I love preaching Christmas from the Old Testament! Isaiah 49:1-7:
1 Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor." 4 But I said, "I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD's hand, and my reward is with my God." 5 And now the LORD says--he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength-- 6 he says: "It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth." 7 This is what the LORD says-- the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel-- to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: "Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
If you’re a fan of All in the Family you would remember the episode that contained Archie Bunker’s famous Christmas Dinner grace. He began like this, “Once again Lord Christmas has us by the throats ….” What a view of the season when we begin to celebrate our Savior’s birth. We are all aware that not all people look at the season just ahead as a time filled with “tidings of comfort and joy.” There will be those for whom 2016 held pain, sorrow and incredible loss. There are people within our congregation who have seen troubling times and Christmas may be another stressful season. A joyful heart cannot be forced. For some, Christmas won’t be naturally happy – it will need an injection of happiness and cheer. This may be especially true for husbands or wives who spend their “holly, jolly” nights trudging through a shopping mall to get Aunt Myrtle a new pair of ankle socks. Jules Pfeiffer produced a cartoon a few years ago depicting a poor middle-aged man. The panels move from “Thanksgiving depression, followed by Christmas despair, topped off by New Year’s anxiety attacks, none of which cuts into a ceaseless round of party-going, gift-giving, and seasonal cheer.” In the last panel this poor man is under a snow-storm of ashes falling all around him and piling up at his feet as he says, “Fa-la-la-la-la….” We’re surrounded by folks who will end up when this season is over standing in ashes, saying, “Fa-la-la-la-la.”
Isaiah 49 speaks to people who knew turbulence and despair. The target audience for this part of this prophecy was a nation who would not be “home for the holidays.” In fact, they were captives in Babylon. The birth of Christ was still 700 years in the future, but Isaiah was privileged to see a panorama of the day when Jesus would break through the despair of people’s dreary existence. Even beyond the text we read today Isaiah has an even more startling message to people who were dispossessed of their lands and living under the oppressive regime of the Babylonians. Isaiah 49:13: “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” This is still the message that God wants heard as we count down the days to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Isaiah heard God’s word for all the created order to praise Him because of His mercy and compassion. Can we do that? Can you do that even though you may look at yourself and consider yourself a casualty of an unfair war at this time of the year?
Isaiah can only say what he does because he has been blessed with the knowledge that the Messiah is coming. He has already seen a vision of Him “high and lifted up and his train fill(ing) the temple.” He has seen the heavenly seraphim praising Him with the words, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, the earth is full of His glory. Isaiah has already prophesied in chapter 9:6-7: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”
Isaiah’s entire prophetic ministry of writing and preaching was focused on the salvation of his people. When Peter explained the purpose of the prophetic writings to First Century Christians, he said, “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory” (1 Peter 1:10, 11). As we count down to Christmas we need to pause and see God’s purposes and then ponder the absolutely mind-boggling miracle it took to bring us a Savior. It cannot be comprehended by mere reason, it must be appropriated by faith.
There are two references in our text that I want to repeat to you. In verse 1: “Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name” and in verse 5: “he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself.” This supernatural work of God was to take human form in the womb of a virgin named Mary. The prophecy is fulfilled so accurately. Before Jesus was born in the manger the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she would have a baby and that His name was to be “Jesus.” The angel likewise came to Joseph and cautioned him about his intentions. The angel told Joseph she was with child and that she would bear a son. The angel specifically told the carpenter that they were to call His name “Jesus, for he shall save His people from their sins.” Jesus is the Greek form of the name we know as Joshua, but in the Aramaic and Hebrew it is Yeshua – “deliverer, salvation.”
A few years ago an advertisement appeared in many newspapers by the group known as Jews for Jesus . The ad was all about the name Yeshua; the work He would accomplish, and why it was so important to understand that name. Here’s what they wrote:
Now many would have liked it better if the angel had said, “And you are to give him the name Santa Claus because he will bring you presents.” Many people would rather not hear about sin, but it’s a fact, it’s a condition, it’s a problem that needs a dramatic solution. The condition of humanity—call it sin if you have the courage—has been lamented for centuries. Oh, yes, there has been progress, but it is the wrong kind of progress because now a few desperate men pushing a few buttons can annihilate all life on this problem-ridden planet. Is that a solution? (Was this not the reflection of some people during the recent election campaign in the U.S.? We probably have equal concerns with Mr. Putin in Russia and Kim Jong-un in North Korea.)
God promised a Messiah, a deliverer, a problem-solver, and if there’s anything more difficult to accept than the fact of sin, yours and ours, it’s the idea that God solves our problem. But he can. He can make us want peace, give us hearts to care about one another, relieve guilt, mend broken homes, give meaning to our lives and diminish the din of the twentieth century with the music of his love.
