Monday, December 23, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "God with us"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. What does “Emmanuel” mean? It’s the name of our church, and the title given to Christ in our Gospel reading. It means “God with us.” But in what sense? God with us could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. People are often quite content to speak about God being with them in the beauty of nature, in the whisper of the breeze, or in the bliss of a memorable moment. But is that what “Emmanuel” means in the Bible? Far from it. While we might be able to admire the beauty of God’s handiwork in nature, or sense peace or joy from certain restful or happy moments, that fleeting experience is not what God’s presence means. Neither is this the presence of the God who speaks to us. So where do we find the God who speaks to us? Or what happens when we are faced with the ugliness or brutality of life, in the cancer ward, or in the dangerous part of town? What about when sorrow wrenches all our joy and peace away? Is God still with us? Is God even to be found?
The incarnation—that is the coming of God’s Son into human flesh in the person of Jesus—is the answer to that question. It’s the presence of God with us, not in an abstract, intangible, fleeting way, or in a way that depends on our emotional state of mind or the beauty and goodness of external circumstances. The incarnation is about the God who does speak to us, and the God who stays with us even in the darkest pit of fear or despair. God concretely became man, and we find God with us first of all, in the straw cradle prepared by the Virgin Mary. God wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Here is the concrete, flesh and blood presence of God with us. And it came about in the most miraculous way.
Mary was a virgin, betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal requires a little explanation, because unlike a modern engagement which is not legally binding, a betrothal was. However, they were not permitted to live together or consummate the relationship until after the wedding ceremony. So Joseph’s distress was natural, in that he felt betrayed by Mary. In the passage, Mary and Joseph are already referred to as “husband” and “wife”, and in order to end this relationship, Joseph had to undertake a legal divorce, even if he could do so privately, in order to spare her further disgrace. It was in the midst of this precarious relationship, tilting toward an early divorce, that God’s Son ultimately came into the world, to be with us.  A situation that would have amounted to no small social discomfort for both Joseph and Mary. And in a larger sense, the world of Mary and Joseph was not much more peaceful, with the heavy hand of Roman soldiers and taxation being felt in the land. Does this sound like the God who flees in our times of trouble, or when lives get messy with sin? Does it sound like God needed to wait for a tranquil scene in order to arrive? Or are we hearing the story of the God who comes to save us from our sins, and to comfort us in our distress? Listen on.
While Joseph was weighing his options and nursing his heart, an angel came to tell him, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for 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.” It took faith for Joseph to believe the angel’s words, and act accordingly, but that is just what he did. Joseph may even have recalled the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14, that Matthew quotes for us, “The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.” Did Joseph believe merely on the angel’s words alone? Or was he stunned with the realization that the ancient prophecy was coming true in his own family? Many in Israel longed for the Promised One, and doubtless this passage had been the cause of much wonder and speculation. But in any case, Joseph accepted the angel’s word that cleared Mary of any guilt or unfaithfulness to him, and Joseph accepted that this change in plans was part of a higher purpose and plan that God had for his family—to welcome Jesus into the world, who would save His people from their sins.
And there you have the reason for why God comes on the scene in the first place. Not just for a social call, for a passing visit that would be followed by a long absence. What brought Jesus to earth was God’s will and intention to save His people from their sins. A God-sized problem required a God-sized intervention. Our problem is we’re so good at minimizing or reducing the size of our sin, that we can hardly accept the fact that God needed to intervene at all, let alone send Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. If sin is so small it doesn’t need a Savior, then all we need Jesus to do is take His place in the nativity scene and keep the warm feelings going. But if the problem of sin is indeed large—if it indeed required God’s own intervention—then we need Jesus to be born in the manger so that one day He might die on the cross for our sins. And then God be praised because Salvation unto us has come!
You see, if we treat Christmas as the climax of the salvation story, we miss the bigger picture that it is one of many great and wonderful climactic moments in the salvation story, mounting toward the death of Jesus to save His people from their sins, and His resurrection from the dead showing that the victory was in the bag! Christmas is the entrance of God on the scene, so that Jesus could come and take care of sin once for all at the cross. It doesn’t matter that we don’t want to look past the beauty and glow of the manger to the painful, adult realities of what Jesus came to do. It doesn’t matter that I might wish to keep my babies cute and small and cuddly for the rest of their lives so I can enjoy that adorable stage of their lives. Despite me, they will grow up, and despite us, Jesus grew up to be a man who faced an awesome and breath-taking task. The miraculous signs surrounding this birth pointed to the greatness of this child, and the greatness of what He came to do, even as He came in lowly estate.
