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This year we’re using the Advent candles to guide our inner preparations for Christmas.
Last Sunday we lit the Prophecy Candle and reviewed some Old Testament prophecies.
When mankind sinned, God promised to save them. It’s as simple as that. Just how that salvation would occur was the question. Prophecies sprinkled throughout the Old Testament fleshed out God’s promise. Forgiveness would come to sinners through One specific individual – God’s chosen Messiah.
The prophecies concerning this individual are called, “Messianic Prophecies”. They give us details like: He would be human. He would be God. He would be a Prophet, a Priest, a King. He would perform miracles. He would suffer a horrible death in the place of sinners. He would be raised from the dead. He would be rewarded by God the Father for His mission completed.
But God used more than prophecies to reveal the Messiah to the world. Amazingly, God also wove images of the great “Messianic rescue” right into the events of history.
Today we light the Bethlehem Candle and examine three periods in history on which God stamped the image of the Savior.
Exodus 2:23-3:10, 4:29-31 (NIV)
2:23During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
3:1Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
4:29Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, 30and Aaron told them everything the LORD had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, 31and they believed. And when they heard that the LORD was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.
In 2007, star NFL quarterback Michael Vick pled guilty to involvement with an illegal dog fighting ring. As a result he was sentenced to serve 21 months in prison, followed by two months of home confinement.
This year, Vick is out of jail and is playing football with the Philadelphia Eagles. I Recently saw an interview with Vick in which he talked about his time in prison. He described the hopeless feeling of not being able to go where he wanted to go, or be with the people he wanted to be with.
In Egypt, the Israelites must have felt the same. They were stuck. They couldn’t do the things they wanted to do, or go the places where they wanted to go. Perhaps they wondered whether God cared about them at all. Year after year went by, and they remained slaves.
But God did care about them. He knew what was happening to them. He heard their cries for help. He felt for these people. And because He did cared, He worked out a plan to set them free.
Today, we live in a country where slavery is illegal. But we can feel the same despair that the Israelites did. So what if we don’t have to make bricks for Pharaoh, we feel the whip of another master. We feel the whip of sin in our lives.
The Bible says that we are slaves to whatever masters us. Sin causes all kinds of suffering. Sin complicates our lives and damages our relationships. Sin makes it impossible for us to do the things we want to do. It pushes the people we want to be with away from us.
But God sees our dilemma. He hears our cries for help. And just as God sent Moses to lead Israel out of Egyptian slavery, God sent His Son Jesus to lead sinnners out of sin’s slavery.
At the end of their journey, the people of Israel found themselves in the Promised Land. A liberated people, living in an abundant land that was now theirs. Thanks to Moses, and thanks to God.
At the end of our life’s journey, we will find ourselves in the Promised Land of Heaven. We will be given a place of our own, in God’s House. Thanks to Jesus, and thanks to God the Father.
Now, after God freed the Israelites and gave them their own land, He wove another image of “Messianic rescue” into their history.
When Israel arrived at the Promised Land it was already inhabited. The nations that lived there worshiped all sorts of false gods, and through Israel’s armies God intended to sweep these nations away in judgment.
But the Israelites didn’t listen to God. They allowed some of the inhabitants to stay in the land. This failure to follow God’s command lead to repeated temptations to worship gods other than Jehovah.
It also lead to surrounding nations occasionally taking control of Israel, and oppressing them harshly.
Judges 2:1-5, 3:7-11 (NIV)
2:1The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? 3Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.”
4When the angel of the LORD had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, 5and they called that place Bokim. There they offered sacrifices to the LORD.
3:7The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD; they forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. 8The anger of the LORD burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years. 9But when they cried out to the LORD, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them. 10The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The LORD gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. 11So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died.
During this period of Israel’s history, a definite pattern is seen. First, the people turn away from God and worship idols. Then God sends a foreign nation to oppress Israel. In their oppression, the Israelites call out to God for help. Then God sends them a hero to rescue them. These heros are called, “Judges”, that’s why the books is called the book of Judges. Then after they’re rescued, Israel has a time of peace and devotion to the true God. Then, they step away from God and the cycle begins again.