God’s dramatic solution is Yeshua. The news is going to make some people unhappy. Maybe you don’t like Jews. Maybe you have a grudge against Christians. Maybe you don’t like your sins, yourself, or the God who made you. Sorry about that, but it doesn’t really change the truth. Before you dismiss what should be good news, remember that the truth might be so simple that it was overlooked by the people who should have known. The need was, and is, due to the human condition, just in case you’re choking over that three-letter-word, sin. God’s salvation is a sacrifice, a sin-bearer, a Savior, a mediator, a mentor, a Messiah. Yeshua is all that and more.
Jesus was called by the name that He has because it is the only fitting name that describes His reason for being robed in flesh. Verse 2 of our text has a secretive language. The One provided by God to bring us salvation is not revealed immediately, but He is prepared. The verses say: “in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.” Jesus lived in virtual seclusion and obscurity until He was 30 years of age. From His ministry we know He mastered the Scriptures and learned a trade. He emerged briefly with the lawyers in the temple at age 12, but then burst unto the scene at age 30 perhaps dealing with the same people He amazed when He was not even a teenager. As you count down the days to the gifts and the presents thank God for His providential protection upon the Savior who was the target of evil intentions while He was just an infant.
There is nothing more clear than the purpose of Jesus. He is always true to His name. He called Matthew from his toll booth. He pursued Zaccheus in Jericho. He walked to the well in Samaria. He reached out to diseased lepers and Roman centurions and pious Pharisees. He depicted humanity in King’s palaces and in filthy pigpens. He blessed little children and pronounced woes on unrepentant cities. Salvation flowed from His life. He lived what Luke 19:10 states, “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” He went beyond His own people to Samaritans and Greeks and Syro-Phoenicians. He met the possessed and the oppressed. Isaiah’s picture in 49:6 is so accurate: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” I checked something. It is 5,000 miles or nearly 8,000 kilometres from Jerusalem to Corner Brook; from the Man in the Mountain to the Baby in the Manger! For all intents and purposes, that’s the end of the earth. If you are counting down to a miserable Christmas let Christ’s love reach out to you. Listen my friend, God brought Israel back home after captivity. He has a ways to take the children of Abraham yet, but he also has a ways to take us!
Isaiah foresaw a day that is amazingly broad in its scope. Verse 7 states: “This is what the LORD says-- the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel-- to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: ‘Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’” The story of Jesus is one of rejection by His own people. It is a story of rejection by people day after day. Isaiah saw Him broken, bruised, afflicted, chastised in Chapter 53, but victorious in Chapter 63. Paul sees Him both humiliated and exalted in Philippians 2:5-11: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As you count down to Christmas the merchants envy your cash and Santa dogs your footsteps. But when it is all over, what will you have besides a swollen VISA statement? Will you have Jesus as your Saviour? That’s the big question. If you say “no” then Christmas is empty! I came across this story by Arnold Prater (Release from Phoniness):
It was a man I knew who stood behind the second chair in a barber shop where I was a customer. The owner of the shop was a friend of mine, but this fellow in the second chair, a man who was about 65 years of age, was about the vilest, most vulgar, profane, wicked talking man I had ever known. He must have had some kind of fixation about preachers, for it seemed to me that every time I entered the shop he doubled his output.
One day when I went in he was gone. I asked my friend where he was, and my friend said, “Oh, he’s been desperately ill,” and for a while they despaired of his life. Perhaps six weeks after that as I was entering the post office one day I heard a voice call my name. I turned and I saw the profane man. He was seated in a car so he could watch the people passing by. He was a mere shadow of a man, and his face was the color of death itself. He crooked a bony finger at me and I walked over to where he was. He said in a voice so weak I had to lean forward to catch the words, “Preacher, I want to tell you something.” Then he went on.
“I was in a coma down there in the hospital. I couldn’t move or see. They didn’t know it, but I could still hear. And I heard the doctor tell my wife, ‘I don’t think he can last another hour.’ Then his voice trembled, so it was a moment before he could continue. “Preacher,” he said, “I had never prayed in my entire lifetime, but I prayed then. I said, ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I need you now.’ And when I said that, I don’t know how to put it into words, but all I can say is I was given an assurance that he was there.” Then the tears welled up in his reddened eyes and he said, “Oh, preacher, just imagine. I’ve kicked him in the face every day of my life for 65 years and the first time I called his name he came.”
Today is the day of salvation. If you call His name He will come! Call His name; He’s listening!