Sunday, December 22, 2013

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

Who is this King of glory? Jehovah of hosts, He is the King of glory.

I always buy my Christmas cards during the after Christmas sales. The boxes are much cheaper, and if you get to the store early enough you can still find the right number of boxes of pretty cards. I store the cards with my Advent items and so they are accessible early in the season for sending our special greetings to our friends. I never remember the design until I pull them out in the new year, and it is always a wonderful surprise when I do.

This year my cards have a cute snowman with a cardinal in the middle of a glitter covered field of snow. The greeting inside says, “Thinking of you with smiles and warmth this holiday season.” I think it is funny that this is the thought for this year since it has been especially cold all over the country. We have had near freezing temperatures already, twenty degrees below normal. It has been even colder elsewhere. This particular card is perfect for this year because we all could use a little extra warmth during these arctic blasts.

One of the things I didn’t realize was that I purchased cards with glitter. I usually avoid glitter. I avoid glitter because no matter what you do, there is no way to get rid of the glitter after you’ve touched it. A friend posted this status on Facebook, “Forgot how much fun it is to work with glue and glitter with my son's kindergarten class...on a side note....if you shake my hand or I hand you a piece of too will have glitter.” Glitter is glued onto items, but it doesn’t stick completely. Some always rubs off and ends up on everything. But glitter is so cool; it makes things sparkle in a special way. It gives a simple design a touch of glory. And you just can’t get through the Christmas season at school without making something with the kids covered in glitter!

I have two thoughts for this last Sunday in Advent: God is the King of glory and He has everything under His control. Now, there’s no way that I could have predicted that this would be a particularly cold year when I was choosing my Christmas cards, but I really like the way it worked out. God knew, and while I don’t know if my choice a year ago was part of some grand plan, I like to believe that God will use my simple message to make a life a little warmer for someone this Christmas. He certainly didn’t choose my cards, but somehow He will use my choice to His glory.

I have to admit that there have been times that I’ve been very particular with the message I’ve chosen for my Christmas cards, making them intentionally Christocentric. I didn’t this time; perhaps there wasn’t a pretty selection on the shelves or perhaps I just thought this snowman was super cute. It might seem odd to think that something that does not say “Merry Christmas” or have a picture of the Baby Jesus will glorify God. What does a snowman wishing special holidays have to do with God? But that’s just it: we don’t have to wear our faith on our sleeve to glorify God. We simply must trust Him to use our lives and our decisions to His glory.

In today’s lessons we see the stories 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: “Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.” And a warning, “If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.” The decision facing Ahaz was to believe in God and to trust in Him.

God even offered him proof. “Ask thee a sign of Jehovah thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.” It isn’t very often that God offers us a sign to prove His promises, but He did so with Ahaz. Ahaz, however, self-righteously decided that he didn’t want to test God. “No thanks,” he told Isaiah. How many of us would love to have proof that something we’ve 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, “Yes” or “No.” But we are left without such clear guidance. We don’t 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 didn’t trust God, and He didn’t want the proof of God’s promise because then he would have to do things God’s 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.

Isaiah describes the sign, which then Matthew references in today’s Gospel lesson. Matthew often points back to the prophetic word of God as give through Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah nine times. Isaiah is often considered the fifth Gospel because it is the most messianic of all the Old Testament books. Matthew sees Isaiah’s words fulfilled in Jesus Christ; he tells the story and explains the significance so that others will see how this fits into God’s plan. God knew in the days of Isaiah how Jesus would come to earth, and He promised it through the words of the prophet.

Now, the promise here was both for Ahaz and for all of us. The immediate fulfillment of this promise was probably a child born to Isaiah’s 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.

We know, of course, that this fulfillment of the prophecy was also a foreshadowing of the ultimate plan of God, who would send His own Son to be the Immanuel (God with us) that would make an eternal difference for God’s 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.

Now, many have made a big deal about the use of the word virgin in this text. Some have suggested that the word used for virgin can also mean “young girl.” While this is true in the original Hebrew, the translators of the Septuagint understood that despite the double meaning, the woman would be a virgin. The word in Latin makes it clear. This is important because it establishes the divinity of Christ. If Mary were just another woman who got pregnant in the normal manner, then the son would have another father and would have no more power than any other man. The first Immanuel was a reminder that God is with His people, but this Immanuel is truly God with us.

So, we’ve seen how Ahaz chose to go his own way, do his own thing, follow 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 Mary’s womb belonged to another man. That man had all the rights and responsibilities of that child. That’s 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. “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.” God is in control. This child is 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. “You shall call Him Jesus.” By naming the child, Joseph becomes His legal father with all the rights and responsibilities. And Jesus becomes 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.

But God calls us to trust Him and do the crazy because He is able to make it all work out right. When we don’t 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 don’t know much. We might think that we will be blessed by doing things our own way, but the reality is that we are blessed when we trust in God and glorify Him, because His glory is like glitter: when He touches you, you can’t help but sparkle.

Jesus is named Immanuel. The name means “God with us.” God is with us. Have you thought about the implications of this? We often prefer to allow God to be a far off God, to be separate, to be out of touch. 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 don’t 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 Joseph’s 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 God’s will and a spirit that discerned that what he heard was true.

Who is the King of glory? Our God is the King of Glory, manifest in the life of His Son our Lord Jesus Christ. He has, as Paul writes, “through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake.” God speaks to us, through prophets, through dreams, but mostly through His Word, and calls us to make decisions that will glorify Him among the nations. Will we be like Ahaz, going our own way, doing our own thing? Or will we trust God like Joseph, and do what He has commanded? It might seem like the most ridiculous thing in the world, but God knows what He’s doing. He will use all our choices to His glory, the question is this: will we be blessed by those choices or will they make us fall?

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