Monday, December 20, 2010

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "Craving Good News"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Christmas is nearly here, and we’re in the last week of preparation—the last week of Advent, awaiting Jesus’ coming. As you hear the Christmas story read this Sunday from the Gospel of Matthew, how does it strike you? Is it the first time you’ve heard it? The 21st or 51st? Have you lost track of how many times you’ve heard the story, or is it still fresh and new to you at each hearing? Does the world of the first Christmas seem so tranquil, perfect, and far away that it doesn’t relate to your celebration of this years’ Christmas? Or is the story alive and real to you today?
Perhaps for some, the world of the first Christmas seems almost like a sleepy village in one of those snow-globes. The quiet, little town of Bethlehem, shrouded in mystery and holy glow, thousands of years distant in a faraway land. The story evokes memories of childhood and stirs warm emotions, but it’s closed off by the glass globe from the real, busy, workaday world with its troubles and imperfections. If that’s how we see the Christmas story, then it’s not surprising that we don’t hear the Christmas story as “newsworthy” anymore. Living in a world flooded with more and more information every day, our minds are set to “filter” mode. We have so much to do, to see, to process, read, or listen to, that only certain information rises to the top as being important enough to demand our full attention. Internet and modern media are exercises in ongoing distraction. Activities and busy work push up the list of priorities.
What catches our attention on the evening news, or makes us stop and listen on the radio might tell us a lot about ourselves, and what “tickles our ears.” News media have caught on quick to the fact that “bad news sells” and that people pay more attention to news stories involving disaster, crime, poverty and conflict than to “good news” stories. So are we guilty of subconsciously shifting the Christmas story off to the side, unaware of just how “newsworthy” it is? Do we crave to hear the “bad news” that is so prevalent today, while neglecting the best news of all? Or are you so fed up with a bad-news world that you are craving to hear some good news? Does life seem bad enough without the news coming in and dampening your day even more? If either description fits you, it’s my prayer that you hear the Christmas story afresh, and find again the reason why the “good news” of Jesus is the best and most “newsworthy” message of all.
First we might begin by taking the story out of that figurative “snow-globe” and realize that the first Christmas isn’t so distant or disconnected from Christmas this year at all. True, the location and date of the first Christmas is some 2,010 years or so ago in Bethlehem of Judea, in the land of Israel. News didn’t travel quite as fast in that low-tech world. But that didn’t make the news any less real or far-reaching in its significance. If you have any doubts, just ask yourself, especially in this high-tech world where news can be shared electronically around the world in just seconds—how many news stories being told today, will still be retold and have significance 2,000 years from now? There might be precious few to none at all, that would so greatly impact the turning of history that they would be told 2,000 years from now. But that’s precisely what happened the first Christmas. When Jesus was born, the whole course of history was changed, and the ripple effect of that birth has circled the globe many times, and still not faded away.
And Jesus’ birth didn’t happen in a world free of trouble or danger, shrouded in tranquility. With no need to artificially add something negative to the story to make it grab our attention, it stands as a simple fact that when Joseph first learned of Mary’s pregnancy, which was not by him, he was troubled and no doubt deeply disappointed. However, being a just man, and not wishing to punish Mary by following through with what the law permitted, he considered granting her a quiet divorce. He did not wish to put her to shame. But an angel of the Lord revealed to Joseph in a dream, that this child was conceived by God the Holy Spirit, and that he should not fear to take Mary as his wife. She had not wronged him in any way.
You can imagine that Joseph and Mary’s world was spinning with amazement and surprise, as they tried to wrap their heads around the amazing news that God was going to use their family to bring the Savior Jesus into the world. God called them to exercise their faith in Him in a tremendous way. He had come into the rather mundane situation of their life—a betrothal for marriage—and thrown quite a significant change into their plans. Now He was calling them to rely on Him in faith, to see His plan through to completion. In the very first years of their life, they would already face danger and hardship, as they would have to flee from the jealous King Herod, who was wary of any perceived threats to his throne. They had to uproot from their hometown and even travel later to Egypt to keep Jesus safe.
Isn’t that like our own lives? Don’t you have stories that you can tell of where God threw a significant wrench into your plans, and called on you to rely on Him totally by faith? Often we face hardship or challenges that we’re not sure how we’ll tackle, but simply have to follow step by step, trusting in God.
A second reason why we ought to pay attention to the good news of Christmas is the grand significance of the event. In the repeated telling of the story, we might lose the focus of what is so important. One of the telltale signs that Jesus’ birth was truly significant was the fact that it fulfilled what so many of the prophets had foretold in ancient times. Consider that the first prophecy of Jesus coming as the Savior, was given to Adam and Eve, perhaps some 4,000 years before Christ was born. The promise that the one who would rescue them from sin would come from Eve’s seed (Gen. 3:15). Or the prophecy in Numbers 24 about 1,500 years before Christ, that told of the star coming out of Jacob. Or the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that you heard today, 7 centuries before Christ, that said He would be born of a virgin. Or the prophecy of Micah 5:2, also 7 centuries before Christ, that told the place of His birth, Bethlehem. These prophecies and more were telltale signs that something truly remarkable was happening.
