A Good Story

The season of Advent is finally here! For the next month followers of Jesus around the world will be setting aside some time to give special attention to preparing for the arrival of Jesus. Our celebration is not simply for His birth, though, but for His return when He will make all things new. With that in mind, I want to help you get ready for the arrival of Jesus into your lives. Each Monday will bring a new sermon exploring the story of His arrival through a different lens. Each other week day will bring a new reflection on the Advent season that I hope will set your season in the right terms. Blessings to you as you preparing for the coming King!

A Good Story

That was a moment right there, wasn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but that song is one of my favorites.  There is power in this proclamation, “it is well!”  There is strength in being able to declare that though sin or storm or suffering may loom dauntingly large in front of us, nonetheless, “it is well with my soul.”  Maybe you are in a season when that declaration is little more than a faint whisper, but nonetheless, to stand…perhaps to sit…maybe even to simply fall to your knees and with even a mustard seed-sized faith in the God who alone has the power to push back the darkness and, with defiance in your spirit, breath out, “it is well with my soul,” can have the effect of throwing on a floodlight in a dark room. 

But, do you know the circumstances out of which that song was born?  Dana shared them with us a few weeks ago.  The author was Horatio Spafford.  Spafford and his wife had four daughters, one son, and were active in Dwight Moody’s evangelism efforts in Chicago.  Spafford himself was a successful Chicago lawyer who had invested heavily in some real estate holdings in the city.  They were living in one of those moments when it looks like you have everything together just before the wheels fall off and the engine drops out, leaving you sailing down the highway on skids, control having been completely given over to chaos.  Sometime in 1872, the Spafford’s only son died in infancy, likely of scarlet fever.  On October 8 of that same year, Mrs. O’Leary’s infamous cow kicked over the lantern in her barn and set the city ablaze.  Two days later the fires had consumed most of the city including a great deal of Spafford’s investments.  He was financially ruined. 

Two years later, after investing much of themselves in helping the city recover from the fire, the family decided to take some time off in Europe to recuperate together.  Some business dealings delayed the start of his own part of the trip, but Spafford sent his wife and four daughters ahead on the Ville du Havre.  On the journey over, the French ocean liner collided with a Scottish ironside vessel and sank in a matter of minutes.  While his wife, Anna, survived, all four girls drowned.  In an instant, he understood the anguish of Job.  Still, though, it was just a few days later, when Spafford himself was hurrying across the Atlantic to be with his wife so they could grieve together, that the captain of his ship told him they were in the same waters where his children had perished.  As he looked out into the abyss that had claimed his family, Spafford made his declaration: Even so, it is well with my soul.  The song flowed out from there. 

Doesn’t that make the song even more powerful?  If Spafford could declare that it was well with his soul after the two years he had faced, can’t you do the same no matter what the current shape of your circumstances?  We could say, “Amen,” and just go on home now, couldn’t we?  That’s not really what I wanted to talk with you about this morning, though.

This morning we are entering one of the most exciting seasons of the year.  Do you know what it is?  If you said, “the Christmas season,” you are exactly…wrong.  According to the traditional church calendar, the Christmas season doesn’t actually start until December 25th.  What we kick off this morning is the season of Advent.  An advent is a coming or an arrival.  Perhaps some of you were eagerly awaiting the advent of Disney+ last month.  I know was a pretty stoked for it…mostly for all the new Marvel shows they have planned for the next couple of years.  That’s just the geek in me, though, so you’ll have to excuse that.  For our purposes, the season of Advent is the time when we anticipate the coming or the arrival of…Jesus.  For the next few weeks, churches all over the world will be telling and retelling the story of Jesus.

We’re going to join them.  Over the next few weeks, in a new series simply called The Christmas Story (and, no, it is not inspired by the awful movie that happens to bear the same title), we’re going to dive right into the heart of the story of Jesus’ birth so that we can be as ready for His coming as possible.  We’re going to dive, not just into the story itself, but into the characters who were a part of it.  We’re going to try and get into their hearts and minds in a way I hope will be pretty memorable for you. 

Before we get there, though, I want to take this morning and dig a bit into just where the story came from.  Like with the story of the great hymn, It Is Well with My Soul, understanding this has the potential to give a lot more punch to the power that’s already there.  How did we get the Christmas story?  The answer to that question takes us back a bit further in the Scriptures than you might expect.  It takes us into some territory that you probably don’t tread very often. 

Let me take us into it like this.  In Galatians 4:4, the apostle Paul wrote this: “When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem, those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons [and daughters].”  When it came time for God the Son to fully enter the human experience in order to set in motion His magnum opus, He didn’t come too early or too late.  He came at just the right moment. 

