Whatever It Takes, Traditional

Whatever It Takes, Traditional

December 08, 2019 • Rob Fuquay

Searching for Christmas

Whatever It Takes

Isaiah 40:1-11

If you’re searching for Christmas you have to start long before Bethlehem. If you waited til the baby is born you’re too late. You even to go back further than Nazareth. If you wait until the announcement to Mary, you’re still too late. If you want to find Christmas you have to go back to the Old Testament, to the prophet Isaiah to be exact.

More prophecies are associated with Jesus from Isaiah than any other book in the Old Testament. “For unto us a child is born.” “For the virgin will conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name Immanuel which means ‘God with us.” “His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” “He was pierced for our iniquities and crushed for our transgressions.” “He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressor.” All from Isaiah. If you’re searching for Christmas, you start in Isaiah.

You could shrink the whole Bible down to the book of Isaiah. There are 66 books in the Bible. There are 66 chapters in Isaiah. The Old Testament has 39 books. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are associated with the prophet of the 8th century BC. Some say those chapters read a lot like the Old Testament: a lot of doom and gloom and warning about what would happen if the people continue to turn from God.

The New Testament has 27 books. The second half of Isaiah has 27 chapters. It is full of hope and promise of forgiveness and new life. Not many people realize that when you turn from chapter 39 to 40 in Isaiah you jump about 150 years of history. Chapter 40 takes place in the 6th century BC. Everything the first Isaiah forecasted has come to pass. The people have lost everything. They destroyed by other nations because of their rebellion. But now, this second Isaiah, comes onto the scene to announce new hope, “Comfort, comfort my people says your God.”

That’s the opening song of Handel’s Messiah. His life sort of reflected the book of Isaiah. He was born in Germany (picture of Handel) and used his musical talent to compose German and Italian operas. He moved to England where his work at first was well received, but then people’s taste changed. Operas sung in German and Italian weren’t as popular, but Handel had a hard time changing. Because of it he struggled financially. Creditors were constantly hounding him. He kept working harder and harder but without changing anything. Finally at the age of 52 he suffered a major stroke that left him without the use of his right arm and the power of his brain to play and write music. His doctor said, “We may save the man but the musician is lost forever.”

That is when Handel did something he had not before. He changed. He didn’t give in to the diagnosis. He did whatever it took to get better. He retreated into a wilderness of sorts back in Germany to undergo therapy. He got better. After regaining use of his arm he tested his ability to play the organ in a local cathedral. Afterward he proclaimed, “I have come back from Hades.” He returned to London and resumed writing operas but his work wasn’t well received. Again he had creditors after him. In April of 1741 he conducted what he assumed would be his last concert.

Then in August he received a manuscript from a poet friend. It took the scriptures of Isaiah foretelling the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus. It was meant to be an oratorio, but given Handel’s feelings of failure he was reluctant. But the opening words leapt from the page, “Comfort Ye my people says your God.” He became excited by what he read. His depression lifted. He committed to putting the words to music, and hardly lifted his head for 3 weeks. In just that time he finished his work. He said of the experience, “God has visited me.” At the end he wrote three letters SDG. It stands for sola dei Gloria. To God alone be the glory.” The title of this work? Messiah.

In a wilderness of physical limitation and emotional discouragement, Handel did what it took to change things, and he experienced a breakthrough. Christmas doesn’t pass each year without hearing Messiah somewhere. (take picture of Handel off screen)

Look at a question at the top of your outline. It is one that will guide us in this message, “Are you willing to do whatever it takes?” That’s really the question before the question when we find ourselves in a wilderness. It’s the question that comes before, what? What should I do? What will change my situation. Change begins by asking, “Am I willing to do whatever it takes?”

That’ where the search for Christmas takes us. That’s what the prophet asks out in the desert. If you want to find Christmas you have to go back further than a manger in Bethlehem. If you want to find Christmas you have to go back even further than Nazareth and an angel’s announcement to a young girl. If you want to find Christmas you have to go out to the desert. That’s where the exiles of Israel are walking back home. Their tired. Their heads are hung low. They have been prisoners of war, but now they have been released. They’re going home, but the path home is through the desert, and they know why they are there. They were stubborn. They rebelled against God. They were selfish. And the desert around them looks like their lives. Its empty. There’s nothing you can see that says things are going to get better.

Have you ever been in the desert? That’s where your search for Christmas will take you.

Those who come out of the desert understand Christmas best. Not everybody follows that path to Christmas. For some they haven’t been in a desert. Life has been good. They just need a Christmas that adds a little festive feeling to the end of the year. Christmas offers that. For others, they just need an escape from the news. They’re tired of the division and arguing and fear spreading. They need something warm and fuzzy. Christmas can offer that.

But those who really get it, those who understand what Christmas best, are the ones in the desert, because they hear the message, “Comfort, comfort my people says your God.” When you’re in the desert you don’t have any distractions. You don’t have anything else to depend on. As the old saying goes “We don’t realize that God is all we need until God is all we’ve got.” Well in the desert you discover that. Everything else is stripped away, and you discover that God comes to us. You learn that God’s coming is not dependent on our preparation…You can’t earn it. You don’t deserve it. You just find yourself in a place with all distractions removed and you realize that God’s coming is not dependent on your preparation…BUT! Say BUT! You know when you say “but” something different is coming.

My friend, Rob Wineland quotes his mother who used to say, the “but” negates everything that went before it in a sentence. “That dress is lovely, but your hair…” You did a great job here, but this other project…” “Everyone just loves hearing pastor Jevon preach, but…” I don’t really have anything else to say there, so that’s not a good example. Imagine standing at the pearly gates one day and hearing St. Peter say, “You went to church frequently, and gave to good causes, and helped others. That’s great, BUT…” What could become of your but?

