Sermon: The Very First Christmas List
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-11
For most of our married life, no matter where we have lived (and let me say that we have lived in several places in the past 36 years), my family has gathered at our house to celebrate major holidays like Thanksgiving, and Christmas and Easter. No matter how many times we’ve moved, they have managed to find us. And that’s fine because I love to celebrate those holidays. As much as I love Christmas, I think I might love Thanksgiving even more. And because we have been in charge of the celebrations, I have declared myself Commissioner of Holidays and my family has been good to let me think that I am in charge. As commissioner, it is my job to determine the proper way to celebrate each holiday. For instance, I determine which holidays are snacking holidays and which ones aren’t. Thanksgiving and Christmas are snacking holidays, but Easter is not in my view. And it has always fallen on me to determine when we are going to start decorating for Christmas. I have always believed that Christmas decorations should not start to appear until after Thanksgiving. As the holiday commissioner I have been adamant about that. And my zeal has also carried over to the church. The Advent/Christmas celebration can not begin until the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Everything in it’s time and place when it comes to celebrating holidays. I am really sharing all of this by way of confession because as I was putting away our decorations last year and reflecting on the amount of time it had taken to get all of the decorations out, I decided that Karen and I needed to do one of two things. We were either going to have to significantly reduce the amount of decorations or we were going to have to start decorating before Thanksgiving, if we were going to have any time to enjoy the Advent/Christmas season. And so we have already put out many of our decorations inside. But we won’t light any of them until the day after Thanksgiving. The commissioner has ruled. And I was resolved to not let this lax attitude spill over into church. Christmas would not be spoken of until after Thanksgiving and then I got an email from Apple, saying that we should already be making our lists because the best Christmas gifts are available now. And so I got to thinking that if I am going to get some things on your Christmas list this year, I need to share those with you today before we really get started into the Christmas season. So with that in mind, hear these words of Isaiah, which I suspect was the first Christmas list.
Read Isaiah 11: 1-11
Some years ago, I came across a book entitled The Best Christmas Presents Are Wrapped In Heaven: Children on Christmas. In writing the book the authors asked children several questions about Christmas and recorded their responses. For instance one of the questions they asked was “What makes Christmas so special?” Johnny age 7 responded: “I like how the three kings brought presents and that gave Santa Claus the idea.” Marie, who was eight years old said: ” Christmas is special because it makes everyone have a bigger heart.” And Victor, age 10, who is a young man after my own heart said: “‘Tis the season to have loving thoughts in your heart and Christmas cookies in your stomach.”
And then they asked the kids about the preparations for Christmas, “What is the surest sign that Christmas is coming?” and Sylvia, who was 10 years old said, with wisdom beyond her years: “The biggest sign is one that we can’t see. God is busier than before. He’s working on what people really need for presents, because you see, all the best Christmas presents are wrapped in heaven.” The writer goes on to say, “The story tells us that the Christ Child was “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,” but we know something deeper, don’t we? Before that – this first and best Christmas present – was wrapped in heaven.”
