From my sermon this morning (Isaiah 9:2-7).
Don’t have the spirit of Scrooge.
Don’t have the spirit of Winterfest.
Don’t have the spirit of Santa.
Look again to the manger.
Let me present you with three popular responses to Christmas.
Actually they mirror three popular responses to life. All of them get something right as well as something wrong.
In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” Scrooge says: “Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
You see Scrooge looked at a dark world and he decided to act accordingly. In fact, as Dickens wrote: “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Dickens goes on:
“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm [him], no wintry weather [could] chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.”
Here is one way of handling the darkness. Make your home in the darkness. Become just as dark. Become just as bitter as your bitter circumstances. And bah humbug to Christmas. That’s an approach to Christmas, and it’s an approach to life. Do you know Scrooges? Are you a Scrooge? Life gets hard, you get harder.
There’s something right about Scrooge’s response. Not enough of us acknowledge the reality of the darkness.
Look at our passage from Isaiah 9. It’s a prophecy written about 700 years before the first Christmas. But here Isaiah prophesies about the coming Christ and he describes it as like light coming to darkness. Look at verse 2
2 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.
Isaiah’s own context is speaking to a people who are about to be besieged by a foreign army, many will be killed, the rest will be exiled – thrust away from God’s presence. Isaiah preaches Christmas hope into that context. But their predicament of death and judgement is a microcosm of the predicament of the whole world. We all face death and judgement.
The natural state of the human condition is darkness.
Which means it is death, separation from Him Who IS our life, ignorance of our Lord and Saviour. That’s our natural state: Darkness, death, separation, judgement, ignorance. Scrooge was more right than he knew. We do live in the land of the shadow of death.
What an image! The shadow of death. It’s the idea of death casting a dark and icy shadow over everything we do in life. No matter our achievements, no matter our loving relationships, everything is overshadowed by death.
And at Christmas we can feel that very keenly. Someone is missing from Christmas dinner, because the valley of the shadow has claimed another victim.
The whole of the human race and everyone in this room lives under that shadow – an inescapable death sentence.
And at least Scrooge acknowledges that. He says: Life is darkness, act accordingly. Life is hard and tough and bitter – so become harder, become tougher, become bitterer.
The spirit of Scrooge. That’s one response to Christmas, one response to life.
But it’s not the only one. What about the spirit of Winterfest?
The spirit of Winterfest says “Happy Winter”. In fact there’s a large advertising campaign run at the moment whose slogan is, Happy Winter. There’s images of scarves and holly and ivy and cups of cocoa. It’s an encouragement to wrap up warm against the elements and to make merry here in the darkness.
The spirit of Winterfest is not like Scrooge, because it’s about making merry, but in common with Scrooge, the winterfest crowd have also given up on Christmas… and church and religion and Santa and fairytales and all that nonsense. In some ways they see the world like Scrooge does, but they’re going to celebrate anyway. They’ll rug up warm and make the best of it with family, food and festivities.
And this is an approach to life too. We’re in the dark, and we’ve given up on Jesus and church and Father Christmas and fairy-stories, but still… eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Here’s what they get right. We are built for joy. The Scrooge response is not what we’re made for. We’re made to rejoice. Look down at verse 3 and see what it is human beings are built for:
3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.
Here Isaiah is pointing his people to a joyous happily-ever-after. Right now the people are in the dark, but Isaiah assures us, there will be a very bright future. When Christ comes again it will be very like celebrating Christmas: We will gather as family around great food, great friendship, great singing, great joy and we will celebrate. That’s where all creation is heading – joy. And so the Winterfest crowd are right to emphasize joy and family and feasting and festivities. But here’s the trouble – they don’t actually believe in the happily-ever-after.
Ultimately they don’t believe those last four words of verse 2. They don’t believe that “A Light has dawned”. They don’t believe that Christ has come to bring us our happily ever after. They basically have the same view of the world as Scrooge, they just choose make merry under the ominous shadow of death.