And what was so remarkable and newsworthy? That this miracle child, promised from before the ages, was literally God born in human flesh! The Savior would be called “Immanuel, which means God with us.” Now even that bit of news, that Jesus is the one called Immanuel, God with us, has somehow been obscured by a variety of ways that people today talk about God being with us. People that will talk about spirituality apart from Jesus Christ might nevertheless be heard talking about how God is with us, in similar-sounding language. For the person who finds spirituality in nature, they might talk about how God is present in the forest or the mountains, or the ocean. For the person who finds spirituality in the intellect, they may talk about how God is present in the pursuit of knowledge and reason. For the person who finds spirituality in their own self, they may talk about how God is found in mystic contemplation, or by becoming one with the “god” of the universe through enlightenment or meditation. There are many ways in which people might use similar-sounding language of “God with us,” but be quite distant from the meaning of the Bible when Jesus came into the world.
Maybe we need a little refresher on what makes Jesus as “God with us” different from the worldly ways we’ve heard it. For those who find the true spirituality that is only found in Jesus Christ, we learn that God is not to be found hidden in the rocks or trees of nature, or lost in the pages of science or mystic knowledge, God is not hidden within us to be discovered by mystic contemplation. Although God is present everywhere, and He leaves evidence of His presence in nature, in wisdom, and in our soul—He is not to be found there. Instead, Christmas shows us where to find God, where to discover that God is with us. We find God wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. We find Jesus in tangible human form, with diapers and tiny fingers and toes, smiling back at mother Mary and his adoptive father Joseph. A child asked a pastor friend of mine, “Did Jesus have organs? Was he all human, or just a kind of blow-up human?” While we might chuckle at the question, there’s truly a deep theological importance to that question. And the answer is, yes, Jesus did have organs, and He didn’t only “appear” to be human—He really was human in every way like us, except without sin (Heb. 4:15).
God came to us in the best way that we could come to know Him—as God in human flesh. “God with skin on.” Not God in the abstract or God in the unknowable. Not a god of wood, metal or stone. Not a God that could never be reached or found, but the God who reached down to us and found us. God with us takes on a whole different meaning in Jesus Christ than any of the other worldly definitions. And for this reason, it is most newsworthy, and it is good news. Did you know that that’s the simple meaning of the word “Gospel” after all? When we talk about the “gospel reading” or the “Holy Gospel” or the “Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John” the word simply means “good news!” And if this is the amazing good news of Christmas, that Jesus is God Himself come into the world to be with us, to make God known and to reach down to us—is there any reason why we shouldn’t spread that good news to every corner of the planet? Any reason why we shouldn’t perk up and pay attention with true joy every time we hear that God entered our world in the birth of Jesus?
The news just gets better! Can you begin to crave the good news in this “bad news” world? Do you begin to thirst for something positive and worth rejoicing, instead of only tuning in to bad news all the time? Then listen on, dear children of God! The reason that Jesus came into the world was to be our Savior from sin. It’s wrapped up in the very meaning of His name “Jesus,” for He will save his people from their sins. That Christmas was the crucial entry point of God coming into His creation for a Divine Rescue Plan to save people from their sins. That Divine Rescue Plan that reached its climax at the cross of Jesus, where God paid the price for all the wrongdoing that mankind had ever done, so that forgiveness could be God’s everlasting gift to mankind. That while Jesus was truly human, He was also the divinely born Son of God, and so was able to rise from that terrible death on the cross, and after three days could shed His grave cloths and walk from the tomb every bit as much still a living breathing human in flesh and blood, but now immortal and free of death’s decay. This was the miraculous rescue plan that God began unfolding on the first Christmas, and it’s those precious truths of Jesus as true God and true man that we confess each week in the creeds, as we remember and live in the knowledge of the best “good news” we could ever have asked for—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So I pray that for this and every Christmas you celebrate afterward, you would dive again into the deep truth of God’s Word, and rejoice ever more deeply at the good news of Jesus Christ, come into the world to save sinners. And may you crave and thirst for that good news, and cherish it in a world where bad news is “all the rage.” The good news of Christmas is just as timely and newsworthy 2,000 years after His birth as it will be a thousand years later, should Jesus not yet return. For God truly is with us in flesh and blood, and He came so that we could have forgiveness and life with Him. Let’s bring someone that good news this year, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.
Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Does the Christmas story seem distant and disconnected for you, or does it seem alive and present? Why? Do you agree that we live in a “bad-news” world? Why do people prefer to listen to bad news?

2. What does the kind of news and media that you pay attention to tell you about yourself? What makes the Gospel of Jesus, the “good news” so “newsworthy” and deserving of our highest attention? Why is it still a significant “news story” 2,000 years later?

3. How did Jesus’ birth intersect with a world of real difficulties, danger, and challenges? How did this cause Mary and Joseph to have all the more faith in God? What was Joseph’s solution going to be at first, to this unexplained pregnancy? Matt. 1:19. When has God put you in a challenging situation that made you depend totally on Him by faith?

4. Examine some of the prophecies that pointed to Jesus’ birth. How do these alert us to the significance of the event? (approx. years B.C. in parentheses) Genesis 3:15 (4,000+); Numbers 24:17 (1,500); Isaiah 7:14 (700); Micah 5:2 (700).

5. What are ways that “spiritual” people talk about God being with us today? What is different about how Christians mean it when they say that “God is with us?” In what ways was Jesus human? Hebrews 4:15. Why was Jesus’ birth the major first step in God’s Divine Rescue Plan?

6. How can we help change a “bad news world” by bringing the “good news?” What is that good news about?

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