Well, it is that time of year again: the time of the nativity plays. How many of you here this morning have children or grandchildren who will be appearing in one, either here in Bollington or further away? Some of you may know Lorraine, who often comes here to church with me. She has to attend THREE different nativity plays this year, as she has five grandchildren.
Nativity plays can be very sweet, are often hilarious, and we should be very grateful for them, as they are one of the few reminders that our culture still has as to the actual reason for Christmas: the coming of the Messiah.
And our readings this morning all focus on this coming of Jesus Christ, but the writers are considering it from various points in the timeline of world history.
First, there is the magnificent reading in Isaiah that begins: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” At the time that Isaiah wrote this, the Jews were in deep trouble. First, the Assyrian empire had seized the northern part of Israel and taken the ten of the tribes of Israel into slavery. Then the Babylonians had invaded from the east, and destroyed Jerusalem, and taken the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin into captivity in Babylon.
Isaiah had not minced his words, throughout the book he makes clear to Israel that these disasters had come about because of her persistent sin and rebellion against God. She had broken the covenant God had made with her, and therefore, after many years of warning, God had given her over into the hands of her enemies. To all intents and purposes, the Jews should have faded away into history at that point. They could not help themselves, and all was lost.
But Isaiah had quite a different message. The message was that God still loved them, and that he would deal with their sins, and come to rescue them in power. They would be restored to a loving relationship with him.
Thus we have the words from this morning: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, …that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gently leads those that have young.”
And thus we have the other wonderful prophecies we also find in Isaiah: “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…” or again “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 for ever.”
A divine Messiah was coming who would rescue his people, establish righteousness and restore all things. These wonderful prophesies of Isaiah expanded on earlier ones which reach as far back as Genesis, or about 2000 BC. That was when Jacob foresaw that from his son Judah, a mighty king would come, “and the obedience of the nations is his.”
Ten centuries later, in about 1000 BC, when David was anointed King of Israel, the Lord had promised him that one his descendants would rule forever. And so, the idea of a divinely sent king who would right all wrongs began to take shape. He is mentioned in various OT prophecies from that time forwards, and also in the Psalms, and above all in Isaiah. As the centuries went by, this promise of a great coming king gave the Jewish nation an unfailing hope, a national identity, a purpose, to keep going. It reassured them that they were known and loved by God, and that there would be a future hope for them. One day God himself would come to rescue them.
Isaiah’s prophecy was partially fulfilled in 539 BC, when after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the empire itself fell to the Persians. Cyrus, king of Persia, decreed that the Jews were free to go home and rebuild their temple.
They did so, but back in Jerusalem, still they waited for the coming of the promised divine king, or Messiah. And four more centuries went by, during which time there was more trouble, for in 63BC the Roman Empire invaded Palestine. Israel was once again under foreign occupation.
That was the situation when, in AD33, John the Baptist suddenly appeared in the wilderness, with a message that harked back to the prophecy of Isaiah. Here was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. He is coming! Repent, be baptised! Get ready to meet him!
For John’s message was, basically, the same as Isaiah’s: the people were in deep trouble because they had sinned, and thus cut themselves off from their relationship with God. But God had not given up on them – he was calling them to repentance, so that they could accept the king who was now coming to them.
Of course, Mark wrote these words long after John the Baptist. Mark’s purpose was to show how the great prophecies of the Old Testament had all been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, who brought the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God.
Which brings us to our final reading this morning – from 2nd Peter. Peter was writing to Christians who were by then an established church, looking forward to the second advent, the return of Jesus. For they, like us, lived their lives between two advents. Jesus is coming back one day, not as a baby, but as the king of kings. If 2000 years seems a long time to wait, Peter advises us to be patient, as 1000 years is as one day to God. In the meantime, he advised his readers: “You ought to live holy and godly lives, as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming…in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”
Meanwhile, back here in December 2017, it is only two weeks to Christmas, and we are in the nativity play season, recalling the arrival of the precious baby who is at the centre of world history. He is the true light, the good shepherd, the bread of life, king of kings and lord of lords. He became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only. And as the book of Revelation sums it up: “He is the alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”