December 24, 2021
In the eighth century BC, as Israel faced oppression, humiliation, and apparent abandonment by God, the prophet Micah foretold the coming of one who would bring victory, security, and peace. Two thousand years after Christ’s birth, our circumstances aren’t much different: for many, life is still marked by unfulfilled longings, deep-seated dreads, and the fear, ultimately, of death. As Alistair Begg reminds us, such fears cannot be met from within ourselves. We must look away from ourselves to Christ, who died in our place to give us an eternal hope.
Sermon Transcript: Print
The eighth reading, which does not appear in your program, is found in the prophecy of Micah and in chapter 5 and in the opening five verses, which read as follows:
Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the judge of Israel
on the cheek.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.
Each of these readings and carols tonight has provided for us, if you like, pieces in a jigsaw that, as long as we, as it were, look at the picture that appears on the front of the box with all the pieces—as long as we look into our Bibles—then we will realize that all of this is to form up in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ; that we are here tonight because of who Jesus is; that we are here tonight because of what Jesus has done. And we are here tonight, none of us, by chance but actually by divine appointment, and nothing that we have gone through in the last twelve or twenty-four months has taken Almighty God by surprise. And so it is good for us on this particular evening to think along these lines.
In my preparation for not only tonight but for the events of these last two or three Sundays, including this coming Sunday, I’ve been referring to various books that are familiar to me. And in one of the books to which I turned, written by J. B. Phillips, he was… Actually, the book came about as a result of him giving five lectures in the North of Ireland. And in addressing the group there, he said this, which then, of course, was written into the book: he said, “We face to-day a world torn and divided. … The world-wide tensions and sufferings … seem … more overwhelming than [in previous eras] because we are much better informed about them through modern means of news-transmission.” He was actually referring to newsreel broadcasts, and those words were delivered in 1952. Well, can you imagine what he would make of 2021?
But that started me thinking about how the Word of God is a timeless Word and addresses every generation. I went on to one of my friends, David Wells, because, again, looking for something else, I came upon this. And he was writing about the nature of our world, and he said, “Anxiety has become epidemic. … It [is] rooted … in a sense of powerlessness, an inability to control the circumstances of personal life, a feeling that people are mere pawns … played by irresistible … forces in society.” Well, that sounds far more up to date, doesn’t it? But that was 1994. That was twenty-seven years ago. And he speaks there about the way in which the rootlessness of our world can make us appear to be simply corks that are bouncing around on a sea of chance.
But let’s come right up to date, to November this last month and the Times of London, and one of the columnists is writing about the impact of the internet and our ability to communicate so quickly around the entire world. Benefits attach to it, but this is what his observation was. He was pointing out the distinction between the way in which we’re able to say something and then it’s gone or make a gesture and it won’t be remembered. So he says, “Our words and [our] gestures fade in memory. Old photographs are lost. But online every dumb picture, every unfinished conversation and every idle feud is preserved.” Living as we are in the “land of no forgetting,” “online, we are not so much people as vast, unwieldy filing cabinets waiting to be browsed by our friends or raided by our enemies.”
Now, I’ve been described by a lot of different things throughout the years of my life. I’ve never been described as an unwieldly filing cabinet. But it is a quite dramatic and graphic picture, isn’t it? The idea that we have now no ability to forget. If you are a Facebook person, you know that Facebook has provided you—I say it as an observer, not a participant—that Facebook has provided you with the facility of “On This Day,” right? So it will pop up for you and remind you of things that you may want to remember, but it will also remind you of things that you would love to forget. There is virtually no escaping it. It will conceal itself and then jump up and grab you, in the great unwieldly cabinet that is represented in our lives.
Can you think ever of a year—ever a year that has ever been in history—when the words of Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities were not apropos? That “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” it was a “season of Darkness,” it was a “season of Light.” Can you? I tell you, there was one: the very first, “before the time of our disobedience,” as the Prayer Book puts it. There in the garden of Eden, perfection—no regrets, no disappointments. He made it all, and it was perfectly good—until, jumping up and thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, we turn our backs on God. We disobey him. We take what he’s given for our benefit and turn it to poverty and to uselessness. And so we find ourselves here today.
