St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 13th December 2015
Readings – Micah 4:1-5; Luke 1:67-80
What we are looking forward to …
What is it you are looking forward to?
In twelve days it will be, whether we like it or not, Christmas. Some of us, I am sure, are feeling well prepared, I guess many of us less so. We’re so aware there is still so much to do – presents to wrap, cards to write, food to buy, and have we sorted out where we are spending New Year yet? The Christmas rush is well and truly upon us, and it isn’t as if there aren’t all the usual things to get done – a full day at work perhaps, or caring for the family, or spending time with friends in need. Yet Christmas is nearly upon us, and the 25th December won’t wait for any of us.
Yet in thirteen days’ time it will all be over. The fridge will be crammed full with leftovers, the bins stuffed with packaging and wrapping paper, and there will be the usual question of what to do with the jumper Great Aunt Agatha has given us. I’m not saying, “bah, humbug” to our Christmas celebrations but they are only one day, and they will soon be over sooner than we realise.
I am also aware that while for many of us Christmas is a time of celebration, for others of us this season is a particularly difficult one, as we remember those who are no longer with us, as perhaps we are forced to reflect we are on our own, as maybe we cope with an illness, either affecting us or one that we love.
That is why it seemed good to me in this season of Advent to focus on this reading from Micah. Because this reading takes us beyond our immediate celebrations, takes the focus away from our present circumstances and presents us with a vision of what lies beyond our present life. And I think it is important particularly at a time such as this to spend a little while focusing on this vision – not only to remind us of the hope that awaits us, but also to remind us of the hope that we can offer to the wider world. Because at the moment all of us could do with a big picture of hope, aware as we are of so many issues beyond our control, such as terrorism, climate change, extreme weather, to name but a few. Here are the words of a prophet long ago which tell us that such things will not be the last word, and I don’t know about you, I find I need to hear these words again particularly in this festive season.
So let’s take a closer look at our reading from Micah, verse 1:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it.
What does Micah mean by this? Quite simply, that one day the Lord will intervene in history in such a way that will become obvious and attractive to all. I don’t believe he’s implying that one day the physical geography of Israel will be altered or there will be a new mountain towering over the earth. I believe he’s saying that one day the Lord will be seen in all His glory and no-one will want to miss out on His presence. So instead of wanting to watch Strictly or go round the New Year sales, or even watch Argyle, people will say to each other, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.” There will be a universal desire to go and meet with the Lord and to receive wisdom from Him.
Now Micah doesn’t tell us exactly how or when this will happen. In some senses the passage raises questions which we aren’t in a position to answer. But of this one thing we can be sure: the words of Micah are the words of the Lord. It was because his prophecies about the future of Israel and Judah came to pass, that his message was preserved. And if what we read here is also the word of the Lord, then we know we can trust the Lord for this future. For what the Bible teaches us all the way through is that what the Lord promises, He delivers. What we are dealing with here is no pipe-dream, but a promise of what is actually going to happen; the Lord gloriously and wonderfully appearing in human history and making Himself known to all.
So who is this vision of the future for?
To answer this question fully, let’s recall what we have learnt about the prophet Micah so far. He was a prophet bringing God’s message of judgement upon the nations of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Although the people in his day claimed to be religious, the reality was their hearts were not set on the Lord. They may have worshipped in the temple, but they also bowed down to other gods. The political leaders were more interested in serving themselves than the people under them, the prophets more interested in a comfortable lifestyle than proclaiming the truth. And although the Lord had warned His people again and again, no-one was really listening to what Micah was saying.
That is why by the time we reach the end of chapter 3 we have what seems to be a final and most terrible warning of judgement. Chapter 3, verse 12: Therefore because of you, Zion will be ploughed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
And at this point, in most English translations, you will find a full stop after this verse. Micah’s message of judgement seems full and final, and there appears very little connection between the judgement pronounced in chapter 3 and the future hope outlined in chapter 4. Yet if you were to go back to the original Hebrew and look very carefully at verse 1, you will find that it begins with a little word that can be translated either as “and” or, as in the King James Version, “but”. Yes, the Lord is coming in judgement. Yes, those who worship other gods and serve only themselves will face the consequences of their actions. But, and this is the message we need to take on board – for those who faithfully remain loyal to Him, His judgement is not and never will be the last word.
However what the Lord will do in the last days will be far more than simply restore Jerusalem to what it used to be in Micah’s day. Then the city and its temple was the focus just for one particular group of people. Access was restricted to those who had the right ancestry and spoke the right language. But in the future Micah is describing, access to the Lord will be available to everyone. That is what he says quite clearly in verse 2: Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.” From every end of the earth, from every country, from every language group, from every ethnic background – so Micah promises – a steady stream of people will come all united in a common desire to know about the Lord. All will have a hunger to learn from His word, so that His kingdom might come and His will be done. The Lord’s reign of peace will extend to every part of this world and no place, no matter how desolate and wartorn they might appear now, will be beyond the reach of His grace. There will be justice and security for all, in the most wonderful and most beautiful transformation the world has ever seen.
