Christmas Conflict (Revelation 12)

If someone asked you to tell them the Christmas story, you'd have options. You could tell them about an unwed pregnant teenager, or of angels appearing to shepherds, or of Persian astrologers who understood more than Bible scholars. You could speak of Simeon and Anna in the Temple. You could even put on the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which we're reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, in which they end up reading from Luke 2:

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12 KJV)

But you probably wouldn't tell someone the Christmas story that we just read.

I'd like to look at a very different account of Christmas morning. We're going to see three things tonight as we examine the story: the backstory of Christmas, the conflict of Christmas, and what this means for us.

First, let's look at the backstory.

Revelation 12:1-2 says:

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.

I know what you're thinking. This isn't like any Christmas story you've ever heard before. Can we go back to the story of shepherds and wise men? But this is important. Here you have, in two verses, the whole of the Old Testament in a nutshell. John is writing in very figurative, mythical language, and it's full of meaning.

Who is this woman? It's a strange description: she's clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of stars on her head. That's like no woman I've ever seen. But there's a hint. The people John was writing to would have remembered the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. Joseph had a dream one day which didn't endear him to his brothers. He told them, "I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me" (Genesis 37:9). You see the similar language - a sun, moon, and twelve stars including Joseph?

Looking at the imagery, we see that this woman in Revelation 12 is not Mary; it's actually the nation of Israel. The number 12 suggests that this woman represents God's people, from whom came the Messiah.

Here you have in two short verses all of history up until the birth of Jesus. You have a sense of promise. If know somebody who pregnant, you know what it's like to feel expectation and hope. There is a sense of longing and counting down. We buy gifts, and mark the calendars. We wait, we long, and we hope.

This is exactly what happens in the history of Israel. God promises that he will send the Messiah through Israel. This begins in Genesis 3, and continues with Abraham, through whom God promises to bless the entire world. You see this all through the Hebrew Scriptures, in the psalms and in the prophets. You see expectation and hope. Amazingly, in John 8, Jesus says to the religious leaders, "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). What is Jesus saying? What does Jesus mean that Abraham saw Jesus and was glad? He's saying that Abraham had prophetic insight, and was filled with expectation and longing for Jesus. All of the Hebrew Scriptures point to him.

But then we see that there is not just longing and hope, but also pain. "She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth." Here you get a sense of the pain and pathos of God's people. If you know anything about pregnancy, you know that it involves not just hope and expectation, but also pain. There are sleepless nights and there's indigestion and all kinds of other problems, so I'm told. And so it was with Israel. It's why the story of Israel is not always a happy story. We're going to see one of the reasons why in a minute.

This is the backstory of Christmas. The story of Mary and Joseph and the baby is not a random event. The birth of Jesus is the story of all of the Hebrew Scriptures. You can trace the origins right back to the beginning of time. All of history prior to this time points to the coming of this child.

This is the backstory of Christmas.

Second, let's look at the conflict surrounding Christmas.

Let's read verses 3-4:

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. (Revelation 12:3-4)

If the first two verses didn't overwhelm you, then this one will. Now we have a picture of this enormous dragon. Remember that John is writing in highly figurative language. What is he saying?

If you picture the setting of Jesus' birth, you likely picture a serene, quiet night with a baby lying quietly in a manger, sheep bleating, and Mary and Joseph looking contentedly at their baby. We probably think of songs like:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

But behind the scenes, Christmas was nowhere as serene as that. Behind the scenes, a war was waging. This war is all throughout the Old Testament. If Israel was like a pregnant woman, through whom the Messiah would be born, then it makes sense of how often Satan attacked Israel and tried to destroy her. If Satan destroyed Israel, then he would have wiped out the line through which the Messiah would come. So Pharaoh tries to kill all the male babies, but Moses is rescued from the Nile. Haman plots to kill the Jews at the time of Esther. If Israel's wiped out, the Messiah cannot be born.

It's a conflict that continues in Jesus' life as well. It's amazing how many times Jesus' life is threatened in the gospels. Herod tried to kill all the male babies in Jerusalem. The Jewish leaders frequently plotted to kill him all throughout the gospel. God had spoken centuries earlier of this conflict: "He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15). Christmas is a battle.

What happens in this battle? Surprisingly, this passage skips right past his life and tells us what happened after his death and resurrection when he ascended to God's right hand:

She gave birth to a son, a male child, who "will rule all the nations with an iron scepter." And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:5)

The child who was born at Bethlehem, John says, is not just a baby. He is the one who rules all nations with an iron scepter, and who is enthroned with God.

