December 24, 2019 (Christmas Eve) – “Gift from the Heart: Hope” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

Sermon begins at the 4:30 mark after the music

Lay Reader = Luke 2:1-20

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of  Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem,  because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son  and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because  there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone  into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to  Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has  made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Introduction

Well here we are at the end of the Thanksgiving to Christmas season. As always, it has been the most wonderful time of the year. Hasn’t it? (pause to look around, confused at people’s faces) Hasn’t it?

Judging by some of your faces, I guess it hasn’t been the most wonderful time of the year for everyone. My mom is a counselor, and she always says that the build-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas is her busiest season. Many people are stressed out to the max during this “most wonderful time of the year.” Maybe you can relate.

Maybe you’re worried about what uncle so-and-so is going to say. Maybe you’re worried how your gift will be received. Maybe you’re worried because your job is in jeopardy. Maybe you’re worried because you haven’t received your test results yet. Maybe you’re worried you’ll be alone.

Our second text today is a prophecy from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. This was written during a time of worry and darkness. In the midst of a dark, dark time, where can hope be found? Perhaps this is where you can find hope, too.

Isaiah 9:2-7

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3You have multiplied the nation, you have  increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,  as people exult when dividing plunder. 4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar  across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as  on the day of Midian. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son  given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and  there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from  this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Sky is Falling

In the movie Office Space, Peter Gibbons hates his soul-killing job at Initech. He goes to a hypnotherapist to find some relief or some sense of hope in his despair. He describes his predicament to the therapist this way. “So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized…ever since I started working, every single day in my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me…that’s on the worst day of my life.”

The therapist asks him, “What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?”

“Oh yeah!”

The therapist replies helpfully, “Wow, that’s messed up!”

Have you ever felt like Peter? Have you ever felt like every day is worse than the day before it?

It seems to me that a lot of people are feeling like this is a particularly troubling season of life. If you want to start a fight, what are the three topics that will get you there the fastest? Politics, religion, and money. Then have those powder keg conversations within your family if you want some soap opera level drama. And it seems like we have some pretty emotional debates raging around us in all of those areas right now, am I right?

Is this, like Peter felt in Office Space, the worst year of your life? Is it worse now than ever before? Does the sky feel like it’s falling?

When Isaiah wrote this prophecy about the coming Messiah, many people felt like it was the worst year ever. Politics? They had been conquered, defeated, kidnapped, occupied. Their supposedly divinely-appointed king was imprisoned by a foreign power. That’s a bad year for politics.

Religion? The Temple of the Lord had been destroyed. The visible symbol of God’s presence with them on the earth was gone. The Ark of the Covenant was missing. The priests were forced into slavery and shipped off to the conqueror’s capital city. That’s a pretty bad year for religion.

Money? The country was conquered because they refused to pay protection money to that foreign power. So the foreign army conquered them, ransacked Jerusalem, and took all the gold and silver out of the Temple. They had no money left. And then they still had to come up with the protection money they had previously refused to pay. Crops were destroyed. Able-bodied workers were taken into slavery. That’s a bad year for money.

Israel at the time when Jesus was born was in a similar tough season. They had enjoyed a period of political independence, but the Romans had conquered them a few decades earlier. The Romans charged some intense taxes, putting strain on the economy. The debate is technical, so I’ll spare you the details, but there was a religious debate about those taxes. Many religious leaders taught the people that the way the Romans were demanding taxes amounted to religious idolatry, so they had to choose between sinning in the eyes of God by paying their Roman taxes or being killed by the Romans for not paying their taxes. There aren’t any good choices in that religious debate!

How about you? As you think about this year, as you think about this season of your life, are you feeling like the sky is falling? Are you feeling like things are especially difficult right now? Many people are right now.

Light in the Darkness

And into the midst of these difficulties, Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined.”

I remember being in a natural cavern underground. It’s very touristy, right? An easy path to follow with a guardrail. Plenty of lights to see the beautiful rock formations. Not exactly extreme spelunking. But in one of the larger caverns they had us stop. And they turned off the lights.

Have you ever been in 100% pitch black darkness? Not a single ray of light? It gets real creepy real fast. Your brain can play tricks on you when there’s no light at all. What’s that noise? Am I in danger? Am I trapped here? Is there any way out?!? Total darkness is tough to deal with.

Now, I’ve been in caves before with only a headlamp or a small flashlight. That’s fine. A little bit of light is fine. But no light at all? It messes with your head.

My wife and I have been watching the miniseries about the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. And there’s a scene where three workers are trying to make their way through the partially flooded, lethally-radioactive power plant. They have to drain water out of the tanks or it will explode with enough force to destroy essentially the whole country. High stakes.

And as they’re making their way through the bowels of the power plant, suddenly their flashlights fail. The radiation killed their batteries. Trapped in pitch black, surrounded by radioactive pipes, with no light at all and no way out. They started to panic. But then one of them remembered they still had little handheld lights that you squeeze to generate light. Those still worked. It wasn’t a lot of light, but it’s enough for them to regain their composure, finish the job, and get back out.

All it takes is a little bit of light in the darkness.

What darkness are you dealing with right now? Maybe, like Isaiah says, you feel like you’re in deep darkness. Maybe you feel like you’re in a cavern with no light at all. Maybe you feel as trapped as those workers in the depths of Chernobyl. Is your darkness a result of debates over politics? Religion? Money? Health? Family? Relationships? Bad luck? Uncertainty?

One of my favorite Christian radio songs right now says, “I can see the light in the darkness, as the darkness bows to Him. I can hear the roar in the heavens, as the space between wears thin…For nothing stands between us. Nothing stands between us.”

Christmas is the unquenchable light, no matter how deep the darkness. The birth of Jesus is the flicker of hope that just will not be snuffed out. It’s like one of those trick birthday candles that you try to blow out and it just keeps *POP* re-lighting itself!

The birth of Jesus is the unquenchable light because, as Isaiah says, authority rests on his shoulders. He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace! That’s a pretty good set of names, right? My name, Cody, means pillow or cushion, so I’m a little jealous.

The birth of Jesus shows us that the one with all of those incredible names is personally involved in our story. The one who is stronger than the mightiest hero is personally involved in our story. The one who has more knowledge than Google and Facebook and Amazon and Wikipedia combined is personally involved in our story. The one who is wiser than every philosopher, priest, or ruler is personally involved in our story. The one who has more compassion than any saint or servant of the people is personally involved in our story. The one who even death could not stop is personally involved in our story.

His light will shine in any darkness. Including yours.

If you stop looking at that light, if you close your eyes to the light of Jesus, your life’s darkness will feel like that underground cavern. Your mind will play tricks on you. The slightest noise or touch might cause you to panic and convince yourself that your situation is hopeless.

But if you open your eyes, if you look to the light of Jesus, you’ll be OK. Because God himself is personally involved in your story. That doesn’t mean Jesus will make your darkness go away or become whatever you want it to look like. Sometimes he does that, but not always. But he always offers you light that cannot be overcome by any darkness. He always offers you the personal presence of God so you are not alone. He always offers you hope that can live in any situation.

That’s the good news of Christmas. And this good news wasn’t saved for the rulers and leaders and important people. This good news was given to shepherds, to an otherwise-anonymous poor couple from Nazareth, to everyday people like you and me. Jesus doesn’t reserve his attention for the “important people”. Jesus is personally involved in your story.

I pray that that light, that hope, that assurance will carry you through even the deepest darkness. As Psalm 23 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.”

The light of Jesus, the hope we have in Jesus, is enough to make it through any darkness. Keep your eyes on that light. Everything else can be extinguished. But not Jesus. Amen.