So in this future there will be no need for the courtroom because the Lord Himself will be dispensing justice. Verse 3: He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. Nor there will be a need for anyone to carry weapons, because the Lord Himself will be their peace. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks because the only use for sharp instruments will be to break up the ground and to reap the harvest. And as for armies, they will long ago have disbanded, and there will not even be the need for training ground manoeuvres: Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.
Instead, as verse 4 tells us: Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig-tree, and no-one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken. And why are these words so significant? Quite simply this, that there will no longer be streams of refugees desperately searching for a better future; nor will there be despairing farmers watching the last of their crops wither; nor will there be children traumatised by the bombs falling and the sound of gunfire. Here is a vision of the United Nations where peace and security is guaranteed, for all, for all time. And as I said at the beginning that is the vision I suggest we need more than ever to hold on to at this time.
What then is the connection between this wonderful vision of the future and the Christmas story we are about to celebrate?
Let me give you three answers to this question:
First of all, and most importantly, the precise reason why Jesus came was precisely in order to secure this better future for us. Some verses from the start of the book of Hebrews which we read every Christmas morning, Hebrews 1:1-2:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
Did you notice those little words, “In these last days?” That is the same expression we find in our reading from Micah this morning. Micah was looking forward to the coming of a new Jerusalem, a place where we can be with the Lord forever. Jesus, however, has already made the hope of this place secure by coming to us in human form. He has made the presence of the Lord visible here on earth by being born as a baby in a manger. And He has opened up the way for us to come into the Lord’s presence by dying for us on a cross and rising from the dead. So the astonishing offer Jesus makes is that when we put our faith and trust in Him we can even now experience the peace and security which Micah promised all those years ago.
Yes, of course, we still live in a world of violence, of heartbreak and pain. Yes, we will continue to experience on occasions all kinds of doubts and confusion. But the very reason Jesus chose the manger in Bethlehem and the cross in Jerusalem was to offer us a relationship with Him that is stronger than even death itself, a relationship which gives us hope beyond all the brokenness we see all around us, a relationship which starts here and now the very moment we come to Him in faith.
So let me ask you a very simple and direct question: do you have this relationship with Jesus? As you think about your answer to this question, please don’t make the mistake of thinking as some Christians do that eternal life is something we might possibly receive if somehow we manage to hang to our faith to the very end. Eternal life is about new life with Jesus that begins in the present and carries on forever. It is about receiving hope and peace in your life which the world can never take away. It is about being restored to a new relationship with God your Father through the full and complete forgiveness of all that you have ever done wrong. And it’s God’s offer to you right here this morning.
As it says in the most famous verse in the Bible: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). So let me ask again: do you have this relationship with Jesus? Because it is only Jesus that can give you the real and solid hope that you need, and if you have never asked Jesus to make Himself known to you, there is something you need to do today. Let Him take control of your life and you will there is find more love, more joy, more peace than you can ever imagine, a wonderful and beautiful foretaste of the future that Micah promises right here in our reading today.
And as you come to put your faith in Jesus Christ, you will find that you are not alone. Because, secondly, that this vision of the future is already being realised even now through the church of Jesus Christ.
OK, I accept this morning we are rather a small congregation. We may feel that we know very few other people who would call themselves Christians, and right at this moment we may be feeling very isolated in our faith. But the astonishing truth is, we are part of a worldwide movement that is reaching out and extending almost into every nation. We may indeed be two thousand miles and two thousand years removed from the events of the first Christmas, but since the birth of Jesus, the history of the world has been dominated by the growth of this movement called the church, and we are part of that story. So as we meet to worship, we are uniting with believers on every continent, in more than 2000 languages, from every kind of background. Micah’s vision of many nations going up to the mountain of the Lord is, year by year, country by country, gradually being realised.
Yes, the statistics about the church in this country often tell of decline and retreat, and we need to take what they say seriously. But the situation we face only forms a small part of a much greater picture of what the Lord is doing around the world, and isn’t it amazing to realise that this year there will be more believers than ever celebrating the birth of their Saviour? Through His Spirit the Lord is building this future through His church, as more and more people put their faith in Jesus.
And when we begin to realise what the Lord is doing through His church then we start to understand the very special task He has given us to do; namely to be a community of a hope in a world that so often knows no hope. We aren’t simply to go round talking vaguely of a glorious future where the Lord is known to all. We are to make our meetings, our social events, our services, occasions where the presence of the Lord can already be seen. We should offer to those who come in off the streets signs that Jesus is alive and active, and not just a nice story from 2000 years ago. And we should go out in the power of the Spirit to work towards bringing more and more people to a saving knowledge of Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
So thirdly, and finally, this vision Micah gives us is not just a vague vision of the future, or even a cosy portrait of what life with Jesus looks like. It is a vision that ought to have a direct and practical impact on the way we live our lives now.
As Micah says in verse 5: All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever. So may it be our aim even in the midst of the Christmas season to walk in the name of the Lord of our God, to offer the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ and to pray that through us many come to accept that wonderful gift of eternal life He can offer.
For His name’s sake. Amen.