In this 11th chapter, Isaiah talks about the gifts the Messiah would bring, that would be wrapped in Heaven and sent to earth. Now there are some things we need to know about these gifts. And the first thing is that the gifts that are wrapped in Heaven are timeless. It seems like every year there is one item that is the must have item. It flies off the shelves as quickly as they are put out. Many of you probably remember the first year that Cabbage Patch Kids came out. Everyone had to have one and nobody could find them. It seems like every year there are one or two gifts like that. And people (parents mostly) are willing to wait in lines to have a chance to get those hard to find items. But often the enthusiasm for those kinds of gifts often wanes as quickly as it comes. And we move on to the next fad. But the gifts that are wrapped in Heaven are timeless. They are offered by God continually and when received they last forever. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we find the familiar words concerning the birth of Jesus when John writes in the 14th verse: The word became flesh and dwelt among us. We know those words. They describe the incarnation, the coming of Christ. They are always a part of our Christmas celebrations. But we often stop with those words and miss what he says in the 15th verse about the timeless nature of the gift. John goes on to say, and I’m sharing from The Message: John (the Baptist) pointed Him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me, but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.” We all live off His generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. The gifts that are wrapped in Heaven are forever. When the angel comes to Mary and tells her that she has been chosen to give birth to Jesus, the angel says: He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his Kingdom will never end. Timeless
And the gifts’s on Isaiah’s list, the gifts that are wrapped in Heaven, are for everyone. Now when I prepare my Christmas shopping list, I list the names of the people that I want to find gifts for on one side of the paper, and then as I find a gift for that individual I list it on the other side of the paper. Each gift is intended for one individual. But the gifts on Isaiah’s list are for everyone. Remember when the angels come to the shepherds who are out in the fields with the flocks, they say to them we bring good news of great joy that will be for all people. The gifts that are wrapped in Heaven are for everyone. But yet they are also meant just for you and for me. Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world, but He is also the Lord, our personal Savior. When God wrapped these presents, He sent them into the world, but He also had you personally in mind. Now don’t miss this because the angels went on to say to the Shepherds, a savior has been born to you.
At Christmas the Messiah came for everyone. A King that will reign forever. But a savior came for you. A Lord that will reign in your heart forever.
Isaiah talks about the gifts that are wrapped in heaven and sent to us at Christmas. But here’s the thing. I believe that they are not just intended for us to receive but they are also gifts that God intends for us to give. And as we move through the next weeks leading up to Christmas, as we celebrate this wonderful season, I am going to challenge us to think about how we might regift these gifts that are wrapped in Heaven which became ours in that manger on that night in Bethlehem.
So the first one that Isaiah talks about is the gift of Hope. Look what he says in this 11th chapter. A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit. Now to understand the hope of this prophecy we need to know that it comes in the midst of a very dark time in the history of Israel. King David had united the 12 tribes of Israel but after he was gone, eventually the Kingdom divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And around 720 B.C., the Assyrian Empire began an expansion of their territory that eventually led to the total destruction of Israel. Many of the Jews of the northern Kingdom had been carried off into exile. Many others had been killed. And others had found refuge in the southern Kingdom of Judah. But the Assyrians also threatened to move on the Southern Kingdom and there was great fear and uncertainty in Judah. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, which was in the south, and in the midst of the fear and anxiety he begins to talk about a Messiah, a great King who will come and restore life in the north and protect the south from their enemies, and will once again unite the chosen ones of God. It was a message of great hope in the midst of the voices of despair. It is the hope of a new King from the line of David who will rise and save His people from the foreign invaders and ultimately from themselves. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, Isaiah says and He will be their Savior. And for many centuries the promise of the coming Messiah would be recalled and that hope would raise the people from their times of darkness and despair. And 700 years after Isaiah first spoke it, it continued to be a promise of great hope for the people of Israel. The oppressors were the Romans instead of the Assyrians, but the darkness was just as great. And so God gave His son as the embodiment of that long ago hope. And in the midst of the darkness that sometimes surrounds us, God continues to send His Son as our gift of Hope. At Christmas God gives us Hope. Now we’ll be talking more about the Hope of Christmas next week, but I challenge you, as you are preparing your Christmas lists to be thinking about those with whom you could be sharing a gift of hope this Christmas
And then the second gift that Isaiah talks of is the gift of Love. He goes on to say this about the coming Messiah. He will not judge by what he sees (in us) or by what he hears (from us), but will be righteous towards all of those who are in need and he will deal justly with those who are the poor of the earth. His armor will be righteousness and faithfulness. In other words, the coming Messiah will rule through right actions in contrast to those who ruled their lands because of their might. He will deal rightly and justly and faithfully with the people rather than through power, and intimidation and domination. The Messiah will be God’s gift of love. One preacher expresses this in terms of the ancient practice of kissing under the mistletoe, which we, of course, associate with a romantic love today, but really began as much more than that. He says that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe came from the Druids in northern Europe who as early as the first century believed that the plant had a healing power. He says: They believed that mistletoe had a curative power and could even cure separation between people. So when two enemies happened to meet under an oak tree with mistletoe hanging above them, they took it as a sign that they should drop their weapons and be reconciled. Then he went on to say: When the missionaries moved in, they saw this mistletoe custom as a perfect symbol for what happened to the world at Christmas. At Christmas a new age dawned – a time of peace, a time of healing, a time of reconciliation, a time for embracing one another.
