What a messed-up Christmas this is likely to be! Even more people than usual will be dealing with loneliness. Family and church traditions will be messed-up including carol sings. And of course, COVID-19 is not expected to take a holiday for the holidays. Then there are those who will spend Christmas in the hospital. In fact, this is not just a messed-up Christmas, it is a messed-up year.
This will not be the first messed-up Christmas. God’s people were in a big mess that very first Christmas. How did they end up there? God created humanity. Humans rebelled. God had a plan to reconcile humans to himself which included the calling of a special people, the Hebrew people known as Israel. God entered into a covenant with them, which if you are not sure what a covenant is, marriage is a covenant complete with covenant promises, known to us as vows. As is the case with marriage, there are consequences when one of the partners breaks the covenant. God’s people broke the covenant and as a consequence things did not go well, they went into exile. God promised restoration. Though an invading army had taken the people out of the promised land, He promised they would return. They did eventually return to the land, but it felt like God did not. First the Greeks invaded. Alexander the Great was not that great if you were Jewish. Then the Romans invaded. They were the ones in charge when Jesus was born. The Romans installed Herod the Great as the king, even though he had no right to the throne. Herod the Great was not that great either, if you were Jewish.
This was not how things were supposed to be. God had promised to bless Israel and to bless all peoples through Israel. But here were God’s people under the thumb of the Romans. The Romans were ever present, God seemed far away.
As often happens when people are in a mess, things get messy. When people are in messy situations, they tend to divide over how to deal with it. We see this in God’s people at the time of Jesus’ birth. Some were known as zealots. They were calling for everyone to rise up against the Romans and fight for freedom. Some were known as Pharisees. They were calling everyone to double down on being religious. Some, including those known as Sadducees, were calling people to accept the status quo. Then there were those like the Essenes, who had given up on everyone else and were trying to create their own, smaller, but better, community.
We see these four responses among people anytime things get messy. We see this today in nations, families, indeed any people group. I have seen it in churches:
- “Pastor, we need to fight for what is right.”
- “Pastor, we need ensure greater purity among our people.”
- “Pastor, we need to just go along with the powers-that-be.”
- “Pastor, I’m outta here.”
Perhaps you have heard these kinds of responses as well . . . or responded to messy situations in these kinds of ways.
With all the mess we are in and the mess we stir up in response, is there hope?
Isaiah predicted that the people would be in a mess following their exile. He had a message of hope for them, and for us:
Comfort, O comfort my people,Isaiah 40:1-2 (NRSV)
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
If it felt to God’s people in Jesus’ day like the exile never really ended, that the covenant with God was broken forever, that God had finally walked out of the relationship completely; take comfort, He did not. The people are no longer suffering the consequence of breaking the covenant. God is still in love with people. God still has a plan of blessing.
A voice cries out:Isaiah 40:3-5 (NRSV)
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
If it felt to God’s people like they came back from exile, but God remained far away, they were to take heart, for God was on the way. Isaiah used imagery here of preparing for the arrival of someone very important to the city, making sure the road is suitable for the king.
A voice says, “Cry out!”Isaiah 40:6-8 (NRSV)
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
If it felt to God’s people like they would never get their act together, that their “constancy is like the flower of the field,” that they would never be that faithful people God deserves, they were to take comfort, for God’s promises still stand: “the word of our God will stand forever.” God is still on ‘plan A’ and God’s people are still part of ‘plan A’ even if they had trouble sticking to it.
Get you up to a high mountain,Isaiah 40:9-11 (NRSV)
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Though the Romans seemed to be in charge, though the people were divided, God was on the way. God is powerful, and can deal with every mess created by every enemy. God cares for his people like a shepherd cares for a flock.
The message of Isaiah 40 was clear. Despite the mess, God was on His way.
The Gospel of Mark does not contain the Christmas story. But it does begin with the fact of Christmas:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.Mark 1:1-3 (NRSV)
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”
The Gospel writer goes on to tell us about John the Baptizer who prepares the way for Jesus. The message is clear. God is on His way, and through Jesus He is here. Merry Christmas!
The Gospels go on to connect Jesus with the Isaiah 40 passage, particularly the image of God coming as a shepherd:
As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. . . . And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.Mark 6:34, 38-39 (NRSV)
When Jesus feeds the five thousand with just a few loaves and fish, the image of Jesus as shepherd is unmistakable. In fact when Jesus has the disciples make people sit down on the green grass we are even reminded of Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.Psalm 23:1,2a (NRSV)
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
Additionally, Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd in John 10:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.John 10:11 (NRSV)
The hope filled message of Isaiah, chapter 40, of God coming to us, and being a shepherd among us, is fulfilled in Jesus. He promises to be present with us always:
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.Matthew 28:20b (NRSV)
With the mess we are in, where is our hope today? Is it found in,
- fighting, and using violence in words or actions, like the zealots?
- doubling down on being religious like the Pharisees?
- acquiescing to the status quo like the Sadducees?
- separating ourselves from the others like the Essenes?
Our hope is in walking with Jesus. He is the shepherd who will lead us through the mess, feeding us, binding up our wounds, carrying us, dealing with the enemy, even the greatest of enemies:
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.1 Corinthians 15:26 (NRSV)
When Jesus came into the world it was a very messed-up world. It was a messed-up Christmas. God’s people were in a mess and in trying to deal with it, they just made things messier yet. A baby was born on that first messed-up Christmas, and with him, hope was born.