St Barnabas and St Michael’s 15th December 2013
Reading – Isaiah 8:11-17
What are you waiting for?
I guess most of us are waiting for Christmas Day – sitting down with the family, opening presents, enjoying a roast dinner and most probably, falling asleep in front of the Queen’s Speech.
But maybe a few of us, if we’re honest, are waiting for Boxing Day, when the rush is over, the family is gone and, with a big sigh of relief, we can start clearing up – slowly, in our own time.
Or maybe we’re waiting for the New Year when we can put a difficult twelve months behind us and instead look forward to what’s to come.
Or maybe even we are looking forward to the middle of January when we’re all back in the same old routine, when we can stop pretending we’re enjoying ourselves and, in the words of that well-known song, “everyone’s having fun”.
I don’t know exactly what you are waiting for. But I do know that as Christians there is one other date we should waiting for, constantly. And that is the return of Jesus Christ to this earth, not as newborn baby, lying in a manger, but as Lord and Saviour, ready to judge the living and the dead.
So when’s that going to happen? The short answer is, we don’t know. Over the past few weeks our gospel readings from Luke have followed Jesus’ teaching about the end of the age. Back in Luke 21:7 His disciples have asked Him the direct question: when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place? But Jesus hasn’t responded directly, because, quite simply, it isn’t our place to know. Instead He has warned us that terrible events will unfold on a global and even heavenly scale. He has told us that as believers we will experience arrest and persecution. And He tells us again and again to stand firm and be ready – for example, in Luke 21:36, our memory verse for today: Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.For whether Jesus does indeed return next week or in the next millennium one day we will all stand before the Son of Man, and we need to be prepared.
That’s why in the first few weeks of December – and I know I am fighting a losing battle – I am so insistent that as a church we remember the season of Advent. Because, if we are only looking forward to Jesus being born in a manger, we will end up with a small vision of God and we will have little understanding of who He truly is. We need the opportunity Advent gives us to reflect on the fact Jesus is Lord and not only us, but the whole world, will at some date in the future witness His return in glory and power and majesty and might. So will you, will I, be ready? And if that’s a question you have never thought about before, then today may I urge you to consider your response. One day Jesus is coming back. Will you welcome Him with gladness or tremble in fear? Only you know the answer.
But back to the rush and busyness of Christmas. There’s so much to do, and it’s only ten days before the big day itself. We’ve still got to get the shopping done, the house tidied up, the presents wrapped, the washing sorted, and many of us face a full working day as well. Yes, we may know in theory that Jesus will return and we may accept we need to be ready, but what does that actually mean, amid all the hustle and bustle of the festive season?
Let me suggest three simple points from our reading from Isaiah this morning:
The first is: do not follow
Verse 11: The Lord spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people. Now there are an awful lot of references in the Bible to the hand of the Lord, but there are very few to His strong hand. It seems here as if the Lord is giving Isaiah a particularly stern warning not to get swept along by the crowd, not to end up doing exactly the same kind of things that everyone else is doing.
And I don’t know about you, but this warning not to follow the way of the people seems particularly appropriate as we come to the season of good cheer. For example, did you know…
- Alcohol consumption in Britain increases by 40% in December
- Britons consume more than 600 million units of alcohol during December
- 54% of men and 41% of women are expected to drink over the recommended guidelines at Christmas1
Should we be concerned about these statistics as Christians? I believe we should. But I also know how difficult it can be to avoid joining in when you’re at an office function or a family party. It’s kind of embarrassing or awkward to be seen to be different. Yet what does Jesus say on the subject? Let’s listen again to those words from Luke’s gospel: Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. Even the way we celebrate Christmas can act as a witness as to whether Jesus is Lord over our lives, whether we are serious about living as His followers. Call me a killjoy, if you like, but nothing saddens me more than believers joking about how much they drink or behaving as if there was nothing wrong in following the way of the people. How much do we need the gift of the Holy Spirit at Christmas to know when to join in and when to stand apart!
Isaiah is warned not to follow.
Secondly, he is warned not to fear.
Now if you were here last week, you will have heard the sad tale of king Ahaz and his people in chapter 7. They had turned away from the Lord and they refused to trust in Him, even when He promised them a sign. And now with the threat of an invasion from the north, the predominant mood in the country was one of fear and uncertainty and suspicion. As Isaiah himself puts it in chapter 7, verse 2: the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
So how is Isaiah to respond to this national mood of despair? The Lord is quite clear in His charge to the prophet: Do not call conspiracy everything that these people call conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it (8:12). Why not? Because, as a believer, Isaiah is called to live in hope. He does not need to share in the cynicism and suspicion and distrust of his neighbours because he has a living relationship with the Lord God Almighty. And if that means anything, it means that no matter what the national headlines might say, he can claim the peace and confidence even in the most uncertain times that the Lord is always there to protect, to comfort and to guide.
