"My Steadfast Love Shal Not Depart From You"
December 19, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis
Passage: Isaiah 54:1-20
My Steadfast Love Shall Not Depart From You
December 19, 2021
Read John 15:12-17
Read Isaiah 54:1-10
This is the Word of the LORD.
So far in Advent, we have heard how the promises of God are the substance of our hope, how the peace of God is revealed in the coming of the Messiah, how the joy of the Lord is bigger than any crisis we can face. Today, we look at God’s love. Where is God’s love in the midst of the hardness of life? When things seem barren, when the present seems empty, where hope seems futile; that is where God’s love is shown most powerfully. Stronger than nature and more lasting than the mountains, God has promised he will have compassion on us with everlasting love.
It is a good reminder for us at Christmas.
The context of Christmas love
In the old cartoon classic, when the exasperated Charlie Brown asks, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about,” Linus’ gives a wonderful recitation of Luke 2:1-20 that brings tears to my eyes. Every time. We hear of the emperor’s order to take a census, of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, to her delivering her baby, wrapping him in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger. We hear about the angels and shepherds. In my mind I have the picture of all the nativity scenes we have collected over the years: pastoral, quiet, wonderful and serene. When we look at the snapshot of the moment of Jesus’ birth, it is every bit as lovely as all the cards, lights, presents, and stories that surround the celebration.
However, that snapshot is only a small slice of the picture. If we take a few steps back, we see how starkly that picture contrasts with the reality surrounding the nativity. I want to take a few moments to walk us through the nativity scene in Luke and the situation in Isaiah to illustrate how God’s love is not always obvious when we look around us; that is unless we are looking for it.
The Manger and the Moment
The stable was likely was not the isolated pitiful squalor many of us have imagined it to be over the years. Biblical scholar and Presbyterian Kenneth E. Bailey has written a book entitled Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (2008). He lived and taught in the Middle East for sixty years. In the first chapter of this book, Dr. Bailey clarifies some of the details we have about certain features of the traditional Christmas story.
Mary and Joseph were on the road looking for a place to stay because of a government order. other words, they were forced to make this trip. Further, they were in the stable because – as Luke tells us and we all know – there was no room in the inn. Bailey wrote,
"Simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests. That room could be attached to the end of the house or be a prophet’s chamber on the roof... The main room was a family room where the entire family cooked, ate, slept, and lived. The end of the room, next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey, and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning the same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. animal stall would then be cleaned for the day. Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the 20th century. I’ve seen them both in Upper Galilee and in Bethlehem.
'[P]art of what Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is that the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where they were received into a private home. The child was born, wrapped and (literally) ‘put to bed’ (anaklino) in the living room in the manger that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved into the family living space. Why weren’t they invited into the family guestroom, the reader might naturally ask? The answer is: the guestroom was already occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house. The family room would, naturally, be cleared of men for the birth of the child, and the village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth. After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn son to bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a blanket."
Bailey’s opinion is that Jesus’ birth would have been a special moment for everyone who shared this experience with Mary and Joseph – but that would have been true if it had been any other baby. It is the ancient equivalent of having a baby on the side of the road – it is exciting and everyone present would remember how special it was. Ordinarily, an event like this would go unnoticed by the rest of the world. It was humble, ordinary, and unexceptional.
It was humble, ordinary, and unexceptional but for the heavenly announcements of the birth of a king. Those angelic announcements had radical and unsettling implications. The birth of the king – even in such humble environs – was revolutionary. It was dangerous. It was disruptive. It meant change was coming, and change was scary because it was outside the control of the people. And this is where we begin to see God’s love in a larger context.
No matter how insignificant were Joseph and Mary politically, the proclamation of their child as king was sufficient to generate a massive response from the current king. Israel already had a king. We read about that in Matthew, where Herod inquired from the traveling Magi about the location of the child. Then, horrifically, ordered the murder of all children in and around Bethlehem under the age of two. Beyond that, Israel was not a sovereign nation; it was a territory held by Rome and its emperor. As we will read later in Jesus’ life, Jesus would ultimately be charged and executed for sedition – treason – against Rome for being declared a king; that was why Pilate ordered the nameplate “King of the Jews” to be nailed above Jesus’ head on the cross.
