Sermon from Sunday, December 24, 2023
Speaker: Rev. Michael Cloud
Scripture: Isaiah 52: 7-10

Sermon Transcript

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the book of Isaiah Chapter 52, verses 7 to 10. Hear these words: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger Who announces peace? Who brings good news? Who announces salvation? Who says To Zion, Your God rains. Listen, your sentinels lift up their voices together They sing for joy, for in plain sight.

They see the return of the Lord. Desire on break forth together into singing. You ruins of Jerusalem for the Lord has comforted His people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations. And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen. Now, some of you may be wondering why we just had an Old Testament reading on a New Testament day. But this is, in fact, one of the lectionary passages for Christmas Eve. And it also got pressed into me long ago that we will never fully appreciate what’s going on in the New Testament without a deeper understanding about how it connects to what’s going on in the Old Testament.

And as I slowly walked down that path over these years, God continues to revealed to me a greater depth of His enduring grace and eternal love. And besides, you know, for Jesus, it wasn’t the old Testament. It was the only testament. And now for Advent, this year, we’ve been joining together in some daily devotionals, beautifully written by some members of our congregation.

And these devotionals were designed to take us on a journey as we prepared our lives for the Christ Child to be born. So I thought it would be fun this morning to take you on a journey to see how Isaiah arrives at this message of salvation in his day and how it’s connected to the message that Christ wants us to deliver in our day.

Now, it’s no secret that ancient Israel constantly found itself in a world of turmoil. And as we read the Bible, a story unfolds before us about a people who have been chosen by the most high God formed into a holy nation and who wrestled with what it meant to be in God’s presence. To hear His voice. To know His ways.

And all the while desiring the ways of the nations that surround them. This is what leads to Israel’s demand for a king. Those lovely little books of first and second kings that we can’t get through because we can’t read half the names and all the twists and turns in the plot would rival even the greatest season of Game of Thrones.

On the one hand, we read their story and it all seems just a bit too obvious. How don’t they get it? How can they not see what is right in front of their face? How do they not understand that their failure to listen to God and to follow Him above all others will have ripple effects not only in their time but across the generations.

On the other hand, we read their story convicted because we know exactly what it is like to love the Lord, your God, for he alone is one. While at the same time turning to pursue everything else with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, it can be hard to see it in the moment. That cognitive dissonance where how we act doesn’t line up with what we believe.

Those moments when what is filling our heads and our hearts is not filling our souls. And we wander around going through the motions, trying to be good people and stay in love with God, but all the while wondering if God is still with us. And one day we look back and we start to wonder if he was ever really with us at all.

See, Chapter 52 of Isaiah falls into that section of prophetic history that takes place during the tail end of the Babylonian exile during Israel’s roller coaster ride of mostly bad kings, with a few good ones sprinkled in the southern nation of Judah, eventually gets overtaken by Babylon and forced to live in exile. You perhaps know the stories in the Book of Daniel.

Some of the more familiar events during those times, right? Daniel was one of the prophets who went with the people into exile and remained faithful to the God of Israel, even through a stay in the lion’s den and watching his friends get thrown into the fiery furnace. But during this time, the people as a whole, they wrestled deeply, deeply with the reality that those who belong to the God most high, the God who commands angels, armies and is supposed to be all knowing and ever present, has just let something so egregious happen to his people.

See, there was a common belief in the cultures of this day that the gods were original and that the God of your city, your town, your nation, they didn’t have any power or authority outside of that geographical boundary. But the perplexing thing is, is that the God of Israel constantly showed himself to be a more powerful God than the surrounding nations.

He liberates as people from slavery in Egypt, and he brings them in to the land of promise. But your entire nation being overthrown and put into exile for 70 years really starts to suggest that your God isn’t as powerful as you once thought. And we have to admit that on a practical level, this would make even the most dedicated church goers among us take a step back and say, you know, perhaps it already has.

In June of 2022, the fine people over at Gallup came out with another one of those polls that they’re always doing, and they found out that now only 81% of Americans believe that God exists. I say only 81%. Still a good majority, but it’s the lowest percentage ever recorded since they started doing this survey in 1944. But what I found far more familiar or far more interesting, I guess I should say, is that they did a follow up question to those 81% who said that they believed in the existence of God.

They asked them if they believe that God hears prayers and can intervene on someone’s behalf. Only 42% believed that that was possible. So not even half of the people who believe God exists believe that God is able to hear our prayers and intervene. In fact, 28% that said that they believe that God, here’s our prayers, but that he is not able to respond.