Do you know what this means? It means we can't sentimentalize Christmas. When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the sixteenth century, he brought along samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it. The Chinese readily adopted portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the Virgin and insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God. They liked the sentimental picture of Christmas, but they didn't like the battle.

Philip Yancey comments:

As I thumb...through my stack of Christmas cards, I realize that we in Christian countries do much the same thing. We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.

You'll probably never see a Christmas card with a picture of a dragon trying to devour Jesus the minute that he's born. That Christmas card just wouldn't sell. The birth of Jesus was a pivotal moment in the battle between God and Satan, and Jesus triumphed. It's not a tranquil story; it's a battle. It's about battle, but it's also about conquest and of victory. It's a story that we should never tame.

But then let's look, finally, at what this means for us.

I think you'll agree that this isn't your typical Christmas passage. But I chose it for a reason. I think we need this story of Christmas.

For one thing, it puts Christmas in its context. If you only focus on the stories of the manger and the shepherds and the magi, you're only getting part of the story. It's an important part of the story, but it's a tragedy if that's it. This passage reminds us that Christmas is part of a much larger story that stretches back throughout history. It's also a story that takes us to the cross.

If you celebrate the baby who is born at Bethlehem, then also celebrate the larger story of what God is doing. Revelation helps put Christmas in the larger context of the storyline of Scripture. It helps us remember that the manger is part of a larger drama, one that's important for all of us to remember. It's a story that includes us.

Second, it reminds us of who wins. John was writing to Christians who knew the story of Jesus born in the manger. Their problem is that they were facing all kinds of problems: false teaching, persecution, paganism, and immorality. How does the Christmas story help you when your life is filled with all kinds of pressures and troubles? John reminds them - and us - that we are caught in a cosmic struggle, and that the baby who is born in Bethlehem wins. He rules the nations with an iron scepter. And if you read on, you find that Satan loses. He is active, but his time is short. Revelation reminds us of who ultimately wins.

Finally, it calls for a response. If a baby's born, it doesn't call for too much of a response. You can admire the baby, give a few gifts, and then hand the baby back. It's not your problem. A baby doesn't call for much of a response. And if we only see Jesus as a baby, then it doesn't have much of an impact on our lives.

William H. Smith wrote:

Most of us also have not come to terms with the baby in the manger. We sing, "Glory to the newborn King." But do we truly recognize that the baby lying in the manger is appointed by God to be the King, to be either the Savior or Judge of all people? He is a most threatening person.

Malachi foresaw his coming and said, "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap." As long as we can keep him in the manger, and feel the sentimental feelings we have for babies, Jesus doesn't disturb us. But once we understand that his coming means for every one of us either salvation or condemnation, he disturbs us deeply...

That baby was born so that "he who had no sin" would become "sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The baby's destiny from the moment of his conception was hell—hell in the place of sinners. When I look into the manger, I come away shaken as I realize again that he was born to pay the unbearable penalty for my sins.

That's the message of Christmas: God reconciled the world to himself through Christ, man's sin has alienated him from God, and man's reconciliation with God is possible only through faith in Christ...Christmas is disturbing...

Only those who have been profoundly disturbed to the point of deep repentance are able to receive the tidings of comfort, peace, and joy that Christmas proclaims.

Let's pray.

Father, we thank you for this perspective on Christmas. It's different than the one we're used to, but it reminds us of what was happening at Christmas behind the scenes. It reminds us of the victory that Jesus won, and the confidence we can have no matter how bad things seem to be.

Keep us from sanitizing Christmas. Thank you for the work that Jesus came to do. May we respond in repentance and faith. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

Posted on December 24, 2008 and filed under Advent, Revelation.

The Hearts of the Fathers (Malachi 4:4-6; Luke 1:17)

We've been in a series the past few weeks called Far As the Curse is Found. We've been looking at the promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures of someone who would one day come, and as the hymn says, make his blessings known far as the curse is found.

So we've seen that Jesus' birth is:

  • the promise of a descendent of Eve who would destroy all the works of Satan
  • a sign that God is in control and has not abandoned this world
  • the arrival of the king we've always longed for, the king who will reign over the entire world and will never let us down

Today we're going to look at one more prophecy, and it's a surprising one. At the time this was written, it really seemed that all the old prophecies were just a big pile of hurt. The Jews had now returned from exile. The prophets had encouraged them to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed. They promised God's blessing. God promised that the rebuilt temple would be greater than the former temple; that God himself would return in mercy; that entire nations would turn to the Lord and become his people; and that there would be a new day of peace and prosperity.

