• 21 December 2023

The Promise of Christmas 


I wonder what is on your Christmas wish list this year?   

Globally, 2023 has been a difficult year for many. Droughts brought Somalia and Ethiopia to the brink of famine, earthquakes in Turkey and Syria saw 58,000 lose their lives, flooding ravaged large parts of southern Africa, Brazil, Chile, India and Korea, and cyclones and tropical storms battered Bangladesh, Ecuador, Madagascar, Myanmar, Peru, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. At EPW we think naturally of the loss to cancer of our former Chairman, Jeremy Marshall, but you will have your own personal agonies and struggles that spring to mind.  

In such difficult times, what can pastors offer people this Christmas? 

Pastors meet many people who love Christmas. People who love the tree, the tinsel and the time with family and friends, but who are often, sadly, in the dark about the real reason for the celebration.  The Bible says that Christmas is about the greatest gift ever given – God’s one and only son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  

‘And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”’ (Luke 2:10-11) 

Many of the people who pastors meet struggle to see how Christ fits in to Christmas, let alone into their busy daily lives. Yet if they really understood Christmas, they would realise that it is the best news they have ever heard.  

To see why, we need to wind the clock back more than 2,700 years to focus on a familiar passage from an Old Testament prophet – Isaiah 9:1-7.  This is set in northern Israel some 700 years before the birth of Jesus – a tough environment, where we read (v1) that the people were in gloom and anguish and (v2) they were in darkness, deep darkness. The darkness symbolised Israel’s rejection of the God who had saved them and stood by them over the centuries. And the anguish epitomised the people’s plight when Assyria plundered them. Assyria was the regional superpower of the time. Zebulun and Napthali were the places furthest North in Israel and so the first to be invaded by the Assyrian armies, who then carried their people off into exile. Israel is far from home, far from God, in darkness and distress.  

But in these famous words in Isaiah 9, God promises a world we all want, led by a leader we all long for. Pastors, it helps us to grasp these two promises afresh even as we hold them out to others at this time of year. First … 

1) Christmas promises the world we all want 

Isaiah says (v2) that, despite the deep darkness, dawn is about to break. 

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.’ 

Isaiah isn’t being stoical; he’s not saying cheer up, things could be worse. And nor is it just pessimism. No, he is so certain that God will do what he has promised that he is prepared to put it in the past tense. Do you see? Those who are hit first and hit hardest by the Assyrians – those in the lands of Zebulun and Napthali – will be the first to see God’s great light.  

And we read in v3 that that great light will bring great joy. 

‘You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with the joy at harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.’ 

We all long for joy, but true lasting joy often seems so elusive. And yet, true and lasting joy is what the people who see this great light will experience. Isaiah promises that the gloom of v1 gives way to the smiles of v3. The people will rejoice like hard-working farmers as they bring in the harvest, or like battle-worn soldiers as they celebrate a victory. Over the next week or so, many of us will look forward to enjoying some good food and great company. And the joy that this can bring is just a taste of the joy that only God can bring. A great light that brings great joy.  

This is the world we all want, isn’t it? But it will only happen if there is nothing to spoil the joy – no burdens to endure, or power to oppress us as experienced by many pastors EPW seeks to support. The image in v4 is of Israel as a weary ox, burdened by oppressive Assyria, beaten by her rods, burdened and downtrodden. And yet, God promises to intervene dramatically, just as he did hundreds of years before when he defeated the Midianites for Gideon (Judges 7).  God is saying that He will set his people free. He will lift the burden and bring the battle to an end. 

2023 has been another year beset by conflict with 32 countries currently at war. Russia and Ukraine are at war, there are civil wars or terrorist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Colombia and Mali and, most recently Israel and Lebanon are locked in conflict after the brutal Hamas attacks of 7 October. Even where our nations are not at war, there is often talk about whether or not our troops should intervene in conflicts around the world. There is often talk of whether to “put boots on the ground”.  

But v5 imagines a day when boots on the ground will not be possible. Not because a government has refused to commit troops – not because the army has lost a battle with the treasury for more resources, but because all military boots and garments will be burned forever. God promises more than a humanitarian pause or a temporary ceasefire like the one that happened at Christmas 1914 during World War One, when allied and German soldiers began to sing Christmas carols across the trenches on Christmas Eve. And the next day, they left their trenches, walked out into no-man’s land, shook hands, exchanged souvenirs and showed each other photos of their loved ones. There were even reports of a football match. It was a welcome respite in war. But by 8.30pm, the ceasefire was over, and it was business as usual on the Western Front.  

