How to prepare for Christmas
There are 17 days to go to Christmas. And there seems to be so much more to do.
We have only just begun to think about Christmas cards; we still don't know what to buy the children; there is not a hint of decoration in the house - although we do have a trussed up Christmas tree outside the back door. It is mad.
How did God prepare us for Christmas?
How did God prepare people for the fact that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who had always been with God, who was equal to God, was - in love - going to empty himself of all his rights and status and power and become a human baby - in utter dependence on God - in order to restore the broken relationship that existed between human beings and God?
It was very simple. God spoke. He told them it was going to happen.
He spoke, as we remember in lighting our second candle today, through the prophets.
Just to take a few:
Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV) For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
Isaiah 11:1-5 (NIV) A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him ... and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. .. with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. .. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
Jeremiah 23:5-6 (NIV) "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteous Saviour"
Micah 5:2 "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."
Or there is the passage that Luke quotes from Isaiah which we read today (Luke 3:4-6).
God was speaking though Isaiah to the people of Israel when they were slaves in a foreign land, in Babylon. Because they had rejected God, they had suffered defeat followed by exile. They were captives, they were crushed and they were powerless.
Isaiah is the voice of the one calling in the wilderness. He is declaring the word of God. He is telling the people of Israel that God is going to bring comfort to his people; that he has forgiven them and that he will rescue them. He will bring them out from Babylon and return them back to the promised land. And Isaiah is saying to God's people, "Believe what God is saying. Get ready for God to come among us and do his work". That is how they can make 'straight paths' for him.
And now, 600 years later, another prophet comes along. His name is John. And Luke realises that he is exactly like Isaiah. He's the voice of one calling in the wilderness. And he is telling people to get ready for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And John tells us how we can get ready, how we can make 'straight paths' for him. His message is not particularly original - but then we are quite stupid and need to be told the same message over and over again. His message is not complicated: 'Repent. Stop trusting in yourself. Believe what God is saying. Get ready for God to come among us and do his work".
So that is how God prepares for the coming of the eternal Son of God into human history to be our Saviour. He spoke. He tells us it is going to happen.
And how should we prepare for the coming of Jesus?
John tells us that we need to repent. John proclaims "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins".
Now we usually think of repentance as saying sorry for the wrong stuff that we do. And that certainly is included in this - we'll see that when we look at the next few verses here next week.
But I think that there is something specific that John is urging people to repent of here.
The point is that God has spoken. He spoke through the prophets - like Isaiah. He has told us of the Messiah, God's deliverer, who will come and establish God's kingdom on earth.
And yet the people have forgotten. They have lived as if God does not exist. They have lived as if God would not act. They have turned their back on the word of God.
It is fascinating that Luke begins this passage with the list of the current political rulers. He then goes to speak of the high priests. It is what we would expect. After all these are the people who really matter. They are the ones who have the political power, who can get things done.
It is very easy for us to think that it is all about the people who are in Westminster or Washington or Beijing. It is very easy for us to build up men or women into human messiahs who we think will somehow be able to deliver us - we're not quite sure from what!
We see it happening all the time. People being built up: the great hope was Blair, Obama, Cameron. We put our trust in them - and then, when we discover what we really knew all along, that they are human beings just like us - we tear them down. I see it already happening a little in the Church with our Archbishop-elect. People say, "He'll be able to sort the current mess out, and to bring revival to the church". Give him a break; he is just a human being who almost certainly did not want this!
But, Luke continues, and this is fascinating: While they - the important people - were doing their stuff, 'the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness' (Luke 3:2)
Do you see what Luke is trying to say?
It is not about powerful political or religious leaders. It is about what God has said.
For Luke, the phrase 'the word of God' is incredibly important. He uses it in his 2 volumes (Luke and Acts) about 18 times. Jesus preaches the word of God (Luke 5:1); the seed sown is the word of God (Luke 8:11); he pronounces that those who hear the word of God and obey it are blessed (Luke 11:28); the disciples speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31); the 12 apostles choose to give priority to preaching the word of God (Acts 6:2). In Acts 8:14, the Samaritans accept the word of God; in 11:1 the Gentiles receive the word of God. And we are told that the word of God spread (Acts 6:7). Acts speaks as much of numerical church growth as of the growth of the word of God.
And I would like to quote a longer passage, because it is significant for what we are looking at: In Acts 12, Herod - one of the powerful people - is acclaimed by the people. They declare that when he speaks 'This is the voice of a god, not of a mere mortal'. And then we are told, "Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of The Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to increase and spread." (Acts 12:22-24)
Do you see? Political and religious leaders on one side; the word of God on the other side. Power and status and influence on one side; the word of God on the other.
[What is John coming to do?
He is coming to remind people that God has spoken.
Luke really wants us to get this.
He records for us the words of Zechariah, John the Baptist's father, when he speaks out a hymn of praise. Zechariah says 'Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel .. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago)'. He continues, 'to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham'. And he concludes by speaking about John the Baptist, his own boy, 'And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High'. (Luke 1:68-79)
And by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Luke again is emphasising that what we are talking about here is the word of God that was spoken through the prophets and is now being spoken by John.]
