Sunday, December 21, 2014

Steps to Finding Lasting Christmas Peace

We all have our favorite movies that we have watched so many times that there are no surprises left. We know all the characters, all the plot twists and subtle details that make the movie so great. Because such movies are our favorites, we want to keep watching them, but because we know them so well, some of the excitement we used to feel about them has faded. Then, along comes one of those “documentaries” about how our favorite movies were made. They reveal the behind the scenes details about the movie and we fall in love with it all over again because now we know the background of the movie as well as the movie itself.

For those of us who grew up in a Christian environment, Christmas can sometimes feel like one of our favorite movies. We love the story of Mary and Joseph, the baby in a manger, the angels singing, the shepherds watching their fields at night, and the wise men following the star. We have read the story. We have watched it on television specials. We have heard countless Sunday School lessons and sermons about it. We have sung in, and watched our children sing in, so many Christmas pageants that they all begin to run together after a while. We have lit candles representing various aspects of the story and reflected on the story so often that sometimes it begins to lose the wonder it once had in our souls. But what if we could take a look behind the scenes? What if we looked at how the stage was set for some of the parts of the story long before the actual events took place?

The prophet Isaiah does exactly that in several passages of scripture. One of them is Isaiah 9:1-7.

Nevertheless, the gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times when He humbled the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali. But in the future He will bring honor to the Way of the Sea, to the land east of the Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of darkness, a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased its joy. The people have rejoiced before You as they rejoice at harvest time and as they rejoice when dividing spoils. For You have shattered their burdensome yoke and the rod on their shoulders, the staff of their oppressor, just as You did on the day of Midian. For the trampling boot of battle and the bloodied garments of war will be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.

Though the first section of this passage may not sound very Christmas-like, most of us are familiar with the last two verses, which we often hear in Christmas services during the Advent season. Let’s take a look at the whole passage and see if it shows us a behind the scenes look at one aspect of the Christmas story.

Verse 1 - Nevertheless, the gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times . . .
          The focus of this entire passage is the birth of the Prince of PEACE, but it begins by talking about gloom. Wow, what a way to start a Christmas scripture! But let’s be realistic, many of us desire to experience peace, both with God and with those around us, but we are so focused on the gloom in our lives that peace often eludes us.
          When this scripture was written, the nation of Israel was at war, their economy was strained, their taxes were high and they had unpopular leaders. They were an entire nation of distressed people.
          Many people in our nation today are distressed for the very same reasons. We seem to always have a war to fight somewhere in the world. Extremists in the Middle East are beheading our citizens at will and foreign governments hack into our companies’ computers and we seem powerless to stop them. Our leaders have very low approval ratings, regardless of which political party they are in. On a national level, it seems that our culture is more pessimistic and skeptical than ever before. There sure seems to be a spirit of gloom in our nation.
          But it is not just on a macro level that we sense a spirit of gloom. Many of us feel it on a personal level as well. Some things that take away our sense of personal peace include: Past failures in marriage, jobs, education, friendships, or life goals. Unresolved grief from the loss of someone or something that was important to us. A sense of isolation and loneliness even though we are surrounded by people. The contrast we see between our lives and the lives of those around us who seem to have it all though we struggle to have even a small portion of it. Sometimes we cannot even put words to why we feel down about our lives, it is more of a general fear of the future and what might happen in our lives. Though we know that during this special time of the year we should be filled with joy, happiness and peace, instead we are sometimes overwhelmed with gloom, anxiety and distress. So it makes sense that Isaiah would begin our behind the scenes Christmas tour by talking about the gloom and distress we often feel on both national and personal levels. Thankfully, Isaiah does not end the tour there. Look at the rest of verse one.

Verse 1 -  . . . But in the future He will bring honor to the Way of the Sea, to the land east of the Jordan, and to Galilee of the nations.
          Notice the verse moves our focus from the gloom the Israelites were currently facing to the honor they would have in the future. Isaiah did not want the Israelites to obsess on their current struggles, but to look to a future that God was creating for them.
          It is important to remember that the struggles and problems we are facing in our own lives right now will eventually pass. Just because it seems like we have always struggled does not mean that it always has to be that way. God can and does change people and situations. We must learn to focus on the future instead of being trapped in the past where we relive our struggles over and over again. But to finding lasting peace, we must focus on the RIGHT future, the future that God is creating. Let’s look at the scripture again.
          “Galilee of the nations” refers to a part of Israel which centuries later Jesus would spend a lot of time in. At the time this scripture was written, few would have guessed the great importance Galilee would have in the life of Jesus, the baby born in the manger. The Hebrew word for “nations” is “goyim” and refers to all the non-Jews who would one day believe in Jesus. When this scripture was written, it would have been hard for the people reading it to realize just how much Jesus would be a part of the lives of non-Jews in the future. It was just now how people thought at the time. But calling vast numbers of non-Jews to follow the Jewish Messiah who was born on Christmas was God’s plan all along. The future was very exciting, but so far out of the way the ancient Israelites viewed the world, that it was hard for them to grasp. In fact, many of them missed it when Christmas finally came. Sadly, many of them still miss it today. Many Jews today still do not recognize the baby born in the manger on Christmas was their long awaited Messiah who could change their lives.
          The reason some people are unable to move forward toward the future God wants them to have is because they continue to focus on their own plan for the future. This only leads to further anxiety and gloom. We have all experienced times in our lives when our carefully made plans fell apart. In those moments we have to decide if we will persist in our own fruitless plans or look for a new way to live by following God’s plan for our lives. A positive future is focused on God’s plan for our lives. That is the pathway to honor and it shines light into the gloom of life. Let’s look at verse two.