But eighty years had passed. The temple was rebuilt, and it wasn't anywhere near as good as the previous temple. God had given them glowing promises, but these predictions must have seemed like a mockery. The economy was tanked. The land wasn't fruitful; there was drought, pestilence, and crop failure. The kingdom was a fraction of what it had been under David and Solomon - maybe 20 miles by 30 miles. That's just about twice the land mass of Toronto - not exactly small, but not exactly a great kingdom either. And there was only a population of about 150,000 people. And instead of nations flowing to be taught at Jerusalem, the nations were in control of Israel. They were no longer an independent nation, and there was no longer a Davidic king. God really didn't seem to be present in Jerusalem, and instead of spiritual vitality things seemed, well, dead.

In other words, all the things that we've talked about - that Satan's works were going to be destroyed, that God was in control, and that a king would come to set things right - none of them had happened. There was every reason to be discouraged. They may not have been in exile anymore, but they might as well be. All the promises had not yet come true.

It's in this context that we receive another promise of how God will set things right. In the middle of this hopelessness, Malachi prophesies that the Day of the Lord will come. The Day of the Lord, by the way, means the day that God will settle accounts and will finally triumph. It will be the day that God finally settles things. But Malachi says that before this day will come, he will send Elijah the prophet (Malachi 4:5). This is why today, Jews still leave an empty chair at Passover in the hope that Elijah will come. They still pray that the prophet Elijah will return.

And read in verse 6 what Elijah will do when he comes. I think you'll find something surprising in what it says: "He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (NIV). Did you read that? He said that before God ultimately triumphs, he will send a messenger who will turn the hearts of fathers to their children.

Now let's pause here and fast-forward a few hundred years. Right before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to a priest named Zechariah. The angel explained that he and his wife would have a child named John. Listen to what the angel said:

Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (NIV)

So here's what the angel is saying. That messenger, Elijah - the one who is going to come before the Day of the Lord, before God's final triumph - is now being born, an d his name is John the Baptist. You see, it's not literally Elijah who comes back; it's somebody else just like Elijah. And before God triumphs, this prophet is going to do two things:

  • turn the hearts of the fathers to their children
  • and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous

I kind of saw the second one coming. I don't have a hard time thinking that a prophet would have something to say to the disobedient. But I wasn't expecting anything about the relationship of fathers and children. So what I want to do today is to look at just two things: first, to look at the scope of what God is doing in sending his Son; and secondly, to look at how we live in response.

The Scope of Redemption

Why did Jesus come? We've already seen some of the answers. It's much bigger than we usually think. He came to save sinners from their sins. Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). This was very big news to the people who were drawn to Jesus, and it's still good news today. For two thousand years now, people's lives have been changed by Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we didn't. He bore our sins at the cross. He died the death that we should have died, and he rose again to give us new life. And in what's called the great exchange, he gave us all of his righteousness, and in exchange took all of our sin. He's made this available to anyone who comes to him and believes. This is why Jesus came.

I don't want to minimize this at all. I don't know how you could minimize something like that anyway. But I do want to say that there's more. It's much bigger than that. Jesus came to redeem and restore all of creation. Neil Plantinga puts it best:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn't content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn't content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too...

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans...The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, the whole world needs to be redeemed - every last person, place, organization, and program; all "rocks and trees and skies and seas"; in fact, "every square inch," as Abraham Kuyper said. The whole creation is "a theater for the mighty works of God," first in creation and then in re-creation. (Engaging God's World)

That's why we've been doing this series. The Old Testament is full of the reasons Jesus came, and we've been looking at them. It's huge. He came to destroy the works of Satan, to be a sign that God hasn't abandoned the world, and to reign in power as the king who brings peace to this world. Everything that sin has wrecked, Jesus came to fix. As the carol says, "He comes to make His blessings flow, Far as the curse is found."

If that's how big it is, then Malachi and Luke help us remember how small it is. It's also about the hearts of fathers toward their children. Before Jesus came, God sent a messenger to begin to prepare people for what Jesus was going to do, and this messenger had such an influence on people that the very nature of relationships within the family was changed. When people are changed vertically (with God), it also changes their relationships horizontally, with each other. It would revolutionize the way people lived in their homes. Fathers would awaken to their parental responsibilities and re-prioritize their lives.