And so really, their slogan is ridiculous. Happy Winter! Happy Winter??! What’s happy about winter? When CS Lewis wrote the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe he described the cursed state of Narnia as “Always winter but never Christmas.” But that’s precisely what Happy Winter says. Don’t bother with Christmas, make the best of Winter.
When you dig down into the spirit of Winterfest it’s actually desperately sad. Because all the fun and food and family and festivities in the world aren’t going to deal with our darkness. All our attempts to huddle together in the shadow of death is ultimately futile. Death claims us all. It isn’t a happy winter, not without Christ it isn’t.
Unlike the Scrooges and the Winterfest people, these people are spiritual. They’re the sort of people who come to church. They believe that there’s more to life than just the valley of the shadow. And maybe someone up there likes me, dunno. They probably even go to church – at Christmas anyway.
And probably the Scrooges and the Winterfest people look down their noses at them but the spirit of Santa people believe.
What do they believe?
Well essentially they believe in Santa. I don’t mean they still think there’s a fat man living at the north pole – I mean they think there is a God – and he’s basically a big Santa in the sky.
The similarities between Santa and how people think about God are endless.
Because Santa lives very far away. He’s irrelevant to the vast majority of our lives. He doesn’t really ever show up – not that we see. But actually we’re not sure we want him to show up. We want what he gives us, but we’d rather he didn’t pull up a chair at the dinner table and share our turkey. We probably don’t want Santa to stay at Christmas do we? Frankly I’m nervous about what Santa would be like after a couple of glasses of red wine. No Santa, you go, leave your gifts with us and shove off. We don’t want a personal relationship with Santa – we just send off our requests every now and again. And maybe, if we’ve been a good boy or a good girl, maybe, he’ll give us what we ask for.
That’s Santa. But it’s also most people’s view of God.
He’s a distant, mostly irrelevant, jolly but not particularly personable, dispenser of stuff. That’s Santa. And that’s most people’s idea of God.
But you know the worst thing about Santa is that he’s a big old legalist.
“He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice, He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!”
That’s Santa. And it’s most people’s picture of God. So… You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout. Santa Claus is coming.
No wonder children are petrified of Santa.
Get a child anywhere near Santa and they bawl their eyes out. Of course they do. No-one wants Santa. We want his stuff. We certainly don’t want him. He’s creepy.
He’s a big, old legalist is Santa. And parents around the world scare their children into obedience with threats about Santa. “Santa’s coming. And Santa only rewards good children, you better be good or it’s coal for you this Christmas.”
I saw this picture recently though and it made me chuckle…
But that’s Santa, a distant, mostly irrelevant, big old legalist. And while the propaganda tells us that Santa is generous – giving gifts to all the children of the world – actually he doesn’t give gifts. He gives rewards. Rewards for good behaviour. So technically, they’re not gifts. They are performance related Christmas bonuses. Aren’t they? It’s not the overflow of Santa’s generous heart – it’s part of a global performance-based conspiracy with the parents of the world to keep kids moral.
And while Santa might give people stuff, he never gives himself. He’s always distant from us, always anonymous. That’s Santa, a distant, big old legalist.
And that’s precisely what people think God is. Isn’t that how people think of God? If someone says they “believe in God” isn’t this the god they believe in? A Santa in the sky – a big old legalist, watching us.
You know, in church this morning, we are tempted to think of God as a big Santa in the sky. A mostly irrelevant, distant, impersonal, legalist who’s always watching. Who might give us stuff, never gives us himself. We Christians often have the spirit of Santa about us.
And against all of that nonsense verse 6 resounds:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.
Here is the heart of Christmas. God is nothing like the Santa in the sky. He doesn’t give us stuff from a distance – He gives us His Son. Jesus comes Himself as God’s Christmas present to the world. The Gift of Christ isn’t stuff – the gift is Himself in Person. Santa gives rewards and then leaves. Jesus gives Himself and hangs around to be GOD WITH US. He gives HIMSELF TO US. We are given God’s beloved Son. God does not want to be a distant benefactor. He wants to draw near. He HAS drawn near.
And it’s not because we’ve been good little children. We’ve done nothing to deserve this gift. We’re just here lost in the dark, heading for death. But the Light has dawned. From out of this world the Christ-child is given to us.
