We Are Not Alone
by Jack Wald | December 9th, 2018

various texts

Last Sunday I went to church in Chiang Mai, Thailand – 10,225 kilometers and six time zones from Rabat. They celebrated the first Sunday of Advent with the lighting of the first candle and Christmas songs. There were about 30-40 people and after church we shared a meal together. It is a nice community of people.

In the sermon, the preacher said that Christmas and Easter are the two major celebrations for the church, but that for him, Christmas is the major celebration and Easter is a minor celebration. He said this because he does not believe that when Jesus was crucified and died, he took upon himself the penalty of death for our sins. Jesus died, was buried, and resurrected from the dead, but dying for our sins is not what happened.

It is not clear to me what he thinks was the purpose of Jesus dying on the cross, but at any rate, if Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection is just a historical description of what happened to Jesus, then yes, Easter is a minor celebration.

He prefers Christmas because that was the coming of God to be present with us. God demonstrated his love for us by becoming human, being born and being made of the same dust of the earth as we are.

Which is the greater celebration, Christmas or Easter?

There are three Messianic prophecies in Isaiah’s sermon, chapters 7-12. The first is a promise: Immanuel – God with us. The second is an announcement: a child is born. The third is a description of what his rule will look like. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

The first Messianic prophecy, Immanuel, God with us, waited for about 700 years to be fulfilled. Then, probably in the spring of 6BC, Mary and Joseph were living in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth to Jesus – a child is born, the fulfillment of the second Messianic prophecy.

This is the celebration of Christmas. God is with us. He is not distant. He became flesh. When John wrote his literary gospel, he did not start with a historical narrative of the birth of Jesus. He wrote: (John 1:14)
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

God is far greater than we can comprehend or imagine. But we have a huge advantage over those who followed God before the birth of Christ. We have a picture of God in the flesh. Philip said to Jesus, (John 14:8) “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
And Jesus responded, (John 14:9–10) “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

We read about how Jesus interacted with people and see how God interacts with us. We read about the power Jesus had over nature and demons and we see the power God has in our world today. We read about the compassion of Jesus for people and we see the heart of God for us. We see the way Jesus cared for the poor, the powerless, and those who were rejected and see how God cares for these people in our world.

So we are privileged to live after the life of Christ on earth. We do not live in fear of God as the Israelites did when they were at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Law from God. We have been brought into the intimacy of living with God in Mount Zion. The writer of Hebrews wrote, (Hebrews 12:18–23)
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.

Because of this, God has become accessible to us. The writer of Hebrews wrote, (Hebrews 4:16)
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

I preached from the third Messianic prophecy of Isaiah three weeks ago before I left to go to Thailand. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of this prophecy. There were 700 years of waiting for the fulfillment of the second Messianic prophecy; there have been at least 2,718 years of waiting for the fulfillment of the third Messianic prophecy.

I asked the question, “What difference does this third Messianic prophecy make to us when we live in a world of suffering?” and the answer was that the good news, the blessing of this third Messianic prophecy is that our suffering is only temporary. It will not last forever. We are heading to a kingdom where there will be no more suffering.

The birth of Jesus gives us great hope, but Christmas does not get us to the Kingdom of Heaven. Christmas does not take us past this life and into the next. If all we have is Christmas, we have the presence of God in this life and then that is the end. Only with Easter, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, do we have the certain hope of eternal life.

So is Easter a more significant celebration than Christmas? For me it is like asking which of my daughters I love more. And what I have told each of them is, “You are my favorite daughter.” Christmas and Easter are each my favorite celebration.

So, to return to the end of my sermon three weeks ago, we live in a world of suffering and are able to be hopeful, know we are blessed, because the suffering will not last forever. It is only temporary.

This morning I want to celebrate the fulfillment of the first two Messianic prophecies of Isaiah. God is with us! The birth of Jesus is good news of great joy! Why? Because we are not alone.

The night Jesus was born, angels appeared in the sky to shepherds out in the fields with their flocks. This heavenly concert announced the birth of Jesus and what was it that the announcement said? (Luke 2:14)
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

What incredible news! Peace on earth! This was great news to a world that was beaten up by war and rape and abuse and violence.

Rome had conquered Spain just a couple centuries earlier and women had killed their children rather than let them fall into the hands of the Romans. Israel also was occupied by the Romans. Every part of the world was at war with one country or tribe attacking another. The weak and poor got stepped on by the rich and powerful.

But good news! Jesus has come and with him peace.

Peace got off to a bad start when Herod sent his soldiers to kill all baby boys under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem. But surely it would get better.

In 61 AD, Boudicca, a British tribal queen, was disturbed because the wealth of Britain was being plundered by the Romans, freemen were being sold into slavery and more personally, her two daughters had been ravished by Roman officers. So she led a revolt against the Roman occupiers and killed 70,000 Romans before the Roman legion caught up with her and then 80,000 Britains were killed.