When we widen our perspective beyond the stable, we realize the manger scene is the one “ahhh” in the midst of a life of “uh-oh…” Where is God’s love in the midst of the hardness of life? What seems barren, what seems empty, where hope seems futile; that is where God’s love is shown most powerfully. God’s love is not always obvious when we look around us; that is, unless we are looking for it.
Where is God’s Love in the Midst of the Hardness of Life?
“Where is God’s love in the midst of the hardness of life?” is the same question asked in the days of Isaiah 54. We have been focusing our Advent attention on Isaiah.
Isaiah 54 was written after both the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah had been defeated. As we mentioned last week, the people of Jerusalem had been away in exile. They had been in exile for seventy years and had only recently begun to be allowed to return to Jerusalem. They had lost everything. They had to start over again. How were they to understand what had happened to them? Where was the steadfast love of God about which King David had written songs?
How strange the prophet’s words must have sounded. Life was still hard. In the uncertainty of the days, with the memory of exile fresh in their minds, the people had to wonder why they should believe. How could they trust God? But God was promising to restore Israel and remember His promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and to David.
What were the people seeing? It was the time of Ezra and Nehemiah; the temple had either been rebuilt or was in the process of being rebuilt. Israel was still subject to the Persian Empire, but something had changed. In that moment, God was declaring, “Expand your tents. Spread out to the left and right. Don’t be afraid; you won’t be ashamed – those days are over.” “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer.”
So you can get the feel of how this might have sounded, let me put it into our context. This would be like a prophet saying to our generation, “The pandemic is over. Don’t worry about it – be bold and go out into the world because your days of isolation are over.” Would you believe it? Do you think others would? We are only two years into this pandemic; they were seventy years in captivity – would a prophet’s words be enough to make you act in trust? How could you know?
You would have to look. You would have to pray and ask God, “Show me what you are doing so that I can know this is true.” But you would have to look with eyes ready to see. When things have been barren, when the present seems empty, where hope seems futile; that is where God’s love is shown most powerfully.
The Ferocious Love of God.
Why is any of that important? Why does it matter what God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus was born? Why does it matter what was happening outside the manger scene when Jesus was born? It matters because it shows us how God’s love is revealed in the midst of hard times. God did not create everything just to spin it off and walk away. All of creation belongs to God. In God’s own way, God was redeeming it through his love. We may not always see it and things may not always go our way, but God is redeeming his creation through his love.
There is ferocity to God’s love that is difficult for us to understand. And, yes, ferocious is the correct word. God’s love is unyielding and it is uncompromising because it deals with holiness and redemption from sin. God’s love is accomplishing God’s purposes in ways that make us really uncomfortable. Why does it make us uncomfortable? Because God’s love is not limited to our immediate circumstances; God’s love is redeeming us from sin.
Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” As we know from the gospels, Jesus would be the full expression of the promises made in Isaiah.
Isaiah was speaking to his own generation hundreds of years before Jesus was born. Isaiah was telling them God’s word for them, how God was redeeming them from the judgment for the sins of breaking covenant with him. What they did not know and what we realize only later is Jesus would be the perfect full expression of what Isaiah was describing. Can you think of a better description of Jesus’ experience on the cross as the proxy, the substitute, the atoning sacrifice of Israel, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer.”
In order to understand the depth, complexity, and ferocious holiness of God’s love, we have to consider the story of Jesus in parallel with the story of another son in the Bible. In Genesis 22, Abraham is instructed, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Do you remember this story? The Bible says that Abraham was an old man – 100 years old – and his wife was an old woman – the Bible says 90 years old – when Isaac was born: Isaac’s birth was a miracle.
