Episode 1. Looking Forward to Christmas
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Here we are … looking forward to Christmas … again. Can you believe it? But turn the clock back to that first Christmas. What were people looking forward to back then and what does that mean for …
Here we are … looking forward to Christmas … again. Can you believe it? But turn the clock back to that first Christmas. What were people looking forward to back then and what does that mean for us today? Let’s find out.
Well it’s that the time of year again. Here we are just a few weeks out looking forward to Christmas. Again. Can you believe it? They just seem to roll around so quickly.
Well what are we looking forward to when we look forward to Christmas? Maybe it’s a rest or a holiday. Maybe you’re looking forward to the family gathering or the presents or maybe there’s something more.
Looking forward to Christmas it’s kind of a funny thing. You know over the years as I’ve grown up we’re you’re a kid it’s different you look forward to the presents you look forward to the excitement you look forward to all that summer holidays stuff. But I guess for me as I’ve grown up and you’re in the work force you don’t get the sorts of holidays you used to get when you were a kid at school.
To tell you the truth as I look forward to Christmas of course living in the southern hemisphere it’s summer for us. As I look forward to Christmas the biggest thing that my body looks forward to quite frankly is a rest. You know, just the ability to stop producing and stop doing and just have a time with my wife and my daughter and my family. Just to rest for a few weeks over that period.
Yet somehow in these weeks leading up to Christmas, we seem to race around and rack up bills on the credit cards busy preparing for what? My hunch is that we almost never stop and think what am I really looking forward to when it comes to Christmas?
Let’s be honest, I’m being honest with you. One of the biggest things I look forward to is that the notion of just having a rest. And that’s natural that, that’s ok. But I wonder in all he racing around, all the doing all the stuff that we’re involved in, I wonder whether sometimes it’s just not easy to miss what’s happening at Christmas to miss what God always intended should happen at Christmas.
That whole issue of what are we looking forward to it is as valid a question today as it was back 2000 years ago at the first Christmas. Let’s just step back in time for a minute and look at what was happening for the nation of Israel when they were approaching whether the they knew it or not the very first Christmas. The 2000 years of the life Israel leading up to the birth of Jesus so that’s beginning about 4000 years ago when God first spoke to Abraham the Father of the Israelite nation.
Well that 2000 leading up to the birth of Christ it was a real rollercoaster ride. They had some big ups and some big downs. They’d began their lives as a nation in slavery in Egypt and then God released them from that and took them to the desert under Moses leadership for 40 years. Then he took them into the promised land, the land of Israel where they had to fight to take possession of the land. And over the next several hundred years they had some real blessing and abundances as they lived their lives for God as they lived their lives as God had always intended them to live those lives.
As I said it was the land flowing milk and honey. It was a nation blessed they had some great Kings. They had some lousy Kings too. And over the coming centuries God sent prophets to them. Men whose job it was to speak God’s will into the life of the nation of Israel. Often we think of a prophet as being someone who predicts the future and in part the prophets did that but only about 5% of the prophetic writings are about predicting the future. The other 95% are about speaking God’s love and God’s warnings and God’s encouragement into the lives of His chosen people, the nation of Israel.
Sometimes what the prophets on behalf of God was really encouraging. Things like, look there is a big battle coming up but let God fight this battle for you. This is God’s battle, let him fight just stand and watch and see what He will do for you. That’s pretty encouraging stuff.
But sometimes, sometimes the prophets had some dire warnings. So often the Kings of Israel or the people or the priests strayed away from God. They married into the nations around them. They ended up worshipping idols, they ended up doing all sorts of things that just weren’t God’s will for them. And so God often sent messages through his prophets when the people had strayed from God to warm them, to call them back.
