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Christmas and the Minor Prophets

For Advent let the 12 Minor Prophets lead us to Christmas.
Christmas and the Minor Prophets
Image: Kara Gebhardt / Getty Images

The teaching calendar is marked for a Christmas series, and the annual question of what to preach or teach is here. After many December seasons, the birth stories can become overly familiar, and while I would never claim they aren’t still relevant, there is wisdom in considering how else we can prepare hearts for the celebration of Christ’s first coming and point them towards his second.

Let’s look at a few texts in the Minor Prophets. It may feel surprising to look at a judgment oracle and think it would be a good sermon for the extra visitors that we may see during December, but I would argue that preaching about the injustice of the world and the just God who sent his Anointed One meets us where we are.

The heavy themes related to our broken world from some of our least-taught books set us up for the striking hope of a Ruler born in Bethlehem to save us. It means that we see the grieving, disillusioned, and heartbroken sitting among us, along with those who love them.

Here are four passages to consider. You’ve likely quoted them before, but this year you may want to spend more time proclaiming them to those who are celebrating the Incarnation.

Christmas from the Prophets’ Mouths

These are not going to be the most familiar books to those who hear you, but that may be one of the best reasons to use them as your main text. It’s as if we give a gift of unknown passages ministering to hearts—scriptures they have avoided in the past but are written for them. Yet, because of the unknown territory, it will help if you tell the story of the prophet. Connect the challenges of today to those of the day of Amos, Habakkuk, Micah, and Zephaniah.

Another note, while only a few verses of a chapter are listed below, the sermon or teaching would likely cover a larger chunk to understand the context and the stories of the day. The highlighted verses below are those where you can bring emphasis and lead to the hope of the birth of Christ.

Preach to Those Who Have Been Grieving Injustice and Awaiting Hope—Amos 9:11-12 CSB

In that day

I will restore the fallen shelter of David:

I will repair its gaps,

restore its ruins,

and rebuild it as in the days of old,

so that they may possess

the remnant of Edom

and all the nations

that bear my name—,

this is the declaration of the Lord;

he will do this.

Amos preached when injustices filled society. Again and again, Amos tells the people that the Lord has seen what they have done and will judge them for the trampling on the needy, the religious fraud, and the injustice in their courts (2:6-8, 5:4-7, 5:10-12, 6:4-6, 8:4).

So, we come to Amos 9. God’s judgement comes from an alter where worshippers would expect acceptance but received the opposite (9:1). The Lord God of hosts doesn’t overlook the sins of those who call themselves his, as if they get a pass on justice. They too will be judged (9:8), though it will be discriminating, leaving his people purified for whom he has purposes (9:8-10). Still, God will not forget his promise to David.

Whether the people in our audience have been praying for loved ones caught in military conflicts overseas, churches where abuse has had its day, or the vulnerable in our communities who seem to be beat up, the scriptures do not ignore the injustice happening, even today. Even by those who claim the name of the Lord.

The anger at injustice isn’t wrong and can mirror the character of our just God. The words of Amos can reach us with our grief. For, the Lord held his people accountable in the day of Amos and will do that again to those who would harm others in this time; his character has not changed.

Yet, God’s plan is also for hope and restoration. As he tore down their idol temples, he would build up the shelter of David that had fallen, Amos says. The Lord would raise up its ruins, bringing up that anointed king for whom they waited (9:11). It is the line of David that would produce a King—a Messiah—that would fulfill the Davidic covenant.

When the Messiah was born in Bethlehem, we see the line of David reemerging in the dark world. This King is their hope and ours, for the tent of David is expanded for all the nations to enter. He was and is the hope of those who have seen the injustice of the world and have perpetrated it (which is all of us), for he lived and died and was raised—leading us into a kingdom with a tent that spread over all who would come to him. Those who oppress others will be judged or have their judgment fall on this King.

God is not apathetic to the injustice we see. He works justice in his time, but he also works for a transformed community of his people through the Messiah who was born of David’s line.

Preach to Those Whose Losses Have Mounted—Habakkuk 3:17-19 CSB

Though the fig tree does not bud

and there is no fruit on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though the flocks disappear from the pen

and there are no herds in the stalls,

yet I will celebrate in the Lord;

I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!

