Believe it or not, Advent has actually started! The season of the coming of Christ. And to start the season off, I want to ask what people were thinking, back during the years before Jesus was born.
You know, I don’t think they really knew. I don’t think most people had much of an idea. The prophecies they had about the coming Savior were more than 500 years old by then.
Can you imagine building your hope and your faith based on something somebody said back at the time of Columbus? Or can you imagine changing your heart and changing your life because of some words somebody prophesied a hundred years before Shakespeare?
I don’t think that we have much of an idea about who Jesus is either. Or why Jesus came. Or what Jesus really wanted to share with us. I’m not sure that we have any idea of what to expect.
We’ve got all these Christmas TV specials and programs and things that sentimentalize Christmas. But I don’t think most people have any real idea about the birth, purpose, character, and ministry of the One who was promised as the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
I think if we did understand, we would act differently. If we knew who the Savior is, we wouldn’t live and act the way we do. I think if we really understood what God wants, what God has planned, what God has dreamed about for so many years, I think we would be a lot more excited. And I think if we had even a hint of what God has coming down the road, I think we would all be praying.
The people who lived in Jesus’ time knew that God had promised something. They may not have understood it. They may not have believed in the promise, because it had been delayed so long. But at least they thought about it.
And the primary source for their reflections was the books of the Old Testament. Specifically, the prophets. Particularly, the prophet Isaiah.
So, let’s begin right at the beginning. I’ll read from the first chapter of Isaiah, and let’s see how we get on.
The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the Lord has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its master, the donkey knows its manger,
but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.
Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart is afflicted.
From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.
– Isaiah 1:1-6
The basic message of Isaiah is, we don’t know God. That’s what he’s saying. Maybe we used to know God, but we have forgotten what God is all about. Whatever God told us, or promised us, we don’t live it any more. And the kind of things we do, our actions, have estranged us and separated us from God. That’s what Isaiah is always saying, throughout the whole book.
“All your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed,
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
– Isaiah 1:11-17
What’s that mean? Does Isaiah want people to stop worshiping? Does he want people not to come to church? He says that sacrifices aren’t what God wants. God is tired of religious rituals.
God says, “When you spread your hands, I’m not watching! When you pray, I’m not listening!” What an appalling thought!
Isaiah’s point, throughout everything that he wrote, is that society has replaced what God wants with what we want. God wants people to stop doing wrong, and do right. To seek for justice. To look after orphans and widows.
God wants things to change. And God is working, planning, and dreaming towards that change. The promise of Advent is a promise that things will change, and that people who are poor and forgotten will be taken care of.
Here’s another sample from Isaiah. Have any of you heard this one before?
In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple 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.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
– Isaiah 2:2-4
The dream which God holds out is that there shall be peace. God is saying, “You shall be the light of the world. People will look at you, and they will see Me. The people who worship Me will be people of peace.” That’s the change God wants.
When people were waiting for the coming of the Messiah, they didn’t have a lot of detail to base their hopes on. You run into things like this:
The Lord spoke to the king, saying, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
But the king said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Isn’t not enough that you try the human patience? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: A virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (which means, “God with us.)”
– Isaiah 7:10-14
You’ve all heard that one, before, right? We think of this as one of the central prophecies of Christmas. We think about Mary, and the birth of Jesus, and Christmas.
But right here, God is saying, “You want a sign? Ask me anything. Anything at all! You want a rabbit out of a hat? You want a child to be born, where no child could possibly be? I’ll take care of that. And you want to know the name of the baby? The name of that baby is going to mean, God with us. . .”
When people were waiting for the coming of the Messiah, the one who was going to redeem the world and set everything straight, they had very little to go on. Just cryptic words, and prophecies nobody could understand until later.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. . .
For the boots of every marching warrior and every garment drenched in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
– Isaiah 9:2, 5-7
It’s about Christmas, all right. It’s the birth of Christ. But what does it mean? Does the coming of Jesus really have something to do with peace? Is that what it’s supposed to be like for us? Does accepting the prophecy, and celebrating Christmas, mean that we have to pray for God to make us into people of peace?
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge just by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide just by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
And with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
– Isaiah 11:1-6
Here’s what I think it means. Peace and God’s presence, Christmas and Christ, the Savior and salvation, are all tied up together. Christmas means the coming of the Prince of Peace. Advent means expecting that the world can really change. With God’s help, it could happen.
Christmas means something which we don’t understand. We read the Christmas story, we hear the words, we say them over every year, but we still don’t get it. We don’t take in the meaning. And God says, “Behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people. . .” Things to marvel at, things to wonder at, can still happen again.
Christmas is such a rich time, because so many different things, so many different words and prophecies and promises, all come together at the same time.
Let’s listen to Isaiah just one more time:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up what has been broken down; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastation of many generations.
– Isaiah 61:1-4
Those are the words of Isaiah. Those are also the words of Jesus. They were the first words which Jesus spoke in public ministry, as recorded in the New Testament.
Advent means looking backward, to the great things that happened a long time ago. Advent means reading the old, old words and trying to figure them out for ourselves.
But Advent also means looking forward, to see what God is doing right now in our world. Advent means trying to figure out what God still wants to do, to understand what promises have yet to be fulfilled.
As we settle back into quiet worship, I hope that sense of looking backward and looking forward, that sense of prophecy and promise, can stay with us.
What were people thinking about at the time of Jesus? What were they praying for? Who were they waiting for? Would they recognize Him when He came? Would we?