And the call to repent is nothing less than the call to us to stop putting our ultimate trust in the things of this world, but to put our trust in God who has spoken through his word.
Yes, it involves getting rid of the rubbish and living a good life; but that can only happen when we trust what God has said. It is about becoming people who are controlled, directed, comforted, challenged, motivated, driven by the word of God.
That is true faith; that is saving faith.
Whose voice is most important for you? Is it what you feel? Is it what your friends or family say? Is it what political and religious leaders say?
We listen to many voices. There is the voice of the TV, of the papers or magazines we read or the films we watch; there is the voice of youtube or the radio or the songs we listen to, the many voices on facebook, and all the tweeting on twitter. And what we put in, what goes into our head through our ears and our eyes, will shape our mind - what we think and how we live.
I'm not saying 'Don't listen to any of that stuff'. We live in this world.
What I am saying is that we need to repent because we have gagged God. We have silenced him. We come to church for an hour or so on Sunday; for many of us it is the only time we have an opportunity to listen to the bible. We may sit through a sermon for 12 or 15 minutes: and that is the God-input we get for a week. It is nothing.
God has spoken and we have jammed either cotton wool or our iPod speakers in our ears.
John demands, in the middle of all the busy-ness, that we say sorry to God because we give far more weight - in terms of time and priority - to what the world says rather than what he says.
And true repentance involves a decision to change the way we live.
So I urge you to resolve to put aside time each day to read the bible and to pray.
It really is astonishing the difference that it can make.
You will get up in the morning, or you will come to that time in the day when you plan to put aside time for God, and you will suddenly think of 73 more important things to do. That is the devil speaking, and it is a lie. When we do take time to put God first, to listen to him, it is amazing how other things seem to slot into their rightful place. Some of the most busy people are people who make prayer a priority. The busier they are, the more they pray. For me personally it was when I started to the read the bible systematically and seriously that my experience of God came alive, and that I discovered him working in me and through me.
There are so many different things that can help us in our listening to the word of God: Anglican morning prayer; Bible reading notes; Commentaries. What I am commending at the moment is WordLive, a brilliant online resource, produced by Scripture Union, which can help people engage with the bible and listen to the word of God (I was really encouraged when I met someone last week who said that she had been so excited to discover WordLive and that it had already made a big difference to her).
And I do urge you, in the new year, if you are not in one of our midweek small groups - when we come together to learn from the bible, listen to God, and support each other in our Christian faith - that you consider joining a group. Edward and Elizabeth are starting a new group, or there are several others which you could join.
God's people are to be people who are fundamentally known as people of the word.
And I long that you and I would be people of the word - not just listening to it on Sundays, but daily. I long to see small groups of people meeting together to read the bible and to help one another listen to the word of God. You all read the same passage. And when you come together, one of you says, "I've read this passage and I think I'm God". The others can - very gently - question you a bit and ask, "Is that really what it is saying? We didn't get that from this."
I've had the great joy recently of an Introducing Jesus course which didn't work! By that I mean that only one person turned up. But it's been wonderful - meeting with him on 2 or 3 occasions and going through the Bible together. And he wants to do it. He has a hunger for the word of God. Probably, of all the things that I do, it is the one that brings me most joy. Several of you have had the privilege of doing this sort of thing already: meeting with a friend and saying, 'Let's read the bible together and consider: 'What is the word of God saying?'
I've just been reading an article by a Christian leader who said the most significant thing for his growth as a disciple and follower of Jesus Christ was the fact that his pastor met with him every week for 4 years, and they read the bible together, discussed it and then prayed.
And I would encourage you. It is a very easy thing to do - but it takes a bit of courage to begin doing it.
Some of you should be taking the initiative and looking for someone who you could read the bible with. Pray that God will show you who that person can be. Don't wait for me to put you in touch with someone, because it won't happen. If you are getting to know someone, offer to spend regular time with them, reading the bible together, learning together.
And some of you really should be seeking to grow in your faith; and you should be taking the initiative and finding someone who can read with you. Go to someone you trust; ask them - or ask Matt or myself to find someone for you.
We need to prepare to meet with Jesus.
He came, as the word of God spoken by the prophets and John the Baptist said he would. He was born that first Christmas. And, as the word of God says, he is coming again.
And we need to hear the call to repent; we need to say a serious sorry because we give so much more weight to the voices out there, rather than to the word of God. And we need to choose to spend time listening to the word, and then living our lives according to the word.
And please do not say that you are too busy to begin today. That is what the other voices are saying, and they are literally demonic. So I am going to challenge myself and every person in this building to - as an absolute minimum - put aside 15 minutes each day, between now and Christmas, to stop, sit down quietly, to read a passage of the bible, to think about what you have read and to spend a few minutes in prayer - even if it is just slowly praying through the Lord's Prayer.
You have a choice to make. Are you going to be simply a person of the world - who only listens to the Pilate's, Herod's or Philip's of this world? Or are you going to be a man or woman of God who listens to the word of God?