Isaiah 9:1a, 2, 6 and 7; Luke 2:11; Romans 15:4
Type the word “hope” into your online search engine and you’ll find nearly five billion references.
Hope. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines hope as the wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment or the theological virtue defined as the desire and search for a future good, difficult but not impossible to attain with the help of God.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” From Samuel Johnson, we have this: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope.” From Pearl Buck, this: “To eat bread with no hope is still slowly to starve to death.” From Louisa May Alcott: “Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow them.” And from Martin Luther King Jr., we have this: “We must accept finite disappointment but we must never lose infinite hope. Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.”
From antiquity, we have the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box. In one version of the story and there are many, a man named Epimetheus took the beautiful Pandora as his wife. Pandora had been fashioned by the gods and sent down among mortals to punish them for Prometheus’s act of stealing fire. She was warned by her husband to never go to the north room in their home and to keep it locked at all times.
But, one day, she became restless and bored and eventually gained access to the north room which she found empty save for a box. Pandora’s curiosity knew no bounds. She felt compelled to open the box, and so she did and out came hundreds of creatures looking like insects. The insect-like creatures flew up and away. Finally, after they’d all escaped, she slammed the lid shut. Then a tiny voice called from inside the box: “Let me out.” And Pandora released from the box a fairy-like creature.
“I am Hope,” said this creature. “Pandora, you have let out all possible troubles for humankind. There will be no peace of mind for humans from this day forth. There will be greed and jealousy, insanity and lust, there will be plague and hatred, famine, pestilence, vice and destruction. The world will know great sorrow. You have unleashed all manner of afflictions upon the world, but you have also let me out. I will always be there to bring hope to humans, whenever they are in trouble. I will always be there as the promise of Hope!”
Well, as Christians, we don’t lay the blame for sin and evil on Pandora’s shoulders and, hopefully, none of us looks for hope in boxes, even at this time of year when we anticipate seeing them under our Christmas trees. No, our hope, as the familiar hymn goes, is built on nothing less than Jesus’ righteousness.
The Bible speaks of hope as an anchor holding the soul firm and secure. We’re told in 1st Thessalonians that a believer’s endurance is inspired by hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. Hope is that which fills and produces joy. Hope is a blessing. And the prophet Isaiah tells us that those who hope in the Lord will soar on wings like eagles.
Hope. Hope is our focus for today as we look to the books of Isaiah and Luke.
READ Isaiah 9:1a, 2, 6 and 7; Luke 2:11; and Romans 15:4
Little is known about the prophet Isaiah other than that he loved Jerusalem, freely associated with Judah’s kings, was married and had two children. The name Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation.” His name and the names of his sons—Shear-Jahsub (“a remnant will return”) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (“the prize shall very quickly be taken”)—were symbolic to the nation. These three names capture the essence of the book of Isaiah: First, Yahweh is the source of salvation; Second, Yahweh will spare a remnant for Himself; and Third, Yahweh’s judgment is certain to come. The book of Isaiah is a book centered on hope.
Isaiah was a contemporary of the prophets Amos, Hosea and Micah, beginning his ministry in 740 B.C., the year King Uzziah died. Isaiah accurately predicted the fall of the kingdom of Judah, the subsequent restoration of its people and their eventual return from captivity. Isaiah looked even further into the future to predict the coming of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, who would bring salvation in its fullest sense. And that Messiah came in Jesus, whose name means Savior. Christ means the Anointed One.
In Luke, and elsewhere in the New Testament, we see the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies in Jesus, the One born of a virgin and heir to the throne of David. The prophet Daniel predicted the time and place of His birth and we see the fulfillment of that prophecy in the first two verses of Luke, chapter 2.
The Lord entered into a world of darkness not so very different from the world of Isaiah’s day or our own day.
Then, the darkness was the darkness of Rome with its sexual immorality, its inhumanity, its injustice, its selfishness, its slavery, its pride, its spiritual emptiness.
Then, power was in the hands of men with lofty titles, impressive names: Caesar Augustus, emperor. Quirinius, governor of Syria. Then, as now, there were laborers—people like Joseph and the woman pledged to marry him, Mary.
And then too, there were oppressive governments, harsh taxes, insufficient housing, insensitive people, and episodes of great violence.
God broke into this darkness with light. There was the light that accompanied the angels who appeared to the shepherds as they tended their flocks in the Judean fields. There was the light that appeared to the magi—the wise men—of whom we read in Matthew’s gospel. And the Light came in human form, in divine form, in the Christ child, Jesus, who was born to lead us out of darkness, born to be a light unto our paths. Jesus, the Light of the World. Jesus, the only hope for the world.
The infant Jesus—in that stable in Bethlehem—was from all normal, surface indications—as far from the earthly power, fame and might of Caesar as anyone might be. and yet He was so infinitely beyond Caesar that one cannot even begin to make a comparison.
Here was the God of glory coming down to our level, our conditions, being subject to our pain, our humiliations, our frustrations, experiencing joy and love.
From Luke, we learn that this child would grow up in much the same way as other children. He would be subject to His earthly parents. He would toil with His hands. He would kneel in prayer. He would agonize over suffering. He would enjoy the company of friends. He would weep. He was fully human and yet fully God—the One who would be called our Lord Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The One whose name, Jesus, as we’ve noted, means “Savior.”
His birth in Bethlehem was a miracle that affirms God’s power. In Micah 5:2, the prophet proclaims: “You, Bethlehem Eprathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me One who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times.”
The words Micah uses here indicate that he expected a supernatural figure, a ruler, God in human form, and only in Jesus Christ does this prophecy and hundreds of others find fulfillment.
