with Isaiah’s prophecy, John’s history, Simeon’s testimony, and the person of Jesus. There is a crucial move from the message of hope from God to a person’s hope in God. But that’s the question and invitation in these scriptures and stories.

This is the Good News: THE LIGHT HAS COME.

In this dark and dangerous world, whether you walk in darkness or live in fear of the darkness, have you – would you – put your hope in God. We will yet in this service hear one more personal account of hope. We will pray IN HOPE as we consider the dangers and darkness in the world around us. We will sing once again of our hope in Christ. And the question and invitation will remain – have you, would you, put your hope in God?

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