Below is one of my longer sermons. I share it because it has to do with my amazing grandmother. I hope it's a blessing to her and to anyone who reads this.
The feeling I am experiencing as a 13 year old boy in the picture above is me experiencing pure joy. This picture was taken a moment after Joe Carter hit the game-winning home run in the 1993 World Series. What a moment this was for me.
The type of joy in this moment is different than the type of joy I had talked about a few months ago when we were going through a series through the letter of Philippians.
Here's what I preached then:Joy is different than happiness. Happy and happens have the same root. You can only be happy when certain things happen. But joy is a constant. Joy is different than pleasure. Joy is different from ecstasy. Joy is a slow pulsating constant…
This description of joy isn’t the type of joy I’ll be talking about this morning. Can you imagine? Imagine if I was constantly looked like this? Jumping up and down proclaiming to the world that the Blue Jays were World Series champs 23 years later!
No, the type of joy described for us in both Isaiah 9 and our passage from Luke has to with what happens to us. The word for joy in Philippians is about a joy that is a state of mind…
But the type of joy described for us in Isaiah 9, and the type of joy experienced by a baby bouncing around in Elizabeth’s womb, is better translated as exuberant, or excited. It’s that freakout moment of bliss! It’s that emotion in reaction to victory. It’s an experience that may not be felt every day of the year, but the repercussions of that moment last a lifetime.
Let’s unpack what I mean by exploring what’s happening in Isaiah 9. Isaiah 9 is the counter part of Isaiah 8.
Let’s recap how that ends in your bulletins:Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.
The darkness of chapter 8 sets the stage for Isaiah 9. Chapter 9 reveals to us the end of this doom and gloom. Rather than a focus on stress, hunger, anger, curses, distress, darkness, fear, gloom, and darkness, there is hope coming! A light is about to dawn.
Those in this perpetual state of doom and gloom are seeing light come up from over the horizon. Something, or better put, someone is coming into this mess.
Now, the first thing to notice about chapter 9 is the verb tense. Look at the verbs and tell me what kind of verb tense is used. Take a look…
It’s all in the past tense- it’s as if the hope of this coming light and the reality of what’s to come- has already come! And this is important because what this tells us is that the certainty of this bright future is as real as historical facts. The bright future Isaiah paints for his original audience is as sure as the doom and gloom they currently live in…
And so let’s look at these ‘for-sure-it’s-going-to-happen’ future events.
Isaiah 9:1:Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan—
Zebulun and Naphtali were situated in the northwest corner of Israel and were the first to be conquered by the Assyrian Empire. This foreign invasion kick-started a downward spiral for the northern Kingdom of Israel. Assyria took the northern kingdom and would end up successfully erasing it off the face of planet earth.
This historical event was the beginning of the end for the northern Kingdom. And so what Isaiah is saying is that this new light that has come is going to reverse the effects of this humiliating defeat. This land that started the process of being conquered and displaced will be replaced with honor. This land also called Galilee would be brought to a place of honor.
And so out from this land that represented the beginning of foreign occupation will now be the geography where the new light has dawned. A new light will dawn in Galilee!
With this rise of light, God will enlarge the nations as it says in verse 3. Something that was dead and gone will now grow into something that looks like a nation again as it says in verse 3:
Take a look again:You have enlarged the nation
and as a result?
God has also…
increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest…
This great light that has come, the light that shines and expands globally has caused a reaction: Exuberant Joy. It’s the type of joy experienced at, like, thanksgiving time.
As people rejoice at the harvest is a powerful statement, one that we can’t quite appreciate in our McFastFood culture. We go to the store and buy strawberries any time of year. We can buy California Raisins any day of the week! We don’t appreciate the fact that is a result of incredible technological advancement.
But for many around the world and certainly those living in the Ancient Near East, it’s hard to quantify how joyful harvest season is. When the harvest is in, that means food for months ahead! That means feed for animals. Ultimately, it means life, right? We get to live!
When the light comes, and a nation develops out of darkness and nothingness, the reaction is: Wow, we get to live!?
It’s the type of joy experienced when the harvest comes in, but it’s also the type of harvest experience at the end of war.