And who is He, this Christ child?
Verse 6 calls Him:
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
What a name! Names can be difficult things to live up to can’t they? Putting a name on a child can generate expectations that are hard to live up to. What about calling a child Mighty God? That’s a heavy weight of expectation don’t you think?
Unless He is the Mighty God. In which case the name fits.
Well it fit Jesus like a glove. He IS the Mighty God. Let’s think about this name – He is the Mighty God: Colossians tells us the fullness of deity dwells in Jesus. And He is full of the Spirit. That Wonderful Counsellor dwells in Jesus without measure. And this Christ-child reveals to the world the Everlasting Father – because Christ has known the Father everlastingly and we see the everlasting Father nowhere else but IN Jesus. So He is the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and He is Himself the Prince of Peace, that Royal Son to restore the world to rights.
What a name to put on a child! Who could carry off that name? Who could bear that weight of expectation? Only Jesus.
But think about this: If you were the Mighty God, What kind of entrance would you make to the earth?
Chariots? Armies on Parade? Fanfare? A press conference at least!
Not for the Prince of Peace. He shows up in a cattle shed, laid in a feeding trough, born into the poorest of families, the most oppressed of peoples, and, thanks to King Herod, even as He’s born the death threats have begun. The Mighty God shows up meekly in the deepest part of the valley of the shadow. He enters the darkness.
That’s Christmas. Not a denial of the darkness – like the Happy Winter people. Not a capitulation to darkness – like Scrooge. Not a remaining above the darkness – like Santa. Jesus enters the darkness.
Don’t you just love Jesus? The Mighty God who doesn’t remain aloof but stoops down even to the manger.
When the Mighty God comes to our dark world, He doesn’t come with a drawn sword to make war on the rebels. He comes as Prince of Peace. And look at the effects of His rule in verses 4 and 5:
4 He shatters the yoke that burdens [His people], the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. 5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
Here is a King who doesn’t make war, He makes peace.
Isaiah was preaching this to a people about to be devoured by the Babylonians. And the Babylonian kings, who were conquering the world, would call themselves “King of kings”. But here’s the prophecy – when the TRUE King of Kings comes, He won’t wage war, He’ll wage peace.
And there’s no greater sign of that than Christmas, is there? If God wanted to come against us, if He wanted to come in war, then He wouldn’t have sent a baby would He? If Jesus wanted to judge the world He’d come with a drawn sword. But no, He comes helpless and meek as a Gift to us. He comes to reconcile the world, to save the world, to draw near to the world, and so He comes as a baby. Not to mete out punishment, but to take it. Not to curse but to bless.
How does God feel about you? Do you think God wants to send you thunderbolts because He’s angry? No, He sends you His Son. Do you think He’s indifferent to you? No, He gives you His precious Son. Do you think God is interested in receiving your paltry morality? No He’s interested in GIVING you His Son. Do you relate to God as though you give Him stuff, and He gives you stuff? That’s not it. Look at the manger. God gives you His Son – He wants relationship. Look again at verse 6: TO US a child is born, TO US a Son is given.
That “TO US” is very important, it’s the gift tag. Jesus is a GIFT TO US.
The Father has loved and enjoyed His Son from all eternity and now He gives Him TO YOU. God is nothing like Santa. He gives His very Self, His very heart and soul, His Son, and gives Him entirely to you.
But why? Why does Jesus come into the world?
Well when He came, Jesus said ‘I’ve come to seek and save the lost’. That’s why He’s in the manger – to come and seek and save those in the dark.
And Jesus told stories all about it. Stories about a Shepherd who comes to seek and save lost sheep. And when He finds the sheep He hoists it onto His shoulders and strides home.
Well look at verse 6. It says “the government will be on His shoulders.” Here’s the phrase I want to end with. Let’s think hard for a minute – what does it mean for the government to be on the shoulders of the Christ-child?
Well as verse 7 goes on to explain, the government is the reign of the true King over this world. Ever since Adam, man has ruled the world. But man has done a dreadful job of it and taken it down into darkness and death. Since then, the whole world has waited for the Messiah to come and to undo what Adam had done and reverse the curse.