Those were very difficult and tough messages and some of them were messages of judgment. But as well as the real prophets, those that were genuinely appointed by God, speaking into the life of Israel, there were also some self-styled false prophets. They were saying everything is ok just hang loose enjoy life do you what feels good. In fact we know that there were some false prophets when one of the greatest prophets Isaiah was prophesying God’s judgment to the nation of Israel because they were worshipping idols. These other prophets were saying ‘No, no, no everything’s fine.’ It’s a bit like today really.
Here we are in the West about 70% of people say they believe in God, a god of some sort and in this media generation that we have everyone and everything seems to be about talking at us. And some of them we know, we listen to that voice and they have genuine ring about them. You listen, you think man I think God is talking to me through that person or through that voice and others, others laugh and chortle at what God’s saying. They look at God’s people and say what a bunch of losers. Look really the answers out here buy that new car, spend the money, get the career, go on the fantastic holiday
None of those things are bad, none of those things in themselves are bad, until they displace our first love. That beautiful relationship that God wants us to have with Him. So in a sense, even though the society was different and the times were different there is a strong parallel between what was going on in Israel way back then in those hundreds and thousands of years leading up to the birth of Jesus and what’s going on in our society today.
In about 596 or 597 BC there was a really ugly thing that happened. A number of the prophets had been prophesying to Israel saying look if you don’t get your act together here, if you don’t start living the life God wants you to lead, if you don’t start honouring God first and seeing that justice is done in the land and loving the people around you, there is a terrible judgment that is going to fall on you. And we know historically that in 596 or 597 BC that the Babylonians came and they took over Israel, they took over Jerusalem they razed Jerusalem l to the ground they destroyed the temple and they took Israelites into captivity for 70 years as slaves in Babylon.
And in a sense from that point onwards it was downhill all the way. The last King that reigned, reigned just at that point and after that there was no more King for Israel. So here was Israel God’s chosen people, God lived in the temple he was doing wonderful things for them but he called judgment down upon them. And after the Babylonians sure they came back into Judea and back into Jerusalem they rebuilt the temple but they were never under self-rule again except for a brief period.
The Babylonians were the world power and then the Persians and then the Ptolemites and the Seleucids from 597 BC right through to 167 BC what 400 something years, Israel was an occupied territory.
It was an occupied country out of the occupation, out of the pain out of the oppression, God has appointed a number of prophets to speak about a Messiah, a king someone who would come and bring freedom and peace. A messiah means literally God’s anointed one. The kings of Israel were referred to as messiahs they were God’s anointed ruler.
And so the prophets time and time again were pointing at some ruler that would come and bring freedom back to the captives. That would set them free from all of this pain and occupation. And as we look through the Old Testament which was written over a period of about 1400 or 1500 years, there are no less than 120 predictions and prophecies pointing forward to this one messiah, to this thing that we now call Christmas. Let me just go through a few of those prophecies because they are really amazing. We’re just going to quickly skim through just a few of them. Next week, we’ll have a look at a couple of them in quite a bit of detail.
But listen to some of the prophecies. In Exodus Chapter 12 it was prophesied that when Jesus was crucified that none of his bones would be broken. That is so specific and it was true. That’s exactly what happened. There were prophecies that he would be a blessing to the Gentiles. Now that’s a really radical thing because Israel understood that God was the God of the Jews not the God of the Gentiles and yet there were multiple prophecies that this new Messiah would be a blessing to the Gentiles.
The throne David, the kingship would be established forever. That he would declared the son of God, that He would be raised again, that his hands and feet would be pierced, that he would be mocked and insulted that soldiers would cast lots for his coat. All those things actually happened. The prophecies that He would be betrayed by a friend, that he would speak in parables, that he would be born of a virgin, Isaiah 7:14, that he’s be full of wisdom and power, that he would reign in mercy that he’d be rejected, suffer that he’d be silent when accused, that he’d be crucified with transgressors with the other two criminals that were crucified with Jesus on that same day. Isaiah 53:12:
That he’d be buried among the rich
Which is exactly what happened. That is an incredible array of predictions, well over 120 of them, hundreds even thousands of years before Jesus was born in such detail. There was a prophecy there to that He would be born in Bethlehem. Now some people say well you know Jesus could read the scripture like anybody he could organize to make sure that all of these prophecies were fulfilled.