The coming of the Messiah ushers in a Kingdom based on right not might – compassion not power – love not hate. We’ll talk more about the gift of love in a couple of weeks, but again I challenge you, as you prepare your Christmas list to be thinking about those with whom you could be sharing a gift of love this Christmas.
Then the third gift that Isaiah talks of is the gift of joy. Look at what he describes in the 10th verse. Isaiah says: In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a sign to all the people; all nations will rally to him, and the place of rest will be glorious. Earlier in his prophecy, Isaiah, in talking about the birth of the Messiah, had said: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the valleys a light has come. God has enlarged the nation and increased the joy of His people. For to us a child is born. You know in more than thirty years of ministry, it has been my privilege to walk with persons as they have experienced moments of great joy in their lives. Birthdays, graduations, blessing new homes. Confirmation and Baptisms. It has been my honor to assist dozens of couples in beginning their married lives together. Weddings are a time of great joy. But really none of those compare with that moment that a child is introduced into a family. The moment that I first held Anna is a moment of joy that is seared into my memory. I know that she smiled at me and even though everyone else says that she was too young to smile, no one will ever convince me otherwise. And I have no doubt that when all other memories elude me as I advance in age, that one moment of pure joy never will. It is that kind of moment that Isaiah is describing. The birth of the Messiah will be a gift of great joy. Christmas is a time of great joy. The Angels proclaimed to the Shepherds, Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy for the Lord has been born this day in Bethlehem. But for some Christmas is not a joyful time. We will talk more about Joy in a few weeks, but I challenge you as you are preparing your Christmas list to be thinking of those with whom you might share a gift of joy this Christmas.
And then there is one more gift that Isaiah has on his list. It is the gift of peace. Listen again to his words. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The gift of the Messiah will bring reconciliation between those that are natural enemies. Deadly predators will lie down with their prey. And the Messiah’s Kingdom will be a Kingdom of peace. I sometimes find it ironic that a season that is supposed to be all about peace can sometimes become so hectic and frantic as we rush from one thing to the next. Try to get the shopping done. Go from party to party. Entertain family and friends. It can all be so exhausting. All to celebrate an event that is best experienced on our knees. The birth of the Messiah. Max Lucado, in his book, The Applause of Heaven writes this:
A small cathedral at Bethlehem marks the birthplace of Jesus. Behind the high altar in the church is a cave, a little cavern lit by silver lamps. You can enter the main edifice and stand there and admire the ancient church. You can also enter the quiet cave where a star is embedded in the floor to recognize the birthplace of the King of Kings.
However, there is one stipulation for going into the cave. You have to stoop to go in. You must enter it on your knees. The door is so low you can’t go in standing up.
The same is true of Christ. You can see the world standing tall but to witness the Savior, you have to get on your knees. . . kneeling before the One only the meek will see. They were kneeling in front of Jesus.”
So before you get caught up in the busyness of Christmas, I wanted to remind you that there are people in your life who need the gift of peace that the Messiah brings. Who can you include on your list who needs to experience the peace of Christ this season.
So as you get your list together – think about the gifts on Isiah’s list – Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Who will you give those gifts to this Christmas. And though I hate to get the early jump on Christmas, it occurs to me that the four gifts that Isaiah talked about are also some pretty good things to give thanks for also as we celebrate this week of Thanksgiving.