Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas Lights: Newness

Preached on Sunday, First Sunday in Advent, November 28, 2010
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:1-7: Titus 2:11-3:7

Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah told about the appearing, in the future, of a very important baby. Actually (since babies don’t just appear) Isaiah spoke about the birth of a baby. The first several verses of chapter nine, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, tell us about the meaning of this child.

The baby would be a very real baby, who would be known by some very strange names or titles. Even if that baby was a royal baby, the sort or titles given to it would be far more daring, far more outrageous than any royal titles ought to be: not “highness”, not “majesty”; but “Wonderful Counselor” (in the sense of supernatural wonders), “Mighty God”, “Everlasting Father”, “Prince of Peace”. (Isaiah 9:6)

Over the next few Sundays (as we draw near to the celebration of the birth of Jesus) we will think about what Isaiah says about this baby. The reason why we will do this is because we believe this baby that Isaiah talked about is our baby of Bethlehem; Mary’s baby.

The first thing Isaiah says about this baby is that the baby brings light to the darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Or why not just say that the baby is the light? Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) The baby, himself is a new day; the best day of all days; the day of the Lord.

Paul wrote, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11) He is talking about Jesus here. Paul is writing about Jesus, and what Jesus did, as the grace of God. The word for “appear”, that he uses here, is a word that the Greeks used for the sunrise, or the dawn.

Paul goes on to describe the life that is in the darkness and the life that is in the light. He writes that this grace teaches us to say “no” to one way of life, and “yes” to another; and the difference between these ways of life is like the difference between the darkness and the dawn. They are completely different.

What we have read in Paul’s letter to Titus gives us some word pictures for this darkness and this light. There is so much here. But notice a contrast between what we are, if we are left to ourselves, and what God gives us. Paul writes, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…”

There is so much here. We often find ourselves possessed by a secret love of darkness. For instance; in the darkness there are passions and pleasures… and we really do like our passions and pleasures. Sometimes we suspect that belonging to God deprives us of certain passions and pleasures that could be ours; things that other people get to enjoy.

But we have to see what sort of things they are, that we need to be saved from them. There is a passion and pleasure in envy, in anger, in malice, in hating, and even in being hated.

I have known people who have reveled in being hated by certain people. I knew one kid in high school who wanted me to tell him that I hated him. He worked on me every day. He went out of his way to make my life miserable, every day in school, because he wanted me to hate him. One day, in the middle of his working on me, he asked me, “Evans, you hate my guts, don’t you?”

Wherever my own past hurts and angers come from, when I remember them, and when I want to gnaw on them, I remember this as a challenge to me. There is a darkness that I must say “no” to.

And notice especially what God brings into the equation here: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…” This is the light in the face of the darkness we have just looked at: kindness and love.

Kindness and love are the very source of our life in God. To live outside of kindness and love is to live outside of what God would give to us. To live outside of these is to live outside of life itself. This kindness and love are not designed to make us into a doormat for others to walk upon, but much of the darkness of this world comes from the absence of kindness and love.

I want to tell you an example of darkness in the history of the people of Israel. In Isaiah’s time, the people of Israel were divided between north and south. The northern kingdom, made from ten of the twelve tribes of Israel, kept the name of Israel. The southern kingdom, which was made mostly from the really big tribe of Judah, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, was called the kingdom of Judah. The north was the bigger, richer, stronger of the two kingdoms, but it wasn’t content with that. The king of the north wanted to conquer Judah and take Jerusalem.

It was the ruggedness of Judah that made this difficult. In order to achieve their goal, the northern kingdom made an alliance with Syria. Together they were strong enough to make the conquest happen.

But, there was another growing power to the northeast of Israel and Syria called Assyria. Judah made an alliance with Assyria, and asked it to go to war against the northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Syria, which it did. In the course of that war, Assyria destroyed both Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel.

Then, as you might expect, Assyria turned on Judah. The Assyrian army invaded and almost completely overran it. Judah was saved by divine intervention alone (2 Kings 18-19), but it was left weakened and more demoralized than ever. Eventually, it fell to another new power on the scene called Babylon.

This is a long summary of a longer story, but it illustrates the darkness. Every time Isaiah’s people made a decision that only made matters worse, they tried to deal with it and solve it by making new decisions that only made matters even worse than before.

There was a time when Isaiah offered one of the kings of Judah a chance to ask God for a sign, by which he meant an experience that would make it possible for the king to break this chain of horrible choices. The King (King Ahaz) pretended to be very pious and reverent, and he said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” (Isaiah 7:1-12)

What was really going on was that king Ahaz was too proud to break with his past actions. He was too proud to break with his past words. He was too proud to break with the patterns of his choices. He would rather let himself and his people be destroyed. It took a while, but that was the eventual result.

Without God’s intervention, without God’s saving help, everything in this world is degenerative. Pride, malice, envy, anger, the refusal to break with patterns that don’t do any good at all: these weaken or destroy marriages, families, businesses, churches, communities, and nations.