It’s pretty hard to organize what town you are going to born in, It’s just a little bit hard to organize how you are going to die, just a little bit hard when you are hanging on the cross to organize some soldiers to cast lots for your clothes. So these predictions are really amazing.
In Amos 8:9 said the sun would be dark he said on that day says God I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. Zechariah predicated that Jesus would be sold for 30 pieces of silver. This is remarkable stuff.
What has it got to do with Christmas though? Berni, what are you raving on about with all this Israeli history? Well, God was making promises. God is a God of promise. And God was making promises that maybe the people didn’t fully understand. But he was pointing forward to something and that something we today call Christmas. It’s the coming of the Messiah. But then after centuries of the prophets speaking to Israel, after literally centuries, all of a sudden, bang, they stopped speaking.
Malachi and Ezra and Nehemiah were actually the last of the prophets they stopped speaking on behalf of God in about 450 BC. After centuries God stops speaking. And there was Persian occupation and the Greeks and this brief period of independence and then the brutal Roman occupation from 40 BC onwards. So here are these people in the middle of the adversities of life in one sense just like you and me in their own context they had all this stuff going on, all this cacophony and noise. What were they looking forward to when this first Christmas was just around the corner.
They had the promises of the prophets ringing in their ears. A Messiah! An anointed one someone, who would come and bring peace, someone who would set them free. What are they looking forward to? What are they looking to get out of God’s promises through the prophets? What would you and I be looking forward to?
Freedom, safety, abundance, a good life. God promised that He would be their God, they would be his people. That they would be blessed and that they would have plenty and that they would have a good life.
But there was sense of confusion, they weren’t sure. They had seen this false promise of that brief period of freedom. They saw the Romans they knew they hadn’t had a king for half a millennium. What form would this salvation take? How would it come?
Let’s just wind the clock forward for a moment and just take a look at the confusion that reigned about how this salvation would come. Jesus was well through his public ministry he’d performed miracles, he’d walked on water, he’d healed the blind and the sick. He’d done amazing things. And here in Mathew’s gospel 16:13 if you have a bible open it up there. Jesus says this to his disciples:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi he asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they said, ‘Well some say John the Baptist but others say Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ And he said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ And Simon also called said Peter answered ‘You’re the Messiah, you’re the Son of the living God’ And Jesus answered him ‘Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah because flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this to you but my Father in Heaven.’
See even after Jesus has been alive and doing these amazing things, there is this incredible confusion about whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. And here’s the crux of what they were thinking. They expected God to do something because the prophets had told them there would be a Messiah. But they thought of it in traditional terms. They were expecting a prophet. They were expecting maybe a King who was a warrior like David. Someone who would raise up an army and throw the Romans out and all of a sudden there would be freedom in the land again. But God wasn’t doing something traditional; God was doing a new thing.
When he sent his Son Jesus to come and be here with us on this earth he was doing a startling, surprising new thing. Listen Isaiah wrote 43:19:
God says see I’m doing a new thing. Now it’s springs it up don’t you see? I’m making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.
Jeremiah 31:21 writes this:
The Lord will create a new thing on earth. A woman will surround a man.
In other words, here Jeremiah pointing forward to the virgin birth. A again in 31:31 Jeremiah talks about a new covenant and new promise. God is going to do something new was the promise of the prophets but somehow the people married that up with the notion of having a Messiah a new king, someone that would lead them out of captivity into salvation and freedom. God was making a promise a fresh, new, exciting startling promise that was fulfilled on that Christmas. A promise would bring someone to be the saviour, to bring freedom to bring life but not in the way that people expected.
