The Gospel of Christmas Past
Preached by Jason Abbott
I walked into Starbucks a few weeks ago, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and noticed (with some annoyance) that Christmas music was already being played in the shop. Now, I really do try to not be a humbug about seasonal sales tactics, but nothing channels my inner Scrooge like way too premature Christmas music—music, my wife tells me, that’s there to remind each of us to begin buying our gifts. It’s pumped-out like chum into shark infested waters.
Sadly, we far too often take the bait. We far too often go about buying gifts as if they’re the key ingredient to a merry Christmas. So we consume and consume without being satisfied. You see, it’s not simply the music that’s like chum to us but the wrapping paper and packages too. All of it sends us into a feeding frenzy while only making us hungrier and hungrier. But chum doesn’t satisfy!
Friends, as I hope we’ll learn in our first Advent passage, this is not new. People have always turned to the things in this world in order to find satisfaction—in order to satisfy their deepest hungers. So, even 700 years before Jesus’s birth, God through Isaiah calls people away from all that cannot satisfy to the only one, in all of history, who can. Let’s read about this gospel of Christmas past together. You can find the passage on page 675 of the brown Bibles in your row.
1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on 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 forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
As we study today’s passage together, we’ll hopefully see a stark difference between the kinds of joy a worldly gift can bring us and the kinds of joy God can. One will never satisfy us while the other always will. Let’s look at each.
1. We won’t find real joy in earthly gifts (8:21-22).
In order to grasp this point, we’ll need to establish some historical context. This prophecy, after all, was originally spoken into a real situation for real people. So what was that situation, and who were those people?
As mentioned earlier, all this took place 700 years before Jesus was born. The political scene was complicated to say the least. Israel was a divided nation, with the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Furthermore, these kingdoms did not get along.
They were, in fact, at odds with one another when Isaiah gave this prophecy. Israel had allied itself with Syria in order to bully Judah into joining in the alliance with them against the powerful nation of Assyria.
Ahaz (Judah’s king at the time) was exceedingly despicable and very evil—setting up all kinds of idolatrous worship in Judah and even sacrificing children. He, rather than be bullied into an alliance, decided to call upon Assyria for help. Yet, before he did, Isaiah urged him to call upon the Lord for Judah’s salvation. Nevertheless, Ahaz wouldn’t listen. To him, Assyria seemed a better bet.
In the wake of Ahaz’s decision—to trust in worldly over heavenly power—God issues his prophetic judgment on all those who would seek joy and salvation in such worldly things. Look at the final two verses of his warning:
They [Judah] will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness (8:21-22).
This judgment can’t mean less than that Judah will face dire consequences for Ahaz’s apostate and evil leadership. There’s a time when famine will come, and, because of it, people will blame King Ahaz (rightly) and King God (wrongly). And, they will look to the earth for relief but find “gloom” and “anguish” instead. Certainly it can’t mean less than that.
But friends, I think it must certainly reach further than just Judah in 700 BC. I think it must speak a warning to us in our 21st century, western context as well. Just consider how often we look to the earth rather than to God for relief and help. Just consider where we regularly seek our salvation and our joy today.
Let me offer up some questions that might reveal this to and in us:1
- “What occupies your mind when you have nothing else to think about?”
- “Do you develop potential scenarios about career advancement?”
- “Or material goods such as a dream home?”
- “Or a relationship with a particular person?”
Friends, whatever we regularly and habitually daydream about likely reveals to us the ways in which we’re looking to this world, rather than to God, for our joy and our salvation. And, when we do that, we’re not at all unlike Ahaz who called upon the Assyrians instead of God for rescue.
When we do that, when we “look to the earth [for our joy and our salvation], behold distress and darkness” is what we ultimately find!
In the movie A Christmas Story, the protagonist Ralphie wants just one thing for Christmas. I bet many of you know precisely what it is. To be exact, he wants, “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle!” Yet, upon this request, he is repeatedly told, “You’ll shoot your eye out kid.” Nonetheless, he does get the rifle and, also, nearly shoots his eye out.
Each of us has our own “Red Ryder air rifle” gift from some Christmas past. Don’t we?! Was yours a:
- Chatty Cathy or G. I. Joe (1960s)?
