Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sermon for Christmas Eve

                                                                                                Christmas Eve
                                                                                                Isa 9:2-7

            The United States military is currently in the process of a massive logistical operation as it pulls out of military operations in Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan is landlocked, shipping things out means that they either have to be flown or sent overland through other nations.  Both options are expensive because in the latter case the nations involved are using the opportunity to make as much money as they can.
            The U.S. has decided that in many cases it is more economical to leave things behind rather than to ship them to U.S. bases.  That may not seem like a big deal if you are talking about microwaves and deep fryers. But it has also produced a rather bizarre situation.
            In 2007, the U.S. military was in the midst of operations in Iraq. U.S. troops were taking heavy casualties from IED’s – improvised explosive devices.  It was clear that even armored humvees were insufficient, because they had never been intended for this kind of mission.  What was needed was a vehicle that was resistant to mines and protected the occupants against ambush.
            The U.S. military had started what would be a $50 billion dollar program to produce such a vehicle, and the result was the MRAP – Mine-resistant ambush protection vehicle.  It was armored and had a V-shaped underside that helped to deflect the shock waves of a blast. The MRAP did save U.S. lives.  As the insurgency in Iraq abated, the conflict in Afghanistan heated up.  The Taliban began employing IED’s in large numbers and so MRAP’s were deployed there as well.  Eventually 24,000 of the vehicles were built.
            Today the U.S. is out of Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan. No on expects or wants the U.S. to be involved in another military operation where MRAP’s are needed.  The military now finds itself with thousands of vehicles that have no real mission. And so a rather bizarre scene has been playing out in Afghanistan since this summer.  The U.S. military has decided that it is not worth the expense to bring back 2,000 MRAP’s from Afghanistan.  Of course they can’t be left there for just anyone to use. And so the U.S. is scrapping the vehicles there on site.  At a $1 million dollars a piece, that’s $2 billion dollars of basically new equipment that is being turned into junk.
            The weapons of war are being destroyed by the U.S. in Afghanistan.  And yet the war has not ended. Instead it continues as we speak and the attacks of the Taliban will surely intensify once the U.S. is gone.  This situation stands in marked contrast to what we find in our Old Testament lesson for Christmas Eve.  There we hear about the final destruction of the implements of war because light has come and the Prince of Peace has arrived.
            Our text for tonight is in fact set in a time of war.  In the late eight century B.C. the near eastern super power Assyria was threatening Palestine and all of the nations around it.  The northern kingdom of Israel had joined with the nation of Syria in an alliance to fight off the Assyrians. However, it would not succeed because Yahweh was using Assyria as his instrument to punish Israel for her unfaithfulness – for her worship of he false gods of the surrounding peoples.  The Assyrians swept in, conquered Israel and in 722 B.C. destroyed their capital Samaria.  They took the population of Israel away into exile in other parts of the Assyrian empire.
            The first places in Israel to feel the brunt of this attack were the lands of Galilee in the north – the land of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. However, writing in this same time period, the prophet Isaiah offers a word of hope.  He says. “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”
            Isaiah goes on to say, “The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”  The present was a time of darkness and sorrow, but God was going to do something.  In fact since God was going to do it, the future event was so certain the prophet could talk in the past tense as if it had already happened.
            God was bringing light to this darkness, and the reaction would be one of joy.  We hear in our text, “You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.”  Oppression would be broken and there would be peace.  In fact Isaiah describes the destruction of the implement of war.  He says, “For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.”
            How was this going to happen?  What could produce such a change?  The answer is surprising: a child; a child described in the most unusual ways.  Isaiah writes: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
            Wonderful Counselor; Mighty God; Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – these words strain the imagination as we try apply them to a child.  But Isaiah leaves no doubt about what he will do. The prophet says: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
            In our text, Isaiah speaks about the darkness of war, invasion and devastation.  Yet God’s Word teaches us that these are only manifestations of a deeper problem – the problem of sin. Wars go on all the time – and I’m not talking about the kind where you need guns or rockets or MRAP’s.  Wars go on in our families as angry and hateful words are spoken between husband and wife; between brother and sister.  Wars go on within ourselves as we feel anger, lust and coveting welling up within in us – feelings that we know are wrong and that we don’t want to be there. And sin casts its darkness over all of us because in the end it leads to only one thing – death.
            Because this is so, God acted. That’s what we are beginning to celebrate tonight.  In our text Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”  We hear about this in our Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve.  In fact the arrival of this light was announced by God’s glory, for we learn: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.”
            On this Christmas Eve we celebrate the fact that this child who is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace was born in our world.  As Isaiah had said two chapters earlier, the virgin conceived and bore a son – the One who is Immanuel, God with us.  Lying in the manger, Jesus Christ is truly human.  He is the frail flesh of a baby. And yet he is also truly God – he is the creator and sustainer of all things.
            Jesus was born in this world in order to carry out a mission.  Some thirty years later, after his baptism in the Jordan River, he began his ministry.  Matthew tells us: “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’”
            Jesus Christ began his mission in Galilee of the Gentiles. But he finished it in Jerusalem of the Jews.  There he defeated the darkness by entering into it himself.  He bore your sins. He became sin for you. He received the wrath of God against your sin in our place.  He carried your sin.  He died and was cut off from God because of you.
            And then, on the third day, a great light dawned.  In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we see the victory and future that is ours.  This is the light that drives away all darkness.  Death has been defeated and resurrection life like Christ’s will be ours. This is the good news that Jesus sent forth his disciples to share when he returned to Galilee and on a mountain told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
            I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon about how in Afghanistan they have been scrapping MRAP’s.  It’s a strange looking action because of course, the war they were built to fight is not over.  Instead, the U.S. has decided that the costs are just too high.  Afghanistan’s long history of war suggests that the lofty goals of U.S involvement were probably never attainable in the first place.
            Be that as it may, the situation in Afghanistan – and in our own lives – reminds us that while the light has come, the war has not ended.  Sin and death are still present.  But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that they have no real power over us.  In Christ we are justified – we have been declared not guilty – the same verdict we will hear on the last day when we stand before Christ.  We have peace with God and because of baptism we live as the children of God. Death may still exist, yet death itself cannot separate us from Christ.
            Tonight we celebrate Christ’s first coming as he was born as a baby in Bethlehem and laid in a manger.  Yet thought about Christ’s first coming must always prompt us to look for his second coming – a second coming that will be one of power and might and glory.
            We rejoice in the present because of what we have received and who we are now through the saving work of Jesus Christ.  And with Isaiah’s confidence that in our text describes the future as if it had already happened, we look forward to our Lord’s second coming on the Last Day.  For on that day the final and complete peace will arrive and the words our text will be true in every possible way: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

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