So here are these people looking forward to something, a promise from God but what? They were looking from within their condition, their lives. What they’d known of God’s promises, what they saw of the oppression of the Romans they were looking for a prophet, they were looking for a warrior king. And even after the miracles, the death, the resurrection his closest disciples still didn’t get it.
What about you and me? As we look forward to Christmas, how much is our present condition here and now cloud our expectations of what God is doing at Christmas. Maybe we are looking forward to a better life or a better job or some more money or some peace or some rest or some freedoms from the things that oppress us. There are so many people walking this world today who are as oppressed as the nation of Israel was under the rule of the Romans. We all have needs in our lives and there are people who have desperate needs in their lives to be free.
So here was Israel to looking forward to God’s promise from their perspective through their framework and here we are looking forward to God’s promise through what? Through our reality, through our human eyes through our life, through our needs, through the framework of all the things we see going on around us. And we look at God meeting those needs in traditional human terms.
Israel was looking for a prophet. Israel was looking for a warrior king like David to fight the Romans. God, God is doing a new thing. Because we people know matter what we believe are so often trapped in the reality of our circumstances. We’re myopic, our vision is clouded by the framework our frame of reference of here and now, of job and family and all those things we can see and touch and feel.
But Christmas, Christmas is about a new thing. Christmas isn’t a Santa Claus, Christmas is the coming of the Son of God. People sometimes say, ‘Berni you are such a wowser, you are trying rob us of the magic of Christmas. No, no, I’m here to tell you there is something better than the magic of Christmas. It’s the miracle of Christmas and the miracle of Christmas can only be found in that baby Jesus who was lying in that manger.
It’s surprising, it’s a new birth. Jesus later said when he was grown up he said to Nicodemus unless you are born again, you can’t see the kingdom of heaven. Christmas is about a new start in life.
There’s a sense in which faith isn’t enough, I mean Israel by and large believed in the promises of God but their judgment and their view and their understanding was clouded by their realities, their day-to-day realities. We need to go from believing to knowing. To knowing the surprise and the miracle of Christmas, to knowing this new thing. And by knowing I mean experiencing, tasting.
In my life, here and now circumstances will not stop Him. Look at the Israelites, they’d gone from occupation to occupation so many countries had rolled over the top of them and now it was the Roams. There was religions corruption going on at the time. The people were misguided but those things did not stop Jesus from coming. He came anyway. In fact He came because of them because in the middle of all of that there was hurt, there was need.
People didn’t get it straight away, people didn’t get it when they saw him walk on water and do miracles. The disciples didn’t even get it after living with him for three and a half years. But He still came. And no matter what our circumstances are, no matter how myopic our view is of Christmas, Jesus will break through.
Jesus will heal the broken-hearted He’ll heal the sick, He’ll touch us so that the weak can say I’m strong. The poor can say I’m rich. Jesus is the answer and that can be as much as a surprise to someone who is believed from a long time and never experienced, as it is to someone never heard the message of Jesus Christ before. It’s a surprise. Jesus came to bring us a new life.
But Berni you don’t understand, God’s stopped talking to me such a long time ago. I can’t believe as much as what you’re saying about Him. I just can’t. For fifteen hundred years God spoke to Israel through the prophets and then for 450 years there was silence. They were enslaved, their land was occupied. They had a brief period of peace and freedom and the Romans arrived again. And for 450 years there was dead silence. Where is God?
And that silence was only broken by cry of a baby in that stable in Bethlehem. God’s speaking in a new way, a surprising way in an unexpected way, proclaiming freedom and healing and mercy and not rules. Not to re-establish the kingdom of Israel but to usher in the kingdom of God. Into my life, into your life, into our realities and to see that happen and to make that happen he allowed himself to be crucified to pay for our sins. It’s a new thing, it’s a surprising thing, it’s for you and for me.
So let me ask you something. As you look forward to this Christmas what are you looking forward to? What if there’s something more. What if this Jesus wants to break into your reality and touch your heart and set you free. What are you looking forward to?