Don’t we all want more than a Christmas ceasefire? Don’t we all want more than a sing-a-long and a game of football? Don’t we all want more at Christmas? Don’t we all want an end to darkness and distress, an end to slavery and war? How about a new year without abuse or injustice, without hatred or hostility on social media or in the streets of our cities?  This is why Christians get so excited about Christmas. Isaiah tells us that God promises the world we all want – from darkness to light, anguish to joy, slavery to freedom and war to peace. It is the promise of nothing less than a perfect world. No wonder God’s people were so joyful. No wonder they were having a party. But how does it happen? Well, that takes us to the second glorious promise … 

2) Christmas promises the leader we all long for 

Anyone who knows Handel’s Messiah will be familiar with Isaiah 9 verses 6 and 7. Here is how this promised perfect world comes about – v6, ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given … ’. The world we all want doesn’t come about by UN diplomacy, it doesn’t come about by the ballot box, it comes about by the birth of a child. In the face of Assyrian bloodshed and brutality in the 7th century BC, in the face of all of the hatred and hostility in the centuries since that time, God promises that one day, a child will be born.  

And although we won’t find his name in Isaiah 9, we sing about him in every carol service. And his name is Jesus.  For 700 years, verses 6 and 7 would have led to some serious head scratching. But that first Christmas Day, everything fell into place as Jesus was born. And when he grew up, Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee, in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali just as Isaiah had predicted. Jesus is the leader we all long for who brings in the world we all want. And if we grasp that truth, we start to see why Jesus is so real and so relevant.  

Jesus is the perfect ruler who brings in God’s perfect world. Notice the names he is given in vv6 and 7 – He is Wonderful Counsellor. He is the wise leader our world needs. He is the wise leader that all of us need in our own lives. But notice he doesn’t just know what to do, he also has the power to do it because he is Mighty God. He has all of the power in the world. And 700 years after Isaiah was writing, as Jesus grows up, he demonstrated awesome authority over sickness and death and evil and everything else with which he comes into contact. Seasoned fishermen looked on in terror as Jesus calmed a storm with a word. Wedding guests looked on in confusion as he turned water into fine wine. A whole village stood speechless as he raised a little girl from death. Do you see? Jesus is Mighty God.  

But notice, he is also the Everlasting Father – he is tender and caring just like a father ought to be. Jesus displays strength without harshness and tenderness without weakness. He models God-like authority with father-like compassion. Jesus is the leader we all long for, the perfect leader we all need. Can you imagine what it would be like to be led by someone like that? And finally, Jesus is Prince of Peace. As we read the first-century gospel accounts of the life of Christ, we see that there was a three-year period when nobody needed to phone the emergency services. Local hospitals would have closed down. All the insurance companies would not have needed to charge premiums. How wonderful it would have been to have the Prince of Peace with us.  

But to bring about the world we all want with peace forever, to do something truly global in scope, for it to be more than just a temporary truce, Jesus had to be more than an example. The life of Christ and the teaching of Christ were not enough. Do you see? Jesus had to deal with the fundamental problem of our world, not just an Assyrian crisis in 7th C BC, not just a war in 1914-1918, not just all the hatred and hostility in our world today. No, Jesus came to deal with the real conflict behind all the other conflicts; the war to end all wars.  

Jesus says that the reason we can’t get on with one another is that we have declared war on our maker. We ignore God, we reject Him and we want nothing to do with Him. He should be at the centre of the world and at the centre of our lives, but we push Him out of the way. That is the Bible’s explanation for all the mess in our world. We fight one another because we will not let God be God.  

And so, the Lord Jesus brings peace to our world by bringing peace between us and God. The baby who began his life in a borrowed crib ends it on a brutal cross. As he does, Jesus rescues his people as he ends the war between God and them, as he brings about a permanent peace.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace. He offers peace this Christmas between us and God. And he promises to return one day and to bring about a world of perfect peace that will last forever. That is the Christmas gift that Isaiah invites us to unwrap this year.  

Pastors, please don’t settle for anything less this Christmas. Don’t just call others to look to the leader we all long for. Let us come to Christ ourselves! Let us turn and trust afresh in the only one who can bring in the world we all want … the world of light, joy, freedom and peace.  

Happy Christmas.