Scripture: Jeremiah 29:11; Colossians 1:27
In the year 745 B.C., the Assyrian Empire under the leadership of Tiglath Pileaser III, began the total conquest of The Holy Land. Actually more than conquest, it was complete destruction. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus wrote that as the Assyrians advanced, their goal was to completely destroy the land. They did not want it to be populated but rather to serve as a buffer between them and the Egyptians. And so every Jew living in the north was either killed or taken back to Assyria as slaves, or they fled to the south in advance of the Assyrian army. And the land was stripped of all it’s resources, the chief among those resources being timber. The good trees were cut to the ground and the brush that remained was burned completely. And when the Army left a village, they would level every building and home, thereby discouraging any hope of repopulating those places. They would either slaughter the animals to feed the army or take them back to Assyria. And they would harvest all of the crops they could, and then they would burn what remained and salt the fields so that no more crops could be grown for many years.
The Assyrian Army left the land completely barren, devoid of any life, human, animal or plant. They left it so barren that for 600 years the land was empty of human beings. And Josephus said that from the Pinnacle of the Temple, the highest place in Jerusalem, the people of the south watched as one by one the lights of the villages of Israel went dark, thereby marking the advance of the Assyrian army, until there was no more light in all of the north. And so Isaiah, standing at the pinnacle of the Temple, proclaimed that at the birth of the Messiah, the people who walked in darkness would see a great light. And that from the rubble of Israel new life would come. New trees would come from the roots of the olive trees that had long lay dormant. Isaiah’s vision was a vision of great hope in the midst of fear and destruction, utter desolation. It was a vision of light returning to Israel. But the death of Israel and Judah was a slow death. For some reason the
Assyrians stopped after the destruction of the north and did not advance on Jerusalem. And it was more than 100 years, around 600 B.C., when the Babylonians swept down through the barren north and began a prolonged siege of Jerusalem, which eventually led to the Fall of the rest of the Holy Land. And they destroyed the Temple, and in doing so they believed that they destroyed the God of the Jews, thus completing the total annihilation of the Jews. It was during the Babylonian conquest that the prophet Jeremiah repeated the prophesy that Isaiah had spoken more than a century before, about the Messiah, the great king who would come and restore God’s Holy Land. It is hard to imagine that the Holy Land essentially lay in darkness for 6 centuries with the remnants of the Jewish people scattered throughout the known world, finding hope of restoration in those words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, repeated again and again and again.
First it was the Assyrians, and then the Babylonians, and then the Greeks led by Alexander the Great who claimed the Holy Land as part of their Kingdom. And through it all, the hope of the Messiah was kept alive by prophets who drew from the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah. And then in 164 B.C., Judas Maccabeus led the Jews in a successful revolt against the Greeks and people began to wonder if he was the Messiah. It is this revolt that is remembered and celebrated during the 8 days of Hanukkah that our Jewish brothers and sisters are in the midst of. However, the revolt only led to 100 years of self rule before the Roman Empire brought the darkness back to Israel. But during that 100 years, the centuries old prophecy of Isaiah began to come to fruition.
The Maccabeans offered money to families from the south who would go into the Northern Kingdom to resettle the land that had been barren for nearly 600 years and build towns and restore life. And towns began to spring up from ancient ruins. And shoots began to spring forth from the roots of long dormant trees and the land began to bear fruit once more and life and light was restored just as Isaiah said it would be. About 100 B.C. a few families from the Bethlehem area, where Jesse’s relatives lived, the descendants of King David, made their way to the North, to an area known as Galilee, and they established a town there which they called Nazareth, a name which literally means ” up from the stump”. And it was to a young girl in Stumptown, nearly 100 years later that God sent the Messiah. And that young girl, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, a descendant from the root of Jesse’s tree. And through them, Hope came into the world. Jesus, the stump from the roots of Jesse’s tree was born. I love the way that Amy Grant sings it in the song Love Has Come when she says: Love has come for the world to know, as the wise men knew such a long time ago. And I believe that angels sang, that hope had begun. When the God of Glory, who is full of mercy, sent His Son.
For so many Christmas is the beginning of hope because it is the coming of the long awaited Savior. And so when we share the gift of hope, we share the light and life of Jesus Christ. We share Jesus our Lord. So how do we do that.
First, we share hope when we share the presence of God in the midst of the darkness. That really is what this Sacrament is all about. It is the promise of the Messiah, the presence of God, for all time and in all places, even in the darkness of the cross. Remember the Gospels tell us that while Jesus was on the Cross, darkness covered the land. In His sacrifice we find the hope that will sustain us in even the darkest times. Edward Beckstrom shares this in an article entitled “The Wind Of The Spirit”:
Some years ago, a military plane crashed while trying to land at an Air Force Base in Greenland. All twenty two people on board were killed. The runway and nearby field was strewn with bodies. It was a tragic moment. There was only one chaplain at the base and it fell to him to not only try and make sense of such a tragic time for all the personnel stationed there, but it was also his responsibility to identify those who had lost their lives. And so along with a young lieutenant, who had been assigned the duties of mortuary officer, and a small group of volunteers, they went about the terrible task of collecting the bodies and identifying the dead.
