Most of us identify the Christmas season with traditional decorations, a sparkling tree with colored lights, and mounds of gaily wrapped gifts beneath its branches.
Little Johnny and Suzy stand mesmerized before the tree. "Don't forget the Christmas candy!" someone shouted from the kitchen. "And the wrapping paper - did we forget it? Don't forget the extra lights for the tree!"
Johnny walked over to a table near the tree where a Nativity scene had been placed. He looked wistfully at Mary, Joseph, and the Baby in the manger. Shepherds knelt before the infant Jesus, and animals, appearing to be awe-struck, gazed toward the manger. Remembering the story of the Bethlehem inn, Johnny turned toward his younger sister Suzy and, pointing toward the manger, said simply, "Don't forget!"
Indeed, we must not forget that the true wonder and magic of Christmas lies in God planning to send His Son to earth before He made this world and placed human beings upon it. Because He is an all-knowing God, He knew the human race would sin and would need a Savior. The birth of Christ was not God's great "surprise event" in history. Rather it was carefully, lovingly planned before the beginning of the world.
At special times in history, God pulled back heaven's curtain and allowed the promised light of this anticipated, glorious event to shine into the darkness of this sin-cursed world.
We shall take a tour of history past, before recorded history, and try to follow these "shafts of light" until they come to rest on a manger in Bethlehem. Come with me first to:
I. The Garden of Eden (Genesis 3)
We focus not on Eden in its state of created perfection, but as a damaged environment where God Himself conducted the first court in history. Adam and Eve had sinned, and God had judged them. Then God spoke to Satan, who had manifested himself to Eve in the form of a beautiful, seductive creature. Satan had been deceptively reasonable and rational in his conversation with Eve.
After listening to God's withering words of condemnation, that strikingly handsome serpent suddenly shrank to become a writhing snake on the ground. As it slithered away in the brush, it heard words from God that were at once horrifying to Satan and gloriously wonderful to us:
"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15 NIV).
Revealed in that verse, in one of the most awesome moments in time and eternity, we have the first promise of this "long-expected Jesus." God expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise and closed its gates. He walked away from Eden, but not before He had shined into that first darkness of sin and rebellion this glorious promise of a coming Savior.
The centuries roll by, and suddenly we find ourselves in:
II. The land of Moriah (Genesis 22)
Moriah was one of the high plateaus in the ancient land of Canaan. Today on its summit is a city with a rich and glorious history - Jerusalem. But the event we are reviewing took place long before any wall, palaces or temples were built.
In every direction there is barren desert and limestone hills, the tawny color of a lion's fur. The winds from the Mediterranean whip the sand into whirling, miniature tornados. We see two lonely figures climbing to the highest level of Moriah. At the hilltop is a stone ledge, surrounded by bramble bushes. An old man, his face ashen with sadness, walks beside a young man.
Hesitantly, the young man speaks: "Father? . . . The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (7)
The older man replied quietly, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." (8)
We watch as the older man prepares the altar and carefully arranges the wood on it. Then he takes his son, binds him with cords, and gently lifts him up and places him on the altar. He takes a dagger from its sheath at his side, holds it aloft, and prepares to plunge its death-dealing blade into the young boy's body.
Then we hear a voice thundering, seeming to come from every direction at once: "Abraham! Abraham! . . . Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." (11-12)
From behind Abraham comes a soft, bleating sound. A ram is caught in the bramble bush. Abraham takes the animal and offers it as a sacrifice on the altar in the place of his son.
In that unforgettable object lesson involving his only son, Isaac, Abraham learned that God was going to provide the Savior whose sinless life would be offered for the sins of the world.
Now it's time to move again. We travel several more centuries through time and find ourselves in:
III. The Kingdom of Judah (Isaiah 9:2, 6; 53:9-10)
The time is six centuries before the birth of Christ. The voice of a powerful preacher electrifies the people in the Kingdom of Judah. We could call him "the Old Testament Billy Graham," for his name was a household word in his day. The prophet Isaiah stood before kings and princes and commanded their attention. He also mingled with peasants and spoke their language.
No Old Testament prophet had more to say about the coming Messiah than Isaiah. Because of his humanity and limited understanding, he had little idea of whom he spoke. His words possessed historic and prophetic significance. He spoke of historic events that were happening in his day. His words also pointed ahead to the prophetic climax and culmination of every Old Testament sacrifice that was ever offered to God!