Verse 2 - The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of darkness, a light has dawned.
          All of us have walked in darkness at some point in our lives. Some of us are still stumbling around in the dark trying to figure life out. But we do not have to live our entire lives in a fog of confusion and darkness. Having a vibrant relationship with Jesus is the key to getting out of a life of stumbling in the darkness.
          Too many of us are trying to have a relationship with God in general terms, but the only way to relate to God the Father is through Jesus Christ, His Son. To find real peace in our lives we must first accept Jesus as not only our Savior, but our Lord (boss, ruler, or controller). Then we must focus on building a strong relationship with Him.
          As we strengthen our relationship with Jesus, we learn to let go of the past and are able to focus on the future that He wants us to have. His light slowly penetrates our darkness, helping us find new strength to put our future in His hands instead of trying to control the future ourselves. This is hard, but vital to discovering real peace. Do we really believe God has enough power for us to trust Him with our future?

Verses 3-4 - You have enlarged the nation and increased its joy. The people have rejoiced before You . . . For You have shattered their burdensome yoke
          The first part of this passage reminds us that God had enlarged the nation. Remember, this was written in a time of war, a war which was not going well, yet God had enlarged the nation anyway.
          God has a way of enlarging our lives even in the midst of difficulty and trials. We have to decide if we are going to learn from the times of difficulty or be beat down by them.
          The next part of the passages says that God shattered the yoke the enemies of God’s people had put on them. Likewise, God has the power to shatter the things that hold us back from finding peace. The very things that seem to be holding us back can become stepping stones instead of stumbling blocks once God gets involved. When that happens, we find lasting peace in the midst of challenging life circumstances.
          But for this to happen, we must live blessable lives. Though none of us are perfect, we must always strive for godliness because God seldom blesses us if we are living unblessable lives. Our efforts to live godly lives are intricately wrapped up in our understanding of and relationship with Jesus Christ, the baby born in the manger. Who was this baby?

Verse 6 - For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
          Over 700 years before the birth of Christ, He was already the PRINCE OF PEACE. Just the promise of this little child was enough to shift the focus of a whole nation from dwelling on a terrible war onto a expecting a bright future.
          The government is on His shoulders. Praise God the government is in God’s hands and we do not have to figure all the politics out in order to find lasting peace!
          He is a wonderful counselor. Praise God we do not have to sort out all our personal problems in order to find lasting peace!
          He is the Mighty God. Jesus is not just a man, but God in human flesh. That means He has all the power He needs to set things right in our lives and our nation. He can do this!
          He is the Eternal One, so His promises will last forever, He will not desert us!
          Because of all these things, Jesus really is the Prince of Peace. He can calm all the raging emotions and confusing anxieties in our lives.
          But in order to have lasting peace, we must let Him be the Prince of Peace in our lives instead of fighting against His rule and reign in our lives. Have we really opened up our hearts and minds to let Him rule us and give us lasting peace? Sometimes it seems that we can do this for a period of time, but then our peace begins to fade. Our own passion, our own excitement, our own zeal, will often fail us. We need to find a source of zeal outside of ourselves.

Verse 7 - . . . The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.
          Isaiah knows that our own zeal will fail us. Which is why he reminds us that all these things the baby in the manger would accomplish would not be done by a man’s power or by a denomination’s declaration or by a theological statement written in some book of prayer. It would be accomplished by God Himself and He would do it with His own zeal!
          Zeal means passion and power. Jesus has zeal for us. Will we let His zeal carry us out of gloom and darkness and into His glorious light? Will we let His zeal inspire us, carry us, challenge us, consume us, until it bubbles out of us and overflows into those around us? When this happens, we will find lasting Christmas peace, not just at Christmas, but all year long.

As we draw all of these ideas to a conclusion, we are reminded that the steps to finding lasting Christmas peace include:
1.     Accepting Jesus as both our Savior from sin and the Lord of our lives.
2.     Allowing His light to penetrate our darkness so we will be able to let go of the past and focus on the future God wants for us.
3.     Doing our best to live a life that is blessable, but resting in His grace when we fail to do so.

4.           Having the zeal of God in our lives, which is far greater than our own passion or excitement.

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