And 11% said that God doesn’t either. He neither hears our prayers nor is able to intervene in our lives. And again, that’s out of people who believe that he exists. We’re not talking about an atheist or agnostics here. And so, sadly, but honestly, if we’re talking about the country today as a whole, you may not be surprised by those numbers all that much.

And it’s certainly nothing new. But there seems to be an increasing number of people today who get their understanding of who God is, what that means for their life from the culture rather than the church. Here’s what I mean. I was listening to a podcast, the other day, and I’m not going to tell you who it was because most of you, some of you might recognize one or both of those names.

And that’s not what I’m trying to do here. It wasn’t pastors or church leaders or anything like that trying to talk about, you know, theology and the church and all. It was just to, you know, kind of somewhat famous people shooting the breeze, talking about the random stuff of life. And I’m going to summarize here. I’m not quoting, but this is what I understood, one of the men to be saying throughout the conversation.

He said that as an adult, he had felt this tug to a more spiritual awareness of things. And he even described this rhythm of his life. Now, where he prays to God, he asks God for help, dealing with some of the struggles in his life, some of the stuff we all go through. But he went on to say that he was looking around at all the religious options available to us.

Today he lands on Christianity, not necessarily because he believed it to be true above all others. That wasn’t the reason he gave, but because that’s what he grew up around and that’s what he feels most comfortable with. And while there were moments throughout the conversation very much tied to the God of the Bible. He also used language as, you know, God as a higher power.

That’s one of those statements. That’s true one way, but not the other or the God of Abraham. Isaac and Jacob is indeed the highest power in authority in this entire universe. But it is not the same thing as saying that this God can be whatever higher power works for you. You know, just going to pick whatever meditation and relaxation and good vibes, all that energy, which whatever works for you and you know, so you can be the best version of yourself that you can be.

And we’ll just call that God and we’ll be good with that and we can all get on with our lives. Well, you’re right about one thing that indeed has become your God, but it is not the God of the Bible. The God who created the whole world and holds it in the palm of his hands. The God who formed you in the womb and knows the number of hairs on your head and who loved you before you were even born.

And again, I just I just want to clarify, like, I’m not picking on these people in this podcast. I’m actually genuinely encouraged that unprompted and without fear of what people might think that they would publicly talk freely and deeply about their understanding of God and how he is at work in their life. I think it’s something that we’ve been moving away from in recent years that we desperately need to recover.

I remember in my own life when I started to take the faith seriously, was eager and excited to get into the Bible and just kind of learn some stuff. I had my eyes open for all these platitudes that people say about God. I wasn’t skeptical, but I couldn’t wait to come across them in the texts and discover them more deeply, learn about them more deeply.

But they were either nowhere to be found or they were what we like to call half truths. Something like the conversation I just described. But even more compelling was what happened when I came across what I considered to be the platitudes of the church, and I only realized how many of them were actually true. But I also realized that I had never really considered how these truths are supposed to inform my life.

We believe God is everywhere, sees everything and knows everything and is all powerful. But then we try to live lives in secret, telling ourselves that our private sin isn’t hurting anyone because nobody knows about it. We know God to be all loving. But then sometimes we think about him like the divine dictator of a celestial North Korea. We know God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

But then we blame God every time the tiniest of bad things happen, and we fail to praise Him for even the biggest of blessings. And sometimes we are at church because Christianity is just more familiar than anything else. When in reality we live lives that chase after good vibes and well-wishes rather than ones convinced about the power of prayer.

And again, hear me say that that while this dissonance between what we believe and how we live breaks my heart, I am also deeply encouraged when we are willing to come together and begin learning how to put a voice to what God is doing in our lives. I think God honors these conversations no matter what our theological language is, even when we’re struggling to see God in our lives.

When we began to talk about that with others, we began to see God more clearly. There is so much joy that springs forth from our lives. When we get over our fears about how messy all that might be, and we start to live out the faith that believes that the Messiah came to turn our mess into a masterpiece.

And we realize that that’s how we actually get the books of First and Second Chronicles and our Bible, the people, the priests, they’re they’re recollecting, they’re trying to make sense of everything that’s happened during Israel’s history that led to all these years of exile. Where did we miss it? Like, where did we wonder away from the face and start to follow after our own ideas of a higher power rather than the God most high?

And it’s at the end of Second Chronicles that we see King Cyrus of Persia, the new powerhouse in the East, not the Southern Eastern Conference, but that’s he issues a decree. I got everybody with that. Whenever I looked up, Cyrus issued a decree to the Jews to return home if they should be allowed to go if they want to do so.