Today, we can look back and read Isaiah's thrilling words and know that they describe our Lord and Savior. One day he stood before King Ahaz and said:
"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:2, 6).
Fire flashed from his eyes and the people felt a strange stirring in their souls. They languished in despair and hopelessness. They were reaping the consequences of their sin and pride, and the outlook was dark and foreboding.
But Isaiah wasn't finished. Again God took control of the prophet's mind and voice, and he confronted the people with the familiar words recorded in Isaiah 53:1-7.
"But how could this be?" Isaiah may have thought to himself. "Could such a man as this be God's Messiah? How could a suffering, rejected person like this ever rise to save His people, and to restore His kingdom?"
But then, as if he had not already said enough, Isaiah felt the burden of inspiration again (53:9-10).
And the people probably said, "Isaiah has taken leave of his senses! That's not the kind of Messiah we need. That's no Messiah at all! He is a failure. He could never lead us to victory over our enemies."
But Isaiah was right on target. For thus "the long-expected Jesus" came and brought light to shine in the hopeless darkness of the world.
The forces of darkness have tried since the Garden of Eden to put out the light of hope that finally broke through in Bethlehem, but they have failed. And they shall continue to fail until that day when "the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever" (Revelation 11:15).
The story behind the song
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, the carol used to introduce the theme of this sermon, was written by Charles Wesley. Born in England, he and his brother John came to America to help James Oglethorpe establish Georgia, the last of the 13 English colonies. On board the ship from England, the Wesley brothers met 26 German Moravians. They were impressed by the hymn singing of these German Christians and realized for the first time that hymn singing could be a spiritual experience. (Source: World Book™ © 2000 World Book, Inc., Chicago, IL)
Charles wrote more than 6,500 hymns, many of which are sung today in Christian worship. Two beloved Christmas carols are among them: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. Charles was an evangelistic preacher and wrote about 480 of the 525 hymns in the Collection of Hymns (1780), a Methodist hymnal. (Source: GLIMPSES, Christian History Institute, Issue #29).
A verse from the song
Had John the Baptist lived in our day, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus could well have been his favorite hymn. Charles Wesley's words echo both the yearning and the glorious proclamation of John:
"Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free.
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart."
God works in hearts, not places
God wants to manifest His power and His glory not just in churches, but anywhere hearts are receptive to receive Him.
- When Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, was filled with the Holy Spirit, it happened in her house (Luke 1:40-41).
- When her husband Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, it happened again in their house (Luke 1:67).
- The Holy Spirit could have chosen to do His work in the temple, but He did not. When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, it was not at the temple, but in a river (Luke 3:21-22).
- In Acts the Holy Spirit's power was not restricted to private meetings of believers. He often worked publicly in human hearts for anyone to see.
Additional sermon starters
Bethlehem - the backwoods legacy (Micah 5:2)
Micah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, proclaimed a coming Messiah who would not be born in the royal halls of a king's palace in Jerusalem, but in the nondescript, backwoods village of Bethlehem - a poor, wheat-farming suburb of Jerusalem, a bedroom community to that great Holy City on Mount Zion! He who "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped" (Philippians 2:6) came to identify with people at the lowest level of society.
The messenger of the covenant (Malachi 3:1-3)
The famous prophecy of John the Baptist's ministry describes the specific mission God would give to John. He would "prepare the way" for the Lord who would come "suddenly to his temple." This phrase could refer to all of the appearances of Jesus in the temple.
He was presented in the Temple as an infant (Luke 2:21-24);
He conducted an extensive teaching ministry in the Temple courts; and
He ejected the moneychangers from defiling the Temple grounds.
Application ideas for life stages or situations
Expectant Mothers. Even though a woman experiences pain in childbirth as a result of God's judgment upon Eve, she also becomes a partner with God in the creation of a new, physical life. Then she and the child's father can become partners in introducing new, spiritual life to their children as they introduce them to the Lord Jesus who desires to become their Savior.
Students Exploring God's Call. Isaac was submissive to his father, Abraham, even to the point of his willingness to sacrifice his life. When a young person senses God's call to serve Him in some unique ministry, sacrificing personal preferences and choices may be involved.
Creative worship idea
A Drama Sketch. A dramatic presentation of the title carol, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, could serve as an effective sermon introduction. Using material from the two illustrations above, a male vocalist, dressed in period clothing and representing Charles Wesley, could come on stage, read Isaiah 9:2, 6, and, using a piece of weathered music manuscript paper, sing the carol.