The message of John the Baptist was that God was intervening in history. The long-awaited dominion of God, a dominion of peace and justice, was breaking into time and space. God is on the move, and preparations are necessary. What God is doing is as big as setting the world right again, and as small as changing a father's heart so that he cares for his children again. It's as big as the whole world, and as small as an individual family.

How Should We Live?

I want to close by asking how this should change our lives. John the Baptist asked people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We live on the other side of the cross, and we have an advantage: we know the grace of Jesus Christ. We've been enabled by the Spirit to obey. Through Christ we've learned about God as a Father who cares for his children, and we've received grace so that we can care for ours.

In Roman times, when Luke wrote this, fathers were much stricter than mothers. They were known to often be excessively harsh.

In our day, fathers tend to be absent more often than mothers. We can be so busy with our lives that we effectively ignore our children, giving them the leftovers. Even when we're home, we're not really home. Our minds are always on the next email or meeting.

Sometimes we can be too harsh. Paul talks about the danger of exasperating our children, making them feel like they can do nothing right. We can be emotionally distant, expressing nothing but disappointment and disapproval.

We serve a God who is restoring the entire world, defeating the works of Satan. He will one day banish all diseases and death. But even now he's changing father's hearts so that they really care for their children, and are no longer distant or harsh. This is exactly what can happen in your family, not just this Christmas but always.

So let me pray for you right now. Let me pray that you will know Jesus, and not just know him but everything that he has come to do. We look forward with anticipation and hope to all he will do. I pray that you will know him this Christmas. And as he changes us, I pray that he will turn our hearts (not just our actions) to our children. Let's pray.

Posted on December 21, 2008 and filed under Advent, Luke, Malachi, family.

One Who Will Be Ruler Over Israel (Micah 5)

No matter what you think about politics, it's been an interesting year. In the United States we've had one of the longest and most interesting presidential elections in years. And no matter what you think of the president-elect, you have to admit that expectations are pretty high for his presidency. In a congratulatory letter, French President Nicholas Sarkozy writes, "Your election raises in France, in Europe, and beyond throughout the world, immense hope." In fact, expectations are so high that the president-elect has tried to lower expectations, telling people that it's going to take time, that we need to think of the first thousand days of his presidency more than the first hundred days.

It's even been interesting in Canada. This past week, the Liberal Party of Canada will formally appoint its new leader. He has been called "the great Grit hope." A recent article said, "For many Liberals, qualities like this are a hopeful sign the party can rebuild after falling to a historic nadir in the Oct. 14 election. And for many Canadians, the 61-year-old Ignatieff is a statesman who could build the country's reputation on the world stage."

Not everybody is as excited about Obama or Ignatieff, but we have to admit that the phenomenon reveals something that is true of us as well. There is something within us that longs for a person of greatness to lead us. I realize that we're all cynical because we've been burned so many times, but there is something within us that longs for somebody to rise up and set things right, to inspire us, to give us hope, and to bring about - to borrow a tag line - change that we can believe in.

You even see this in movies. In Prince Caspian, a prince blows a magic horn, trying to summon help. The Narnians know they need help from Aslan or the Kings and Queens of Narnia. In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is crowned King, heralding the new age of peace and the triumph of good over evil. And in the legend of King Arthur, the legendary British leader is buried beneath a tombstone that says, "Here lies Arthur, the once and future king." In other words, he's the former king, but he's also the future king that we hope for.

We want a king, a president, a prime minister, a leader, who can inspire us.

But worse than that, we're also angry at ourselves for wanting greatness for a leader. We want to believe, but we can't believe that we're falling for it again. So when the stock market crashes, layoffs are rampant, roads are crumbling, and debt and taxes are on their way up, we can't imagine that the next guy will be any better than the last guy, but we still keep on hoping.

So what do we make of all of this? Today I'd like to look at a passage of Scripture written 2,700 years ago at a time of crisis, and consider three things before we come to the communion table. One: why we're right to be cynical. Two: why, on the other hand, we're wrong to be cynical. Three: what this means for us this Christmas.

One: Let's look at why we're exactly right to be cynical about leaders.

Micah 5:1 says:

Marshal your troops now, city of troops,
for a siege is laid against us.
They will strike Israel's ruler
on the cheek with a rod.

In the decades before Micah wrote this, the Assyrian empire became a world power. The Assyrian empire was scientifically advanced. In fact, they were the first to divide hours and minutes into sixty, which has continued to today. It was a time of industry and knowledge.

