Today we embark on a 4 week journey towards the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Now the word Advent means “Coming.” When you think of the Latin word “Adventus” we think of the first coming of Christ; that Christ was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. But we also think of His second advent, His second coming. And so the season of Advent since the 300’s has been a time when Christians have said, “Let’s prepare ourselves to appropriately celebrate the birth of Christ and ready ourselves for His return for us.”
Now the word conspiracy is typically a plot. And it’s a plot to overturn the existing social order. So I’m inviting you to celebrate, remember, and move through Advent and at the same time to join in a plot to change how we celebrate Christmas; to think differently about Christmas.
It was Thanksgiving morning and I got up a bit early and I was sitting there at my mom and dad’s house and most everyone else was still asleep and I thought, “I’m going to read the newspaper. I never get to read the newspaper.” So I picked up the newspaper and this is what I found. I don’t know if any of you still get the newspaper but I kept searching for newspaper articles; anything.
And the message was very very clear. Christmas is stuff. I mean it cried out to me that in order to really celebrate Christmas I need to buy more stuff, bigger stuff, newer stuff, and cooler stuff for everybody that I love.
Is that really what Christmas is all about? Stuff? Is that how we say to our kids and our families and loved ones we love them? Is that what we do in order to make them happy?
Now I’m not trying to be the Grinch who stole Christmas and tell you that you shouldn’t go out and buy anything for your family members, but what if maybe this year we just ratchet it back just a little bit? What if we just slow it down just a little bit? What if we slow down and ask this question: How do you celebrate the birthday of a homeless child, who became our king?
Now I want to park all of that. I wanted to begin there to help you start thinking differently about advent and Christmas but what I’d really like to do now is to suggest that the greatest gift that we might be able to give to people during this season is the gift of hope; especially for people who are living without much of it.
And in order to really understand that we’re going to turn our attention to the Old Testament prophets and listen to what they were saying about the hope they had for the coming of a king who would lead the people of Israel; who would restore them and who would offer them hope.
And so we’re going to turn to the prophets. And this morning I’d like to teach you four things about the prophets in your Bible and hopefully you’ll write them down so that as you read and reflect upon them they come back to you.
The word prophet in Hebrew is the word navi. And what it means is, “spokesperson or mouthpiece.” So the prophets were God’s spokespersons or God’s mouthpieces. Most of the prophets who have books named after them in the Old Testament prophesied between 800 and 500 BC, during a very tumultuous time for the two kingdoms, the sister kingdoms of Israel to the north and Judah to the south. These were both God’s people, the Israelites. And in these two kingdoms this was a very difficult time.
Now the prophets had four primary things; there are four primary things that I want you to pick up about the message of the prophets.
First, the prophets were primarily interested in changing the present not in predicting the future. Many of us think that the prophets were really about telling the future. They didn’t care about telling the future, they wanted to change their present. And so they told the future only to be able to affect the people in the present. On the one hand to warn them. They said, “These kinds of things are going to happen, and they’re terrible, if you don’t change. So repent and change!” The whole idea was change now so these things don’t happen.
The second is that the prophets almost always rooted for the underdog.
On Thursday I was sitting down on the couch to watch the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions play football. The Detroit Lions have played football on Thanksgiving Day since 1934. And I sat down and I found myself rooting for the Lions. And most everybody else was rooting for the Green Bay Packers. And they were like, “Why are you rooting for the Lions? They always lose on Thanksgiving Day.” And I said, “Well that’s kind of the point.” I read that somebody said that the Lions hadn’t won on Thanksgiving Day since the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower.” And somebody needs to cheer them on. Besides their tight end is on my fantasy team.
And if the prophets were watching football on my couch they would have been cheering for the Lions. Because they always rooted for the underdog. You find whoever in society at the time the prophets are prophesying, whoever it is who is pushed down, made to feel small, seemingly insignificant, who had no voice, who were oppressed or wounded or hurt, you find those people you’re going to find the people who the prophets standing up for. And they stood up for them because they believed that God was the champion of the helpless, the hopeless, the weak, and the powerless.
So in the book of Proverbs you find the writer of Proverbs speaking into the heart of the prophets when he says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves; for the widows and the orphans. Speak up for them.” And that’s what the prophets did.
Which was really kind of irritating to everybody who was not weak, powerless, hopeless, struggling in society. If you were like typical Sterling and Ashburn it could be a little unnerving to listen to the prophets. And if you were the king, well it could be downright infuriating. And this is why most often the prophets were either arrested or they were beaten or they were forbidden from speaking or sometimes they were killed because they were irritants to the people in the society around them.
Now there were two primary sins that the prophets most often denounced. It’s important for you to know this. The first was idolatry. And the second was injustice.