Now, all of this, as I say, forms up in something of a jigsaw. The Tale of Two Cities, incidentally, was written against the backdrop of the French Revolution. And the carol that we’re about to sing as our closing carol, which contains the lines “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” that carol was conceived during the time of the American wars of independence. So you see, in every generation, whatever it throws up—as Paul Simon says, “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”—everything that unfolds for us is actually covered in the panorama of God’s eternal purposes and in the sending of his only Son as the answer to our deepest predicament.
Now, the context of Micah chapter 5, in simple terms, is simply this: It’s 700 BC—seven hundred years before the coming of Jesus—and the people are being overwhelmed by the Assyrians. As a result of the predicament in which they find themselves, they believe themselves to be helpless, they know themselves to be humiliated, they feel somewhat lonely, and it would appear to them that they were actually abandoned by God.
Now, just think about that for a minute. Seven hundred years before Jesus. We’re two thousand years beyond that. How were they feeling? What were they facing? Oppression, humiliation, a sense of helplessness, feeling to be besieged, and apparently abandoned by God. In other words, the people were walking around going, “Is anybody in control of this operation here? Does anybody know what’s going on? Does anybody understand? Do you realize what it is like?” That’s the kind of thing they were saying to one another. It seems so up to date, doesn’t it? Or maybe I’ve just been listening to the wrong people.
Micah comes in the midst of that, sent by God, to say to the people, “Here is what God is going to do.” And so Micah is a prophecy. It’s a prediction of what is going to come. And in the midst of that prophecy is this great promise. And the promise is that “out of you, Bethlehem, will come the one who will be the ruler of my people Israel.” In other words, “The answer to your predicament will come.”
Now, if you think about it, Bethlehem wasn’t even in the top one hundred of the clans of Judah. When you read in the book of Joshua and you have the list of all of those places, Bethlehem never even appears. Why? Well, it wasn’t much of a place. It was obscure. It was insignificant. People who lived there lived in isolation. It was a common place. It was an unnoticed place. How like God! No surprise that he doesn’t come to a princess but to a Hebrew peasant girl. No surprise that he doesn’t come to a senator or to a president but to a carpenter. No surprise that he doesn’t come to one of the great cities of the Empire, but he comes to a forlorn place: “But thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, though thou art the least of all these people, out of you will come forth one…”
And the promise is a great promise. We can’t work through it. You can do homework for yourself if you choose. But the promise is essentially this. It is a promise of victory; it will come through this “one.” The one who is the victor is also humble. He is not only a victorious King, but he is a Shepherd King; he will “shepherd” his people. It is in him that security will be found. “The one who comes, in him,” says Micah, “you will dwell secure. And also, you need to know that although it will come out of this nondescript little place called Bethlehem, it will have a global impact, and it will be to the very ends of the earth. It will actually cover everywhere and all time. For this one shall be their peace.” That’s what it says, just in a phrase: “He shall be their peace.” And grandchildren would have said, “Who is it?” and people would have lived and died in expectation: “Where is this one? Who is this one? When will this one come?”
It’s just like Isaiah, remember?
For [unto] us a child is born,
[and] to us a son is given;
and the government [will] be upon his shoulder,
and his name [will] be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
[the] Everlasting Father, [the] Prince of Peace.
[And] of the increase of his government and [his rule]
there will be no end.
And the establishing of peace!
“Well,” you say, “well, there’s never been a government that could do that”—certainly not the present government, or the last government, or the last hundred governments, for that matter! And that’s why people are so bewildered. We don’t need heroes. We need a Savior! Where is this government? Well, it is only found in the one who is the King. Not King George III. No, we got rid of him. No, the King Jesus.