Not many people want to go there. They want Christmas to feel festive and warm. They need Christmas to be a nice respite from all the news around them, sort of a solace from the division and ugliness we hear a lot. And something of Christmas can be found there. But those who have traveled through the desert, those who have looked at the mistakes they’ve made in life, who have regrets and failures, who wonder if anything life-giving will ever be in their lives again; Those who come out of the desert understand Christmas best.

know that the comfort God brings means that life can be different. That’s what they are after. And you never really appreciate the hope that life can be different until you’re willing to do whatever it takes for life to be different.

Sometimes the but does negate, but not always. Sometimes the but clarifies what follows. God said to Adam and Eve, “You may eat from any tree in the garden, BUT, of the tree in the middle of the garden you must not touch.”

 Jesus said, “I will be crucified and buried, BUT on the third day I will rise again.”

 “In a little while the world will no longer see me, BUT, you will see me.

Sometimes the But is very important. So go back to our statement, God’s coming is not dependent on our preparation…BUT…His arrival is.

Receiving God’s help, experiencing the hope he brings requires preparation. We don’t have to do anything for God to come to us, but we do have to prepare to receive him. Listen to what Isaiah proclaimed to the exiles, “Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, Smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks.”

Notice the action words: “Make straight…make smooth…fill in…level off…smooth out” (vv3-5, The Message) Yes, God comes without our preparation, but his arrival is different.

Simone Weil was a spiritual mystic who wrote about experiencing God. She practiced waiting on God. Part of that waiting included reading poetry. She started reading the works of George Herbert, a 17th century Anglican priest. She found his writings so meaningful she memorized one of his poems and recited it in her daily devotions. During one of these recitations she wrote, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.” Christ’s coming wasn’t dependent on her preparation but his arrival was. (remove picture of simone weil )

No wonder John the Baptist prepared people for the coming of Jesus by preaching Isaiah. He came out of the wilderness and preached these words from Isaiah 40. People flocked to hear him. He said, “Life can be different. Prepare yourself. He is coming, but get ready for his arrival.”

Soldiers went to hear him. They asked, “What do we do?” John said, “Protect people. Don’t add to their fear.” Tax collectors asked John, “What do we do? He said, “Quit defrauding people. Just be honest and fair.” And people got baptized as a way of showing they were going to get ready.” My preaching professor Fred Craddock says, “Jesus did not just suddenly appear, people were prepared for it.”

The word John used a lot was Repentance. And that’s a very churchy word, or at least its become that. Some people think it means feeling sorry for your sin, kind of groveling for God’s grace. But that’s not what it means. That’s not what the prophets meant who used this word. It simply means “to change your mind or direction.” That’s it. We might say it like this: to be willing to make a shift. Humbler yourself. Be open to suggestion. Do what it takes in order for life to be different.

Those willing to make shifts open themselves for new possibilities. Spiritually speaking, those willing to do whatever it takes to get out of the desert open themselves to what God can do. I saw this in the recession in 2008. I knew people whose businesses tanked. Their finances crumbled. One couple decided to sell their house and downsize significantly. They said, I have to do what it takes.

I knew others who didn’t. Some said, “This is our dream home. We worked so hard to get here. We are doing that.” They wouldn’t do what it takes. Their struggles continued for a long time.

I’ve known people, amazing people, who go through awful family squabbles. The kind that can just rip a family apart. And one of them says, “I’ll do whatever it takes,” and he goes and apologizes to someone and says, “Let’s figure this out.” And they do.

But I’ve known others who go through the same thing and say, “I have nothing to apologize for. I’m not sorry for anything I did or said. I had a right. And they hold their ground like they’re defending the Alamo. And the division continues.

Repent. Be willing to make a shift. You know I hear people who frequently say, “I so want life to be different. I’m tired of going in the direction I am. I want things to get better.” But many of them are waiting. They’re waiting for something to change. They’re waiting for someone else to come along and change things. They’re waiting for God to change things, and they get mad because God doesn’t.

Is there anything God would have me shift in order for life to be different?

Ryan Berdel joined St. Luke’s a little over a month ago. He joined by Profession of Faith acknowledging he was leaving atheism behind. His father is a United Methodist pastor. He grew up in the church. He was never turned off with the churches he was in. He credits his dad for teaching him to think and not just swallow everything he was told. Of course, doing that is what took him away from faith for a while.

He got turned off by the religious right that seemed to define what it means to be Christian. He didn’t see himself that way. It made him uncomfortable being identified as a Christian. Somewhere along the way he decided to become agnostic. Eventually he felt he was really an atheist. But he didn’t make a good one, because when he was lonely he remembers thinking, “God is just a figment of my imagination,” but maybe this figment can help me. So he said, “God if you’re real, help me find an atheist girlfriend.” What kind of atheist prays?

But darned if God didn’t answer his prayer. He said he realize you have to be careful what you pray for regardless of what you think about God, because God might just do it. He met an atheist woman, fell in love, moved in with her, but then started discovering things that weren’t so great. She could be mean. She was abusive, both physically and mentally. He got what he wanted and was still unhappy.

He found himself starting to turn bitter inside, and that’s when he thought something has to change. If he stays this way its going to get ugly. He was liking the person he was becoming.

That’s when he noticed something. He observed his father and step mother. They seemed very happy in their marriage, and he knew faith was a reason. Their faith had an impact on the way they resolved differences and showed respect for each other.