Over and over they Israelites turn away from the true God to worship idols. Over and over God chastises them and ultimately sends them a hero to rescue them.
The way that Judges is written points this cycle out very plainly. Each cycle has a similar beginning like “the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD”. Each cycle has a individual who is called on to rescue Israel: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson. Each cycle has a similar conclusion statement, “the land had peace for a certain number of years”.
When you read through this book you feel like shouting, “Don’t do it! Don’t turn away from God! You know what is going to happen!” But it keeps happening. And God keeps on being Himself, the compassionate, patient parent. Rebuking and delivering.
And with each deliverance the future “Messianic rescue” is foreshadowed. Jesus would finally arrive in the manger, the little Hero who would grow up to rescue all sinners from sin and establish a peace between God and man that would last for eternity.
When I consider the cycle of the Judges, I can’t help but think of my own life. It’s the same cycle of sin, pain, cries for help and deliverance from God. That’s why God had this painful history recorded – so we know we’re not the only ones God has had to rescue over and over. Thank God that we have a compassionate Creator who leads us to turn away from sin and gives us forgiveness and peace through Jesus’ death on the cross.
So, we’ve talked a little about how God rescued the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery. We’ve talked about how God repeatedly rescue them from their own faithlessness in the period of the judges. But, before the great Messiah was finally born, there was one more major historical event that foreshadowed the great “Messianic rescue” of sinners.
As the years ticked down to the birth of God’s Son, the nation of Israel continued to push God away by worshipping false gods. Eventually, one nation descended on Israel and totally decimated them. Babylon conquered Jerusalem in the year 586 BC. The people who weren’t killed were uprooted from their home and carried east to exile. This period in Jewish history is commonly called the Babylonian Captivity.
But again, God reached into the events of history.
Jeremiah 23:7-8, 2 Chronicles 36:15-23 (NIV)
23:7“So then, the days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ 8but they will say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Then they will live in their own land.”
36:15The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. 17He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and spared neither young man nor young woman, old man or aged. God handed all of them over to Nebuchadnezzar.
18He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the LORD’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
20He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. 21The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.
22In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:
23“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
“‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you—may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.’”
Once again the people of Israel were oppressed. But this time all hope seemed lost. They weren’t merely overrun by enemies, this time they were completely uprooted and shipped away to a foreign land. How in the world could they hope break the power of Babylon over them? They couldn’t.
But once again, God reached into the pages of history and made his power known. God moved the heart of Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, to release the people. Go home, he said, and worship the LORD.
Proverbs 21:1 says,
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1 NIV).
And throughout history God has done just that. He has moved kings and parliaments to accomplish His will. King Cyrus’s greatest claim to fame is this – that God used him as a preview of Jesus. Through Cyrus, the Israelites were set free. Through Jesus all sinners are set free. With our sins forgiven through Him, we are free to go home to God.
Today we lit the Bethlehem Candle in our Advent wreath. Bethlehem was the place that the Old Testament said the Savior would be born. Indeed, that is the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God.
But when we look at the Bethlehem Candle, let’s not forget what brought Mary there. She wasn’t from Bethlehem. She and Joseph lived in Nazareth, many miles to the North. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because God reached into the pages of history once again, and moved Caesar Augustus to call a census. And to be counted in this census Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem.
Because God is invisible to our eyes, it’s all to tempting to view Him as being far away from our daily activities. Far away from politics and weather. Far away from our troubles and decisions. But He’s not some ethereal figurehead watching history unfold from some great distance away. He’s active in history. He’s moving people here and there in connection with His great plan of salvation.
In Acts 17, the apostle Paul says,
“26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27 NIV).
God has placed you and me right here, right now, so that we might learn of His greatness, and His love for sinful people like us. What a great God we have. May He who imprinted His plan of “Messianic rescue” right into the events of history, also imprint Jesus on our hearts and lives.
Prayer: Father in heaven, you are sovereign over all the universe that you made. You are King over all kings. Reign over our hearts also. Lead us to trust ever more and more in the Savior that you sent to make us acceptable once again. When we sin, lead us to turn to you, crying out for forgiveness. And lead us to know peace, through our Savior Jesus Christ. Imprint your Savior on us, Lord. Amen.