But, the message of Jesus had not had time enough to reach Britain, so that might be excused.

What then do you say about the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD? This was where the church was born at Pentecost. But just forty or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the civilians of Jerusalem were slaughtered and all but the Western wall was leveled. Where was peace on earth then?

Maybe the message of Christ needed more time. Let’s jump 500 years and see what we find. Christianity had made it to Britain, but they were still fighting. The legendary Arthur won a battle against the Saxons. The Persians and Romans were fighting. The Franks and the Visigoths, two German groups, were at war with each other. 30,000 people were killed in a revolt in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. Every part of the world was at war.

What do we find 2,000 years after Christ? At the time of Christ there was one Christian for every 250,000 people in the world. Today, there is one Christian for every eight people in the world. We should expect to see more peace on earth, don’t you agree? But 15,000,000 people were killed in WWI and 55,000,000 in WWII. A civilized Christian nation created the efficient extermination of 6,000,000 Jews. Stalin killed 20,000,000 people in his rise to power. 40,000,000 were killed in China under Mao Zedong. 10,000,000 were killed in the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium at the turn of the 20th century. And the list goes on and on. In more recent times, 1,000,000 were killed in the Iran-Iraq war, 1,900,000 in Sudan and 5,400,000 in Kinshasa Congo.

What is happening this Christmas in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus? So many Palestinian followers of Christ have left because of persecution that there is fear that there will not be a community to worship in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The places where Jesus walked and where he taught and healed are being emptied of his followers.

Peace on earth? I don’t think so.

There should be a warning label when you are born. As you come out of the womb and open your eyes, there should be some way in which you can read, Warning, being born into this world has been known to cause suffering, injustice, and death.

What does this mean? Did Jesus fail in what he set out to do? If Jesus came to bring peace, why is the world not any safer or more peaceful than it was two thousand years ago?

The agony people in this world have suffered and continue to suffer would absolutely crush us if we were intimately aware of it all. The world was suffering when Jesus was born and has continued to suffer through the ages.

It is to this suffering world that Jesus comes as a Christmas present,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

If this present was not the gift of world peace, what was it? In his gospel, Matthew quoted Isaiah 7. (Matthew 1:23)
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

The Christmas gift of Jesus was not world peace, but Immanuel, God with us.

There will never be an end to war in this world. The world will never be at peace until the day that Jesus returns. It is good that the United Nations works for world peace. It is good that governments meet to find ways to seek peace. We need to work for world peace but we will never achieve it. Working for peace makes the world a bit safer but it will never make the world safe.

The Christmas gift of Jesus was not world peace, but Immanuel, God with us.

Some might be disappointed by this Christmas present. It is like a boy opening a present and expecting a bright red fire engine that shoots out water and has a siren on it and a ladder that can be extended to rescue people trapped in tall buildings. But when the package is opened, it is only a piece of paper with a fire engine printed on it.

We tell God what we want for Christmas. We want money to pay bills and to buy a car and to take a vacation. We want health for ourselves and our friends and family. We want good grades. We want to be liked. We want to have friends. We want a husband or wife. We want children. We want a job. We want some nice electronic equipment. We want to travel without having the plane, car, bus or train crash. We want a life that is comfortable and secure.

We tell God in our prayers what it is we want for Christmas, but when the package is opened, all we get is a promise that God will be with us.

It doesn’t seem like much.

It doesn’t seem much to someone lying in a bed and suffering from pain.
“I am with you.”
“Thanks, and while you are here, can you give me something for the pain?”

It doesn’t seem much to someone about to lose their home or car because they cannot make payments.
“I am with you.”
“Thanks, and can you lend me the money I need?”

It doesn’t seem much to someone who has lost a child or spouse.
“I am with you.”
“Thanks, but can you bring back my daughter?”

The boy who expected a fire engine for Christmas and got only a piece of paper with a fire engine printed on it did not discover until later that the paper was the title for a real fire engine. It took a long time for him to realize the extravagance of that gift.

In the same way, it takes us time to see the extravagance of the gift we are given at Christmas.

Christians have one foot on the earth and the other in heaven. We live a life torn between the two worlds. As much as we talk about this world being temporary and heaven being eternal, we cannot pull ourselves out of this world.

That is the difficulty for us. We do not appreciate the gift we have been given. We do not know how to appreciate the gift we have been given.

Someone we love suffers and we ask God why he allows such a thing to happen. We run out of money and ask why this should be happening to us. We lose the job opportunity we thought was going to be ours and wonder why God is not helping us. We suffer from depression and wonder why God allows us to muddle on without getting better. Someone robs our home or robs us in a court of injustice and we wonder why it is that God is not protecting us.

