Isaiah 9:1-7, Matthew 1:18-23
November 27, 2011
“Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, the rose I had in mind.” Those are the words of the hymn we just sang. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” And I think that’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful Christmas Carols we have – despite its syncopated rhythm which has confounded many a Church-goer over the last 400 years!
That hymn speaks to us of one of the three major themes of the Advent season. And as we begin that season, let me remind you of them again. The first theme has to do with the prophecies and events surrounding the first coming of Jesus Christ into the world. The second theme is about remembering the beginning of Jesus public ministry and the message of the one who came to herald his ministry, John the Baptist. The third, and perhaps the least thought about theme, is remembering and celebrating Jesus’ promise to come again into the world – the Second Advent!
Well, this sermon title, taken from the words of the Carol “Lo, how a rose” is about that first theme. It’s about the prophecies and events of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. That’s arguably the biggest and most talked about part of this celebration, and I think it’s a good place to start the celebration of this season.
Think about it. For some 800 years the prophets of the Old Testament had been hinting about the coming of a Messiah. And as we talked about last week, even people in other cultures and religions were seeing signs and portents in the heavens that something important was about to happen in Israel.
The prophets talked about a Messiah, a savior, a deliverer like Moses. And considering the history of the Hebrew people, that was a welcome thought! The nation of Israel was constantly being overrun, conquered, occupied, exiled, and oppressed, by nation after nation. Their little corner of the world was the crossroads for three continents, and it was fought over and occupied by various peoples and empires for centuries. And if you think about it, it is still being fought over even as we speak!
So as the time of Jesus’ Advent approached, Israel had been conquered by yet another empire, this time, of course, it was none other than Rome – one of the greatest empires that has ever existed on this planet! And they didn’t like it. The “Pax Romano” – the “Roman Peace” – was stable, but harsh. And they longed to be free of it! So all those references to a deliverer from all those years ago, started sounding really good to them! Little did they know, but after all the other empires from which they wish to be delivered over the centuries, it would be now, in the time of Rome, that their deliver would appear. But of course, as you know, it would not be as they thought!
Throughout the Advent season, and particularly as we think about this first theme, we read over and over again from the treasury of Messianic prophecies we find in the Old Testament. And a lot of them, like the one we read today, come from the greatest of those messianic prophets – Isaiah. When it comes to the Advent of Jesus “Isaiah,” indeed “‘twas foretold it.”
We also read today from the book in which the most prophecies were quoted and proven true – the Gospel of Matthew. As I’ve said before, the purpose for Matthew’s writing his Gospel was to prove to the Jewish people that Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of all those Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. So his Gospel is chock full of passages like the one we read today, “Such and such took place in order that the words of the prophet would be fulfilled.” And then the prophetic quote.
As we think about that today, and in fact throughout this Advent season, I’d like you to think about something. I’d like you to ask yourselves, if, like those people of Israel, you ever feel like you need a savior for our own purposes? And because of that, do you ever miss the real reasons Jesus came? Do you ever feel perhaps that life is not going so well – like life isn’t fair? Do you ever wish for a deliverer just from your own set of difficult circumstances?
In the time of Rome, the people were happy to appropriate the idea of a coming messiah to fit their desire for political freedom. But as big as that might possibly have been to them, it would not come close to the real importance of why Jesus came. We can see it now, of course. But in their frame of mind, the people then would eventually miss the biggest event in history – God himself stepping into history! And the biggest irony of this story is that Jesus did not fulfill their desires for a Messiah, and they turned their backs on the one they awaited for so long.
Do we ever do that? Are we sometimes so intent on what we think something is, or what we would rather it be, that we miss seeing what it actually is? That’s a very important question about our celebration of Advent, and indeed in our whole life of faith.
And doesn’t that often happen with this celebration of Christmas? Because of that do we not sometimes do the second thing I want you to think about today. Do we not then keep the big picture of Christmas in a very small frame? Too many people do that don’t they?
At best, many people see Christmas as a birth story, but that’s. They see it as a beautiful story of a child being born. They see it as a story about angel choirs, shepherds kneeling in worship, kings bowing in homage. But they don’t want to hear about the “tough parts” of the story. They want to skip over the part about the jealous rage of king Herod and the slaughter of the innocent. They don’t want to think about the eventual rejection of Jesus by the people, and the tragic end to his earthly life. And at worse, though seemingly the most innocuous, many choose to see Christmas only as snowmen, Santa Claus, and ski season. (Well, that’s what I think of it, anyway!)
Isaiah tried to tell the people then, and the people now, that this thing about Jesus is so much more!!! It’s so much bigger than what can ever fit into our feeble and limited minds and human understanding. It’s beyond our desire for what we want it to be. This is about an earth-shaking, cataclysmic event of epic proportions.
Isaiah told us in figurative kinds of terms the grand truth about this event. He said that, “this thing will be so earth-shaking that …every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be made low, the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…” (Isaiah 40:4-5)
He told us that, “it will be so important in human history, that all wars and conflicts – even with Rome – will end, and …every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isaiah 9:5-6)
He said that “things will change so dramatically in the world that …the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and leopard shall lie down with the kid, and calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…” (Isaiah 11:6)
He might not have realized the full implications of his prophecy, but it would be that God himself would step into history, “…and he will bring good tidings to the afflicted, and bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted. He will proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of prison to those who are bound. And that shall be the acceptable year of the Lord!” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
And he said that it would be so amazing, so universal, that “…the earth shall be filled with the knowledge and the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)
That’s what he was trying to tell us! The question is, will we listen to him? And if I can convince us of anything today – myself included – it’s that this event we anticipate, this event we celebrate, is so much more!!! I think maybe that’s just might be what bothers me the most about he commercialization of Christmas. Not that it diminishes it, but that it trivializes it!
Yes, the music, the décor, the snowmen, the lights, the magical fairyland we transform our world into at this time of year is wonderful! I would not trivialize that! Do it all! Let your world change around this story. But know this year, that all of it, even our best understanding of it, it is only the barest hint of the power and the glory of God that has been revealed.
Isaiah ‘twas foretold it. Listen carefully to his words this year. And know the power of what he was trying to tell us. And to God be the glory, and the power, and the praise, now and forever! Amen.
Eternal God, in your infinite wisdom and your infinite love, you have come to be among us. Help us to know that this Advent season. Help us to prepare our hearts for the amazement of that story. Help us to live lives changed as the world was changed so long ago. For we pray in the name of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, Amen.