The Lord my Lord is my strength;

he makes my feet like those of a deer

and enables me to walk on mountain heights!

Habakkuk wrote during the reign of King Jehoiakim, a puppet king of Pharoah who encouraged oppression, false worship, and drafted slaves from his people. The honest prophet lamented the corruption of Judah and responded with a prayer conversation that he wrote for us. It includes a revelation from God that he was bringing the long-foretold captivity by the Babylonians. After receiving a vision of how to survive and a woe song reminding that God will still bring justice, Habakkuk wrote his own song that models the central vision of the book—how to live by faith.

In chapter 3, Habakkuk’s song is for the community as they wait to be conquered. Their circumstances will go from bad to worse, and yet, together they sing of trust in the God who saves, who opposes the enemies of his people, and who will ultimately deliver through his anointed one (3:13). It’s a liturgy of faith while they wait for God to work.

The final verses are famous ones that we’ve quoted but perhaps not taught in the context of the entire chapter. In the loss that rises to the level of famine conditions, the prophet leads God’s people into words of intentional faith. “I will celebrate in the Lord” is a choice (and emphasized in the cohortative).

How does one choose joy when losses have piled high? Or when things have spiraled out of control to the depths? How do we celebrate Christmas when we’ve had years of loss? Habakkuk says you can have joy when one knows the God of their salvation. Just like David knew the God who would deliver him from Saul, for he quotes David next (Ps. 18:33; 2 Sam. 22:34).

The prophet instructs through his lyrics that joy mingles with the grief, for in the loss of every physical comfort, we do not lose the God who saves.

The song has already painted vivid pictures of God’s power to save, and today we know that the God of salvation entered human history in the womb of Mary. We read Mary’s song and see her use similar words. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:26-47). Mary sings as if the salvation that God’s people had been looking for had come in the Baby about to be born.

Today, we know it’s true. We can rejoice in the God of our salvation when life has lost an unimaginable amount, because of the coming of Christ.

There are people before you whose losses have mounted beyond words in the last couple of years. Finances have run out when they never expected to lose stability. Loved ones have died. Mental health for them and their family members has felt out of grasp. Is it possible to celebrate with joy at Christmas when grief looms large?

Habakkuk never denies the traumatic impact of loss; he shakes with emotion, what some would describe as panic (3:16). Yet, he’d still say that because of the God of salvation, there’s room for joy even in the loss.

Preach to Those Who Feel Trapped and Needy—Micah 5:2-4 CSB

Bethlehem Ephrathah,

you are small among the clans of Judah;

one will come from you

to be ruler over Israel for me.

His origin is from antiquity,

from ancient times.

Therefore, Israel will be abandoned until the time

when she who is in labor has given birth;

then the rest of the ruler’s brothers will return

to the people of Israel.

He will stand and shepherd them

in the strength of the Lord,

in the majestic name of the Lord his God.

They will live securely,

for then his greatness will extend

to the ends of the earth.

Micah, like many other prophets, told God’s people that the consequences for their rebellion and sin were coming. Still, judgment and hope mingle in the Book of Micah. He points to a crisis and a coming hope. While the society may feel like it’s crumbling to pieces, our hope looks to another Ruler.

Just before our verses, Micah 5 describes the siege against Jerusalem and King Zedekiah being stricken by the Babylonians. The nation will fall because of the rebellion of some. Their leader cannot save them, but a better Ruler is coming. From Bethlehem comes God’s Ruler. Look here for hope, Micah implies; it’s the birthplace of King David and the birthplace of the King of Kings.

While he comes from a place that implies littleness and weakness, this is the One whose coming is from of old, from ancient of days—it has been God’s plan to send this Messiah (5:2). There was punishment coming to God’s covenant breaking people before the Deliverer from the town of Bethlehem would come (5:3). It would get worse before it got better. Then, finally, God’s people who felt like they were in labor would see the birth—the birth of the One who would save them. God’s remnant would return, and what would the Ruler do?

He will stand as their King. He will shepherd them, enabled by the Lord himself and acting in the majesty of his name. While hearing the news of instability, the hope of security comes from the Ruler from Bethlehem. He will be great to the ends of the earth. This is the gift of God to those who feel besieged, shut in on every side, like those in Jerusalem.