- Star Wars Action Figure or Cabbage Patch Kid (1970s or 80s)?
- Tickle Me Elmo or Beanie Baby (1990s)?
- Nintendo Wii or Zhu Zhu Pet (2000s)?
How well did that gift satisfy you? I’ll bet you don’t know where it is now. How long did you play with it before the shine wore off? A week? A month? Two? (By the way, if you’re still playing with it, you’ve got a different issue.)
Look, just as we can easily see that a “Red Ryder air rifle” is insufficient when it comes to bringing a child lasting joy so too God can see that relationships and money and power are insufficient when it comes to bringing adults lasting joy. He therefore urges us to turn to him!
And, this is where the gospel of Christmas past comes in.
2. We will find real joy in the gift of God (9:1-7).
Those in Judah had the scary prophecy of darkness and gloom and hunger looming before them. They had nations threatening war against them on all sides. They had one of the worst kings imaginable making all the decisions. Theirs was, without a doubt, a bleak situation. Then, in steps hope.
To those who are in darkness and scared and hungry, Isaiah says:
…people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; / those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, / on them has light shone. / You have multiplied the nation; / you have increased its joy; / they rejoice before you / as with joy at the harvest, / as they are glad when they divide the spoil (9:2-3).
Know, God says, if you’re searching for meaning and purpose and answers that my light is coming—my purpose will shine.
Know, God says, if you’re wallowing in fear, intimidation, and depression that my love turns those fears to joy and that depression to rejoicing.
Know, God says, if you’re in the midst of what seems an unending famine that my delight is to make all who trust in me full of joy as at the harvest feasts.
This good news gave hope in Isaiah’s day and it gives hope now!
Next, to those who are surrounded on all sides by enemies, Isaiah says:
For the yoke of his burden, / and the staff for his shoulder, / the rod of his oppressor, / you have broken as on the day of Midian. / For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult / and every garment rolled in blood / will be burned as fuel for the fire (9:4-5).
Know, God says, if you are weary from endless wars and rumors of wars that my final plan brings peace—my plan is shalom.
Know, God says, if you hate combat boots and bloody bandages and death that my purpose is to make them fuel for the fire—obsolete!
This good news gave hope in Isaiah’s day and it gives hope now!
Finally, to all who suffer under unjust presidents and kings, Isaiah says:
For to us a child is born, / to us a son is given; / and the government shall be upon his shoulder, / and his name shall 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, / on 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 forevermore (9:6-7).
Know, God says, if you’re fed up with partisan politics and unjust indecision that my chosen will rule justly and righteously and decisively and eternally!
Know, God says, if you’re exhausted after serving war-lords and conquerors that my king will be called “Wonderful Counselor” and “Prince of Peace” forever and ever without end!
Friends, this good news gave hope in Isaiah’s day and it gives hope now!
As we conclude, some here might object, “Though Judah received this news, many of them perished in war or from starvation or under a despotic and evil king. So, how is this good news?! How is this real hope?!”
But friends, the objection itself simply shows us how pernicious the idolatry of placing our hope of salvation in the things of this life is. The complaint shows us how quickly we misplace our beliefs about real joy—how quickly we locate them in created things rather than in the Creator of all things.
See, the people in Judah some 2700 years ago weren’t created for this world. At least, not this world as it now stands. Instead, those in Isaiah’s day, and also, throughout all of history, were created for an existence that is not tainted by wars and famines and tyrants. They and we were created to find our joy and our pleasure in God alone.
Friends, I can often try to find my joy in how cool other people think I am. The other day some younger, hipper congregants informed me that this tan jacket isn’t all that cool. If I try and find my joy in staying hip in the eyes of the world, what happens to that joy when I’m inevitably not cool any longer?!
Friends, I’m often tempted to trust in and find my joy in my physical health. Yet, a few weeks ago I tweaked my back and it still isn’t right. If that’s my joy, where will I be in thirty years? Where will I be when cancer or dementia find me? The joy of physical health cannot last!
Friends, Isaiah’s news is good news because it announces, to Judah and us, that our joy wasn’t meant for this world—but for the God of the whole universe, who brings eternal joy to all who trust in his Son: this “Mighty God” who saves.