Friday, 24 December 2010

Peace & goodwill this Christmas

Christmas is a fun time for most of us, because everyone’s happy and nice to each other. We meet our family – sometimes people we haven’t seen for years. And we give each other gifts and reminisce about old times and share our hopes and dreams. And it’s all fun and lovely.

But then we hear things like this:

Each year police and support services prepare themselves for a spike in domestic assault cases over the Christmas to New Years’ eve period. A combination of financial strain, families spending more time together, and increased alcohol consumption contribute to the rise in figures.

Nina Funnell, ‘For many women, ‘tis the season of fear, not joy’, National Times December 21, 2010

The prophet Isaiah spoke to people who were oppressed and afraid, because they were under threat from their enemies.

Isaiah 9:1-2:

1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan. 2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

Isaiah’s talking about real, historical places. Zebulun, Naphtali, Galilee and the Jordan River. They’re in the north of Israel – in the area that was the first to be attacked by enemies. That’s why they lived in darkness, and the shadow of death - they were always under threat by their enemies.

Think of North and South Korea. There’s only a few hundred kilometres between the two capital cities, Pyongyang and Seoul. The two nations are technically still at war with each other – so they’re always afraid, always ready for war. Death could come to them any time – they live in the shadow of death.

We too live in the shadow of death. We’re not at war with another country. But we don’t have peace in our lives. Some of us really do live in the shadow of death – we’re battling cancer, or some other life-threatening disease. We all have some tension in our families – someone who won’t talk to someone else, and that makes Christmas lunch kind of awkward because they’re in the room together but everyone knows they won’t even look at each other, let alone talk to each other…

Isaiah explains the root cause of this breakdown, this tension, this war we experience. It’s simple, but profound: it’s because we have rejected God.

The prophet Isaiah says some really harsh things against his own people. He tells them that all their religious rituals are useless. In fact, they’re worse than useless – they actually make God mad. He compares his own people to Sodom and Gomorrah – the worst, most disgusting cities in the Bible.

And it’s all because they rejected God.

Isaiah 1:2-3:

2 Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. 3 The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

The people were worse than animals. Pets know where their food comes from. They respect their owners. The people of God don’t even know that much. They bite the hand that feeds them.

We’ve done exactly the same thing. God has been very kind to us. He gives us everything we have: families, friends, homes, jobs. But we reject him, we tell him to get out of our lives.

We don’t do it directly. We just ignore him.

Imagine going to someone’s place for Christmas lunch, and then barging in, talking to all the other guests, and merrily helping ourselves to the food – but completely ignoring the host. We don’t even say thank you. In fact, when the host comes to us to say hello, we deliberately turn our back and ignore them.

That’s how we treat God. We live in God’s world, and enjoy all the good things God gives us; and then ignore him.

That’s why God gets angry with us. How would you feel if you were the host at Christmas lunch, and your guests ignored you like that? First you’d be surprised; then you might be sad; but eventually, you’d get furious!

The amazing thing is – even though we reject God, and even though he’s angry with us, God still loves us enough to offer us peace through Jesus .

Isaiah 9:3-5:

3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. 5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

The people have gone from sorrow to joy. They were in darkness and gloom and distress. Now they’re partying – like at harvest time, or like when the last English wicket fell in the third Ashes test match, levelling the ashes at one all, and the whole of Australia rejoiced…

They’re happy because God has got rid of their enemy. The defeat of Midian refers back to an episode in Israel’s history. It’s recorded in Judges chapters 6-7. The people of Midian had conquered God’s people, and were ruling over them. God raised up a leader, Gideon, who defeated the Midianites, and released God’s people from their oppression.

God can defeat the people's enemies. He’s done it before; he’ll do it again. Only this time, it’ll be better than Midian. There’ll be world peace; no-one will need any weapons any more, they can all be burned in the fire.

And the way God will defeat the people's enemies is – through a baby.

Isaiah 9:6-7:

6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

Children don’t normally win wars. You don’t put a baby in front of a tank. But this isn't any ordinary baby.

  • He’s a ‘wonderful counsellor’: he’s going to know how to do the right thing, and teach wisely - with a wisdom greater than Solomon;
  • He’ll be an ‘everlasting father’: He’s going to look after the people like a father cares for a family; and, he’s going to be everlasting: he’s going to be from eternity, to eternity;
  • He’ll be the ‘prince of peace’: we've already talked about how the baby will bring world peace - only Jesus can really do that, because only Jesus fixes our rebellion against God;
  • And he’ll be ‘mighty God’ [Hebrew El-Gibbor, also used in Isaiah 10:21] - God would become a baby! Only Jesus can fulfil that!

And this child will fulfil God’s promises to David. Again, this refers to what God had done in Israel’s past. King David had defeated the enemies, and brought peace and security to God’s people. God promised David that one of his descendants would rule the world for ever – see 2 Samuel ch 7. This descendent from David will destroy God’s enemies, and bring peace, forever.

But it won’t be just this child doing it. The last phrase of the passage says “The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” God himself will act, in and through this promised child. That’s why we know it’ll work. When we try to do things, it doesn't work – because we’re weak and ignorant. When God does stuff, it works; because he’s wise and powerful, so he knows how to do things so that they last, forever.

Only Jesus could be this promised peace child.

  • Jesus really is divine - it’s not an exaggeration; he is himself mighty God;
  • That’s why he’s everlasting - he’s from eternity, to eternity;
  • Jesus really is God acting in the world - so the peace that he gives is for everyone, and goes on for ever, because he gives us peace with God;
  • Jesus is descended from David; he is David’s greatest son;
  • And he really does rule for ever - with him, it’s not an exaggeration, it’s real – because he rose from the dead, and lives for ever.

This is why Jesus can fix our main problem: our rebellion against God. When Jesus died on the cross, he wasn't just dying physically; he was taking all the punishment we deserve for rejecting God. So he fixes up what’s really wrong with the world: our rebellion against God. And because he’s fixed up our rebellion against God, he can rescue us from the evil powers that really oppress us: the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

So the question for all of us is – do we have peace this Christmas? Not just peace with our family & friends. Not just peace with ourselves – our sickness & worries. Peace with God!

Have you accepted Jesus as who he really is? God in the flesh; God’s chosen king; everlasting father; mighty God? Have you accepted the freedom from sin, death and the devil that he has won for us?

May the Lord bless you all, this Christmas and always.

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