Jesus is the powerful King who delivers and brings security. As Peter Craigie says “And that is the essence of the Christmas message: God makes a gift to a besieged world through whom deliverance may come.”

Some people sitting before us feel encircled by those who take advantage of others. It’s the cruel who take from the vulnerable (Micah 2:1-2), those who cheated others (Micah 6:10), and the apathetic who worshipped what they want (Micah 1:7, 5:13-14). At times we are those people in need of repentance and hope. Other times we are those who feel the spiral of consequences that come to society because of the corrupt choices of others.

Micah wants us to know there is hope for us. Our God is one who forgives iniquity, who delights in faithful love. He has cast our sins into the depths of the sea because of his loyalty, because of the covenant to his people (Micah 7:18-20). He has done this by bringing forth his Ruler from Bethlehem.

Preach to Those Who Are Disillusioned—Zephaniah 3:14-17 ESV

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;

shout, O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart,

O daughter of Jerusalem!

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;

he has cleared away your enemies.

The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;

you shall never again fear evil.

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:

“Fear not, O Zion;

let not your hands grow weak.

The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah preached during the time of King Josiah, and we imagine he had great influence on the young, wise king. Still, the prophet also called out the corrupt levels of leadership in society. The priests, the royalty, the judges, the prophets—many served themselves instead of the Lord (1:4, 8;3:3-4). Their unrighteousness wasn’t overlooked by the true King. The Day of the Lord would bring judgment and hope for God’s people.

In the same way that God’s remnant saw the evil choices of her leaders, so there are plenty in our churches who are angry and disillusioned by those in power. They’ve seen failures flood the news from political authorities, judicial authorities, and even religious authorities. Who do we trust in these days?

Zephaniah says that judgment will come. Wait with faith for the Lord to remedy this world with his judgment and hope (3:8). Trust the true King. He will give purified lips and change the hearts of his people. So, celebrate—sing for joy! The King of Israel will be among you with forgiveness and protection (3:14-15).

Coming towards Christmas, those in your seats may feel distrustful of leaders. Just look at all the evil they’ve done. It may not have been far from the feelings of the people of Judah. We’d expect a prophet to foretell the good news of a king, the messianic King of the line of David, but Zephaniah, like other seventh century prophets, does reassure with references to the Messiah.

It’s as if the hope in the Davidic kings has vanished after the evil that’s come from the royals. While there were reforms and renewal under Josiah, Judah would eventually see three of his sons sit on the throne, each doing evil and seeing judgment from the Lord. So, in Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, God primarily points towards himself. He is their King and their hope. God himself will deliver his people from their sins and save them. The King of Israel, the Lord, will be in their midst (3:15).

The people need more than a man; they need God to be to be among them, a might warrior who saves, rejoices, and quiets them with his love—deep relational love like referenced in Hosea. The one who does these things cannot just be another failed king from David’s family. They need Immanuel.

The way to resolve Zephaniah’s emphasis on the coming of the divine ruler is to preach that the King who entered history was the God-man. He is the son of David Isaiah foretold as the Mighty God (Is. 9:5), who Zephaniah also called the mighty One to save (3:17). And as we turn our eyes to the birth of Christ, he is the work of the mighty One who had done great things for Mary (Luke 1:49). This is the One we trust, even when the leaders around us may fall.

The Twelve Lead Us to Christmas

The history of the birth of Christ is the Old Testament. It is the promises to the Patriarchs. It is the stories of the former Prophets and Isaiah. It is also the Book of the Twelve, whose themes push us towards our deep need for the coming of Christ.

Those themes can feel less celebratory. Less Christmas lights and hot apple cider and more need and lack. Yet, part of being the church is knowing that we don’t have to sweep the brokenness and corruption of this world under the rug. We celebrate with true hope that can face the darkness and say, “The Light has still come.”

You may choose one of these passages for your series or none. You know the context and the hearts of those who hear you. No matter what you choose, may you delight in the provision of Christ this Christmas, who is the Son of David and Ruler from Bethlehem.

Taylor Turkington (DMin) directs BibleEquipping which trains women to study and teach the Bible. She’s the author of Trembling Faith: How a Distressed Prophet Helps Us Trust God in a Chaotic World.

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