But, just because He came at exactly the right moment in history to have the impact God planned for Him to have doesn’t mean those plans were thrown together at the last minute.  No, our faithful God had been laying these plans in place for a long, long time.  What’s more, these weren’t secret plans either.  As a matter of fact, as inscrutable as God’s will sometimes seems to us in the day-to-day grind of life, when it comes to His plans for humanity on the grand scale, He has never been much of one for springing things on us at the last minute.  Just consider this from the prophet Amos: “Indeed, the Lord God does nothing without revealing his counsel to his servants the prophets.”   

Listen, with the context of that verse fully in mind, if God doesn’t do anything without revealing it to the prophets ahead of time, surely the execution of His plans to make possible the reconciliation of the whole world fits into the category of “anything.”  This was the biggest thing God had ever done save perhaps the creation of the world itself.  And, true to Amos’ claim, He dropped hints, clues, and outright public broadcasts all throughout the history of Israel.  Most of these clues—just like Amos noted—came from the pens of the prophets.  And the prophet who did this the most was Isaiah. 

Isaiah’s book of prophecy includes several well-known and remarkably specific prophecies about the coming Messiah.  His songs of the suffering servant starting in chapter 52 offer details about the life and death and saving work of Jesus some 700 years before He would walk the earth.  But with the possible exception of those prophecies, the most well-known of Isaiah’s messianic forthtelling is found in chapters 7 and 9.  Some of you likely know these prophecies well.  You might even have them memorized.  Listen to these, first from Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”  Next from Isaiah 9:6: “For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on his shoulders.  He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

These are what I’d like to look at with you this morning.  These are two of the major clues God gave the people to get them ready for what was coming down the road.  I think that if we can understand these just a bit more fully, we will not only be in a better position to appreciate the power of the Christmas story, but also to glean a bit of wisdom on how God may yet operate in our own lives. 

Here’s the thing about the prophecies of Isaiah 7 and 9, though: They didn’t come out of nowhere.  It wasn’t like Isaiah was just sitting around, waiting to hear from God, and suddenly these two ideas came to mind.  Instead, Isaiah was going about his work as a prophet, delivering relevant words from the Lord to the people—and in Isaiah’s case, being related to the royal family in Judah, he had direct access to the king—and these two verses were simply part of the message he was giving.  In other words, each of these prophecies (along with every other prophecy God gave) were given in a specific historical context.  They did not stand alone.  In fact, they were so historically rooted that it is doubtful anyone recognized them for what they were at all.  We can only see them so clearly ourselves thanks to their citation by Matthew and Luke and nearly 3,000 years of hindsight.  The truth is, everything God did for and through His people was done in the context of regular life.  When we understand that, we’ll understand what we read a bit better than before.   

So then, what was going on in Israel when Isaiah said what he did here?  Well, at the beginning of chapter 7, Isaiah tells us that “this took place during the reign of Ahaz, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah king of Judah.”  That, of course, just begs another question: Who was Ahaz?  Ahaz was the 12th king of Judah after the nation was split in two by civil war during the reign of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, the son of David.  Ahaz reigned for 16 years and at a time when the political situation in the region was growing more and more tense by the day.  The kingdoms of Israel and Aram (later Syria) were pressing in ever harder to conquer the nation.  Even more significantly than that, a new regional superpower was rising: Assyria.  The Assyrians were awful.  They struck fear and loathing in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew about them.  If you can imagine yourself in the shoes of a Syrian or Iraqi Christian or Yazidi today, the news that Assyria was coming to town would have been a little like the news that ISIS was coming to town.  The mere threat of the Assyrians was enough to leave the knees quaking of even the bravest of soldiers. 

Well, while his father, grandfather, son, and even eventually his grandson all sought the Lord in the face of external threats and internal pressures, somehow, Ahaz’s apple dropped out of the family tree and rolled down the hill.  As faithful as his ancestors and descendants alike were, Ahaz ran about as far in the opposite direction as he could have gone.  In 2 Chronicles 28, Ezra tells us this: “Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem.  He did not do what was right in the Lord’s sight like his ancestor David, for he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and made cast images of the Baals.  He burned incense in Ben Hinnom Valley and burned his children in the fire, imitating the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had dispossessed before the Israelites.  He sacrificed and burned incense on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree.”  Basically, if it was dishonoring to God, Ahaz did it. 

Eventually, God withdrew the hand of protection He afforded to them when the king and the people with him were staying on track and Judah was attacked and defeated by Israel to the north and Aram even further north than that.  The loss was devastating for the nation.  But did Ahaz turn to the Lord out of this like so many other kings both before and after him?  No, he did not.  From 2 Chronicles 28:22: “At the time of his distress, King Ahaz himself became more unfaithful to the Lord.  He sacrificed to the gods of Damascus which had defeated him; he said, ‘Since the gods of the kings of Aram are helping them, I will sacrifice to them so that they will help me.’” 

