The Christmas carols we've been singing are full of joy and wonder – so much so you might think they exaggerate somewhat – the Christmas they speak of seems so much better than our yearly experience of it.
And that's because it is. For all that we have a good time at Christmas, Christmas is about far more than carols, pudding and presents. And to help us to see that I want to take you to a passage that doesn't often come up at Christmas.
The passage is Isaiah 25, we heard it read to us earlier, and it's on page 4 in your service sheets. It was written around 700 years before Jesus' birth. Let me read the start of that passage to you again:
"On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine--the best of meats and the finest of wines."
This is a vivid picture of peace on earth – not hostility ended, but joyful celebration: a feast – with the best of meats and the finest of wines. And it sounds alright: like the best Christmas lunch you could imagine, the greatest wedding banquet ever. There's nothing but the best, and everything in abundance - a vast sumptuous spread of food, glorious food. Nigella, Jamie and Gordon couldn't do better.
And it's provided by the creator, who really ought to know how to put on a do. The Religious festivals he designed went on for days. Weddings feasts in ancient Israel went on for a week or more. And at this feast everyone's welcome – all the world united in fun. That's a mighty celebration. And when we think Weddings or Christmas we're not ultimately thinking about food, but enjoying our family and friends. A great feast celebrates relationships.
And so this is God's peace on earth: laying aside conflict to make friends, even an intimate friendship with God. God Almighty lays out a rich banquet and everyone is free to come to his mountain and share it with him – to eat and drink with the God who made them. This is the peace that comes from God – feasting, joy, love.
Already it's clear that God's intentions for Christmas go much deeper than ours. And God isn't just planning a good night, the next verse steps it up, massively, wonderfully:
"On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death for ever."
The LORD Almighty will swallow up death for ever. Now that is a reason to celebrate!
We live in the shadow of death. Death eventually brings darkness to each of us, ends our hopes and dreams, silences our laughter. And it is so very, emphatically, final: we can't go back, can't undo it, and so it makes everything else final too – you can't take back those angry words, you can't undo things you regret; the things that were unsaid will remain unsaid forever; death cements the past as permanent.
Death is like a great dark cover that smothers everything, dusts everything with a negativity that sticks. So this idea of a world without death is actually quite slippery to grasp. Death affects us at such a deep level that to imagine life without it is to imagine another life altogether. Without it there would have to be no sickness, no weakness, there would be no fear, no end to our relationships no crushing of hopes and dreams.
And yet that is what is promised here – God will swallow up death forever. God will turn the tables on death. Death, the great swallower will itself be swallowed.
When I was a little boy I spent many summers in Tasmania on a beach, where my Grandparents lived. And we built a lot of sandcastles, and sand forts, and sand cars and sand villages and sand cities. And we spent hours trying to protect those sand creations from the sea – trying to build them big enough and strong enough to hold back the tide, shovelling sand on the back as the waves ate away the front. Perhaps you've tried something similar.
If you have you'll know that whatever we tried it was always futile. The tide always wins, always wins. Every time the sea rose and literally swallowed up my sand creations. Come morning, they'd be gone without a trace.
And that's a picture of life under the shroud of death. Try as we might we can't hold back that tide, we all fall in the end, and the sand castle of our existence is swallowed up and swept away.
But in this passage the reverse is happening. Death is the one who's swallowed up. It turns out this feast is in fact a wake – a wake for death! God's promise is that a greater tide than death is coming, a tide that death is powerless to resist. And death will be washed away and remembered no more, death will be the sand castle swept clean away. And so there will be feasting and celebrating, a party will start that will never end because the shroud has been lifted, death has been done away with. True Joy flows from that day:
"The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. In that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."
Do you see that we're talking about a promise of a completely different world, a world without death, and without sadness, without fear, without shame and disgrace? God is bringing an end to death and so transforming life itself.