Then, a couple of years later, Abraham was told to offer the boy – this miraculous boy whom he loved – as a sacrifice? That’s horrible. Abraham responds to the test with a complete trust in God; but that kind of overlooks the point of why God asked him in the first place. What kind of a God would do that? How does a “loving” God say, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, …and offer him as a burnt offering?”
A burnt offering involves cutting up and burning the whole animal on the altar and was the [most common] type of sacrifice. It seems to have expressed at least two ideas: that the offerer is giving himself entirely to God (for the animal represents the offerer) and that the animal’s death atones for the worshiper’s sin. (Word Biblical Commentary, Genesis 16-50, p. 105).
The cost of sin is high and the price of a substitute is profound. Abraham’s desire to be faithful and reconciled to God expressed a deep love. He trusted that God would be able to raise Isaac from the dead.
Well, Abraham ended up not sacrificing his only son, whom he loved. In Abraham’s case, God provided a substitute for the substitute: a ram caught in the thickets took Isaac’s place as the burnt offering.
Generations later and as God promised in Isaiah 54, God provided a Redeemer for all the children of Abraham: Jesus Christ, God’s only son, whom He loves, the Lamb of God, who once for all takes away the sins of the world. Just as Abraham trusted that God would be able to raise Isaac from the dead, so Jesus trusted and was obedient unto death, even death on the cross.
If you have difficulty accepting the living God taking on flesh and coming as a baby, consider this parable written in the mid-1950’s:
Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a Scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a man, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.
“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite and that he would much rather just stay at home. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier. Then he went back to his fireside chair to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another and another — sort of a thump or a thud. At first, he thought someone must have been throwing snowballs against his living room window.
But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.
Quickly he put on a coat and galoshes and then he tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them. So he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs and sprinkled them on the snow. He made a trail to the brightly lit, wide-open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the breadcrumbs and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow.
He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them and waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me — that I am not trying to hurt them but to help them. But how?
Any move he made tended to frighten and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed, because they feared him.
“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.”
At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
“Now I understand,” he whispered. “Now I see why you had to do it.”
In other words, when God manifested his love for the world by giving his only begotten Son, it was a ferocious expression of the depth of his love to redeem the very world that had rebelled against him. God did not simply say, “Oh, never mind; sin does not matter. I know you are trying hard enough.” No, God addressed the consequence of our sin – fully, directly, and specifically – by giving his only Son, whom he loves, as a ransom for many. In his body on the cross, Jesus took our sin and sacrificed his own life so that we would not be subject to the rightful consequences of our own behavior.
God does not leave us in judgment; but in his love, God provided a Redeemer: Jesus Christ, God’s only son, whom He loves, the Lamb of God, who once for all has taken away the sins of the world. “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” reported Isaiah. “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you., but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.”
God has promised to express his love for us. And so he did. Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Love Looking Forward
As we remember and celebrate Christ’s birth, we also look forward to Christ’s return. In both, we can hear God’s promises in Isaiah 54 anew. When things have been barren, when the present seems empty, where hope seems futile; that is where God’s love is shown most powerfully. God’s love is not always obvious when we look around us; that is, unless we are looking for it. We hold onto the promises of God’s love for us. Whether Christ returns in our lifetime or not, we know that God’s word is true. It was true then, it is true now, it will remain true for all time.
As you go forward into these few days before Christmas, remember that God’s love is expressed in difficult circumstances, that God’s love is ferocious and powerful, and that his steadfast love shall not depart from you. In Jesus Christ, those promises have been fulfilled; in Jesus Christ, those promises will be eternally fulfilled.
“With everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the LORD, your Redeemer.”
Amen and Merry Christmas.
- “When things have been barren, when the present seems empty, where hope seems futile; that is where God’s love is shown most powerfully.” Has this been your experience? Can you think of instances and ways that God’s love has been powerfully shown to you?
- How do you understand the depth, complexity and ferocious holiness of God’s love? Why does it matter?
- Merry Christmas!
 Copyright © 1959 by United Press International/Louis Cassels.