THE SAVIOUR PROMISED LONG – PREPARING THE WAY OF THE LORD….A LONG TIME AGO
Mr. K was a painter and decorator. He used to do all our decorating when we had our own house, and he was a fascinating man. Very slightly built, he wore a flat cap – and never took it off, which always made our girls wonder what was underneath it.
He’d help himself to saucers out of the kitchen cupboards to use as an ashtray (which drove me mad) as he was a chain smoker, his bathroom habits left a lot to be desired (which is probably more information than you need), he took the longest tea breaks imaginable, but when it came down to decorating, he was brilliant. He’d spend days rubbing down, repairing, undercoating and finally when he’d done all his preparation he’d do a quality job which would last for years. “The secret of the success lies in the preparation.” He’d say. “I can do it quickly, but I’ll be back in no time at all.” And what with the saucer ashtrays and toilet habits, I wasn’t keen to repeat that.
Much of life is about preparation. Preparing for exams, preparing for marriage, preparing a meal, preparing to go on holiday, preparing sermons and services or fields for harvest. The preparation often seems to take longer than the actual activity – I don’t cook very often, but when I do for our family it can take hours to prepare and minutes to demolish! The greatest things most people prepare for is the birth of a child. In anticipation there is decorating to be done, purchasing of cots, car seats, prams – the list is endless, reading books, thinking of names, classes and clinics to attend – the list goes on and on. And all the time the baby is undergoing his or her own preparation in the womb.
The most famous birth in history was preceded by the longest and most minute preparation of all. Conception to birth may have been the usual 9 months, but the preparation for the baby born in Bethlehem began before the world was made. Those who were sensitive to the ways of God anticipated the birth of Jesus, centuries before it occurred.
We’re very familiar with the preparations of Mary and Joseph and others nearer the time, but less so with the way God prepared others so that Jesus could be born fulfilling the age-old prophecies surrounding his birth.
Of course, we today do our own preparation. Preparing to celebrate his birth once again – cards to buy, presents to choose, food to purchase, houses to decorate, but as Christians, we should give attention to preparing ourselves spiritually, not as an afterthought, but as a priority.
As I’ve already said prospective parents have the usual 9 months to prepare for the birth of their baby. In the case of Mary and Joseph that is again true, but the preparations began long before the pregnancy. The Old Testament has centuries of prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and the preparations began way back in eternity.
So we’re going to look at some of those prophecies tonight:
It’s amazing how poor we are at predicting the future. There are numerous stories of people who got it wrong. Margaret Thatcher famously said there would be no female prime minister in her lifetime – it’s debatable whether we wish she’d been right or wrong. “Future Shock” a cult film from the 70’s, hardly mentioned computers at all, and life would be very different today without them.
Signposts to the future can fail to point in the right direction, not so with Isaiah.
Isaiah was speaking around 734 before the birth of Christ. The kings of Syria and Israel are trying to persuade King Ahaz of Judah to join with them in a campaign against the new “superpower” Assyria. Ahaz refused, but it was a very tense time. Isaiah encouraged him to stand firm and keep calm, but how could Ahaz be sure that the advice given by Isaiah was to be trusted when so many others were giving conflicting advice? God gives Ahaz a sign, whether he wanted it or not, and it appears he didn’t – the virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and he will be called Immanuel.
Ahaz refused to trust and instead kept trying to work things out his own way using human strategies to appease Assyria, with predictable consequences. He preferred not to have faith in God and didn’t rely on his prophet. History confirmed the truth of Isaiah’s words.
Centuries later his words were to be fulfilled. In a world that continued to be in crisis, a young woman bore a child and for those with eyes to see, could conclude that God was with them. Jesus was never called Immanuel to his face during his life time, but he constantly demonstrated that God was present with them by his teachings and actions.
Isaiah pointed to something that would happen way in the future. Unlike many who try to predict the future, Isaiah didn’t get it wrong. God was already at work, preparing the way for a virgin to conceive and bear a child.
- In a world of continuing crisis, and perhaps in our own lives too, how are we able to keep calm and stand firm in faith?
- Who are our encouragers and who do we encourage?
- When we receive conflicting advice how do we decide what course of action to take?
- What makes it so difficult to sometimes trust in God?
Reading: Isaiah 9:1-7
When I went to Iona several years ago now, I would wake early each morning and try to be out of the Abbey and outside in the fresh air before the sun rose. It was a very special time for me, made even more special watching the sun rise over the distant mountains of Mull and beyond, to begin a new day. In those moments it felt like me and God and no-one else in the world. I don’t know if you’ve ever flown at night and experienced in the morning the rising of the sun over the horizon. First a small streak of light pierces the darkness then it grows and keeps on growing until all the darkness is gone and a beautiful colourful dawn. Quite spectacular.
Isaiah’s compatriots, especially those closest to Assyria and therefore first in line when they invaded, felt they lived in great darkness. But Isaiah promises the day will arrive when a son will come and will change all that. So sure is he that rather than use the future tense in his prophecy, he uses the past tense, as if it has already happened. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light (rather than will see a great light), on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned (or will dawn).
In his excitement Isaiah speaks of future transformation. A world of sorrow will discover joy. A world of slavery will encounter freedom. A world of strife will find peace. How will this come about? Could Isaiah’s words be wishful thinking?
But the words demonstrate that way back in Isaiah’s time, God had the birth of Jesus already planned! He even had it planned as soon as Adam and Eve ate the fateful apple!
- How does that make you feel?
- When all feels like darkness how do we hold onto the light?
- Have you ever experienced a sunrise (like Iona) how did it make you feel?
Reading: Micah 5:1-5
Micah 6 verse 8 is probably the most famous part of the little known prophet Micah that we know, but every year we hear his words at a carol service. “But you, Bethlehem Ephratha, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times (verse 2). These words are first spoken in troubled times when Israel was being attacked by Sennacherib. Realistically their future was bleak. Was there any hope they’d survive and if so, where would they find this hope? Into this despair Michal injects a message of God’s grace. There was hope, although deliverance wouldn’t come immediately and it wouldn’t come from the obvious place. The answer to their problems didn’t live in Jerusalem, the centre of power, but in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was an insignificant little town six miles southwest of Jerusalem. Its name meant the house of bread, it had little to do with politics, it was the bakery for Israel. The only significant thing about it was that it was David’s home town. But like the town, David was at one time considered insignificant, the least of his family. But what God could do once, he could do again. If the great king David could come from a dead end town, then God could arrange for the Messiah to come from there too.
Micah’s prophecy suggests that the new ruler would be humble. He’d be a ruler “for me” – that is for God. His emergence would be a new beginning for Israel – the past would be rolled away.
When Jesus was born Matthew announced that Micah’s prophecy was at last coming true.
• What hope does it give us to think that God uses the insignificant? • God had to do some serious “fixing” for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem ie a political census which sent Joseph back to his home town. When have we thought in our lives “that’s a co-incidence?” when actually it’s a God incidence?
We’ve only thought about three of the Old Testament prophecies, but they clearly show that centuries before the birth of Jesus, God already had a plan in place. What encouragement does that give us?
No child’s birth has ever been expected so keenly or foretold in such accurate detail as that of Jesus. What are your general reactions to the prophecies we’ve read? Why are they so important and how do they strengthen our faith? How do they help you in your Christian life?
Next week – Preparing the way of the Lord – in the real world