Isaiah 9:2-7 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.6 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 greatness 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.
So last Wednesday the 19th we trekked up to Perth to see the annual Christmas nativity play in supreme court gardens. I’ve heard that it is slightly different each year. This year it was…interesting. Honestly, I’m not sure what I was more troubled about; the inaccuracies presented or how critical and cynical I could feel my heart becoming over the theological inaccuracies that I could spot. Not to be negative, but I think what troubled me the most was amidst all the talk about the ‘magic of Christmas’ (whatever that is) there was the comment (I think from a city of Perth councilor) to the effect of, “this is a timeless story that holds meaning for all of us no matter what our religious beliefs.”
A comment like that can only come from a secular worldview trying to find some reason as to why so many people find meaning in the idea of this baby born in a manger on one hand whilst refusing to accept a single word that it is said about its significance within the story itself. It’s a statement of a world obsessed with power, productivity, influence and progress which expects that if there is a God he will show up as some sort of elite, completely confused at the appearance of none other than a child.
God constantly takes us by surprise. He sidesteps all our expectations. He does not come as a warrior brandishing a weapon to end the arms race. He does not come as a guru or sage calling a select few intellectuals to a secret seminar at which he shares the 7 steps to wholeness. He does not hide in babbling brooks and whispering trees for us to find in moments of serenity and thereby sidesteps a multibillion-dollar meditation and mindfulness industry.
Instead, he gives us a story to engage in and with and at the center of that story: “A child is born unto you.”
I love Eugene Peterson and he is most helpful in reminding us of the original context of these verses. They are of course to the nation of Israel living under the threat of inevitable conquer by the empire of Babylon. He writes:
“Isaiah we must remember preached in desperate times, he was involved in an international crisis. He walked the streets of Jerusalem with persons stretched to the breaking point with anxiety, with pain, with fear, their hearts heavy with the burdens of sin, their arms aching from carrying the baggage of guilt. They were people like us- they needed help, they needed deliverance, they needed relief, they needed hope. They needed all the things that persons who have been faithless and have lost their sense of integrity need, persons who have rebelled and lost a sense of security, persons who have trivialized the sacred on to find themselves separated from meaning and thus reduced to boredom and banality. They needed a gospel adequate for their needs, and their needs were extreme and desperate. It is to this people that Isaiah said “A child is born, to us a son is given.” (From ‘As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire’)
Notice also that Isaiah counts himself in as well to those included in the need for and thus a recipient of the gift. For no preacher is above the need for constant salvation. For people possibly looking for a mighty act of God intervening into history like the Exodus event their grandparents retold to them, what they got was ‘a child’. What are you waiting for God to do? Is it possible that it might be sowing disappointment with God at Christmas time?
Surely someone must have asked then, just as our spiritually dry world asks now, what really can a child do? Before I jump to the obvious statement of how this is no ordinary child, I’d like to pause, camp on that question for a moment and share with you a theory I have.
For here is what I believe a child can do, a child can approach in such innocence and weakness that our every defense mechanism is relaxed for just long enough to see into the very purpose of human life.
A child can re-awaken a broken imagination to receive the hope, that it just may indeed be possible to start again.
Since no preacher is above the need for constant salvation, let me tell you what I mean. I like to think that I am fairly well and widely read for my age. But in my study at home among various commentaries, reference books, primary texts, and devotional writings there is one genre that you will struggle to find; Biography. I don’t like reading biographies. I never really have.
One day I asked myself the question why. As in, really, why. Since I had already made the decision to be brutally honest with myself the answer came as a bit less of a shock but only a bit. Simply put; performance anxiety. I don’t like the idea that there are people out there more gifted, wiser, more engaging and frankly smarter. People who have made more of a difference than I ever will. But I think what troubles me the most is that there is plenty of people, including those do not claim to know Jesus at all, who seem to love others better than me.
Rather than be confronted with these truths I’d rather just avoid reading about the lives of others. It is, of course, my sinful self, aching to feed the idol of affirmation. As I reflect on how stupid that really is, I wonder how many of us carry the most embarrassing of insecurities in the darkest of silences. How many of us, allow ourselves to be the products of our failures or indeed the failures of others and feel trapped by the disordered emotions, desires, and fears that control our inner life.
How many of us peer into the pages of scripture even and struggle to see a gospel, adequate to our needs? For me, for you, my message to you this Christmas is: For to us a child is born, to us, a son is given. God approaches as a child in a manger. What is there to feel that we must measure up to? What about a baby born into poverty makes us feel in any sense inadequate? How could such apparent vulnerability not instill a sense of safety? How such immeasurable omnipotence wrapped in such immeasurable tenderness not cause us to see the genius of one whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are so far above our thoughts?
What can a child do? He can reawaken humanity. This morning, do you feel like you’ve lost a bit of yours? Ponder anew what the Almighty can do.
And…..yeah, he’s no ordinary child. …….and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness 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.
This child can and will grow into a person who fulfills the mission of God, one who dies only to be resurrected and ascended, redeeming then reigning over the entirety of creation. This child will be eternally also…human. So we can know that the one who is in ultimate control of your life and mine knows what it is to be….a child. Knows how it feels to be vulnerable. Knows the value of the ‘least of these’.`
There are some that would have us believe that “this is a timeless story that holds meaning for all of us no matter what our religious beliefs.” That we are primarily meant to relate to and draw courage from the supporting actors in the story such as Mary, Joseph or the shepherds. That this is where the value of the story ends. The fact is, these folks could not have it more wrong. As usual, the first thing that suffers when we make it all about us is the truth.
Because the truth of Christmas is this; it is not ultimately about what we think of the story at all. It is not made any truer by our reverence nor is it made any less true by another’s ignorance. It is not the achievement of anyone other than the God himself. (v7)
And that is precisely the reason why we can have hope; it doesn’t rely on us. That friends is the only basis for a gospel that is adequate for our needs.
Because of the zeal of God, this Christmas you can become a child again.