Once that was done the painful task of notifying those back home of their loved one’s death would begin. They worked with hearts that were broken, and in silence well into the night. They were exhausted when every body was identified and each person went to their rooms to try to close their eyes and erase the visions of death that they had been confronted with and get some sleep. But just after midnight there was a knock on the chaplain’s door and when he opened it he discovered the young lieutenant standing there. He said nothing. He just stood there and wept. And then after some moments he spoke: “As we were picking up the bodies today, I realized something. I realized that the only other people out there with us today were the people who go to church here. I have always been an unbeliever, and I used to ridicule these same people who were out there with us. Yet they are the only persons who would, or perhaps could, do what we had to do today. It must have been their Christian spirit that caused them to see beyond the horror to the hope.” That tragic day turned his life around. He became a new man because Christ was present in his heart. And then he did an unheard of thing. He was the first person ever on that base to extend his tour of duty for an extra year. Why? Because, he said, he wanted to tell others in that isolated and foreboding place how the power of Christian hope had changed his life.
Who do you know who is experiencing dark times in their lives right now? Feeling isolated and alone? Perhaps dealing with illness or grief. When we share the presence of God, we share the gift of hope. Paul writes: God has chosen to make known among you the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
And then we share the gift of Hope when we share the promise of God’s intervention in our troubled world. Hope filled people trust the future to God. One writer describes the people to whom Isaiah first spoke of the Messiah in this way: These are people without hope. They fear being utterly consumed and lost. They feel alienated and alone. They need a word of hope and assurance. And friends I’ll bet there are people in your life who feel that same way. The words of the prophets down through seven centuries of Jewish history was spoken to persons who felt like that. And so they urged the people to look beyond the moment and trust God for the future. The hope for the Messiah was a hope that God would intervene on behalf of His people. But we need to understand that the prophets were not prognosticators. Isaiah did not know that the time he foresaw would be seven centuries coming to reality. Isaiah did not find hope just in the future intervention of God. His hope was in the knowledge that all of the future belonged to God. And that is the message of hope that we have today. We have much darkness in our world. People whose lives are disrupted by the forces of nature. People who are homeless. People who are hungry. People dealing with terrible diseases like cancer. People who’s countries are torn apart by war. People who have lost their jobs and face an uncertain future. There is much darkness. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who are living in shadows a new day will come. For a child is born. But our hope is not in the knowledge that at some point God will reclaim the future. Our hope is in the faith that no matter what, the future belongs to God. Your future. My future. From this moment, right now. Because a child was born. Is born. Will be born. In us. In darkness and in light.
On March 16, 1985 a reporter for the Associated Press, by the name of Terry Anderson was taken captive by terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon. He was not released for almost seven years on December 4, 1991. And some while after he was released, a reporter asked him: Terry, did you ever lose hope? and Anderson responded, Hard question . . . of course I had some dark moments, moments of despair, but fortunately, right after I became a hostage, one of the first things that fell into my hands was a Bible. Over the last six and a half years as a captive, I spent a lot of time in the word of God . . . and that helped me so much because it’s all about hope; it’s about trust in God, and that’s what gave me the strength to make it through each day.” And then he went on to say. “You do what you have to do. I spent a lot of time with the Bible and it reminded me to do the best I could each day . . . and to trust God for the future.
The Psalmist captured this hope and wrote: Your word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path. And here’s the thing. There are a lot of people that you know who are walking in darkness today. They need you to offer the light of hope for them this Christmas. To be the word of God to them right now.
Now I don’t want to rock your world today, but, you know, no one really knows the date of Jesus’ birth. The early church chose to celebrate it on December 25th because of this imagery of light. It immediately follows the winter solstice, which is, of course, the darkest day of the year. There are the fewest hours of sunlight on that day and the ancients believed that as the sun waned, so would life on this earth. But a few days later, it became apparent that the sun was coming back, and so great celebrations would take place. The light of the sun brought hope for the future. And so the early church saw the connection between the “sun” and the “Son”, and began to celebrate December 25th as the the birthday of the Son of God because the prophets had said that He would be the “light shining in the darkness.” John wrote in the prologue to his gospel, “What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And so the early church began to celebrate His birth with light and that practice has continued today. Centuries later. When we light up our Christmas tree and the outside of our homes, whether we realize it or not, we are remembering Jesus as the light of the world, the light in a darkened world. The birth of Jesus happened at night. Out of darkness the Savior will come. It was Isaiah’s message of hope, and it continues to be our hope today. And so we light the first Candle of Advent this morning and in doing so, we remember that Jesus was the light of hope in a darkened world and always will be. And here’s the thing, if we are to truly celebrate the birth of Jesus, it can’t just be a time to remember. Christmas becomes what Isaiah prophesied when it becomes a time of light in the darkness and hope for the hopeless, when we become as Jesus said we would be, when He said. “You are the light of the world.” You are light in darkness. You are hope for the hopeless.
Think how much brighter our world would be, if each one of us, found a way to be the gift of hope for at least one person this Christmas. Be the light. Be the hope. Share Christmas.