Sunday, December 19, 2004

Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:-7, 17-19 NRSV)
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a profound difference between the two men we meet in today’s scripture lessons. They are related, both from the House of David, yet they respond to God’s word much differently. Ahaz was the king of Judah at a difficult time. Israel and Syria had formed an alliance and were preparing to invade Israel and attack Judah. Ahaz feared the possibility despite the fact that God promised that they would fall by His hand. He went to Assyria to form an alliance to beat back his enemies.

Alliances seem like a good idea, but God had something different in mind for Judah. His expectation of His people from the very beginning was that they would trust Him for their protection. In today’s Old Testament passage, God spoke to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah. “Ask thee a sign of Jehovah thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” On the surface, Ahaz’s response seems like a good thing. “I will not ask, neither will I tempt Jehovah.” He did not want to put God to the test.

Yet, he still went to Assyria to make the alliance despite God’s promise for help. His seemingly righteous answer to Isaiah about not putting God to the test was more accurately a refusal to obey God. God commanded Ahaz to ask for a sign, but Ahaz masked his mistrust with a false humility. Isaiah answered with a sign, “Hear ye now, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to weary men, that ye will weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The other man we meet is Joseph, the betrothed of Mary. He discovered that his bride-to-be was pregnant even though they had not yet had sexual intercourse. Joseph’s answer to this situation may seem uncompassionate. After all, from our perspective it seems as though he is trying to escape having responsibility for a child that is obviously not his. However, we have to understand the social structure of that world. Joseph, by marrying Mary, would usurp the rights of the legitimate father. He did not want to take possession of something that rightfully belonged to another man, and children were considered property in that day.

Joseph shows his compassion by planning this divorce in a manner that would not hurt Mary. He would do it quietly so that she could be properly betrothed and live a good and respected life. He could have protested angrily. It is likely that Joseph paid a dowry to take Mary as his own. It may have been cash or perhaps even carpentry work. He had every right to make a big deal about her unfaithfulness. He acted in the most compassionate and righteous way possible.

An angel came to him that night in his dreams and said, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins.” The angel told Joseph that this would fulfill the scripture we heard in the passage from Isaiah. “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us.”

Immanuel. Do we really consider what this means? It means that God is with us. Jesus Christ came from heaven to earth to break the wall of separation between God and man. He came to dwell amongst us and then to die for our sake so that we might live for eternity in the right relationship for which God created us to live. He did not simply come to bring forgiveness for those things we do wrong each day. He came to restore our relationship with God.

Joseph immediately obeyed the word of God that came to him in that dream. He took Mary as his wife and he named the child Jesus, taking full responsibility for the care and nurturing of the son of God. He trusted God and acted on his trust. Ahaz trusted in his own judgment of the situation and acted against God’s word. Two men. Two completely different responses to what God is doing in the world.

The passages this week show us that God is in control of His world. Ahaz was facing war and God was prepared to save Judah from destruction. Ahaz seized control and his plan failed. Israel fell and Jerusalem was attacked under his rule. Joseph was facing a most difficult situation that could burden his family with dishonor and the disapproval of the society in which he lived. He believed God and walked in faith. He risked a great deal to be obedient to a word he was given in a dream.

Yet, if we consider what God did at Christmastime, we should note that he risked even more. Christ 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 great in that age, many children never surviving 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 worthwhile for God to take this risk of becoming a child born in a stable in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago. It was worthwhile for you and for me because it removed the wall that separated us from our Creator. It was sin that caused us to trust other than God and it was grace that set us free from the bondage of our flesh. It was coming of the Christ child that answered the prayer in today’s psalm. “Turn us again, O God of hosts; and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.”

The psalmist also describes the way in which we will be saved. “Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself. So shall we not go back from thee: Quicken thou us, and we will call upon thy name. Turn us again, O Jehovah God of hosts; Cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.” We were indeed saved by the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He is the face of God in this world, the light that shines and restores us to God by His grace.

What the psalmist confesses as prophecy, Paul professes in faith in his greeting to the Romans. “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name's sake; among whom are ye also called to be Jesus Christ's.”

Joseph, the adoptive father of our Lord Jesus Christ brought Him into the House of David so that He would be the true Messiah that would save His people from their sins. However, He was not only the son of man; He was the true Son of God that would restore the human race to their Creator. 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 Lord’s 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 see the message of the Gospel in the midst of the decoration. They might know that Christmas is about the birth of a child. They might even know more of the details – the kings, the stars, the shepherds, the virgin on a donkey giving birth in a stable among the cows. But they don’t know the whole story and can not see the Gospel in our celebration. 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. 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 God’s word, trusting only in your own plan rather than God’s? Or will you be like Joseph, who despite the risk offered by God’s Word, walked in faith and saw the fulfillment of God’s 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. Thanks be to God.

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