Idolatry: Idolatry was putting anything else or anyone else or any other god in the place of God. So God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And He took a people who were slaves and He made them His own people. And he gave them a land that had not been their own before and He delivered it into their hands. And He pledged to love them and to be their God and to care for them. But they were constantly forgetting this. They were constantly turning aside to follow the Canaanite gods of the ancient near east, who were not gods at all; statues made of stone or wood or precious metals. And they would bow down to them. They would offer sacrifices and God was perennially telling them, “Don’t you remember, I am the one who delivered you from slavery in Egypt. These are not even gods, and why are you turning aside from me in order to follow them?” And what you find in the prophets is this real pathos; you hear the heart of God from the prophets when they talk about how God feels when His children turn away from Him.
So in Hosea 11:1-4 we read these words: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.” And yet they turned away. You feel the pain of God in that?
I spoke with a man in my office not long ago who described the pain that he felt when his son rejected him. He had in his later years of high school he had begun to tell him that he hated him and despised everything that he stood for. And then went away to college and wouldn’t talk to him. And with tears in his eyes describing the pain. “I just love my son. I want to have him back. I don’t know why he’s pushed me away.”
Well that’s the picture that Hosea and Jeremiah and the other prophets give of how God feels. God’s heart is grieved or wounded, broken by His people.
Now the other sin of the people was injustice. Now let me just remind you the words in the Hebrew Bible that appear most often are justice and righteousness. These two words are often used interchangeably. They appear more than 1000 times in the Old Testament, which tells you that these things are attributes that God wishes for His people to have. That we are to practice justice and righteousness. And these two words interchangeably used can typically mean something like, “Doing the right thing for the right reasons. Having right motives, the right heart. Being in right relationship with God and being in right relationship with other people. It’s showing compassion and mercy to people who don’t even deserve it from you. It’s making sure that the people who are pushed down are no longer pushed down and making sure everyone is being treated fairly and equitably. It’s all of these things and more. And Jesus summarized it in the commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
And so there came a point when Isaiah is preaching and he says to the people, “You keep wondering, you come to worship and you fast and you’re asking this question, why is God not blessing us, we’re fasting and we’re worshipping?” And God says, “I’ll tell you why I’m not blessing you because you don’t understand what a true fast is that I’m looking for.”
And then in Isaiah 58 he says this, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
This is what God was looking for. And this is what the prophets said the people were not living.
And I want you to notice there’s two sides to the gospel here. The prophets have talked about the personal saving work of God in the idolatry issue. And the other side of the equation was this social gospel which is about caring about what’s happening in the rest of the world and loving your neighbor as yourself. And these two make up a whole, but either one without the other is missing some part of the gospel. Do you have a hole in your gospel?
And part of what makes me proud of you as your pastor is I don’t think most of you do have a hole in your gospel. I think most of you understand this and you’re striving to live that out and every single week there are so many of you that go out and work to reach out into our community and you’re trying to change our world. That’s part of what we do as Christians. In the name of Christ we offer hope to people who are hopeless.
And that leads to one last thing that the prophets do. And that is there is a sort of duel movement in the prophets. There’s a movement between warning and comfort. You’ll find it in almost all of the prophets. So there is this warning of terrible things that are going to happen if you don’t repent and turn back to God and practice justice. And they’re serious about this. They’re constantly warning this.
And for good reason. You see the Israelites during this dark and difficult time in their history often found themselves very vulnerable to the threat of outside forces. The Assyrians were a constant threat to their security. They wanted the land occupied by the Israelites. And for centuries God’s people had been held them at bay. What kept them from taking it? Here’s what the prophets said, only God. “God has protected you and given you this piece of land. God by His grace and mercy has offered this to you. But when you continually turn away from Him and you no longer act as a light to the nations to show them how human beings treat human beings; when you spurn God then God withholds His protection and its only a matter of time before the Assyrians will destroy you,” kingdom of Israel.
And in 722 BC that’s exactly what happened as the Assyrians invaded the kingdom of Israel and they obliterated it. And they took the people away into Assyria and they intermarried with the Assyrian people and they were lost – except for the 150,000 refuges that moved south.
And then again in 586 BC after 30 years of Jeremiah prophesying and speaking to the people of Judah the Babylonians marched on the kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem was burned and 4600 of the city’s leaders were taken as slaves back to Babylon. That’s the message of warning that the prophets gave.
And listen we need to listen to these words and recognize that when God withholds His blessing and protection because we’ve turned away from him again and again, sometimes things happen that we don’t want to have happen. Sometimes there’s pain in the midst of that; there are consequences to our sin. It’s not that God is punishing us it is what happens when you walk away in a direction God doesn’t want you to walk.
