GOD'S GIFT OF HOPE: An Advent Celebration

Hope motivates us to keep going and not give up. Without hope we will not have the motivation or drive to even do life. 

You don’t have to be a very astute observer to notice that we live in a world that struggles with hopelessness. If you talk to people at all, you are going to get in a conversation with someone who is going to tell you that they are discouraged. Listen to any of the radio talk shows or watch the news and you are going to hear people who are cynical about life. They think the world is going down the tubes. On a world scale, it seems that we go from crisis to crisis. In many or your lifetimes there has been W.W.II, Korea, Vietnam, Iran hostages, Iraq, and Bosnia, September 11 and Afghanistan, just to name a few of the highest profile conflicts. And in spite of our best efforts, we know there will be more conflicts. There have been economic crises. Today in our country we are faced with an ongoing crisis in leadership. But not all the struggles are on a national and international scale.

In our personal lives there is pain. We have physical problems that afflict our bodies. We endure emotional turmoil that comes with losing a loved one or that comes when we are disappointed by someone we love. If we are honest, we have to admit that we have spiritual struggles as we find ourselves disappointed with God because sometimes He just doesn’t seem to be working on our behalf.

There is a very familiar section of scripture that contains the beginning of the Christmas story. At least it is the beginning of the blessed event that took place in Bethlehem. This is what we read every Christmas:

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee.  He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. 

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
   Luke 2:1-7

Advent means that Christ is coming. Just as He came the first time He will come again and this time He will bring final and ultimate redemption to a fallen and messy world. 

Mary and Joseph provide the foundation for talking about hope this week. They were a young couple in love who faced unbelievable challenges and hurdles. Some of them were not unlike things that you and I may face as we live out our lives. This is the real deal stuff of life.

Let’s take a fresh look at their story: 

1. They faced hardships and inconveniences:  They were “taxed” 

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee.  

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

The phrase “they were taxed” is obviously a play on words. Think about it for a moment. They were living under Roman rule in their own country and now a degree made by the Roman Governor means that they will have to make a long journey to the ancestral home of Joseph. They were truly faced with the daily hardships of living under the demands and domination of a strong foreign government.
It may be hard for us to understand what this was like but I often think about it as I watch our country being slowly purchased by the Chinese government. The debt load is now into the trillions of dollars. What would happen if we were taken over by China? Now all of the sudden it would be illegal to attend church or worship in non state approved churches. We could be forced to adopt a culture far different than our own. 

That scenario if played out in your mind might help you to understand the reality of this story. 

 Long before Jesus was born, many of the Jewish people were hoping and praying for a Messiah.  The Messiah was the one the Scriptures/prophets foretold would rescue and deliver them.  For over 400 years there had been no prophet in Israel.  No one to help them hear from God.  No one to help them understand what God wanted.  They had tried to get by during this time of silence. They appointed religious leaders to interpret the old laws.  They had the temple where they could worship God.  But they hoped for something better. 

At the beginning of the NT, it is a very dark time for Israel.  The oppressive Roman Government is in control.  The heavens have been silent – no word, no revelation, no promised Messiah.  The people are praying “Deliver us.  Deliver us.”  But there has been no deliverance.  The Jews are hoping for a Messiah, one who would rebuild the nation of Israel, destroy the wicked, and overthrow Roman oppression.

The story of the birth of Jesus is covered in darkness.  Things were not going as expected for the Jewish people including Joseph and Mary.   Caesar Augustus has issued a decree that a census would be taken.  That is necessary for taxes.  This act forces everyone to return to their city of family origin.

What is taxing you in your life? What things are you carrying that just seem unbearable?

Is it your family and the thoughts of facing another Christmas with the brokenness and strife? Is it the stress of your job or are you stuck in a marriage that just feels too broken to fix? Have you given up hope?

Mary and Joseph were experiencing the real deal challenges of life here. Who would want to make this trip in the first place? Why do we have to do this? Where is God? I thought we were “His” people. Those are the kinds of questions we resort to all too often. 

2. They faced embarrassment and disgrace:     They were trapped

He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son.

It is an embarrassing moment to say the least. The phrase leaps from the page when you read it, “. . .his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant.” It is hard for us to imagine perhaps the depth of the embarrassment that Joseph and Mary faced. The idea of someone being pregnant and not married was not unheard of in this culture but it was looked on as an unacceptable behavior and one that brought certain disgrace to the entire family.

They felt the sting of embarrassment. There was no good way to explain an immaculate conception. Who had ever heard of that before? Joseph was so embarrassed and confused that the Bible says he was ready to break the engagement. Have you ever thought about the depth of his love and trust? The lady you are going to marry tells you that she is pregnant and you know that you have not engaged in any behavior or physical contact that would have ended in a pregnancy. What do you do with that?

The Bible says in Matthew: “This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,[i] for he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew 1:18-21

Have you ever faced a situation in life from which there was no turning around? You were embarrassed and ashamed and you truly felt trapped by your circumstances? You would rather do anything but face the reality that was in front of you?

That is exactly where Joseph and Mary were living. They were trapped in an embarrassing and disgraceful situation but they plowed through it with a faith and hope in God that was unshakeable.