Now, we may think to recoil at such brazen unfaithfulness on his part, but his thinking was fully in line with how most folks in his day thought.  All warfare then was spiritual warfare.  Because of this, no nation went to war without the priests securing the permission and blessing of their god for the endeavor.  We see that in Israel’s own history throughout the Old Testament.  And for the defeated people, they generally adopted the worship of the gods of the people who conquered them.  Why?  For the same reason Ahaz did here.  If their gods helped them beat us, then they must be more responsive and powerful gods than ours.  Thus, we should worship those gods instead of ours.  For Ahaz, Yahweh obviously wasn’t as big and bad as the gods of Damascus were, so he switched sides.  As the last part of that verse notes, though, “they were the downfall of him and of all Israel.” 

In the middle of all this mess, when the kings of Israel and Aram had formed an alliance both to defend themselves from the coming onslaught of Assyria (neither stood a chance individually and, as it turns out, they didn’t together either) and to conquer their neighbor to the south, King Ahaz found himself in one of those life-changing moments where the decision you make will determine the direction of much of the rest of your life.  This decision was all wrapped up in how he would respond to the geopolitical challenges facing him.  Right at this moment of decision, the Lord sent Isaiah to him with a challenge in Isaiah 7:4: “Calm down and be quiet.  Don’t be afraid or cowardly because of these two smoldering sticks, the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and the son of Remaliah [of Israel].  For Aram, along with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has plotted harm against you.  They say, ‘Let us go up against Judah, terrorize it, and conquer it for ourselves.  Then we can install Tabeel’s son as king in it.’  This is what the Lord God says: It will not happen; it will not occur.”

So, what is this?  In the face of the onslaught coming from the north, God invites Ahaz to trust in Him.  If he would just trust the Lord, He would keep him and the people safe from the threat of foreign invasion.  That kind of thing would be a major step of faith for the king.  But—as big steps of faith often are—it looked wildly illogical from the outside-in.  He couldn’t see God anywhere.  The situation facing his nation suggested rather insistently that He was absent from the scene anyway.  Why would he trust in some God he couldn’t see when he could see quite well the help that the Assyrians could provide. 

And God understood this.  He knew where Ahaz’s heart was.  He wasn’t clueless.  So He had Isaiah say this: “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God—it can be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.”  Talk about wow, right?!?  This is the thing everybody wants from God, but we never get.  God was offering to basically write, “I am here,” across the heavens.  Whatever Ahaz thought would offer proof of God’s existence and willingness to help, God was willing to do.  Think for a minute about how utterly humiliating this was of God to offer.  Here was the Lord of all creation essentially begging Ahaz for the chance to prove Himself to him.  What kind of a God does that?  One who is humble and good. 

Ahaz essentially has a golden ticket set before him, and what does he say?  No thanks.  Seriously?!?  Who’s dumb enough to do that?  Someone whose heart is fully hardened to the Lord.  But here’s the thing: Ahaz wrapped his arrogant pride in a garb of religiosity.  Look at v. 12: “But Ahaz replied, ‘I will not ask.  I will not test the Lord.’”  In other words, “It’s not right to test the Lord.  His own Law says so.  I wouldn’t dare put Him to the test like that.”  Can you hear the smarmy, self-righteousness of his tone?  It’s almost like he’s staking out the moral high ground and talking down to Isaiah from there.  Yet his response was a twisting of Scripture to suit his own purposes that could have served as the model for how Satan approached Jesus’ own temptation in the wilderness.  While it is indeed wrong to test God, asking Him to prove His love through some ridiculous sign or miracle, God was the one who offered to be tested here.  Ahaz’s self-righteousness was disobedience in pious clothing.  

Look at how God responds through Isaiah in v. 13: “Isaiah said, ‘Listen, house of David!  Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men?  Will you also try the patience of my God?  Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.  By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating curds and honey.  For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.  The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s house such a time as has never been since Ephraim separated from Judah: He will bring the king of Assyria.’”  That is, “Fine, you don’t want to ask for a sign like you’re some faithful law keeper, then I’ll give you a sign myself.  I’ll show up myself.  How does that sound?  You want to turn to the Assyrians for help instead of me?  Fine.  You can have them.  Let me know how that goes for you.” 