In my home town I could see many good things that never succeeded because people got more pleasure out of quarreling and competing and counting up other people’s faults and misdeeds than being what Paul said to be: “eager to do what is good”. I was friends with the Jenkins brothers who often said that they were related to half the people in town, but they were only on speaking terms with half of them.

But with God things are different. Isaiah said, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” “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 9:1,2)

God, in Christ, creates a new world of light and brings us into it through his birth, and his life, and his death, and his resurrection. This new world, this new day, dawns in Christ as we open our lives to his life. This new world began when Jesus was nothing more than a slight movement in his mother’s body; a slight roundness of her middle.

Joseph, when he found out that his fiancĂ©e Mary was pregnant, thought about “putting her away quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-20) An angel told Joseph that this baby was the work of God. Still Joseph lived in a world that was motivated by honor and pride, and by the power of shame. Because of Mary and the baby, he was put in an impossible position where, if he listened to God, he would live under a cloud of shame all his life. His passion and pleasure would have been to live in honor. He could only live in honor if he were free of Mary and the child.

Joseph could have been angry about this, and I am sure he was, at first: confused and angry. He could have said no to God. We say no to God, don’t we; out of fear, out of anger, out of pride?

But the grace of God that brings salvation (as Paul said) was appearing. The kingdom of God was at work and having its way. The grace of God was saving Joseph from being foolish, and disobedient. God gave Joseph the grace of being a giver of care, and strength, and wisdom, and grace to Mary and the child. The grace of God was saving Joseph and giving him the power to say “no” to worldly passions: the passion for pride and honor and self-justification; things we have to say “no” to as well, for the sake of Jesus.

We are degenerative. God is regenerative. Paul says that, “God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:5-6)

The Greek word “rebirth”, here, has the word “genesis” in it. The Book of Genesis is called what it is because it begins with the story of the creation; the beginning. In Jesus we have a new genesis, we have a new creation.

The word “renewal” that Paul uses here has a special kind of newness in it. It is different from having a second chance. It is not like turning out a new model of an old make of car. It is the difference between turning over a new leaf and really having a new heart, or like having a heart of stone turned into a heart of flesh. It is being born again in the sense of being born from above; not from human power and will, but from God.

On this side of heaven, our life (even our born again life in Christ) never seems quite new enough for us to be content. And other people still have good reason to be discontented with us. We have the old struggles that should serve to keep us humble; that should serve to keep us forgiving toward others; forgiving the sins of others as we know we need to be forgiven ourselves.

Being born again does not mean only being slated for heaven. It means being saved from something now. Our new life may not seem new enough to make us content. But that is the whole point. It is new enough to make us eager for something better. If the coming kingdom of God will be a world of justice and righteousness, then we want to be a part of justice and righteousness now. If the coming kingdom is all about kindness and love, then we want to be a part of that now. We will ask, in any given situation: “What is the loving thing to do now?”

The baby Isaiah prophesied (the baby born in a manger; who grew up to heal, and teach, and to die for our sins and the sins of the world on the cross; and who rose from the dead) rules us now. The hope of his coming kingdom rules us now. Or maybe not: which is it?

We are different because we know what it means to be people in the darkness who have seen a great light. We know what it has been to live “in the land of the shadow of death”, because we have lived and breathed that very shadow ourselves. We have made a contribution of our own to the size and darkness of that shadow. And on us “a light has dawned”.

The baby Isaiah predicted, the baby who was born in Bethlehem, has made us willing to be babies in our own way who learn to say no to the right things and yes to the right things. What is a baby’s first word? Isn’t it often “no”? Really, to say “yes” to Jesus, we need the courage to say “no” to our beloved world of darkness.

Seeing Jesus and the beauty of his dawn makes it all possible. It’s a new world, meant for new people, when that light comes. “On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” That light is Jesus Christ who has come into our world, and who is coming again.


  1. Aww Pastor, so many of us, Christians- tend to forget those inspirational words of Apostles.

    Thank you for being you...and reminds us with these inspiring writing pieces the Word of God.

    And thank you so much for your wonderful comments and continued support. Always good to hear from you, Pastor Dennis, it means the absolute world!!

    Hope you have a great remainder of the weekend!


    P.S. My apologies for being so late to reply...but my work has become so demanding... I was away actually for quite some time and after my trip things have been way too rough.

  2. Ooop! I meant to say Pastor Dennis.

    I noticed something else.
    I meant to say *remind us* instead of reminds.
    I am always in a rush!

  3. Betty,
    So you were in London for your work? I seem to have a very small but an extrememly high quality following. As for "pastor" actually almost no one calls me pastor unless they insist on it, as some do. I try to discourage it. My feelings about this come from growing up in the 1960's. As for proofreading...I am always leaving out words and have a dyslexic keyboard.