But here’s the thing. When those consequences happen God’s desire is always for our redemption. So while the prophets first warn about the judgment that’s going to come, the dominant theme after the warnings is hope. It’s amazing but they are constantly saying to the exiles, they’re writing before the exile ever happens, before Judah is destroyed they would write these kinds of words that would say, “Comfort, comfort my people, says you God. For I will bring you back out of exile.” – Before they’d even gone to exile – “I will send you a king who will lead you with justice and righteousness and you will follow him and I will see you return singing unto Zion and everlasting joy shall be upon your heads.”
Through the words of His prophets God was speaking to the people in exile offering them hope and mercy. It’s a powerful message to us that no matter what you’ve done, no matter how far you’ve run from God He’s always willing to take you back.
I had a conversation with man in narthex some years ago who said, “You know I hear you say that but I have a hard time believing because I know all the things I’ve done, all the ways I’ve hurt other people, the things that I’ve done that have totally been against everything I know God wanted me to do. I have a hard time walking in the sanctuary and believing that God would actually forgive me.”
I asked him this question. I said, “Do you have any children?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Is there anything your children could do that would be so horrible that if they came and they said, “Dad, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you so much and I’m so sorry for what I did. Would you please take me back? Is there anything that they could do where you would say, “I can’t take you back.” He said, “I can’t think of anything.” I said, “Then why would you not think that God is that same way?”
God is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love. This is the message of the prophets. It’s a message of hope. God is the God of the second chance and He will take you back. He is waiting for you to come back into His arms. And then to allow you to be His child and for Him to be your heavenly Father.
Now one of the things you should know as we wrap this up is that God always recognized that these people were going to need a king who would lead them. And most of their kings did a pretty sorry job at that. Even the best of them did a sorry job at times of leading the people to not practice idolatry and to love God with all their hearts and to love their neighbors as they love themselves.
So God began to promise them when He was giving them this hope in the exile they would be restored and He began to promise that there would be a king that he would send. Now the word that was used was Messiah. Messiah means “anointed one”. It was the term that was used to refer to a king – they were anointed with oil, they were set apart to be the king; the ruler. And He promised that there would be this ruler who would come. And this ruler would rule with righteousness and justice.
So for example in Isaiah 11 we read these words, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…” Now the stump of Jesse was the kingdom of Judah that was cut down. Jesse was the father of David. “From his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”
And from our scripture lesson in Jeremiah we read these words, “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.”
It’s kind of a strange term for the Messiah – a branch. Now you need to think about this in these terms; the tree of Judah the kingdom as a tree was cut down. It was so diseased on the inside it couldn’t stand on its own. And finally the Babylonians came and hacked it down to the ground. But God says, “Out of that stump shall come a branch that shall spring up to bring a new tree that will be healthy and beautiful.”
And when I hear that I think about something like this. (picture) Have you ever seen something like this? A tree that may have been hollow or diseased falls down. You take your axe or chainsaw and cut it off down to a stump and then in the spring suddenly a shoot appears. And you can’t help but think of the Messiah when I see that branch shooting up. And one day there will be a brand new tree out of the deadness of that stump.
And this is the picture that Jeremiah gives us of the king who would come. Here’s the thing. The people kept watching for that king. They kept looking for that king. They didn’t know what he was going to be like but trying to find the king who would rule with righteousness and justice and call the people to love God with all their heart and to love their neighbors and who would rule with humility and grace and dignity and kindness and love. And they never found him.
And so generation to generation this hope continued to well up in their hearts. And we who are followers of Jesus Christ believe He was that king. Jesus, the Christ-child born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger was the fulfillment of that prophecy and He came to bring hope to this dark and broken and hurting and sinful world.
I want you to hear as we close once more the words of our scripture that we heard read at the beginning of this message. Speaking to the exiles God says, “Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, (remember destroyed by the Babylonians; for 50 years) inhabited by neither people nor animals, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying, “Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures forever.”
What a powerful picture of restoration and hope. And when I read that passage of scripture, to me it’s not just about Judah in 500 BC it’s about Sterling, VA in 2013 AD. 2,000 years ago in a little Middle Eastern town God sent the source of all Christmas gifts to come to earth in the form of a little baby named Jesus. This little baby would grow up to be a man, a man that lived a perfect life and then went to a cross where His body was broken and His blood was shed and died in our place to give us HOPE.
Hope for our past. When we realize that our past can be forgotten, and that all those guilty feelings can be taken away this gives our hearts hope.
Hope for the present. That means that no matter what circumstances you might be facing, no matter what trial or tribulation you may be experiencing right now there is hope; the hope that comes from knowing that He is with you and that He never leaves you or forsakes you.
And Hope for the future. You see this hope is a forever hope. It is the promise of abundant life now and eternal life forever with Him in heaven.
So why not celebrate Christmas differently this year. Because the greatest gift that we can give and the greatest gift that we can receive is not all the stuff; it is hope. Those who hope in the Lord will not be disappointed.