The Hebrew name “Beth-lehem” means House of Bread. The Bread of Life was born in Beth-lehem. And at His birth, he was placed in a manger, a feeding trough. Disturbing imagery at first glance. But Jesus clarifies the meaning for us in words to His disciples during a feeding of the multitudes.
Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate manna in the desert yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven which one may eat and not die. I am the “living bread’ that came down from heaven. If one eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world. And in Matthew 26, the Last Supper is recalled, when Jesus took the bread, gave thanks and gave it to them saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.”
Jesus tells us that we should not be as concerned about perishable food as about the food that lasts forever which He gives us. That food is Himself—His body and His blood—of which we partake symbolically in the Lord’s Supper.
Bethlehem—“House of Bread.” Bethlehem Ephrathah, this specific Bethlehem. It is this place to which the author of Genesis refers when he speaks of the burial place of Rachel. It is here that Ruth gathered grain in Boaz’ field and here that David was anointed king. The designation Bethlehem Ephrathah is used by Micah to distinguish this Bethlehem from other towns of the same name.
Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, this man, named Micah, prophesied that out of this Bethlehem would come the Messiah whose greatness would reach to the ends of the earth. And Micah’s contemporary Isaiah predicted that this child would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
In the Old Testament, there are more than 300 distinct prophecies that were fulfilled in this one Christ child. From the third chapter of Genesis, we learn that the Savior would be the offspring of a woman, from the line of Abraham and Isaac, a descendant of the tribe of Judah.
Jeremiah predicted that there would be a slaughter of infants following the Savior’s birth and we find recorded in Matthew’s gospel, the fact that King Herod ordered the destruction of all male children under the age of two in hopes of doing away with the baby whom the magi had announced as the long-awaited Christ child.
Another prophet, Hosea, again writing hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, prophesied that the Christ child would escape destruction by fleeing into Egypt. The fact of this flight is recorded for us in the gospel of Matthew.
Isaiah also prophesied of Christ’s virgin birth, His ministry in Galilee, His rejection by His own people, the false witnesses who would come against Him and His silence before His accusers. The Psalms speak of His betrayal by a friend and Zechariah prophesied that He would be sold for 30 pieces of silver and that the money would be returned for a potter’s field. And so it was. Isaiah also foretold that the Lord would suffer on the cross; that His hands and feet would be pierced; that He would be mocked and insulted; that He would be given gall and vinegar to drink; that He would pray for His enemies; that His side would be pierced; that soldiers would cast lots for His clothes; that not a bone of His body would be broken; and that He would be buried with the rich. All came to pass in Christ Jesus just as the prophets had written centuries earlier.
The prophets also foretold that Christ’s resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven would guarantee eternal life to all who would believe and accept what the Savior had done for them through His sacrifice on the cross.
Our faith in Jesus is not a matter of naivete—we worship a God—a triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who is real and powerful and active throughout history and beyond history. He is the worker of miracles and His greatest miracle is spoken of at length in the second chapter of Luke.
Here we learn that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census be taken throughout the Roman world. This decree brought Mary and Joseph the 100 miles from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem where they were to register so they might be taxed. There the prophecy about this place and the time of the Messiah’s birth would be fulfilled and it would be done by God moving the hand of a Roman ruler.
This same ruler would not knowingly have given a second thought to this couple from Nazareth. Nor would most of the ancient world be paying much attention to Jesus on this night. So much for worldly wisdom.
The world was so busy with its own affairs that it would not even make room for Him to be born. He had to be born in a stable.
Perhaps no one at all would have noticed the birth if God had not sent His angels to announce it to the shepherds and had He not, within time, sent a star to guide the wise men to the place where the Messiah was to be found.
You see, as I noted initially, things have not changed so much since the time of Jesus’s entrance into the world. Today, as then, many people are unaware that the Christ, the Anointed One, is in their midst. And, even those who know Him, often do not make much room for Him in their lives.
Jesus—who came to lead us out of spiritual darkness—is still often overlooked as people stumble on in the rush of the world. God comes gently and quietly—He doesn’t force Himself upon us but rather invites us to partake of the peace and wholeness—the filling of the God-sized vacuum within each one of us. He offers us respite and hope, light and life eternal. But, all too often, too many try to go it alone without God.
But even before God came in human flesh, there were those who anticipated His coming, who listened to truth and responded. Before Jesus was born, angels appeared to Mary and Joseph to announce the coming birth. Mary was told she would bear a child—the Son of God—while she was still a virgin. And Joseph was told not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. Both responded with obedience to the commands of the Lord God. And the fact of Christ’s virgin birth assures us of His deity, His godhood. No one else in history can make the same claim.
God broke into history with this miraculous birth and the entire event is a study in contrasts. Jesus is God and yet man. He is a king in a manger. And the announcement of the arrival of this king is made to two disparate groups within society: the shepherds who were nomads, poor and humble, and the magi or wise men, the professors of their day.
There are several lessons in this. We should not judge others by appearances, by the world’s standards. Remember, God placed the greatest of gifts in the poorest of packages—His own Son in simple swaddling clothes in a manger—a feeding trough for animals.
We should remember that it is not possible to judge the end of anything based on its beginning. From His birth in these humble surroundings, Jesus went on to serve the people of His time, sometimes referring to Himself as the Good Shepherd. This servant, who gave Himself for others, was God enfleshed, glorified above all others.
This Savior, this hoped-for Messiah, came that all those who would believe in Him and trust in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. In Him is comfort, safety, peace and, above all, hope.
May we prepare our hearts to welcome our Lord in this season of Advent. May we find in Him our hope.