The biblical prophet Isaiah brought a message of hope to the discouraged and depressed nation of Israel some 2,700 years ago. "The time of darkness and despair will not go on forever," he says.
For there will be a time in the future when Galilee ... will be filled with glory.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light-a light that will shine on all who live in the land where death casts its shadow. Isaiah 9:1-2 [NLT]
And the reason for this hope, Isaiah says, is that ...... a child is born to us, a son is given to us. Isaiah 9:6 [NLT]
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that 700 years after Isaiah foretold these things, an angel appeared to a man named Joseph, who was engaged to a woman named Mary who was pregnant with a child that was not his.
The angel said ..."Do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Then Matthew adds ...All of this happened to fulfil the Lord's message [- another prophecy -] through his prophet [Isaiah]: "Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us)." Matthew 1: 20 - 23 [NLT]
If you've ever wondered why Christmas is such a big deal to Christians, now you know. We believe that the one whose birth we celebrate - Jesus of Nazareth - entered this world to fulfil the promise of God: that people who live in the land where death casts its shadow would see a great light - the great light of God's glory - and that the darkness and despair of this world would not overcome them.
And this world is dark these days. Our airwaves are filled with depressing news everyday – murder, rape, theft, abuse. There's a war on drugs that takes its toll on many of our young people everyday. Every day there are marriage and family wars in many of our homes. There are the battles that many of us fight - and lose - with our health, or with our destructive attitudes and behaviours. The losses of family and friends feel particularly painful during this season; the loneliness that many of us fight as we go through life single, or as our children grow up and leave home; the rejection that we feel as those around us let us know that we don't fit or we're not good enough; the boredom that comes from working a meaningless or thankless job day after day.
With so much darkness in the world and in our personal lives, many of us desperately need a reason to hope.
Is there any real reason to hope? I don't mean "reason to be optimistic that things will turn out OK." I mean "reason to keep going even if things don't turn out OK."
I mean "is there any real reason to continue to fully engage in all of life with an open heart even if the worst of possibilities becomes the awful reality?"
Maybe you can relate to my questioning. Maybe you've been there before. Maybe that's where you are right now, in this season that's supposed to be so happy and joyous, asking that question of hope. So, how do you answer it? In the middle of whatever level or whatever flavour of darkness that surrounds your life right now, do you have any real hope? Do you have a reason to go on really living - fully engaging with an open heart - even if things don't get better?
If you don't have an answer, or don't like the one you have, may I make a suggestion?
"God rest ye merry gentlemen let nothing you dismay, Remember Christ our Saviour was born upon this day - to save us all from Satan's power when we had gone astray - oh tidings of comfort and joy!"
Modern translation: "Men (and women) everywhere, let God give to your heart rest and peace. Let Him make it merry - or joyous - so that you are not dismayed and wallowing in despair about anything. Don't forget that Christ our Saviour was born this day. He came to save us from the power of darkness in this world and from the power darkness in ourselves. Oh tidings of comfort and joy! Let the good news of this birth be your reason for hope."
But what is it about this birth we celebrate that makes it so remarkable? What about it can bring light where there is darkness, hope where the situation is hopeless?
Is it because the "baby Jesus" grew up to become the "man Jesus" who died on the cross for the sins of the world? As important as that is - and it is extremely important - that's what makes his death and resurrection a reason for hope, but not what makes his birth a reason for hope.
Matthew writes ...All of this happened to fulfil the Lord's message through his prophet Isaiah: "Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us)." Matthew 1:20-23 [NLT]
What makes the birth of Jesus so remarkable is that it was not the birth of an ordinary baby. It was the birth of Immanuel - God with us.
John phrases it even more directly. The Word - which is a biblical way of referring to God - became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father.
John 1:14 [NLT]
The Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, the Lord Most High ... became a human being just like you and just like me. He didn't arrive fully grown as some kind of an angel. He started at the beginning, just like we do, as a seed in the womb of his mother. Theologians call this the "incarnation." C.S. Lewis labelled the incarnation as "the Grand Miracle" of Christianity. "Every other miracle in the Bible either prepares for this or results from this. The incarnation - God becoming a man - was the central event in the history of the Earth--the very thing that the whole story has been about."
But why does this Grand Miracle, this remarkable birth, this God becoming human, give us reason to hope? 3 things come to my mind.
1. God becoming one of us means that he knows what it means to be human.
Whatever darkness and despair you may experience, he has experienced it too. Jesus was born into a world as dark, or darker, than our own. His world was one of soldiers and occupations and insurgencies. His friends and family members died on him. He experienced rejection and betrayal. He suffered pain in his physical body.
The incarnation means that God is not some distant impersonal force like the gods of the pagans. He is real, as real as you and I. He is ultimately relevant.
2. The birth of Immanuel - God with us - means that in the darkest of our dark hours, we really are not alone. God is near.
He really is with us. He is personal, and personally interested in what happens in our lives. We matter to him. Some would ask – “How do you know that?”
Friends, the proof that God is near, that he loves us and that we matter is not that he takes us out of the darkness. It's that he turns on the light of his glory. That's what happened when Jesus was born and continues to happen even today through those who follow him. That's reason to hope, reason to go on fully living even if the worst of possibilities becomes reality. So, God knows what it's like to be human, and we're not alone, God is near.
3. The birth of Jesus means that this God who knows what it is like to be in our shoes ... who draws near to us because we matter ... is also a God who keeps his promises.
Remember that Matthew wrote that "all of this happened to fulfil the Lord's message through his prophet Isaiah?" God promised it would happen and it did. He is a God you can trust in, cling to and rely on. Friends, these three things are what make the birth of Jesus, the birth of God himself, so remarkable. This is the light shining in our darkness.
As John put it ...Life itself was in him [Jesus], and this life gives light to everyone. The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.
John 1:4-5 [NLT]
Many other aspects of Christmas message and what it means to follow Jesus – haven’t touched on today. Today the message is that the time of darkness and despair will not go on forever.
As Isaiah prophesied ...The people who walk in darkness will see a great light-a light that will shine on all who live in the land where death casts its shadow.
For unto us a child is born, and unto us a son is given.