Isaiah 9:1-7; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 1:66-79
Over the years we have had interesting people in our lives in the Presbyterian Church. Leaders were always fascinating. And occasionally they would visit you – especially when you lived 100km plus from the main centres.
I remember a brother Moderator coming along and sitting us down in the lounge and asking us this question:
“How are things with your soul?”
Great question. I think as a young couple with two small boys charging around, we were in a survival mode and hadn’t really thought about more than coping with the simple things of getting through the day. (And I knew him in a totally other capacity – it just sounded weird when he asked us that!)
- What fed us spiritually? Who knows, when you are always giving out?
- What feeds us spiritually?
That’s why going to New Wine each January is so important for us now as a couple, as were the renewal conferences we were part of back in South Africa. (And no – new wine is a Christian group supporting local churches and ministers without bottles of wine! It’s a different spirit if you like – although when we tell some of our friends who don’t know the biblical reference Jesus used about new wine, they are curious about what we actually do for four nights and days.) (Click here to have a look at New Wine and the summer festivals)
- What feeds us?
- What feeds you?
This time of year is saturated – flooded with amazing food. I confess mince pies alone are dangerous enough to cause the collapse of a nation.
John the Baptiser was not big on fancy foods. His sustenance was found in a desert, and locusts and wild honey seemed to suffice.
Something else would have kept him going I suspect. He ministered in the desert, and clearly listened to God. There had been no prophetic voice for nearly 500 years.
We’ve talked before about these desert experiences – do you remember the message that included Mendelssohn’s “O for the wings of a dove?” It’s from Psalm 55: Psalm 55:6 I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest— Psalm 55:7 I would flee far away and stay in the desert; Selah Psalm 55:8 I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”
I shared this quote with you about the voices we hear: But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favour rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That’s what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us ‘my Beloved.’” (Henri Nouwen).
We need to hear that voice. And we need our souls fed.
There are some amazing hymns in our tradition. And then there are exceptional ones. Guide me o Thou Great Jehovah/Redeemer is one.
“Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more!”
Our soul is fed by God’s word and His presence.
Didn’t Jesus say at his temptation (to the devil of course): “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4 quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)
And the starting point is meeting Jesus – the Word of God in John 1 – the one who speaks by his life and words, and who is described prophetically by Isaiah in the prophecy read today in these words:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:2).
Wonderful counsellor – what a comfort. Mighty God – how strong that sounds and is. Everlasting Father – contrast with human fathers who abandon us by jumping ship or dying too soon. Prince of Peace – is such a joy to hear.
If our souls are disquieted – troubled – deficient of anything – it is probably peace.
- Sleepless nights (money, work, family, health – you name the cause)
- Troubled days (wondering if we will have sleepless nights again)
- Anxiety about being anxious (that vicious circle which feeds itself)
- Plain unadulterated fear (fed in my case by nightmares and post-traumatic stress)
It’s all something that needs the prince of peace to park in the troubled zones of our minds, our hearts, our souls – out deepest recesses of darkness and sin.
As an aside – on that matter of sin – It’s interesting when people tell me they are perfect. Without sin. 1 John always comes to mind: 1 John 1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
And then I wonder about this verse, when Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery: John 8:7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Would they then throw the first stone?
Of course John in chapter 1 of his first letter says this: 1 John 1:9 – 10: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
The prayer of a little boy comes to mind: “Dear Lord, please forgive us our sins – those we have done, those we have not got around to doing, and those we haven’t yet thought up”.
Clearly he had an irritating sister or brother.
Sometimes we lack peace because people have sinned against us. Either way we get hurt because of the sinful nature of human beings. We need peace – healing and nurturing deep within our souls.
The absence of Peace – and the need to nurture our souls
Discussions about the soul are about the inner life. Our inner life – involving thoughts and emotions (minds and hearts if you like). And our souls. The word soul crops up a lot in Scripture.
In the Psalms the writer’s speak of their soul in these ways: A soul can be in anguish (6:3); it can be revived (19:7); it can be restored (23:3); it can grow weak with grief (34:2); It can rejoice in the Lord (35:9); it can be left forlorn 35:12); it can be poured out in worship (42:4); and often downcast (42:5,6,11; 43:5); It can be called to awaken (57:8); it can find rest in God (63:1,5)
In fact it’s worth looking at these verses from Psalm 62 and 63:
Psalm 62:1 For the director of music. For Jeduthun. A psalm of David. My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.
Psalm 62:5 Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.
Psalm 63:1 A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah. O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Psalm 63:5 My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Today we sang: “Find rest my soul – in Christ alone – I will be still and know you are God!” It’s a great song.
