Around about 700 years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah picked up his prophetic binoculars, and throughout his book he fiddles with the focus, sometimes seeing a few years ahead, sometimes focussing on 200 years ahead where he sees the people going into Exile in Babylon, 270 years ahead where he sees them coming back to Israel, and so on...
Sometimes he focusses on things that have yet to happen…perhaps next year, perhaps in 289 years time, perhaps in 1000 years’ time. In the reading I’m about to read he has focussed on 700 years ahead of his own time and he sees, 700 years before it happens, the birth of the Messiah:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
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 Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness 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.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
One can only imagine his excitement as he recorded what he saw.
Now, 2 months ago almost to the day, on 26 October at our Harvest and Thanksgiving service, right here on this rail and carpet, our young ministers, because I believe, with Jesus, that that is what they are…think of the number of times that when Jesus wanted to make a point He would just turn to a child, they were always around Him, and ask the “grown-ups” to become like the children…our young ministers planted nasturtium seeds and using my prophetic binoculars, said that those seeds would teach us up until Christmas and beyond, and they have.
And, almost against some impossible odds (hot, hot weather, hail, and then almost flooded out in what was almost a flash flood two weeks ago)
here they are…all at various stages of growth, some with flowers already, but none of them at their fullest potential yet.
All of this is just like you and me here today…since last Christmas it’s been various mixtures of hot or hell in our lives, flash floods, hail, times of growth, times of wilting, sometimes bearing the beautiful fruit of the Spirit…and sometimes…not! But, here we are, by the grace of God, perhaps even thinking, “Against impossible odds, I’ve survived to another Christmas.”
The message of Christmas is the message of Impossible Odds.
Advent is the time of waiting for Christmas, for the incarnation of God in Christ, for the long-awaited hope of God’s kingdom, and for peace and justice and love and wisdom. But our longing often enough misses the Impossible Odds of what God was doing.
Take Joseph. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he was a righteous man (Matthew 1:19) which means that Joseph new the Law (Torah), Joseph knew the interpretations of the Torah (called sometimes the “traditions” or “rulings”) and he lived the Torah as it was interpreted in the traditions. That way of life gave Joseph a reputation as a “righteous man”.
Then take Mary. Luke’s Gospel tells us that this young woman was profoundly devout — an angel visited her, an angel announced to her she would be the mother of God’s Son, Mary consented to this promise and reality, Mary then sang a song that we looked at this past Sunday which we saw was a revolutionary song of the Jewish hope for God’s kingdom — justice for the poor and holiness for God’s people all rooted in God’s utter faithfulness to the promise to Abraham.
Take Jesus. No, before we get to Jesus, let’s go back. Joseph is visited, too, by an angel and the angel announces to him what he told Mary: Mary would be the mother of the Messiah and that would mean he, Joseph, would be the father of the Messiah. But this is where it gets to Impossible Odds.
One. Joseph chooses to marry a disgraced woman (pregnant before marriage). He knew the Torah well enough and the traditions well enough that many would question his commitment to the Torah and would devalue Mary as disgraced.
Two. Mary would be forever known as a Jewish girl pregnant before marriage. Disgraced. The villages were too small not to know — and surrounding villages would also have known. The rumor mill would have wondered if she had been raped or seduced. Either way, many would have thought she was unfit for a righteous man.
Three. Jesus. He would be known among his peers and the families of Nazareth and surrounding villages as a mamzer, an illegitimate child and we looked at that in some detail on Sunday.
Three people with less than a top notch reputation in social circles: a righteous man who chose to marry a disgraced woman; a woman pregnant before marriage; and the child, forever classed as illegitimate. There’s a particularly sad account at the beginning of Mark 6:
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn't this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son?”
A Jewish man was never called his mother’s son, he was always called his father’s son. They know him as the carpenter, which he learnt from Joseph, but they nastily never call Him the carpenter’s son…no, He was Mary’s son.
But right here, among this little trinity of troubled stories, God begins kingdom work. Those are Impossible Odds because none of us would choose these conditions to create a spiritual, religious, and social revolution. A kingdom revolution begun in a family seen as anything but an ideal family in Galilee. Imagine if each of our family stories started coming up on the screen…I’d pull the plug very quickly. The messy Joseph, Mary and Jesus story, and I haven’t even touched on the messiness of stable, the slaughter of all other little babies, the fleeing to become refugees living in Egypt, the land of captivity that God had set Jewish people free from…
Christmas is a message that God has entered into the depths of our condition in order to redeem us from our condition. No matter our conditions, God’s been there and brings hope…NOW!!!
I came across this quote from N. T. Wright last week which in a sense I think captures in a sentence what I try to teach whenever I preach about the Kingdom of God. He says: “The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term in the future. And what he was promising for that future and doing in the present was not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose — and so they could thus become colleagues and partners in that large project.”
Back to my binoculars and our seeds. Through the Scriptures we get a wonderful picture of what God’s Kingdom, God’s reign, will look. Jesus taught us to pray for His kingdom to come, but said something amazing in Luke 17, interestingly in the context of talking about other seeds, this time mustard and mulberries:
“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
It’s in this context that He says: Don’t look here or there for the Kingdom of God, because:
As we read the Scriptures and see the future Kingdom of God, which will be a place of righteousness, peace and joy…Jesus says, because of Christmas, because of my coming into your midst, because of my being Emmanuel, God with you, you can say, anytime and all the time, O come, o come, Emmanuel, you can cry out for me and my kingdom and guess what?...that righteousness, peace and joy (and all the other things of my Kingdom) that you know await you in the future……can be within you now!
That’s why it’s called good news and it’s God’s offer to you, to me, today, tomorrow, to eternity.