So, there you have it. It’s 700 BC: promise, prophecy. Fast-forward the seven hundred years and where do you end up? You end up in Bethlehem. A star brings people, maybe from China—from the east, definitely; possibly China. I like to think China. “We have seen a star in the east, and we have come to worship him.” They inquired at the palace of Herod, thinking that inevitably, if God was going to come and do something, he would do it in a big place. And Herod, of course, was disturbed, and he inquired of his folks, you know, “What is this about?” They said, “Oh, no, he’s to be born in Bethlehem of Judea, for so it was written by the prophets”—referring to 700 BC. You see how the jigsaw pieces begin to fit together. And off they go.
The hopes of the wise men are going to be met by the one who’s in the manger in Bethlehem. The fears of men and women are going to be met by the one who’s in the manger in Bethlehem. Incidentally, Herod’s great fear was the fear that this person really was a king and that this person would actually come to rule and reign and therefore depose him. That’s why he did what he did: because he didn’t want anybody reigning except him.
That actually might be you tonight. That might be the reason that Jesus remains somewhere over in a corner. Because deep down inside, you know that he is the King, you know that he comes to reign, and you know that he cannot be accommodated in the trunk of your life, to be dusted up and brought out as per your designs. And since you know that that’s what it will be, you say to yourself, “No, I would rather dismiss it rather than deal with it.” All the hopes and all the fears.
Well, fast-forward again. Let’s come forward two thousand years now. Where are we? Well, we’re here. Here we are, a group of interesting people, some wearing red jerseys and some not. I don’t like red, I must confess, but anyway, I did it out of a sense of self-abnegation— which doesn’t come easily to me at all. But nevertheless, here we are. If we were to go from person to person and say, “How are you feeling? How are you doing? What’s going on?” we’d be here for a month of Sundays just explaining our unfulfilled hopes and our deep-seated fears. There’s no doubt about it. Because all of us have unfulfilled longings, deep-seated dreads; fearful of disease; fearful, ultimately, of death; and constantly looking for the answer to these hopes, the fulfillment of them, and dealing with those fears, and being told again and again at this point in the twenty-first century, “Don’t worry about it; it’s in yourself. You can find it in yourself.” Go to Barnes & Noble. There’s a whole section there that will tell you how to fix it. Oh, they’re there! Do you really think that the answer to your deepest predicament is found inside of you? I would hate to think that I had to figure this out by myself.
No, you see, the answer is that the hopes and fears are not to be found in a place. People say, “Well, if we could get to Bethlehem, then maybe everything would be okay. We could go there for Christmas Eve.” Well, many do, and I’m sure it’s a wonderful experience. But no, it’s not the place; it’s the person. That’s why the jigsaw forms up in the person of Jesus—that Jesus is the one who fulfills the hopes of all the years. Jesus is the one who is the Lamb of God.
You say, “The Lamb of God?” You say, “Well, I read that Old Testament. Couldn’t make head nor tail of the Old Testament. All that sacrificial stuff! Why are they doing all those sacrifices—burnt offerings and this offering and that offering?” I’ll tell you in a nutshell why they’re doing it: they are all there, throughout all the years, as pictures pointing forward to the one sacrifice whereby, by one sacrifice, sin will be dealt with. And dealt with by whom? Dealt with by the child who’s in the manger in Bethlehem—by the man who hangs upon a cross.
You see, it’s so amazing, isn’t it, that when John the Baptist points to Jesus, that’s exactly what he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” No, the hopes and fears of the years are not met as a result of looking into a sentimental scene in a manger, but they’re met by looking away from ourselves, to the one who on the cross bears my shame, bears all of my rebellion, who dies in my place.
Jesus was innocent of sin, and yet he entered a guilty plea. Why an innocent man enter a guilty plea? He entered the guilty plea on behalf of sinners. I am a sinner. Therefore, he entered the guilty plea for me. “You mean that when he bore my sin in himself, then he dealt with it, so that that salvation thing we were singing about is actually true? That the Lord is my salvation?” Yeah! What are you resting in? What are you trusting in? Yourself? No, only in the Lord.