Now, we read those words as just another of the many, many prophecies in the book of Isaiah and hardly blink at them.  Yes, we give the thing about a virgin conceiving a little more attention because Matthew, with the Spirit’s prompting, reframed it for us in light of Jesus’ birth, but that’s not how anybody who first heard Isaiah say what he did understood him.  The coming of this child—in context—was not good news.  Did you follow what God said through His prophet?  With a nod to Bill Engvall, God said, “Here’s your sign.”  A child is going to be born and before that child can consciously distinguish between good and evil, he’ll be eating curds and honey.  Now, that sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it?  Except it’s not.  He won’t be eating curds and honey because he wants to, but rather because there won’t be any wheat for bread or livestock for meat.  Why?  Because the land will have been conquered and devastated.  In other words, the birth of this child from a virgin was not a sign of salvation, but of judgment.  The people were deep in sin, and God was going to bring judgment on them because of it.  That is the context this prophecy of Jesus we so cherish comes out of.  Kind of puts things in a new light, doesn’t it? 

But, because our God is always faithful to His promises, and because His character is fully just and love both, judgment is never the end of the game with Him.  Jump down to chapter 9 and listen to this.  “Nevertheless, the gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times when he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali [both of which had already been conquered by the Assyrians].  But in the future he will bring honor to the way of the sea, to the land east of the Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations.”  Either of those last couple of places sound familiar in terms of who operated in those places?  Keep listening in v. 2 now: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness.  You have enlarged the nation and increased its joy.  The people have rejoiced before you as they rejoice at harvest time and as they rejoice when dividing spoils.  For you have shattered their oppressive yoke and the rod on their shoulders, the staff of their oppressor, just as you did on the day of Midian.  For every trampling boot of battle and the bloodied garments of war will be burned as fuel for the fire.  [And here is the part you know.]  For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on his shoulders.  He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.  The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end.  He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever.  The zeal of the Lord of Armies will accomplish this.” 

So a child would be born for judgment, but one would come for redemption as well.  What we understand through the lens of the Gospels is that this is one and the same child.  Isaiah’s audience didn’t understand that.  They couldn’t have understood it.  The promise of restoration was sweet, sure, but it depended on their buying the notion that they really weren’t on the right track.  That realization would fade in and out until they ran out of time and God called a national timeout.  In His mercy, this came at the hands of the Babylonians instead of the Assyrians, but that didn’t make it but so much better. 

While we have all of this going through our minds, we remember that both of these passages are understood by the New Testament writers as prophecies about Jesus.  Given their context, though—and no prophecy can be divorced from its context—what impact should that have on our understanding of Jesus’ coming?  We understand His coming as an act of redemption on God’s part, sure, but judgment?  Judgment indeed, but not as we might first imagine.  What Jesus’ coming did was to draw a line in the sand.  This was the judgment line.  The redemption would be—indeed, is—only for those who are on His side of it.  The rest will be judged.  Here’s the thing, though: Until the time for judgment arrives, anyone can cross to His side at anytime they please.  In fact, He’s standing on the line calling people to cross it.  He’s helping them get over it.  That’s what His death and resurrection were all about.  The coming of the Messiah prophesied here was part of the good story God has been writing ever since He first spoke creation into existence.  Yet the context into which He spoke it wasn’t good. 

It is here that we begin to discover why the Christmas story matters so much.  The situation into which God began writing it was not a good one.  Indeed, the first proclamation that something was brewing came when the dust of the Fall was still settling!  And here in Isaiah, the context of two of the prophecies of Jesus’ birth we love the most was a king who was actively practicing child sacrifice and would reject the God of Israel in favor of pagan gods because he didn’t think God was all that special.  As the brokenness of the Fall just kept unfolding and multiplying, God just kept whispering into the mess, “I’m working on something that’s going to fix all of this.”  He just kept on writing His good story, even when ours wasn’t.  In the story of Jesus’ birth, what we see is the beginning of the fulfillment of the good story God was writing even through those moments when ours wasn’t.  As we talked about last week, God sent Jesus to die for us while we were still sinners. 

And here’s the thing for us: We still serve that same God today.  Jesus has come once.  The virgin conceived and bore a son named Immanuel.  A child has come, a son has been given, and He was indeed Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace.  But the story’s not done yet.  There’s still one more chapter to write.  Our faithful God is still writing it.  And this last chapter is going to be even better than what’s been told so far.  God is writing a good story.  He’s writing it, even when our stories aren’t.  Come on: You know you have days when your story isn’t a good one.  God’s still writing His, though.  He never stops.  It is a story that is good for everyone who cares to be a part of it and that includes you.  God is writing a good story even when ours isn’t. 

The question is: Do you want to be a part of it?  God is writing a good story even when ours isn’t.  That means no matter what your story may look like in a given moment, you can be a part of one that’s better.  Jesus’ story proves it.  Of course, to really understand that, you’ve got to know Jesus’ story.  Come back next week and we’ll start digging into that together.  For now, know this well: God is writing a good story even when yours isn’t.  Make yours a part of His and enjoy the sweet fruits that will come to bear. 

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