The reading from Philippians is a timely reminder if you are lacking peace. And listening to the news on Friday about family violence over Christmas, how the shelters have to stay open because stress leads to domestic violence, it’s always a great passage:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Of course people facing violence can’t just depend on this peace – they also need safety and help. Thankfully there are people who can help us.
The point is that Christmas is not always an ideal time. There again, the first Christmas also had challenges.
Peace with God – a right relationship
Peace is achieved with God – in the realm of salvation through trusting in Jesus as our Lord and rescuer from sin. Romans 5:1 puts it like this in the NLT: Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.
I take that as a given. We need to trust in Christ and find forgiveness and peace with God at that level.
Peace in the turmoil of life.
Peace in the turmoil of life comes when you hear God speak to you. Being well in our inner life – our souls – comes out of hearing his voice of assurance, of guidance, and of peace.
You can be forgiven if you sometimes doubt that God knows what he is doing when things are tough in your life. The Christmas characters had some serious challenges too.
There are secondary characters in the Christmas story that teach us about this kind of soul life – stability and peace through hearing God. Simeon the priest for one – waiting for the messiah – filled with the Spirit – knew he would not die until he saw the messiah. He’s led by the Spirit into the temple when Mary and joseph bring baby Jesus there. And listen to what he says: “Sovereign Lord, now let Your servant die in peace, as You have promised. (Luke 2:29).
I wouldn’t mind that – knowing that I am exactly in God’s plan and when the day comes I can die in peace. Pretty cool hey? His prophecy is powerful. (Read verses 34-5 of Luke 2).
CLOSING THOUGHTS ABOUT JOHN’S MUM AND DAD
And this is John in the Bible. John the Baptiser. Like Mary and Joseph, spare a thought for the lack of peace in their lives. Cousin Mary and Joseph have to deal with politicians and their decisions and go to Bethlehem on a precarious four legged taxi (no Uber here for them) when she is about to pop.
Zachariah and Elizabeth had to deal with the curse of being barren – even though he was a faithful priest.
But its to chapter 1 in Luke where we have to go to see what happens when God speaks and we start our own ideas in response.
John’s father has an angelic visitation in the temple when on duty. He’s rostered on. Funny how the Levites came to our attention last week. This week it’s a priest again. And an angel appears and speaks to him.
He is terrified. The angel assures him. He doubts. (1:18) and gets this response: Luke 1:19 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was He who sent me to bring you this good news! Luke 1:20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Oops. It’s taken up a notch. Gabriel reminds him that although he is a professional in God’s presence in the temple. Gabriel is not to be argued with – “ I stand in the very presence of God”. Stilte! (An Afrikaans word). He is silenced.
It helps us understand the passage we heard today – the power of Zachariah’s prophecy, seeing that he had been silenced for 9 months. The silence is lifted when this happens:
Luke 1:57 When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. Luke 1:58 And when her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her. Luke 1:59 When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Luke 1:60 But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!” Luke 1:61 “What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.” Luke 1:62 So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. Luke 1:63 He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.” Luke 1:64 Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God.
It’s amazing what silence does. He prophecies – after all that time of silence and clearly listening to God. He says this:
Luke 1:76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, Luke 1:77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, Luke 1:78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven Luk 1:79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
The King James version captures the beauty of the words of the man who had to be still for 9 months: Luke 1:78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, Luke 1:79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The dayspring is another word for the rising sun – Jesus. Zachariah’s prophecy is a perfect blend of Isaiah 9 which we heard as well today, and Malachi 4:2.
Isa 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Mal 4:2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.
Ring any bells? The Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angel sing” by Charles Wesley – who didn’t make these songs up. It’s all from scripture:
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”
Interestingly the “Sun of Righteousness” has often been changed to “Son of Righteousness” on the assumption perhaps that this is a spelling mistake. Malachi 4:2 speaks however of the sun, referring to the brightness of His glory perhaps (Hebrews 1:3) or His being the light of the world (John 8:12).
One writer put it like this: The sun which is righteousness, in whose wings, that is, rays, are healing and salvation. This Divine righteousness shall beam upon them that fear the Name of God, flooding them with joy and light, healing all wounds, removing all miseries, making them incalculably blessed. The Fathers generally apply the title of “Sun of Righteousness” to Christ, who is the Source of all justification and enlightenment and happiness, and who is called (Jeremiah 23:6), “The Lord our Righteousness.”
Wesley writes of the healing here in these words: “His beams shall bring health and strength, with delight and joy, safety and security.”
How are things with your soul today? May you find this healing and life, his warmth and peace.
May the prince of peace speak peace into your soul today.