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First Sunday in Advent -- December 3, 2023

Isaiah 64:1-9

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
    that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
    and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
    and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
    you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
    who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
    you were angry.
    How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
    and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
    or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
    and have given us over to[b] our sins.

8 Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
    We are the clay, you are the potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord;
    do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
    for we are all your people.

          The celebration of Christmas has become a global event.  How Christmas is celebrated varies from country to country.  You are familiar with Christmas in the United States.  Christians celebrate by worshipping the Savior of the world who was born in a manger in Bethlehem.  He is the center of our celebrations that may also include the secular traditions of decorating Christmas trees, visiting relatives, and exchanging gifts.  You may have your own family Christmas traditions as well.
          It is interesting to see how Christmas is celebrated in other countries.  In Germany, a pickle is hidden among the ornaments on the Christmas trees, and the first child to find it gets a special gift.  People in Japan have made Kentucky Fried Chicken the meal of choice for Christmas since the first KFC was opened in Japan in 1974.  In the Venezuelan Capital of Caracas, people roller skate to their church on Christmas morning.  Many of the children sleep with one of the laces of their roller skates tied to their toe!
          Regardless of which traditions we may observe or not observe, the challenge is to not lose sight of “Christ” in Christmas.  We don’t want Jesus to get lost in the shuffle or become an afterthought during this season.  We’ll try to help you maintain your focus on Jesus because we know that the Devil will be trying to make you lose focus.  We’ll begin today by joining Isaiah in prayer to invite our Lord to be part of our Christmas celebration and our lives.  We’ll pray…

“Savior of the Nations, Come!”
I.  With your power
II.  With your justice
III.  With your mercy

          God’s people were about to see the power of their enemies.  The Babylonians were assembling their army to attack the people of Judah, and there would be nothing they could do to stop them.  Like the northern kingdom, they had turned away from the Lord.  They had turned to other gods and religions and put themselves on a path to disaster.
          The prophet Isaiah saw the spiritual decay that had taken place.  He knew that there was only one thing that could change the direction that these people were headed.  He prayed for God to intervene, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!”  Isaiah prayed that God would use his power to change the sinful hearts of his people.
          Isaiah was well aware of the power that God had shown to his people in the past.  He spoke of the “awesome things” that God had done. The events that had taken place at Mt. Sinai years earlier were legendary.  As the 2,000,000 Israelites stood at the base of the mountain, they were witnesses to a display unlike any other that they had ever seen.  Moses describes that day saying, “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast.  Everyone in the camp trembled…Mt. Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like a smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.  Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”  (Ex. 19:16,18-19) Now that’s something that you don’t forget!  Isaiah said, “…you came down, and the mountain trembled before you.”
          Isaiah knew that Israel was in trouble, deep trouble.  He also knew that the power of the almighty God could free them from the trouble that they were facing.  The power displayed at Mt. Sinai was power that God had used FOR his people.  He had used that power to protect them over the years and to give them all that they needed.  Isaiah said, “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.  You come to the help of those who gladly do right.”
          The power of the almighty God was at the disposal of his people. The enemy was building up for a showdown.  And it wasn’t just the enemy to the east, the Babylonians.  It was the far more powerful and destructive enemy from below, from hell.  Satan was mounting an attack of God’s people that would threaten their eternal souls. 

II.  With your justice

          Isaiah knew why the people were in such trouble.  The problem wasn’t with God.  It never is.  His power and ability had been displayed many times.  The problem was with God’s people.  They were facing what they deserved because of their rebellion against God.  Isaiah wrote, “But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry…All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
          The Israelites were in a position where they had to ask some questions.  “Why is this happening?”  “What can we do?”  “How are we going to protect ourselves against the Babylonians?”  “Where can we look for help?”  The huge mistake that they were making was forgetting about God and his promises to guard and protect them. They turned to other gods for help and sought political alliances with other nations. They stubbornly refused to believe that they were the cause of their problems.
          Isaiah saw clearly where the problem lay, “No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for You have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.”  You can sense the frustration in Isaiah’s words.  This wasn’t the first time that Isaiah had to confront the people with their sins.  In fact, it was a recurring problem that got deeper and deeper over the years.  Isaiah saw how serious things had become.  And in the instant when he realized how dangerously serious the situation was, he cried out, “How then can we be saved?”
          God’s people had to face his justice.  They could not get away with their excuses or their accusations that God wasn’t being fair with them.  They needed to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and God’s just punishment at the hands of the Babylonians would serve as that mirror.  The sinful people needed God’s law to see the true source of their troubles.
          Keep in mind that Israel was once where we are now.  They believed, they trusted, they obeyed, they were God’s people.  And God had blessed them as he had promised to do.  But Satan drove a wedge between them and God. That wedge caused a division, and that division turned into a gap, and that gap resulted in separation.
          It started small—they saw the heathen gods and practices of their neighbors and were attracted to the pomp and circumstance.  They were just looking!        But looking turned to interest, interest to participation, and participation to devotion—devotion to a false god.  That sin and disobedience put them on the road to hell.
          We may feel safe and secure as we get ready for Christmas.  We may feel that losing sight of Jesus at Christmas could never happen to us.  But remember how easy it is for Satan to interfere in our lives and begin to turn us away from God.  Instead of foolishly saying, “It won’t happen to me, I’d never forget my Savior,” ask yourself, “How might it happen to me?”  “What sin might be my Achilles heel?”  “Where am I weak?”
          Then, do what Isaiah did.  Look to the Lord for help.

III.  With your mercy

          Isaiah wrote these comforting words, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Isaiah pointed to the covenant grace of God and his Fatherly love for his people.  Let’s face it, that’s the only hope that we have!  If we hold out before God our “righteous acts,” he will only see “filthy rags.”  If we try to show him how good we are and how deserving we are of his eternal rewards, he will point to our sinfulness and our constant disobedience, and we will “shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
          But God is not an angry ruler looking for vengeance.  He is, as Isaiah pointed out, “our Father.”  Yes, he hates our disobedience.  Yes, he will punish our sins.  But as we begin a new church year today, our thoughts are directed to what God did to take away our sins and spare us from their eternal punishment.  In his love for us, our Father developed a plan that none of us would ever have imagined.  It is the story of God’s love shown in the sacrifice of his own Son to rescue us from our sins and their consequences.
          As a potter takes a useless lump of clay and molds it into something both beautiful and useful, so God has molded us into something beautiful in his eyes and useful to him in his kingdom.  Our Father has done what we could never have done.  He answered the question that we are considering today, “How then can we be saved?”  He sent his Son who lived the perfect life that God demands.  And then, his Son traded places with us and went to the cross.
          We will celebrate the birth of our Savior in 3 weeks.  We will have the opportunity to hear the story of our Savior’s coming to save us.  You won’t hear anything new.  The story won’t be different.  It doesn’t have to be.  Take advantage of the opportunities you have in the next few weeks to get ready for that celebration.  Set aside an extra hour or two to join us as we praise our God for his power, his just love, and his mercy and as we pray, “Savior of the Nations, Come!”  God bless us as we look forward to our Christmas celebration.  Amen.