There are many people who are bitterly disillusioned with God because he did not deliver on promises. But they judge God on the basis of promises he never made. God never promised we would have an easy life. God never promised we would life a life where justice prevailed. God never promised we would escape heartache.

We think God promises us many things, but he really has promised us only two things. He will be Immanuel, God with us in this life, and when we die he will take us to be with him for eternity. Beyond these promises exists only what we make up in our heads.

The creator of the world who is all powerful, all knowing and all loving promises to be with us. Jesus who defeated death and rose to life and who will come again told his followers, (Matthew 28:20b)
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

That is the gift of Christmas and you have never been offered a more precious, valuable gift in your life.

But there is more. There is another gift. We are not alone. God is present with us. But that is not the only comfort for us in this world of suffering. God has also given us the gift of community. We are not alone because we have brothers and sisters in Christ who can help us, encourage us, lift us up when we have fallen.

In Exodus 17 there is a battle being fought. Joshua is leading the troops while Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up to the top of a hill overlooking the field of battle. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning. But whenever he got tired and lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. So Aaron and Hur got a stone for Moses to sit on and then they held up his hands. His hands remained steady till sunset and so Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

This serves as a metaphor for how we face the difficult times in our own lives. We are not meant to go through this life alone. When we begin to follow Jesus we join a community of other followers. We are supposed to hold up each other’s arms when we get tired, when we are overwhelmed.

I was talking with someone in Thailand about how we are supposed to support and encourage each other. I quoted Philippians 2:3–4
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

This person told me, “That does not happen.” He dismissed this out of hand as being naive, impractical, impossible. But I told him I knew many people who did this.

Unfortunately, the world is full of people who think first and foremost about themselves. We all do this to some extent, but too many do not see living this way as a possibility for themselves or others they know. Fortunately, the world has people who make sacrifices for others because they do think more of others than they do themselves. These are people who make the suffering in this world more bearable.

How is it possible to think more of others than you do of yourself? Jesus said in John 15:12
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” Because we are loved, we are able to love.

You have to know you are loved. You have to know someone who loves you so that you can sacrificially love someone else. When we grow in our understanding of how much we are loved by God, then we are set free to love others in a sacrificial way.

God is present with someone lying in a bed and suffering from pain. We can also be present and give them something for their pain.

God is present with someone about to lose their home or car because they cannot make payments. We can also be present and offer encouragement and counsel. And, if we are able, we can lend money to help.

God is present with someone who has lost a child or spouse. We can also be present to sit and grieve with them.

God is present with someone who has fallen into a pit of their own making. We can also be present to help them deal with their shame as they try to climb out and begin a new life.

Paul writes in Galatians 6:2
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us, (Hebrews 13:16)
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Paul wrote in Romans 12:13
Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Jesus said, (Matthew 11:28–30)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

We, as the body of Christ, can help our brothers and sisters to find rest. We can share the yoke with them, pulling with them, making their burden lighter. This is part of God’s call to us. When we are brought into his kingdom, we are brought into the community of his followers. We are to love each other as Christ has loved us.

When Jesus was on earth, he fed the poor, he healed the sick, he delivered the oppressed, he touched the untouchable, he gave honor to those who were shamed, he gave hope to those who despaired. And when he left this earth, he told us to do what he had been doing.

In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 Jesus told us that when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite into our homes the strangers, clothe the ragged, care for the sick, and visit the prisoners – whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Jesus.

The women who traveled with Jesus provided funds for Jesus and his disciples to eat. When Jesus was asleep in the boat in the middle of a storm on the Sea of Galilee, someone had put a pillow under his head to make him more comfortable. Simon carried the cross for Jesus on his way to be crucified. Joseph and Nicodemus anointed the dead body of Jesus with spices and placed him in a tomb. In these and many other ways, people showed their devotion and affection for Jesus by caring for his needs. Wouldn’t you like to have been one of those who cared for Jesus?

Matthew 25:40
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

When you love and care for your brothers and sisters in Christ, you are loving and caring for Jesus.

God has given us the Christmas present of his presence. And he has given us the blessing of being cared for by our brothers and sisters in Christ as they care for us as Jesus cared for the people of Palestine.

We are not alone. Immanuel, God with us, has come into the world. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. We have his presence with us in the best of times and in the most difficult of times.

We are not alone. We have the community of the saints to help us as we make our way through this life and into our eternal, heavenly destination.

We move through this life together. We are not solitary travelers. We walk together. We wait together. We hope together. We bear each other’s burdens. We love each other as we have been loved. We make sacrifices for each other. We forgive and do not hold grudges. We help those who have fallen to stand up again. We walk through painful and difficult times with others in our community.

Love as you have been loved. Be present with those who need to be comforted. Share the burdens of others and allow others to share your own burden.

May you know the presence of God in your life and may you have the blessing of being loved by your brothers and sisters as you make your way through this life.