Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25, for Christmas Day, "Follow God's Lead"

By God’s grace may I make the Word of God fully known to you, the mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now revealed to his saints…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim! (Colossians 1:25b-26, 27b-28a).
Today we focus on Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s gospel always gets all the attention with the shepherds, angels, the birth, and the baby Jesus in the manger. Luke’s gospel certainly inspired far more Christmas carols, with its beauty and poetry. But Matthew’s gospel is no less important, though perhaps it points a little more to the trouble and uncertainty of the time. Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, comes into sharper focus.
Under Jewish law at the time, Joseph was betrothed to Mary, which was the legally binding first step of marriage. A 1 year waiting period normally followed, and it was only after this that they entered the home together and consummated their marriage. During this time, Joseph discovered she was pregnant, and presumed she was unfaithful to him. But still being a compassionate and just man, he sought a quiet, legal exit from the marriage by divorce. It would have been the merciful thing to do had he been right. But God intervened by revealing to Joseph that she had in fact been faithful, but that this was a miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, in the Virgin Mary. What an astonishing revelation and relief, but at the same time such an enormous responsibility! God revealed: “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” To bear any child is a responsibility that should make any parent tremble—as life so tender and precious is placed in their hands. But to also be the protector of God’s Son, whose very life would come under threat by King Herod, just a short time after His birth! This was a high and weighty duty placed upon Joseph! Joseph had to rise to the task given him.
Just stepping back for a moment, notice that his own human reason and strength perceived the situation wrongly, and it took God’s revelation of the truth, to intervene and steer Joseph’s actions down the right path. And he was greatly blessed by following God’s lead. Think of the other times that this same effect took place around the birth of Jesus. Mary also was puzzled and confused about how this childbirth would happen, without a father, and yet believed and trusted God’s angel, to let it be according to his word. And she and the world are greatly blessed because they followed God’s lead. Wise Men, who will come next in Matthew’s Gospel, had to be directed by not only the star, but also by those who knew the prophecies, to find the right location to worship the baby Jesus. Without taking God’s lead from the Word of Scripture, they would not have found Jesus, and carried that joyous news back to their homeland. The shepherds also, were merely doing their duties in the field and would not have known or come to worship Jesus except angels intervened and told them. If not for God’s revelation and following God’s lead, they wouldn’t have come to Jesus in the manger, and been carried away with joy, telling everyone what they had seen.
In Joseph’s case, and certainly often in our own case as well, we can mistake a situation. He saw a major wrench thrown into his plans, and was set to abandon that course. We face many similar points of doubt and uncertainty in life; and when we do, are we turning to God for guidance and direction? In our sinfulness we may doubt or second guess God’s plans, because our reason and strength are too limited. Things are not always as they seem, but we are always wise to take things to God in prayer, and seek His perspective on life. If we submit our lives to God, as Joseph, Mary, the wise men and shepherds did, we can better follow God’s lead.
But sometimes from our human perspective, I think we second guess God and constantly wonder things how much God has really taken this or that into consideration. “Well what about those who haven’t heard the Gospel? What about the threats and dangers to those who confess Jesus, but live among those who hate His Name?” We trouble ourselves with hypothetical scenarios—some realistic, others not. But we always ignore the same obvious point—that God who is omniscient, who knows all things, has taken all things into consideration. How could we think that God hasn’t taken all things into consideration? God’s good plan, His merciful mission of redemption, His message of joy is going to work exactly what He sends it out to accomplish—obstacles or no. God knows the outcome of all things, so none of it strikes God as a surprise—none of it could leave God reflecting, “I wish I had thought of that.”
Maybe it’s because we so often see our own human plans go awry, and because we’re so familiar with the very obstacles and opposition to the Gospel that Jesus Himself taught about and predicted—that we sometimes become doubters. But we have to know that God really does have the big picture under wraps, and that God has clearly made known to us His will for salvation—His desire that all would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth; His provision for that salvation to come only through His Son Jesus; and His command for us to carry that message to every corner of the earth. Are there many “unknowns” to us, about how and where all people will receive this message? Yes. Are they “unknown” to God? Not at all. We can have faith that God has all things in consideration.