If you have been enjoying Gladwell’s podcast (Malcolm Gladwell, that is), called Miracle and Wonder—about fifteen hours of conversation with Paul Simon—then you will, like me, if you have any interest at all, have been waiting for certain pieces in the puzzle to be disclosed. Some of it was good. Some of it was left out.
Incidentally, as we were singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain”—this is just anecdotal—but if you have The Paul Simon Songbook, which takes you way back into the ’60s, or if you have Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.—it’s on one of the two, and I can’t remember without checking—but on one of the two, Simon and Garfunkel sing, “Go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” Quite fascinating. And then you fast-forward, and there he is with Kathy on the bus, in search of America. It’s a great song. “We’ve all gone to look for America.” Well, you’re in America! What do you mean? “Well, the America! The unfulfilled longings. The hopes are here. The dreams are here. But fears can be met here.” Remember that great line?
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,”
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike;
[We]’ve all [gone] to look for America.
I can tell, Paul, why any one of us is empty and aching: because we are by nature alienated from God. And the wonder of the story of Christmas is that God, who understands that about us, pursues us just the same, doesn’t cast us off. He’s a seeking God. He’s a loving God. He’s a pursuing God. He’s the God who gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.
The fears of loneliness, the fears of rejection, are met in Jesus. The fears of being discovered, of being uncovered, of people finding out what I’m like, all of that stuff—God knows all of that. Jesus is the best of friends. The best of friends. The best of friends know the worst about us and love us just the same. He doesn’t love us just the way we are; he loves us despite the way we are, because he has provided an answer to our predicament.
Well, of course, the fellow who wrote the carol—and we must sing the carol now, because time is gone—but the fellow who wrote the carol progresses through it fairly well, doesn’t he? “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” Gift, gift! So we’re not talking about something that is earned, something that is bestowed. “The gift is given.” And “God imparts to human hearts the [glories] of his heaven.” Wow! That sounds huge.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
Oh, well, that’s a key, isn’t it? Can I ask you, just on a very personal basis—just very personally, like it’s just you and me: Have you ever personally received Christ? In the same way that Simeon took Jesus in his arms in the temple, have you ever, as it were, metaphorically said, “Christ, I need you; Christ, I want you; Christ, I’m thankful for you”? Have you ever done that?
You could. Still time. You’re not dead yet, as far as I can see, looking at you. Now is always the time. Now is always the time. The one thing that will prevent you from doing so is the Herod factor: “I don’t want anybody running my show. I don’t want to give up control of my operation. I like it just the way I am.” But if you’re humble enough to say, “I can’t fix this”—if you’re humble enough to do the John Lennon response rather than the earlier Beatle response… The earlier Beatle response is “We can work it out. Think of what I’m saying. Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on? Hey, we can work it out.” Go ahead. Or be dead honest and just say, “Help!” “Help! I need someone. … Not just anyone. Help!” You ever said that? You should.
We’re going to sing the carol, but after we’ve said a prayer. And the prayer is there for us to say together as it appears on the screen:
Gracious and triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—we praise you that your glory shone out in highest heaven when Jesus the Son was born. We thank you for the most wonderful gift of peace with God and peace between people. We humbly bow before your kindness and acknowledge that all these blessings are your undeserved kindness to us in Jesus. We praise you in Jesus’ name, Amen.
 J. B. Phillips, Making Men Whole (London: Highway, 1953), 9.
 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 97.
 James Marriott, “The Internet Has Turned Our Past into a Curse,” The Times, November 24, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-internet-has-turned-our-past-into-a-curse-37l6sp7dq.
 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), chap. 1.
 Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1867).
 The lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were written shortly after the American Civil War, not the Revolutionary War.
 Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble” (1986).
 Isaiah 9:6–7 (ESV).
 Matthew 2:2 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 2:3–5.
 John 1:29 (ESV).
 Paul Simon, “America” (1968).
 See John 3:16.
 Brooks, “O Little Town.”
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “We Can Work It Out” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965).
 Christopher Ash, Repeat the Sounding Joy: A Daily Advent Devotional on Luke 1–2 ([Epsom, UK?]: The Good Book Company, 2019), 104.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.