Assyria became a superpower, and their armies swept through the Mediterranean seacoast. There was no stopping them. They were the first imperial empire in history, and ruled a vast area with a combination of careful organization and systemic brutality. Entire cities were destroyed, and their populations were either deported or massacred as examples to others. Their kings wrote of impaling and burning people, cutting off noses, ears, and fingers. You did not want the Assyrians attacking you.

But as we read verse 1, we discover that this is exactly the situation that they are facing in Jerusalem. A siege is being laid against the city, and we read that Micah calls them to "muster your troops." But it's not looking good at all, because Micah also predicts, "They will strike Israel's ruler on the cheek with a rod." This is humiliating and horrible news. The leader, the one who is supposed to deliver Israel, is instead defeated and humiliated. The current leader is weak and embarrassing. Micah does not predict good news. He predicts that the siege is going to end in defeat for Israel, and that Assyria will be victorious. Their salvation will not come from the hands of their own king.

So what actually happened? In 701 BC, the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem. They engaged in psychological warfare, getting the people to question their leader, and intimidating the people with their taunts. The residents of Jerusalem had every right to be scared, because the Assyrians had a pretty good win record. We read in 2 Chronicles that God did miraculously deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian army, and that in a single night the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians.

But we also read that just over a hundred years later, in 587 BC, Jerusalem fell after a 30-month siege. Because of famine in the city, resistance was pretty much non-existent. The king was blinded after being forced to watch his sons being killed. Jerusalem was captured and burned and its walls razed. Most of the population was deported and the remainder, mostly rural peasants, were left behind leaderless. The ruling line of David disappeared, and the temple was destroyed. Israel seemed ended forever.

So it's bad news for Jerusalem, and the leaders aren't going to be much of a help. In fact, the leaders are part of the problem. Earlier in Micah, at the start of chapter 3, the prophet gives a scathing rebuke to the leaders. He accuses them of abuse of power using some pretty graphic terms. The way the kings and leaders are treating their people is as brutal and damaging as cannibalism, he says.

What Micah is telling us is that, at least in his time, leaders had become corrupt. The temptations of power had gotten to them. Leaders often have this drive to succeed, to get ahead. This can easily lead to a lust for power, and ultimately to self-interest. Micah is clear that the solution to the crisis they faced was not going to be their leadership. And lest we think that we are better, we are not immune from the same temptations. It's why God warned Israel against even wanting a king. The prophet Saul warned Israel that they would one day regret wanting a king. "You will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day" (1 Samuel 8:18). We want leaders, but they're never what we hoped they would be.

In fact, there's only one way to overcome the inherent weaknesses that we have as leaders and potential leaders: to own up to our shortcomings. Dan Allender says that the more we try to hide our weaknesses, the more controlling, insecure, and rigid we'll become. It will destroy us and damage those around us. It's only when we admit that we're so sinful that we will likely destroy everything we lead, that God begins to give us the grace that we desperately need.

Just to make it clear: our biggest problems are way too big for any leader to solve. Too big for any president, prime minister, party leader, pastor, or author. We need more than what any mere person can offer. But then Micah gives us hope, because there is a reason to hope.

Two: God will provide the king we long for.

He writes in verse 2:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

Micah tells us that even though Jerusalem will be conquered, and even though the king will be struck on the cheek, a king will come who meets our deepest expectations and longings. And he will come from the most unlikely of places: not Jerusalem. You can't trust the kings who are born in Jerusalem, in the centers of power. These kings always failed. This king will come from Bethlehem, a town so insignificant that it's scarcely mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. But from the most insignificant place will come the most preeminent person, a ruler who is coming in the future, and yet is from of old, from ancient times. He is the once and future king.

This king will not come soon enough to help with the siege. Verse 3 says:

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor gives birth
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.

But when he comes he will do more than even King David was able to do. Verse 4 says:

He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.

This is a king who will rule not just Israel. This is a king whose reign will reach to the ends of the earth. As the previous chapter tells us, nations will flow to Jerusalem, but not with armies.

Many nations will come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths."
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
(Micah 4:2)

This sounds, doesn't it, like the legends of a king who will set return and set things right: the Kings and Queens of Narnia, Aragorn, or King Arthur. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, went out for a walk in Oxford one day near Magdalen College on a path named Addison's Walk. At this point, C.S. Lewis was not a Christian. They began to talk about the ancient legends. Are these ancient myths just stories, or do they express some deeper truths we hardly know how to express?