If by unbelief we do not believe that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God, born of the Virgin, we will miss the Savior from our sins. If, by unbelief, we do not confess our sins and lay them upon Jesus, we will miss the rescue that God sent down from heaven. If, by unbelief, we keep Jesus from entering our hearts, we will miss the love of the Savior meant to pour through us to everyone in our lives. Unbelief can block the Lord’s way in our hearts, or faith can be the channel through which Jesus enters in to do His work, to save His people from their sins.
Like Joseph and Mary, we only need to be content to do what God directs us to do, and to watch His plan unfold in Christ Jesus. Though their part in the plan came 2,000 years ago, and Jesus walked the earth and died and rose from the dead almost 2,000 years ago, the plan is still unfolding and working, all across the globe as Christians in hundreds of languages and thousands of cities around the globe are celebrating in many tongues the birth of Our Savior this day. Their praise, their carols sung to the Lord of Christmas, are proof that God’s plan of salvation is succeeding and working all over the earth. As a favorite evening hymn sings: “As o’er each continent and island the dawn leads on another day, the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.” (886:3). God’s church never sleeps, as the daylight circles the globe and wakes new Christians to worship, joy, and praising of God—likewise God’s kingdom stands and grows forever till all creation returns to worship Him. God’s salvation plan is coming to success, even when it is partly or even mostly hidden from our eyes.
In any case, without guidance from God, and the illumination of His Word, we would be blind to His coming, and blind as for how to respond. That these human actors in the story surrounding Jesus responded to God’s Word and direction, meant that they became part of the story of salvation, and became witnesses and participants in God’s plan. While human action played a role that was not insignificant—it was God’s action alone that was indispensable. God had led the prophets through the ages to reveal, piece by piece, the clues to His glorious plan of salvation. God had orchestrated the events of history so that the circumstances would be right for His Son’s birth. God had witnessed the bleak sinful condition of humanity and responded to our call for help by formulating a plan that would save the world from our sins while at the same time fully maintaining His justice and mercy. And for all those multitudes of people who were and are blind to the need for a Savior from sin, God sent His Son so meekly, so lowly, and with such tenderness to call all people to repentance and His free gift of salvation.
God is calling us also to be witnesses and participants in God’s plan. He’s not finished writing the story of salvation—not until every last name is written in the Book of Life. God is drawing us to this Son Jesus, who He sent to “save his people from their sins.” We are God’s people, by the waters of Holy Baptism, where He names and claims us as His own. We are God’s children as Jesus shed His blood on the cross to redeem us, to adopt us as sons and daughters of His kingdom. And we are God’s children who have Emmanuel—God with us—as Christ in you is the mystery, hidden for ages, but now revealed to us.

By our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, and sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith. Just like God had to intervene in Joseph’s life, to enlighten him to God’s plan of salvation, and his small part in it, so also God preaches His Word into our lives, so that we may know this Jesus as our Lord, so that we may know our small part in God’s plan of salvation. First of all as receivers of a great and worthy gift—the priceless gift of our redemption and rescue from sin and death. But secondly as those who follow God’s lead, trusting in His good plan—even when much of it is unseen to us—but following God’s lead to live out our lives faithfully serving those whom He has given to us. Serving our friends and neighbors, our employers or employees, our community, our family—whomever God has placed in our lives to serve. We follow God’s lead, trusting that He has a good plan, that He has taken all things into consideration, and that above all He sent down to earth Jesus, to save His people from their sins. Covered in the forgiveness of Jesus, robed in His innocence by faith, fed by His body and blood to strengthen and nourish us, we know that life is good, following God’s lead. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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