And the reason was so that they can get about the business of rebuilding the temple, restoring the nation’s assurance that God is with them and had not forgotten them or abandoned them. And even though all this hasn’t happened quite yet, Isaiah 52 is envisioning a time when the temple will be restored. The walls of the city will be rebuilt and the watchmen will once again be at their post, ready to signal the victorious return of the king.

And he says, How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, and who says To Zion, Your God reigns for the Lord. His beard, his holy arm before the eyes of the nation and all the earth shall see the salvation of our God. And while these verses bring great joy and comfort to my soul, they get me fired up to persevere through my own trials and doubt because I know that God is coming back mighty in victory.

I’m not sure how they alleviate the tensions created by the cultural understandings of our Creator. Think about it with me. Like why would a God who is not bound by time or space, who has no equal need his people to return to a central location? Why would the people’s return to their homeland be such a crucial piece of their ability to worship God and experience the full measure of His presence?

Didn’t Daniel prove that God went with him even in the exile and that he cared for them, didn’t Esther prove that even when his name is not mentioned in the story, that God is still at work among His people for such a time as this? And I think the tension remains because it’s another one of those half truths that stops short of the whole hearted love that God has for his creation.

God is sovereign, and he does not need to confine himself to our finite ways to accomplish his purpose. Yet his glory always manifests itself, most evidently through his people. During this time in salvation history, Jerusalem is where God has set his holy dwelling place, where He declared that his presence should rest among his people. It was where God’s name was to be praised as a light to the nations.

But even then, the most magnificent manifestation of God’s presence there was to usher in a new era of God with us. He comes down and is born to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. And God did it so that every tribe, tongue and nation may be able to call upon His name for salvation.

But if that’s what we just said he was already doing through Israel, then how is this new revelation of God with us any different? Well, the difference is that in Christ, we no longer have to be held captive to the confusion feeling lost and hopeless, wondering if God is able or willing to be involved in our lives through the birth of His son.

We have the assurance that a living God who was who is and who will be does not tire of breaking in to wherever we are and using whatever is going on around us to lavish his saving grace upon us. If you’re with me, say amen. Okay. We’ll keep going until you’re all here this morning. The difference is that because of what God has done through Christ, you and I are now the place where His glory resides among his people.

Come on, Church remade in Christ likeness. Our lives are meant to be the city shining on the hill, shining the brightness of God’s hope and peace and love to the ends of the earth. And so I find it fascinating. Don’t you think that the manifestation of God’s presence always comes with a messenger? Kind of seems like a transformed life would be enough to prove the point.

No. When the people felt unsure about the presence of the power of God more than ever before, Isaiah told them to listen. You’re a sentinels. You’re watchman. You’re messengers. They lift up their voices together. They sing for joy, for in plain sight. They see the return of the Lord to Zion. And to make straight the path for Christ to come.

God sent John as a messenger, crying out in the wilderness because Gabriel, God’s messenger Angel, told Mary that she shall bear a son who will be great among the nations and will be called the son of the most high God. It’s why that good old Charles Wesley Hymn became an instant Christmas classic. Hark the Herald Angels sing for to update the language for you.

Listen the messenger angels sing and the words that God placed upon their hearts and on their lips was the message of the Gospel. Glory be to the newborn king. Peace on earth, mercy, mild. God and sinners reconciled. Joyful All ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies and with the angelic host proclaim Christ is born in Bethlehem.

The glory of God’s presence always comes with a messenger, with shouts of joy and praise. And so might I suggest to you on this the celebration of our Savior’s birth that the Gospel has come to you because it is headed to someone else. Don’t stop having the conversation about what it all means, how God is at work in your life, and how He continues to give you comfort and joy.

Because you and I are not only designed to be the new dwelling places of God’s glory, we are the new messengers meant to deliver the good news. Let’s pray. Gracious God, we have journeyed with you to Bethlehem’s stable, desiring to see the Christ child. Thank you for bringing us to the house of Bread, where all who kneel and hold out their hand are filled until their cups overflow.

Help us to see ourselves as we really are and remove from each one of us all that is unworthy so that we might fully know the joy of your saving love. We are thankful that as we approach this journey’s end, that you offer a new beginning and that you constantly open to us the ways we are to prepare.

May your life motivate our care for those in this city and unto the world and to all the nations. Hear the message that Christ their Savior has come. Amen.