"But myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver," said Lewis. "Myths are not lies," Tolkien countered. The myths we tell reflect a fragment of the true light. The story of Jesus Christ, Tolkien said, is much like the other myths, with one key difference: it really happened. Lewis came to realize that the story of Jesus is "the most important [story] and full of meaning." And soon afterwards he became a Christian.

You see, all the other stories - of the return of the king, of the once and present king, of kings and queens who will return to vanquish foes and bring peace - all of these stories are echoes or shadows of the true story of Jesus Christ, with one difference: the story of Jesus actually happened.

In Matthew 2 we learn that this promised king is Jesus. Herod asked his scholars where the Messiah was to be born, and based on Micah they told him in Bethlehem. The king that Micah spoke of is the king we worship at Christmas.

What does this mean for us today?

It means that we have a lot in common with the people of Jerusalem in Micah's day. We are not under siege by a foreign army, mind you. But we have our problems: economic, political, medical, personal. We have car companies threatening bankruptcy, the Bank of Canada warning of severe economic turmoil, politicians being charged with corruption. At the same time we have movies becoming more popular. Movies are recession-proof, some are saying, because, as one person puts it, "it gives you an escape from all the stress."

We're longing for someone to provide the answers for these problems, or at least to get some relief from them. Micah tells us where to look for hope: not to our politicians, not to our economists, not to the movies (although you can enjoy your movies), but to a king who is born in the most unlikely of places, whose reign is from old, and who shall be great to the ends of the earth, and will be their peace.

Just as the people under siege longed for this king to come, so we long for this king to reign. We're longing for the story to unfold of which all the other stories are only a shadow. The new heavens and new Earth are coming in which "everything sad is going to come untrue."

It also takes the pressure off of us. Martin Luther was friends with Philip Melanchton. Melanchton would occasionally worry a bit too much, one time in particular about the situation in Germany. Luther chided him, saying, "Let Philip cease to rule the world." We don't need to worry. Luther explained, "It is none of our work to steer the course of providence, or direct its motions, but to submit quietly to Him who does." There is a king who reigns, and that king is not us.

Most of all, this points us to Jesus, the most unlikely of kings who came from the most insignificant of places. Micah said that he would " shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD." Jesus said that he is the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. It's only the most unlikely of kings who would die for his people, but this is the king who will reign. When we see Jesus as the true king that all the other stories point to, we can say with C.S. Lewis, "I have just passed from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ."

We thank you today for the king born in the most insignificant of places, a ruler whose from old, from ancient days. We thank you that he will shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord; that he will be great to the ends of the earth; and that he shall be their peace.

We long for this once and future king, and so we pray, "Even so, come Lord Jesus. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

And we come to his table now as we look back on his death for us, and as we look forward to his reign over all the earth. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Posted on December 14, 2008 and filed under Advent, Micah.

Ultimate Hope (Isaiah 7)

Hopelessness

I don't know if you have ever experienced hopelessness. I hope not. Hope is the belief that no matter how bad things are right now, that the situation isn't permanent, and it will get better. Hope is what keeps us going when times are tough.

The only problem with hope is reality. It's hard to maintain hope in a world that can suck it right out of you. I looked up quotations on hope this week, and most of them were depressing. "Blessed is the man who expects nothing" (Alexander Pope). "He that lives on hope, dies fasting" (Benjamin Franklin). "Hope is merely disappointment deferred" (W. Burton Baldry). The message of these quotes is that you can hope if you want, but it's probably not going to get much better. It's best to come to grips with reality rather than imagine that things are going to somehow improve.

So I can think of some times when I, or people close to me, have given up hope: in the middle of depression, marital conflict, joblessness, sickness, or overwhelming pressure. But if you've experienced what it's like to give up all hope, you know that it's not at all a good thing. Hopelessness can almost kill you. Some would say it does.

The people we're going to look at today had given up hope. Here's the problem we're going to have: our problems seem huge, but the problems that people had long ago and far away seem like nothing. It's like a few years ago when I was sitting in a Starbucks on Yonge Street reading about William Lyon Mackenzie. Do you know him? He was a member of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly and the first mayor of Toronto. In December 1837 he decided the time was ripe to march on Toronto. It's called the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern or the Bar Fight. He marched from a tavern near Yonge and Eglinton down to around College Street. It seems tame to read the history. I sat in the Starbucks and looked out at Yonge Street and tried to imagine the 700 rebels on their way to an ambush. If you work at it, you can almost hear the yelling and smell the gun-smoke. It's anything but tame. This stuff really happened.

