Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 7:10-17
Psalm 24
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

What does it mean to be righteous? Most people would define it as doing what is right. This is the law centered definition. As a matter of fact, the dictionary definition is: (of a person or conduct) morally right or justifiable; virtuous. Some people use it to describe something that is especially good or excellent. Thatís certainly the way the people in Jesusí day understood what it meant to be righteous. Those who lived according to the Law were righteous. We know, however, that it is impossible for any of us to live perfectly according to the Law. We fail every day. We sin in many ways. We might be more righteous when we compare ourselves to our neighbors, but we are nothing but corrupt, perishable flesh when we compare ourselves to our God.

The Biblical understanding of righteousness has a different point of view: we are not made righteous by doing what is right; we are made righteous by what God has done. Those who are righteous in Godís eyes are those who trust in Him.

Todayís lessons include the tale of two men who are faced with tough decisions. Ahaz had to deal with an oncoming invasion from Israel and Syria against Judah. God is faithful to His promises, and all He asks of His people is that they trust in Him. But Ahaz looked to allies to help him with his war. He went to Assyria for strength. Isaiah spoke to Ahaz with a promise: ďThis is what the Lord Yahweh says: ĎIt shall not stand, neither shall it happen.íĒ And a warning, ďIf you will not believe, surely you shall not be established.Ē The decision facing Ahaz was to believe in God and to trust in Him.

God even offered him proof. ďAsk a sign of Yahweh your God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.Ē It isnít very often that God offers to prove Himself, but He did so with Ahaz. Ahaz, however, feigned righteousness by refusing to test God. ďNo thanks,Ē he told Isaiah.

How many of us would love to have proof that something weíve heard is really from God? I know that there are times when I just wish He would speak more clearly so I can be sure. When we are making career decisions, considering marriage or making a move to another city, it would be so much easier if God said, ďYesĒ or ďNo.Ē But we are left without such clear guidance. We donít have an Isaiah to tell us when we are going the wrong way. We just have to trust that God is guiding us and that He can use even our wrong choices to do His Work in the world. We glorify Him by our trust. Ahaz didnít trust God, and He didnít want the proof of Godís promise because then he would have to do things Godís way. God sent the sign anyway, and in the end Ahaz was not established. Ahaz was facing war and God was prepared to save Judah from destruction. Ahaz seized control and his plan failed.

God promised to send a son. The immediate fulfillment of the promise was probably a child born to Isaiahís second wife. The child would suffer from the devastating invasion of Assyria, which would decimate the countryside and make fresh food impossible to produce. He would also see the destruction of Israel and Syria before he turned twelve or thirteen. This child would be called Immanuel, as a reminder that God is with His people, so that they might turn to Him, trust in Him and believe that He does have control.

That child was a foreshadowing of the ultimate plan of God, who had planned from the beginning of the world to send His own Son to be Immanuel (God with us.) Jesus was righteous from the beginning; He was in a right relationship with God, trusted in Him and obeyed His commands. Jesus willingly lowered Himself, giving up the glory of heaven to take upon His shoulders the burden of our failures. He was righteous so that we might become truly righteous, not by our own actions but by His grace. Jesus, Immanuel, would make an eternal difference for Godís people. Jesus, born of Mary, was set apart from all others, including the son of Isaiah; Mary was the virgin about which Isaiah was speaking. The first Immanuel was a reminder that God is with His people, but this Immanuel is truly God with us.

Ahaz chose to go his own way, did his own thing, followed his own path, but in the Gospel story we see how another man trusted God. Imagine it: you are legally bound to a woman who becomes pregnant. We might not make such a big deal about this in our day, but it was catastrophic for this couple. Not only would they suffer the ridicule of their community, but there were legal ramifications for this kind of unfaithfulness. Joseph could legally have Mary stoned to death. He did not want to do so, but there was still a problem: the child in Maryís womb belonged to another man. That man had all the rights and responsibilities of that child. Thatís why he felt he should divorce her, to free her to marry the father of her child.

This is why God appeared to Joseph in a dream. ďJoseph, son of David, donít be afraid to take to yourself Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.Ē God was in control. The child was not the product of infidelity, but of the Holy Spirit. God is the Father, and in this dream He is calling Joseph to act as His legal guardian. ďYou shall call his name Jesus.Ē By naming the child, Joseph became His legal father with all the rights and responsibilities. And Jesus became his son, with the heritage of the House of David. It was all in the plan.

Just like Ahaz, Joseph was faced with a dilemma: believe or not believe? Joseph chose to believe. He did all that the Lord told him. He took Mary as his wife and cared for her. And when the child was born, Joseph did what God said, and named Him Jesus. Joseph certainly could have taken matters into his own hands, did what was legally within his rights. Mary could have been sent away to have the baby in secret and then given up for adoption. The choice to take Mary, to live with the ridicule and raise a child that was not biologically his seems crazy. Just as the choice to face the enemy without allies seemed crazy to Ahaz. God calls us to trust Him and do the crazy because He is able to make it all work out right. When we donít trust God, God still manages to make His plans succeed, but ours end up failing. We think we know better than God, but in the end we discover that we donít know much. We try to succeed by doing things our own way, but we are truly blessed when we trust in God.

Jesus is the fulfillment of all Godís promises, including this one from Isaiah. He is Immanuel, ďGod with us.Ē God is with us. I think, perhaps, we would most often prefer if God was a far off God, separate, out of touch because we want to be in control. We want to do what we think is right and follow our own ways. We are far more like Ahaz than we are Joseph. I donít know many people who would be so quick to follow a dream, to do something that goes against their very character. And yet, God knew that Josephís righteousness was not a false humility or a self-righteous obedience to the Law. Joseph had a right relationship with God, a heart to do Godís will and a spirit that discerned that what he heard was true.