Are you moving forward with your life today? Have you let the circumstances of your life cause you to stop and quit trying? In some cases you may be in your predicament because of something you did and you wish that you could take it back. You are ashamed. You are discouraged and even depressed. You don’t want to face people. Do you think that Joseph and Mary were in that condition? Of course they were!

But you know what? There is hope in the very baby that they were bringing into this world on that night so long ago. They found there hope in the advent of Christ coming to this earth. That’s what motivated them to go on. To make this journey together as a couple in spite of the shame and gossiping tongues of those around them. They knew the truth and they knew what God had ask them to do was something pretty significant so they hoped and they kept on going. 

3. They faced life at the bottom:    They were tested 

She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them 

No lodging? Are you serious? Do you ever read this and wonder if they were at all human? Do you ever imagine the conversation that would take place in a normal relationship like this one? Let me paint if for you for a moment. 

You have a very pregnant lady who has been riding on a donkey for hours. It is now night and she is carrying the “son of God” inside of her. She and Joseph go from one place to another but find there is no room for them anywhere. Think about this. Just what kind of conversation do you think took place? Could you be anymore at the bottom than this? Where is the great God who provides? Can He not even make a hotel reservation so that we have a place to stay? Is it not enough that we have to go through this embarrassment and now we are stuck out here in the street? What? A barn? Are you serious? You want me to go in there with those smelly animals and have a baby? 

The closest thing I can relate to about this was a wedding in Pennsylvania. We were a lot younger then. Our kids were very small and I learned a lesson in calling ahead and making a reservation before you make a trip. The plan was that we would leave the wedding reception and drive about three hours with our two kids in car seats and stay in a hotel somewhere in Maryland. We would then get up the next morning and drive on into West Virginia to my wife’s parents for a couple of days. We arrived about 10:00 at the hotel where we thought we would stay and it was full so we drove to the next one and it was full. We drove on into the night with two miserable little kids and I will never forget driving into the Fairmount West Virginia area to a Holiday Inn and walking in after Midnight and seeing people sleeping in the lobby. I was told that all the hotel for the next several hundred miles were full. I remember walking to the car and wondering how best to share the news. I don’t remember Lenore exact words or that she said anything at all. (Repressed memories are sometimes the best ones) I do remember that the stress was really high. I remember that a few minutes later we had a flat tire on a foggy highway in the middle of the night and I remember wondering if it could get any worse? We just drove the night and arrived at her parents at about four in the morning. 

Have you ever been tested beyond what you think you can stand?
Are you right not going through something that seems to be not very fair?
Have you been grumbling and complaining because you just seem to never catch a break?

Welcome to the Christmas story. I wonder on that evening that we get so misty eyed about, when the stress finally broke. I wonder at times if shepherds helped the stress or added to it. I mean you have just had a traumatic birth in less than desired surroundings and now a bunch of shepherds show up. I wonder when the stress lifted and hope kicked in?

If Mary and Joseph knew the sacred scriptures they would have known Isaiah 40 which tells of the coming of the Christ. 

In Isaiah 40:1-11 the prophet writes about the coming of the Messiah. This is a hope filled message to those who had been oppressed and defeated. 

1 “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. 2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned. Yes, the LORD has punished her twice over for all her sins.” 

 3 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the LORD! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God. 4 Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. 5 Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The LORD has spoken!”

 6 A voice said, “Shout!” I asked, “What should I shout?”  “Shout that people are like the grass. Their beauty fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the LORD. And so it is with people. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.”
 9 O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops! Shout it louder, O Jerusalem. Shout, and do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!”

10 Yes, the Sovereign LORD is coming in power. He will rule with a powerful arm.
See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.

11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. 

Isaiah 40:1-11

Recently I reminded you in a message that hope the way it is used in scripture is more than hoping your favorite sports team wins a ballgame. It is much deeper and sustaining then the shallow way we use it.

In the Christian life, the Christfollowing way, we hope with an abiding hope that never goes away. It is a hope that at its core when all else fails points to the second advent of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. IF it is not going to get any better on this earth there is a hope that we believe in called eternity where we will be with God forever. It is a place with no tears and no sorrows. There are no disappointments or illnesses or death.

There will be no more taxing situations. There will be no more trapped feelings. There will be no more tests.

Many of you know that recently my Mother passed away. In the last few months before she died my father started a little ritual with her every morning. She of course had Alzheimer’s or dementia and could no longer read her bible because of that and losing her sight due to a stroke in the last year.  So every morning he would quote the very familiar 23rd Psalm. He would start a line and she would finish it.

 “The Lord is my. . .” and she would say shepherd.
“He makes me lie down in. . .” and she would say green pastures.
“He leads me beside. . .” and she would say still waters.

It would go on that like that until they finished the psalm. Of course they were using the King James Version because that is what she would have any chance of remembering. 

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

As she laid in the hospital emergency room being poked over and over to try to draw a reading of her blood gases no one knew that she was dying. As her heart was about to beat its last these were her words that she spoke in the presence of my Dad and sister. She said them mainly to herself I guess. But very quietly she said, “The Lord is with me.”

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me”

There is hope for you and I today. 

I want you turn to a scripture in your bibles. In Romans 8 we find some the most encouraging words in the entire New Testament. 

But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. 

 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children,[j] including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope[k] for it. 25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

 31 What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?

34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. 

 35 Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”[n]) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. 

 38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[o] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.