I want you to work with me this morning to try to understand the situation that King Ahaz faced 2,700 years ago. I realize I'm asking a lot, because none of us are kings, and we can't imagine what life would have been like for him back then. But let's give it a try. With a bit of work, we may be able to hear the sounds and feel the tensions.

Ahaz became king of Judah, the southern half of what used to be Israel, when he was twenty years old. He couldn't have become king at a more difficult time. I've already mentioned that Israel split into two kingdoms. This happened after the reign of King Solomon. This wasn't the way things were supposed to be, and it was certainly not what God had promised centuries earlier.

It got really bad, because a number of powerful forces formed a coalition against him. Sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it? A leader dealing with a coalition of hostile powers. Damascus and Israel joined forces to try to get rid of Ahaz, so that the nation of Judah would join their alliance against Assyria, which was quickly becoming a world power. Now try to picture what this would have felt like. Assyria on one side, and your Israel and Damascus on the other, and Ahaz being squeezed in the middle. When this happened, Ahaz had just begun his reign. So he was young, inexperienced, and he was facing the battle of his life. What do you think he felt like?

We don't have to guess, because Isaiah 7:2 tells us. "Now the house of David was told, 'Aram has allied itself with Ephraim'; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind." This was a big deal. When this brand new, young, and inexperienced king realized that two nations had joined forces against him, he was shaken, and so were his people, like trees in a windstorm. This was not good news. This coalition had already devastated the towns leading right up to Jerusalem, and now they were there wanting Ahaz gone, so they could put their own king in place.

What do you do if you're King Ahaz? Twenty years old, inexperienced, scared out of your mind, and leading a country that's completely demoralized. We're going to look at what he did in just a minute, but we need to first try to put ourselves in his place.

Does he try to negotiate with Syria and Israel? It doesn't look like they're interested in talking. Does he try to get Assyria to come to his defense? After all, Assyria is really what it's all about. Assyria could easily squash Syria and Israel on behalf of King Ahaz - but there would be strings attached. It would probably mean that Judah would come under their control, and Ahaz would become a vassal king, like a puppet.

Does he try to stall? You can only stall so long when you have an army right outside the city walls.

Does he just trust God? That's some of the advice that he received, but it's not so easy to just trust God when you have an army beating down your door.

I hope you sense the tension that this young king is facing. It's not an easy situation. Nobody here has been in exactly this same situation, but many of you can guess how he must have felt based on how you've felt when your back has been up against the wall with nowhere to turn. You know the position of hopelessness. You may even be able to relate to the phrase that Isaiah uses to describe his hopelessness: your heart shaking as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. You know what it's like to lose all hope.

The question is: what do you do?

Hope

It turns out that Ahaz had an advantage that we don't have. Ahaz had prophets, messengers who spoke on behalf of God and reminded them of his covenants. One of them was a man named Isaiah. It's in the middle of this national crisis that Isaiah shows up with what looks to be a surprising message of hope in some of the darkest situations possible.

You can already see this in what we've read so far. Did you notice what he said in Isaiah 7:2? "Now the house of David was told..." Isaiah could have said "the royal court" or "King Ahaz," but instead he said "the house of David," and for a reason. He's reminding Ahaz of God's covenant with David. God had promised to David, "Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16). Isaiah is reminding us that God has not been silent, and that there is no reason to lose hope no matter how bad things might look. God himself has promised that he will preserve the royal line of David.

God commissioned Isaiah to remind Ahaz of these promises. We read in verse 4: "Say to him, 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah" (Isaiah 7:4). God then went on to promise that within 65 years, Israel would be shattered from being a people. It happened too, by the way. Within a decade or so, Israel fell to Assyria. Within 65 years, the northern kingdom of Israel looked completely different because of all the foreign settlers. 2 Kings 17:24 tells us: "The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns."

As hopeless as the situation looked, things weren't as bad as they looked. God reassured Ahaz that he was still in control, and that his promises still stand. This was actually an opportunity for Ahaz and Judah to trust God and claim his promises. But verse 9 ends with a warning: "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all."

One of the worst things I can do at this point is to tell you, "See, you don't have to worry about any of your problems." You are not King Ahaz, and I don't want to pretend that your situation is exactly the same. But it may be more alike than you think. Remember when I said that Ahaz had an advantage because he had prophets? Hebrews tells us that we have something better than a prophet: we have Jesus. And not only that. We have Scripture. We have a record of God's promises. The Apostle Paul wrote, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:20). In other words, all of God's promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

And, in essence, we all face the same test that Ahaz faced. Will we trust God in our trials? We face a choice when we run into crises, and the choice is between independence or trust. Make no mistake: the Bible never promises that we will be spared trials.