Verses 3-5 continue: as men 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.
The reference to the defeat of Midian is a flashback to another time in Israel’s history when a leader named Gideon famously led a mere 300 men into battle against the much larger army from Midian. Gideon’s army won because God made sure they would. The type of joy described in Isaiah 9 is the type of joy experienced by those who can claim victory when all odds were against them! It’s only a victory that God could accomplish.
It’s a victory that destroyed the metaphorical yoke and rod of the enemy. The reference to a yoke is the ongoing reminder of foreign occupation. The reference to a rod is the acute pain that one can experience in oppression. But in this moment, the yoke has been shattered. The rod is cracked in half. These tokens of slavery are crushed!
And so the coming of this new light is like the feeling of victory after a war won by underdogs. It’s also a victory that ends all war. Boots that tread through blood will get thrown into a bonfire. Every stitch of cloth with bloodstains will be burned as well. Warriors and innocent by-standers throw away their clothes for kindling. The things tainted by war will be used for fire fuel. Burning war boots and blood stained clothes end the need to fight.
There are two words in Isaiah 9 that can be translated as rejoice.
Earlier in verse 3, the word to rejoice
here has to do with exuberant praise
But the word in the latter part of verse 3: as men rejoice when dividing the plunder- the picture painted for us by Isaiah is overflowing joy expressed in a circle! The root of this word is circle
And so the type of joy experienced when this light comes is like warriors, locking arm and arm, or dancing around in a circle around their plunder, or around this bonfire erasing the history of the collateral damage from a war that should have been won!
That’s the picture of joy Isaiah is trying to get us to see here.
Now, the example of the Blue Jays winning the World Series is just an illustration and pails in comparison to the type of joy Isaiah describes in these verses.
And so this past week, I asked my grandmother what it was like to experience the taste of victory after a war.
Grandma Benjamins is my only grandparent still living, and she is one of my faith heroes. She has lived through a lot. She grew up in the northwest corner of The Netherlands, which, if you know your geography, would have made them direct neighbors to Germany. Nazi Germany occupied Holland when my grandma was just 8 years old: May 10, 1940. Fortunately for her, she lived out in the country on a farm. That meant they always had enough food to grow and give out to others. But for 5 years they lived under this constant threat and fear of this foreign invader. They witnessed things that would require a book to share.
But for our purposes this morning, I want to share with you a story that was once published in her small town newspaper. In this article, Grandma shares what it felt like for Holland to be liberated from Nazi Occupation. After 5 years of constant threat and constant fear of things getting worse, on May 5, 1945, the German army surrendered in Holland.
And so to celebrate this victory, soldiers in full gear and tanks would go through town after town to share the news and to celebrate together the long awaited victory over the enemy.
This is what my grandmother remembers so well: As a 13-year-old girl, she remembers lining the streets and watching the parade of soldiers and tanks go down the streets of her little town. She remembers that no one ever went out like this. But she says, everyone came to town to celebrate. She recalls the soldiers passing out chocolate bars, which was a real treat for them! Maybe once or twice a year would they get to eat chocolate, so this chocolate represented something powerful. She said to me this past week, “Today you can eat chocolate every day, but as a child, it was only for special times.” And this, this was a special time. Chocolate was the sweet taste of victory! She recalls people just screaming out to the soldier- thanking them, singing together, rejoicing together.
She said, in her beautiful Dutch accent, “Mark, I can not explain how happy we were. I have never experienced anything like it. People back, you know, they just didn’t come together in public like this, but here everyone came! You just had to be there… I have never been so happy in my life.”
She said she remembered going to church afterward and even remembers what the preacher preached that Sunday. Psalm 66, or, as she puts it ‘P-salm 66’: Shout with joy to God, all the earth!
Sing the glory of his name;
make his praise glorious!
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
So great is your power that your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth bows down to you;
they sing praise to you,
they sing praise to your name.”