God did not leave us to our own faithlessness. He chose to come and dwell among us. He sent Jesus, His Son, our Lord. It is for this Immanuel that we wait. It is for this Messiah that we watch. He will be all that God has promised, all rolled up in a tiny baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. This is perhaps the most incredible thing about our Christian faith: God came to be born of the most humble circumstances and live among us. He took the risk that His chosen helpers would do what He asked of them. What other god would become like his creation rather than demand the creation strive to be like a god? He saw our heartache close-up. He experienced our temptations. He is Immanuel.

We continue to be like Ahaz, trying to solve our own problems, turning to allies instead of God. But God continues to offer us the opportunity to witness the sign He sent in promise. ďA child will be born.Ē If only we could remember that every day of the year, instead of just at Christmas. If only we could live consistently as the disciples God has called us to be. But thatís why Jesus came: because we are not able. So, let us trust in God and dwell in those promises, living in the faith that God now dwells among us. That is how we will be righteous.

The Christmas miracle was an incredible risk. Jesus did not just appear one day in flesh and begin preaching. He came into the world in the normal way: through the birth canal of a woman. Infant mortality was high, many children never survived to see a first birthday. Jesus faced disease and the sword of the Herod. He faced the dangers of the road when Joseph took his family to Egypt. God took a great risk trusting in the faith of one human man whose ancestry was vital to the fulfillment of the prophecy and promises. Joseph was of the House of David as Jesus must be to be the King of the Jews. It was worth the risk; it was worthwhile for you and for me because it removed the wall that separated us from our Creator. Sin caused us to trust in ourselves and others rather than God and it was grace that set us free from the bondage of our flesh.

Martin E. Marty in his book about Martin Luther wrote that Luther saw God as contradictory. ďHe makes most sense to me as a wrestler of God - indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own. However you choose to explain his life, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.Ē Unlike humans, however, Godís opposites are not contradictory, but rather encompass the wholeness of His character, which is a God who is bigger than any human understanding.

Unfortunately, we see things from our own perspective, a perspective that is miniscule compared to Godís omniscience. We try to fit God into a box, to limit His character and nature to fit into our own needs and desires. We want God to be what we want Him to be. Yet, God canít fit into our box. He is all that He is and all that He does is within His character. He can only be true to Himself. The God that Luther sought was a God of seeming contradictions, but the reality is that He is present and absent, near and far, wrathful and loving, weak and almighty, real and illusion, hidden and revealed. He is more than we can ever imagine, but always the King of Glory.

The psalmist knows that only God deserves the praise. There are many Christians who are immature in their faith. They confess the saving forgiveness and yet often look to themselves to accomplish the work. There are too many Christians who think too highly of themselves and their righteousness. There are people who preach and teach a gospel that makes people equal with Christ. They believe that humans can reach the level of perfection that we will have when we live in eternity. They think they are sinless and know all that needs to be known about God and His kingdom. They take this knowledge and become very irresponsible with their actions.

Human beings never reach the point of perfection; we cannot approach the throne of grace on our own. We must look to Jesus Christ who can ascend the hill, receive the blessing and vindication as described in the psalm. As His followers, believers in His name, we can go with Him before the throne. He clothes us in His righteousness; we are called to simply believe.

Joseph was the adoptive father of our Lord Jesus Christ because by his heritage our King was a son of David. He was the true Messiah as promised throughout the Old Testament that would save His people from their sins. However, He was not only the son of man; He was the true Son of God. He was flesh and blood, born of a virgin and claimed by a man. But He was also Immanuel, God with us and by Him we have life and faith and hope and peace.

This message, this Gospel, is often lost in the midst of the Christmas celebration. There is symbolism in the things we do to honor our Lordís birth. The lights on our houses and in our tree remind us that Jesus is the light of the world. The tree, an evergreen of some sort, reminds us of the everlasting love of Christ. The wreaths and poinsettias, balls and ribbons, even the candy canes have some deeper meaning to those of us who believe that Christmas is more than a time to party and give presents.

Yet, the world does not always see the Gospel in our festivities. They might know that Christmas is about the birth of a child. They might even know more of the details like the kings, the stars, the shepherds, the virgin on a donkey giving birth in a stable among the cows. But they do not see the Gospel in our glitz and tinsel. They will only know if we go out in faith and obey the command of God to tell the world that Jesus has the power to defeat sin and restore all men to God. It is risky. Evangelism is rejected more than it is received. Faith is ridiculed. In some places, even today, faith will bring persecution and death. But they will only hear the Gospel if we tell them. Without the words of grace, the glitz of the Christmas season is worthless.

Are you going to be like Ahaz, taking control of your world and ignoring Godís word, trusting only in your own plan rather than Godís? Or will you be like Joseph, who despite the risk offered by Godís Word, walked in faith and saw the fulfillment of Godís promises in his own home as he cared for the son of God as his earthly father? We have been restored to our Creator and we now live in a world where the God of all creation dwells in the hearts of all those who believe. This is truly good news and a message in which we can trust now and forever. It is in this message we will find true peace.

Advent is almost over, our wait is almost complete. It will soon be Christmas Day and we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. But Jesus came for more than a holiday. He came to call His people to lives of discipleship, lives of sharing the forgiveness, compassion and hope that comes from God through Christ Jesus. It might seem like the world is against us. It might seem like the world has rejected God and wants to destroy Godís message. It does, because the message of God is that He is greater than the world. The world wants to stop what God has done, is doing and will do. But God always has a greater purpose and now is the time for us to trust that He is in control. We are called to be like Joseph, responding to Godís word with faith. We should not be tempted to take the battle into our own hands, but instead learn what God would have us see in the circumstances that surround us. He took the risk for our sake. The only risk we take is to let go and believe that He has heard our cries and has come.

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