But when the trials come, we have the choice of trying to handle them on our own, or in trusting God. Trusting God doesn't mean that we become passive, but it means that we pray, look at Scripture, and put our trust in God's sovereignty despite not understanding what's happening. It means that we turn to his promises, that we lean on him in prayer. It means that we rehearse Scriptures, reminding ourselves that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35), that God will look after our needs (Matthew 6:25-34), and that we can cast our anxieties upon him, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

Someone has written a book When People are Big and God is Small. There are times that people look big, when circumstances seem huge, and God looks small by comparison. This is what Ahaz faced. At the moment of crisis, God looked much smaller than the opposing armies. He wasn't sure God could handle it, so he lost hope. We face the same question. When facing problems, when facing trials, will we see the problems as bigger than God?

I'm not sure how we will respond, but I know how Ahaz responded. We read in 2 Kings:

Ahaz sent messengers to say to Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria, "I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me." And Ahaz took the silver and gold found in the temple of the LORD and in the treasuries of the royal palace and sent it as a gift to the king of Assyria. (2 Kings 16:7-8)

Rather than turning to the LORD for help, he turned to Assyria, and become a puppet king. He actually gives up the gold from the temple as payment for the king of Assyrian to come to his aid. We read in 2 Chronicles 28 that Ahaz failed as a king:

The LORD had humbled Judah because of Ahaz king of Israel, for he had promoted wickedness in Judah and had been most unfaithful to the LORD. Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came to him, but he gave him trouble instead of help. Ahaz took some of the things from the temple of the LORD and from the royal palace and from the officials and presented them to the king of Assyria, but that did not help him.

In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the LORD. (2 Chronicles 28:19-22)

I think this passage is very revealing: "he gave him trouble instead of help." When we hit crisis and don't turn to God, we turn to other things, thinking they will help. They may help in the short term, like Tiglath-Pileser did, but in the end they lead to bondage. They take us farther away from God and, in the end, they give us trouble instead of help.

Before we move on, I want to notice that even in the middle of this crisis, even as Ahaz refused to call on God, God still continued to offer hope. We read in verse 11 that God offered Ahaz a sign to help bolster his sagging spirits. Ahaz responded by turning God down, but even then God offers hope. In verses 14-16 he says:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

This gives me a lot of hope. Even in the middle of doubt on the part of King Ahaz, God continues to reach out. He gives Ahaz a sign that God will spare Judah: a child would be born, and this child would symbolize God's presence and protection in Judah. In the very next chapter, Isaiah records the birth of his own son. In both cases, God makes a promise that before the child is old enough to know right and wrong, or even to say father or mother, that God would deal with Israel and with Syria.

What patience on the part of God. And what a reminder to us how God cares for his people. We can have the same confidence in God no matter how big our problems, no matter how hopeless things seem. As the writer to the Hebrews says:

God has said,
"Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you."

So we say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can human beings do to me?"
(Hebrews 13:5-6)

Ultimate Hope

We could end the sermon here, except that this passage isn't just about Ahaz's situation. It's also about another baby born centuries later. We read in Matthew 1 that the Lord appeared to Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, and said:

Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (which means "God with us"). (Matthew 1:20-23)

Isaiah's son was the immediate fulfillment of the promise that God gave Ahaz, but Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment. Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise that he will never abandon his people. He is not just a symbol of God's presence and protection; he is the reality of God's promise and protection, here in human flesh. Jesus is God's sign to us that we never have to think that our problems are bigger than he is, that we never need to lose hope.

This would have been very good news for Mary and Joseph, who lived at a time in which Israel was under foreign rule. It meant that God had not forgotten them, and that he would always keep his promises.

So I don't know if you ever lose hope. I don't know if you're ever in an Ahaz situation, in which the problems look bigger than God. Jesus is God's reminder that he will keep his promise, and he will not abandon his people. Ever.

Thank you that foreign armies camped against your people are no match for your promises. Thank you that you put up with us even when we doubt. Thank you most of all that you have given us a sign, whose name is Jesus Christ, to remind us that you will keep your promises, that you will save your people, and that you will never abandon us. In his name we pray. Amen.

Posted on December 7, 2008 and filed under Advent, Isaiah.