In a world without death there are so many things that would change about our relationships, about our hopes and fears, about our loves, about everything. In fact, when we think it through that world without death and without pain can't include us as we are now – how long would a feast of flowing wine last before there was some sort of trouble? Conflict and pain colour every relationship – we hurt each other and we can't stop hurting each other – death reaching into every corner of life.
But if tears are left behind, we must leave pain behind too, and fear and even mourning and regret. So we must be changed – all our selfishness and greed and pride and all our other faults undone, somehow removed from our personality – and yet with the essential 'me' and the essential 'you' still there, now perfected, perfectly good.
And it sounds like an impossible dream doesn't it? It sounds too good to be true: in our cynicism we think it's either rank exaggeration and things get just a bit better; or it's a straight up lie. Either way it isn't going to happen, like a Christmas advert it promises more than it delivers.
But what if it's not false? What if it's true? What if Isaiah saw something that's too good to be true, but true all the same?
This is where we come, finally, to Christmas. Isaiah wrote a long time before Jesus. And Isaiah is a big book, 66 chapters. And it's part of a big collection written before Jesus came, the Old Testament. And Jesus said it was all about him, in fact he deliberately came into the world to fulfil their promises.
So where's our mountain-top feast then? Why is there no end to death and pain? Why does everything seem to go on just the same as it ever was, same as it ever was? Jesus said he was doing something decisive that would turn all history; that the fate of the world depended on him. His death on God's holy mountain followed by his resurrection would destroy death and win eternal life for his people. That's what he said.
And as he died on the cross Jesus shouted 'It is Finished' – he had dealt with death – and after he rose from the dead he explained that he had overcome death, defeated it; his resurrection was the beginning of this Isaiah 25 life without death.
So again, where's the feast? Why does death continue to take us all? The answer is that sometimes decisive action leads to results that are unseen for a time, but decisive nonetheless.
Think of Jesus as an earthquake deep in the ocean. The earth rises and falls, and massive energy is released, yet nothing but the smallest ripple can be seen on the ocean surface… and that ripple spreads, almost invisible, but incredibly potent. And when that tiny ripple hits shallow water suddenly it rears up into a massive Tsunami that swallows everything in it's path.
The Bible records – and history records – that Jesus came into the world when Herod was King of Judea and Quirinius governor of Syria; when Caesar Augustus decreed a census. Jesus lived and – under Pontius Pilate – Jesus was hung on a cross and died. Three days later he rose from the dead. That's history. That was the earth quake.
Right now Jesus influence seems barely significant. It certainly doesn't add up to the feast of Isaiah 25. But what we see today is just the ripples on the surface. The true impact won't be seen until the day when the wave rises up and swallows death forever. God promised that day would come; and Jesus life, death and resurrection seal that promise with a guarantee. It's already started. Jesus is alive now, the powerful wave is moving.
So that leaves us with a question– 'do you want to live forever?' Will you join God's glorious feast, eat with him and share his joy? – I mean who doesn't want that? So will you have a proper look at it this Christmas?
It all hinges on Jesus. So if you want to join God's feast that's where you need to start. I want to urge you then to take the time to look into Jesus. You've all got one of these Christianity Explored flyers in your service sheet. If you want to check Jesus out for yourself I can't recommend that course highly enough. It's going to start in the new year – 11 Jan – it's free and it starts with a free meal, why not come along and see how you go?
You'll also see in your service sheets this red feedback sheet. I'd like to ask you all to take a moment to fill it in now. If you want to find out more about Jesus there are some tick boxes on that sheet to talk to someone or to join that Christianity Explored course. If you'd like something to read there's lots of material on the table at the back that's free to take – help yourself. There's also a space there for feedback so if you could help us out with your feedback on tonight we'd really appreciate that. In a moment we're going to finish, during our last carol some blue bags will be passed around, they're not for money, tonight's on us… but if you could please put those feedback forms in the bag that would help us a lot. Thanks for listening and have a great Christmas.