Fourth Sunday of Advent
Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife to himself...
Martin Luther is described as a wrestler of God. In his book about Martin Luther, Martin Marty wrote, 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
God seems contradictory, doesnít He? Perhaps one of the hardest contradictions for us to grasp is the fact that God is both love and wrath. We prefer the God of love, but where would He be if He did not also chastise those He loves? After all, thatís what the wrath of God is about. Wrath isnít simply vengeful anger or retributory punishment as we describe it; God is the Holy One and His wrath is about making things right. Through His wrath He makes His people righteous. The whole point of Christmas is that He sent His Son who was the One on whom His wrath fell for our sake. Godís opposites are not contradictory, but rather encompass the wholeness of His character; God loved us so much that He took the wrath upon Himself.
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 scriptures for this Fourth Sunday in Advent tell the stories of two men who faced tough decisions about trusting in God.
The first was a man named Ahaz who was king of Judah. He was struggling deal with an oncoming invasion from Israel and Syria against his nation. 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 us a sign to prove His promises, but He did so with Ahaz. Ahaz, however, self-righteously decided that he didnít want 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 obviously 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 faced war and God was prepared to save Judah from destruction. Ahaz seized control and his plan failed.
Isaiah described the sign which Matthew referenced in todayís Gospel lesson. Isaiah is often considered the fifth Gospel because it has the most Messianic references of all the Old Testament books. Matthew quotes Isaiah nine times; he sees Isaiahís words fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He tells the story and explains the significance so that others will see how this fits into Godís plan. God knew before the days of Isaiah how Jesus would come to earth, and He promised it through the words of the prophet. In love, Immanuel came to take Godís wrath on His own shoulders to save Godís people forever.
Jesus was righteous from the beginning; He was in a right relationship with God; He 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 sin. He was righteous so that we might become truly righteous, not by our own actions but by His grace. Jesus made an eternal difference for Godís people. Jesus, born of Mary, was set apart from all others. Mary was the virgin about which Isaiah was speaking and Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.
Ahaz was given proof that God would provide, but he chose to go his own way. He followed his own path, but the Gospel story tells the story of a man who trusted God. He was legally bound to a woman who became pregnant. This 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.
God appeared to Joseph in a dream. ďJoseph, son of David, donít be afraid to take to yourself Mary as 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 appointed Joseph to act as Jesusí legal guardian. ďYou shall name him Jesus.Ē By naming the child, Joseph became His legal father with all the rights and responsibilities. It was all part of the plan.
Joseph was from the house of David; he was a descendent of the great king to whom God made the promise of an eternal kingdom. Joseph was selected by God to be Jesusí earthly father, the man to raise him in the ways of righteousness and through whom Jesus also became a son of David. Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Many years had passed since the prophets spoke Godís promises to His children, plenty of time for them to become confused and interpret Godís promises to meet their expectations. They expected the Son of David to save them from the Romans, to set them free to be an independent nation. They expected the Messiah to be a mighty warrior, a great king. But God sent Jesus to do far more. He was the incarnation of the Living God, God in flesh born to save the people from the wrath of God they deserved for their unfaithfulness and sinful behaviors.
Joseph obeyed Godís words: he took Mary as his wife and raised Jesus as his own son. He had him circumcised as was prescribed in the Law. When the child was in danger, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt according to Godís command to protect him from the slaughter in Bethlehem. He took his family to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover each year. He was a good father to the young Jesus who would grow into the Savior of the world.
God chose Joseph to be Jesusí earthly father, the one who would mentor Jesus into the man He became. Jesus was God in flesh, but He was also a human being. Through the mentoring, teaching and loving of His earthly father, Jesus was raised in knowledge of the Law and Prophets; He learned the work of the carpenter and knew how to work with His hands. He grew up to be a responsible adult.
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.
I think we often prefer a God who is far off, separate, and 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. We want proof, and yet like Ahaz, we feign a righteousness that refuses to demand that sign. 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 does 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. He is the one on whom Godís wrath fell so that we would be made righteous before our God.
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.
Paul professes his faith in his greeting to the Romans. ďPaul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the Good News of God, which he promised before through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the offspring 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, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship for obedience of faith among all the nations for his nameís sake; among whom you are also called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Ē
This is the promise fulfilled in Jesus. It is for this reason that we praise our God. We can count on God. He is faithful. We canít expect that we wonít face the consequences of our failures and suffer the effects of our perishable flesh, but we can know that God is true to His promises.
We face so many contradicting ideas in the world. One day the Ďexpertsí tell us that something is bad for us. They recommend removing that item from our lives completely. The next day another Ďexpertí tells us that new studies show us that the old studies were wrong and that the item is not harmful at all. Another Ďexpertí comes out the next day suggesting that moderation is the best choice. Someone suggests a little of the item is healthy. Another will give recommendations as to how much. All this information floats on the Internet and in the news, sometimes taking so long to get through the system that it has been proven wrong even before it has been announced. It is very confusing. What do you do? Whose advice do you take?
Science is an integral part of our understanding the world in which we live, but it is also constantly changing as new discoveries are made. What was true yesterday might not be true today simply because the scientists and researchers have discovered something new. Scientists a hundred years ago did not have the equipment to do some of the things they can do today. With every new investigation we have more knowledge about the world which changes how we see individual aspects of it.
We can count on God, He is faithful. The psalmist reminds us that the earth and everything in it is His, He is the Creator and He knows the purpose for all things. He gives man the intelligence and ability to search His creation to discover what we need to know. We donít know it all today, and we will not know it all tomorrow. As the world changes around us the things we know has to change. It is good that we seek to know the world in which we live, but let us always remember that there is One who is greater. God is good and right and true and His grace will last forever. Let us never forget to seek Him even while we search the world in which we live.
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. We are called to trust in God and to be obedient to His Word. He will always do what is right; He is faithful.
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. Jesus took the wrath for our sake. It is up to us to let go and believe that He has heard our cries and has come to make all things right.
Are you like Ahaz? Do you try to take control of your world by ignoring Godís word, trusting only in your own plan rather than Godís? Or will you be like Joseph, who despite struggles 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.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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