When I was just a little tike in first and second grade we lived down in Newport, Oregon and my parents attended First Baptist church. And they were good Baptists, they did what all good Baptists did. They carried their Bibles to church every week. They encouraged Scripture memory. In Sunday School and VBS they taught Bible stories. They made a game out of knowing your Bible and all the books of the Bible. I remember playing a game called a Sword Drill. You would hold your sword closed and the teacher would call out a verse and you tried to be the first to find it. I think this was back before they invented Bibles with those thumb tabs on the side. You had to know your Hosea from your Hebrews and your Chronicles from your Corinthians. Baptists like to talk about the Bereans, about being a Berean or becoming a Berean. Since it is my custom to begin each new year with a reminder and call to prayer and Scripture reading, I have decided to skip ahead in our Acts series and preach on the Bereans this morning to encourage us to take up our sword as eagerly and seriously as they did.
You will recall we have been working our way through the book of Acts off and on over the past couple of years. This morning I am going to preach through the entire book of Acts. Sounds daunting, sounds overwhelming, sounds crazy, sounds really long. I am going to preach through the entire book of Acts this morning, but I am not going to play all the notes, I am going to play only one note, one note that is played over thirty times in the book of Acts, and that note is prayer. As you have come to expect at the beginning of each year I challenge us to take up the habit of praying and reading Scripture, to renew our efforts, God helping us. And to the extent that all of us have fallen short or failed to do this, I urge us to fail forward, to make an intentional effort no matter how faulty. In the book of Acts Dr. Luke describes in some detail the beginning history of the early Christian Church. There is one thing that stands out about the early church and it is prayer. The early church was a praying church. The early church didn’t talk about prayer, they didn’t expect just the leaders to pray, they didn’t hold conferences on prayer, they didn’t just “say their prayers,” they didn’t just open and close their meetings with prayer, the early church prayed. The early church had a clear sense of desperate dependence on the triune God.
Well, as we start to take down our Christmas decorations, though probably not just yet, we begin to set our eyes forward to the New Year, to 2021. Hard to believe, right? With 2020 being the kind of year that it was, undoubtedly one none of us will soon forget, many have asserted, and with good intentions, that 2021 will be the year where we get things back to normal, that 2021 is when we can finally put all of this chaos, uncertainty, dread, and disease behind us and get back to life as it was before Covid-19. And I hope that it is. I would love to be able to go to Avenue Bread after church today, sit down at a table inside and order my French Dip sandwich, you know, the one with the house-roasted beef, swiss cheese, caramelized onions, and a side of “au jus”—it’s delicious. However, brothers and sisters, I regret to tell you that I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, so I can’t tell you before God that such will be the case or will not be the case. Nevertheless, this morning as we look back at the words of the prophet Isaiah, I think we’ll find encouragement for today and for the future, whatever it holds, because we’ll learn about the God who has not only spoken truly but has acted powerfully on behalf of His people in tumultuous, uncertain times. In an age where mandates, policies, and plans are changing at a dizzying rate, we’ll find encouragement in the God who never changes, and we’ll find encouragement in His word, which, while ancient, is more relevant to us today than we can imagine. Isaiah will show us that there are many reasons to believe that God is trustworthy, even, or perhaps especially in the complexity of our lives. And this leads us to our first point, our first of three.
People who study history talk about the year 1809 as a bumper crop year for babies who would influence and change the world. 1809 was the year of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, William Gladstone prime minister of England; biologist Charles Darwin; three famous writers, English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and American writers Oliver Wendell Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe; two inventors, Louis Braille who invented the braille writing system and Cyrus McCormick who invented the McCormick reaper; and world famous composer Felix Mendelssohn. What a bumper crop year for babies who would influence and change the world. Baby of all babies. This Advent season we have looked at the Bibles own bumper crop of babies. Four babies God used to influence and change the world and more importantly to prepare the world for Jesus. During this Advent season we have seen how babies point us to God’s plans in redemptive history. Isaac showed us our need for a substitute and a sacrifice. Moses delivered God’s people from physical bondage, but we still need a Savior from spiritual bondage. Samuel was a priest who anointed kings, but Jesus would be both priest and King. John prepared the way for a Savior but he was not the Savior. Jesus’ birth is not only the hinge point of history, it changed the destiny of the universe.