And what was true of Isaiah should be even more true of us. Because unlike Isaiah we have seen the fulfilment of his prophecy about Emmanuel “God with us”. So if we have really grasped the Christmas message we are about to celebrate, that means in the chaos and the busyness of all the preparations, we have even more reason to claim that peace and confidence for ourselves. Yes, just as in the days of Isaiah, we live in uncertain times. And, yes, particularly at Christmas, there are people who live with all kinds of fears – loneliness, perhaps, or poverty or sickness.
But if we trust and believe this child in the manger was born to die in our place for our sins we should realise the salvation He offers us is greater than whatever weighs us down or makes us afraid. Jesus really is the prince of peace and we have no reason to fear. Nor do we have to do what many people do, which is hide our fears behind a mask of festive cheer and pretend everything is all right, when it’s clearly not. As the apostle Paul says in Phil 4:6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Because that’s the practical difference believing in Jesus makes – knowing that the Lord delights in the prayers and petitions of His children and so often He is only waiting for us to ask.
Of course if we only have a small vision of God then our prayers too will be small and they will seem to make little difference. That’s why the message to Isaiah goes on: The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread. It’s not that God wants Isaiah to be terrified or intimidated. But He wants him to keep alive that big vision of all that He truly is – the pure, perfect and powerful God Isaiah glimpsed in chapter 6. Because only a God like that can truly meet our fears and mightily answer our prayers. And as we focus so much on Jesus’ birth and weakness at this time of year, I suggest all of us would do well to remember this fact.
Isaiah is warned not to follow. He is warned not to fear. Thirdly, he is warned not to fall.
At the moment there is a lot of excitement about the drama series, the Bible, on channel 5. But there’s another series out there which I believe is perhaps even more important for us as believers to watch. It’s called Pilgrimage and it’s a documentary by Simon Reeve as he traces the history of Christian pilgrimage across the centuries. I’ve only seen one episode, but it’s clear Simon himself does not believe. Indeed, as he interviews people who are on pilgrimage, he freely admits is rather puzzled, even jealous of their faith.
Why I believe we should watch it is because it certainly reminded me how much of a mystery faith is to people who are on the outside looking in. Jesus is to them, in the words of Isaiah, a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. After all, why should Jesus still be object of worship and devotion two thousand years after His birth? To the unbeliever, it just doesn’t make sense.
Of course I am not singling out Simon Reeve because his views are somehow exceptional or odd. We live in a world which, even while it celebrates Christmas, generally is sceptical about or hostile to the idea of God, let alone Jesus being His Son and Saviour of the World. And in a climate where faith is often seen as weird or dangerous or old-fashioned, perhaps it is not too surprising there are times when believers – especially those not connected to a particular church – fall away from the faith.
I am acutely aware that this Christmas there will be some people missing who were with us last Christmas. Many of them will have good reason – a family celebration, perhaps, or an illness. But there will always be one or two who have stumbled and fallen along the way. It can be so hard to keep on with your faith when, for example, you are the only Christian in your family, or the one who stands out at work, and sometimes the most surprising of people can fall by the wayside.
That’s why I want to return to the question I posed at the beginning: what are you waiting for? If you are only waiting for a date on a calendar, the chances are, you will follow the crowd. If you have no vision of who God is and the real difference He can make you may give way to your fears and there is even the danger that in the end you may fall away from a true and living faith.
That’s why I am so passionate each and every Advent to remind and encourage us all to keep watch for the greatest day in history, indeed the greatest day that will end all history, when we shall all stand before the Son of Man and behold Him in all His glory. That is the date we should keep at the back of our mind even in the rush and bustle of all our preparations. For it is when we are keeping watch and praying we will truly be ready to celebrate Christmas. And it is when we are keeping watch and praying we will truly be ready to welcome Him when He returns, as King of King, Lord of Lords, to judge the living and the dead. So are you keeping watch? Are you praying? Let none of us this Christmas say we are too busy celebrating His birth that we miss the gift of His salvation. Rather let us say with confidence with Isaiah: I will wait for the Lord… I will put my trust in Him.