That phrase, ‘I have never been so happy in my life,’
hit me. She was 13. Later on in life, she would have 7 kids. 35 grandkids, and now a whole slew of great grandkids with more rabbits coming! She loved her husband, immigrated to Canada, and lived a successful career as a farmer’s wife. She had plenty of moments of joy in her life. But that feeling of relief back in 1945; that moment produced a once in a lifetime feeling?
Now, I was 13 when the Blue Jays won the Series, but my more mundane example of the team winning the World Series pales in comparison to the type of celebration my grandmother felt as she screamed and celebrated along the streets of her small town in The Netherlands.
But now consider this: What Isaiah is describing in chapter 9 is exponentially more celebratory than what my grandmother even experienced!
What Isaiah is trying to get us to see here is that with the coming of the King, the darkness experienced by all of humanity since the moment of the Fall is now fading away. With the coming of the King, the pain of war, the threat of evil, the constant poor decisions, the countless number of corrupt rulers is now coming to an end.
That’s why Mary considered herself so honored. That’s why Elizabeth and the baby inside her womb celebrate! This isn’t just another child.
This is the child of light. Darkness retreats at the site of him. His coming causes angels to pierce through the seams of heaven to sing a victory chorus. In fact, the words Luke uses to describe the angels who sang to the shepherds are often translated as heavenly host. However, literally, it says that this is a heavenly army! This choir is made up of military personal from heaven proclaiming what? Peace!
Isaiah’s prophecy came true the evening Jesus was born.
For to us a child was born in Bethlehem. To us, God’s Son was given. And the world authority now rests on his shoulders.
He lies there in a manger as Wonderful Counselor.
He is mighty God, yet sleeping and crying and eating and doing the things babies do when they’re born.
He is like a father because he is the image of his Father and will always protect those he calls.
He is Prince of Peace because he rules and his birth signals the beginning of the end to the power of evil and sin.
His authority will stretch beyond all borders, and he will claim peace- and it will be so.
He will rule, as the Prince with justice and righteousness.
This child’s arrival is the seminal moment of history where God stakes his claim of victory by being placed into a manger.
And so while heaven is rejoicing, while an angelic army claims victory and proclaims it to shepherds, no one lines the streets to celebrate. Besides a very small select few, no one sees what’s going on. No king suddenly senses authority being usurped away. No Emperor feels like he lost power the moment Jesus was born.
You know, the audience God picks to share this good news is odd: a shepherd’s testimony wasn’t worth a penny in court and their reputation was far from the sentimental pictures we have on Christmas cards. Replace smiles, robes, and fluffy beards with frowns, leather coats, and tattoos. These were hard men. And it’s only these guys who are invited to celebrate the arrival of the King.
But 99.99999% of humanity missed it! They missed the light that dawned right there in Bethlehem.
They missed the light that dawned when Jesus started his ministry.
They missed the light that dawned when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee- no coincidence there, right?- and preached about this new nation called the Kingdom of God.
They missed the light that dawned when Jesus healed the sick and multiplied food when people were hungry.
They missed the light that dawned when Jesus told stories about this new Kingdom.
They missed the light that dawned when they plotted to kill Jesus.
They missed the light that dawned when the crowd cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”
Everyone missed it!
And when Jesus breathed his last, the hope that a few people had that Jesus may just be this light that dawned, that hope flickered and died with him.
Not for one moment did any of Jesus’ followers think Jesus would be coming back.
See, seeing soldiers parading through town was my grandmother’s happiest moment because for 5 years, she didn’t know who would win World War II. She didn’t know if the killing would stop. She didn’t know if the terror would ever go away. She didn’t know if her children would grow up hailing Hilter.
That was her reality from age 7-13.
That’s why the taste of chocolate felt so amazing. She’s right: you just had to be there to experience it!
And so you can just imagine how mindboggling it was for the likes of Mary, and Peter, and John, and Jesus’ other closest friends to see Jesus alive in the flesh- alive and walking! What does this mean? What type of victory is this?!
Teleport yourself to that moment when Jesus reveals his scars to Thomas who couldn’t believe Jesus rose from the dead unless he saw it and placed his fingers in them. What a mind-bending moment, right? Didn't they know Jesus was going to rise from the dead? They just wasted three years following a fake, and they’re thinking: We need to walk back to Galilee with our tails between our legs and get our boat back and return to the only thing that gave them any purpose: fishing.