Isaiah says to a people 700BC – take heart. The Christ-child will be born. The Mighty God will be born as a man to take the government on His shoulders.
So here’s the picture: Christ is born into our world, born into our humanity, born into our predicament. There He is, the Mighty God, crying and coughing and wriggling in that manger. The Prince of Peace has come as our Brother! And in doing so He hoists humanity onto His shoulders. That’s Christmas. Christ enters into this man-ruined-world AS MAN. And AS TRUE MAN, takes responsibility. He takes all our darkness and death and fear and eventually, on the cross, even all our sin – He takes it all onto Himself. The government is on His shoulders.
He has scooped us up in His arms, and from the manger onwards He does EVERYTHING that He does in our shoes, in our place, on our behalf, as one of us.
God the Son has become God our Brother, taken us into His own possession and marched us out of the valley.
This is what the Gospels are all about – you could write the phrase “the government is on His shoulders” across the top of every page of the Gospels. That’s what we see. The Christ-child grew up to live the life we should have lived FOR US – the government was on His shoulders. And He died the death we deserve to die FOR US – the government was on His shoulders. He rose up from the dead, marching out of the valley of the shadow and straight up to the Father of Lights and He does it all carrying US with Him. The government is on His shoulders.
That’s the Spirit of Christmas. Good news of Great Joy that’s for All People. A Saviour is Born to us, and the government is on His shoulders. He came as Man to do Humanity FOR US. That’s the Spirit of Christmas. It’s not the spirit of Santa. It’s not “Have you been naughty or nice?” That’s what the world thinks Christianity is – but Christmas blows that view out of the water. It’s not about whether you’re bad or good. It’s got NOTHING to do with whether you’re bad or good. NOTHING. Jesus Christ has not come to reward good boys and girls. He’s come as a Gift to the good, the bad and the ugly, the rich, the poor, the black, the white, to everyone living in the land of the shadow of death. He comes to ALL.
And He doesn’t come to assess how well we’re negotiating this dark valley. Truth be told, we’re all doing a terrible job. But He’s not interested in assessing how WE are governing our lives. And He hasn’t come to instruct us about how we can better govern our lives. No. He has come to take the government off our shoulders entirely and to put it all onto His. And from the virgin’s womb all the way through to the Easter tomb He carries us out of the valley and presents us perfect before His Father. The government is on His shoulders.
It’s not about us governing our lives a bit better. It’s not about trying harder. It’s NOT what some of the carols tell us. What’s that line from Once In Royal David’s City?
Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as He.
That’s not the Spirit of Christmas, that’s the spirit of Santa. Christmas says we’re not mild, obedient or good, but Christ has lived the mild, obedient and good life FOR US. The government is on His shoulders.
And if the government is on His shoulders, we can let our shoulders just relax. We can stop pretending like the whole world is on our shoulders. Do you feel like the world is on your shoulders? Look again to the manger. The government is on His shoulders.
Christmas splits the world into two kinds of people. Either you take your life in your own hands, or you let Christ take your life in His hands.
A Christian is someone who looks to Jesus and realizes “It’s out of my hands. Hallelujah, my life is out of my hands. And it’s in the safest pair of hands possible. My life has been assumed by the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
This morning God is offering His Christmas Gift again. He is addressing each one of us this morning, myself included. And He is saying verse 6 to us all. TO YOU the Christ-child is born, TO YOU My Son is given. Stop pretending the government is on your shoulders. Christ has taken it ALL on His shoulders. This morning look to Jesus who is YOURS, Christmas assures us He is YOURS, entirely YOURS. And when you realize that, you’ll find (v2) Light for your darkness. Look to Jesus right now – receive Him in your heart and you’ll find Dawn in the valley of the shadow. See the Christ-child given for you and, verse 3, you will rejoice. Believe in Jesus this morning and, verse 4, you’ll find Liberation from every yoke, every burden, every oppression. Rest in the Prince of Peace and v5, you will know peace. Look to the manger and you will see God’s Gift, His Son, He is YOURS and you are His.