We turn this morning from the OT to the NT, and specifically to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is told by Dr. Luke. Luke sets out to tell us the story of Jesus. But he does it in a unique way among the four Gospels. He doesn’t start with Jesus’ baptism the way Mark does (and for the most part John). He doesn’t start with Jesus’ birth the way Matthew does. He backs up and starts with the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist. Why does Luke back up to get a running start at his subject? To understand that you have to understand something about the times. Up to this point there had been 400 years of silence when the voice of God had not been heard in the land. The oldest person alive at this time could not remember a time even in his earliest childhood when a prophet had spoken the Word of God. There had not been proclaimed, “Thus saith the Lord” in four centuries. For a people who had an old book that recorded a thousand years’ worth of prophetic proclamations and words from the Lord, this famine for the Word of God was exceedingly long and exceedingly painful. When heaven is silent people languish and despair.
Even in the best of years, and 2020 is not one of them, even in the best of years Christmas can be a mixed blessing for some people and some families. There are tensions that may have a lid on them most of the year, that boil over at family gatherings. The black sheep of the family comes home. A loved one is missing at the festivities. Loneliness is felt more sharply especially as one sees other families gathering and enjoying time together. COVID-19 limits family gatherings. Holidays are not always happy days even in the best of times and in the best of families. That was certainly the experience of Hannah. Every year the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh for the big religious celebration was spoiled for her. While everyone else was enjoying the festivities she was sobbing and had no desire to enter in, and no appetite for the big feast.
What child is this? A child is born. What we are noticing in this advent season is at critical moments in God’s salvation plan when God wants to do something really big, really important, He does something really small, a miraculous birth takes place, a child is born who will change the world or prepare the world for something greater. Exodus 1, background. Exodus begins with God’s people suffering. They have been suffering for a very long time, almost 400 years. They are slaves in Egypt suffering under the rule of severe taskmasters. They are abused, oppressed. Exodus 1:11, 13-14 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. … 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves. Think Jews in Germany under Hitler; Muslims in Myanmar and China, Christians in northern Nigeria. And then to add insult to injury, it gets worse, Pharaoh decrees to kill the Hebrew sons.
Advent means anticipation, expectation, coming, it’s this short season when we prepare for celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world, when we prepare for the coming of the centuries long promise of God to send a Messiah, when we prepare for the fulfilment His redemptive purposes He announced and started way back in the garden of Eden when God said the seed of woman will crush the head of the serpent. The first promise of salvation in the Bible included babies. That promised seed of woman who would crush the head of the serpent comes in the form of babies. The Bible is full of babies, God-sent babies, babies who influenced and changed the world. Out of the mouths of babes and infants God has spoken and shown Himself. This advent season we will reflect on five babies God used to influence or change not just world history, but salvation history and eternity. They are Isaac, Moses, Samuel, John the Baptist and Jesus. These are babies God used to prepare the way to crush the serpent.
This has been a challenging year for all of us and for me as a pastor. I have been pushed to the limits. But I want to be clear about something. I have not ceased to give thanks to God for you. I love you and I thank God for you and for the privilege of being your pastor. How do you give thanks in a year like 2020? 2020 will go down in the history books as one of the worst years ever, not the worst, there are several contenders for that title, but certainly one of the worst, and perhaps the worst in most of our life-times, with the possible exception of those of you who endured the Nazi occupation of Holland. But back to my question, how do we give thanks for a year like 2020? Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should write-off 2020 like a bad investment and try to forget about it. Maybe we should just look forward to 2021. How do you give thanks in the midst of disappointments, heartaches, fears, losses, health challenges, loss of loved ones, discouragements of all kinds for all the things we couldn’t do. How we give thanks for 2020 will depend on our theology, on what we believe about God, on how we understand the sovereignty and providence of God.