However, that’s not how the story ends. The story continues with the disciples going out and convincing people that the King had come. They had missed it, but he came back and rules in heaven! They had an experience with the risen Jesus that changed them forever. They had that once-in-history moment where they went from despair of Jesus’ death, to sure faith in the one who lives forever! That’s what fueled the growth of the early church.
And then after 2,000 years of church history, the church continues to proclaim that the light has dawned! We continue to preach the same truths, with the same conviction the disciples had so many years ago.
And so let me ask you this: Do you get excited for Christmas? I ask this because, you know, after 2,000 years of this, do we still need to get excited? Like, is it one of those things we need to do where we have to fake until we make it? We’ll sing the songs again, we’ll hear the same Bible passages again, we’ll decorate the house, buy presents, go to work parties; family gatherings. We’ll walk in parades…
If you need to fake it until you make it, consider this:
You are actually worse than you think you are. You are actually worse than you let off. Because your heart was destined for one place: hell. Your heart was occupied by sin and evil and your heart was hell-bent on hating God. That’s our natural inclination. That’s our default. You had the potential to be just as broken as any of history’s most corrupt people. Your brokenness runs deep within and we proclaimed war against God. All odds were against you!
Just listen to the language used in Ephesians 2:1-3:As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
But because that light dawned, the brokenness that runs so deep starts to fade. Dawn creeps into even the darkest of places and Jesus stakes his claim at the center of your being and proclaims: THIS IS MINE! The baby that was born pierced into the stage of world history to perform heart operations that would save millions and millions. He saved the many who were blind to the light throughout his ministry. He takes our hell bent spiritual default and alters its trajectory. Jesus occupies our hearts and carves within it the eternal truths of who he is as our counselor, God, and Prince!
And that’s why we have to read how that paragraph in Ephesians 2 ends:For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
For those of you don’t see the truth behind these words, at least this helps you see how Christians see the world. We experience the world through the porthole of grace. Christ saved us from the dark and gave us the gift of faith.
That’s why it’s so important to remember why we celebrate Christmas. The fluff that surrounds this season clouds us of what it’s all about. The distractions can rob us of the reason why angels sang to shepherds! Angels just don’t sing to shepherds! But they did that first Christmas because the beginning of our redemption was about to take place.
Jesus birthday signaled the beginning of a whole new world order that would be grounded in grace.
Celebrating this event changes things for the Christian forever. It draws us to Jesus each year and reminds us of what God had to do to save us.
Let me wrap up this morning with my 13-year-old grandmother watching troops parade through town. What I didn’t mention was that the country that liberated Holland was, in fact, led by Canada. Thousands of Canadian soldiers died for that liberation to happen. It was also Canadian soldiers who through the streets of small towns to announce victory. It’s no coincidence that my grandparents moved to Canada. It’s no coincidence that many thousands of war-torn Dutch immigrants moved to Canada in the 1950’s and 60’s.
The happiest moment in my grandmother’s life changer her forever to the point that my grandparents moved an ocean apart to start a whole new life. They left everything behind and started new.
As Christians, the light that dawned and shone in the darkness as the Prince of Peace makes us move too! We are no longer occupied by addiction, distractions, and darkness. We are no longer owned and operated by the enemy. Christians make that cosmic-wide move to start a brand new life in Jesus.
And so we’re going to end with a two-part challenge:
First, are their activities that you miss in your old ‘occupied-by-darkness’ self that you invite to come visit from across the divide? Being a Christian doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect, but it does mean you’ll try to be, and that means claiming Jesus’ victory over every area of life.
Second, will you share why Christmas is so important to others? I could talk about 1993 all day long. My grandmother shared her story. Its readership may not be huge, but for grandma, that was her sphere of influence. For you, will you share why Christmas is so important?
The Gospel is called Good NEWS. It’s not called Good feelings, or good behaviors, or good choice! It’s good NEWS! And Good News is what will transform people as sure as the events of yesterday happened!