So while we cannot suspend Jesus’ life forever at the Christmas scene, we can marvel at the way in which God came to us. Coming to a troubled and uneasy young man named Joseph, and a virtuous country girl named Mary, who shared this in common—a great faith in God and His promises, and a willingness to follow and obey God’s command and be brought into God’s purposes. We can marvel that just as Matthew’s Gospel begins Jesus’ life describing Him as “God with us”, Emmanuel, so also Jesus’ final words to us in the Gospel of Matthew are, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus is saying, I am always Emmanuel. Which tells us that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven are not a departure of God’s presence among us, or even Jesus’ prolonged absence. Rather, it tells us that Jesus’ presence is abiding, continuing, and near. He is still Emmanuel, “God with us,” and in no less concrete ways.
Jesus taught in His ministry that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). Jesus is present among the community of believers. Right here at Emmanuel! When we abide in Jesus’ Word and in His name, He is among us. He taught, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:26, ESV) When we serve and follow Jesus, we are with Him. He does not abandon us when we commit to His will, any more than He abandoned Joseph and Mary. Rather He saw them through much danger, as we’ll see after the visit of the wise men. And He will see us through the often difficult task of committing to obedience to Him, whatever the cost.
Jesus taught that while He was no longer visibly present among them, “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26, ESV) Jesus’ presence with His church is not without the Spirit’s continual speaking of His Word. We don’t have to sit and wonder, guess, or dream what Jesus would say, we have His Word written in the Holy Scripture and this is continually preached and taught to us in the office of the Holy Ministry, led by the working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus also taught that we would find Him in acts of Christian charity: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40b, ESV) Serving the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned, are all ways in which we serve Christ among us. And Jesus gave His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, as a lasting covenant of His presence among believers, saying, “Take eat, this is my body...drink of it all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28, ESV). Jesus is present every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in His body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins.
In short, Jesus has established His presence among us, not in abstract and mystical ways, but in concrete and external ways, through His Word, through His love enacted, through Christian brothers and sisters, through the needy, and through His own body and blood. Of course it is by faith we recognize God with us in all of these things, but we can also see that because of God’s love and behind-the-scenes action, His presence fills ordinary life with the love of God, and transforms even simple acts into acts of thankful and loving obedience to God.
Remove God from the equation, and we’re left with just our sin and our human will. And no matter how much we try to minimize our sin or our need for a Savior, that equation can’t stay balanced long, and life quickly unravels into the disordered chaos of sin, jealousy, and selfishness. Sin magnifies itself pretty well on its own. But this is the very mess Jesus’ came to save us from, and where sin increased, grace increased all the more (Rom. 5:20). That Jesus would save us from our sins looks forward past His birth to the looming cross of Jesus, looming even larger than our sins—yet not casting a shadow, but shining through the gloomy world to point us to Jesus. Jesus, who entered the world on a scene of uncertainty, danger, and fear, to rescue us. But that fear, our fear, is always driven back by Jesus’ advance, and the proclaiming angels kept that fear at bay by announcing His coming. But in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel! (LSB 361:3-4). Sin and disorder have had their day for too long! O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and deliver us from our sins! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      The title “Emmanuel” comes from Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, the prophecy of the virgin birth, and means “God with us.” How do people sometimes misconstrue the idea of God’s presence, and make it something very much smaller and uncertain than what Jesus’ title actually means? How do we correct that to the fuller, larger understanding of what “Emmanuel” means?
2.      Mary and Joseph’s betrothal was already legally binding, though they had not consummated the relationship (vs. 18, 20, 25). How does the Bible passage show the legal bond and what Joseph was contemplating to break it? (vs. 19-20). What negative impact were they both facing from this unexpected pregnancy?
3.      How is fear and disorder common to our human experience? Does this prevent God’s coming to us? Is God with us only in times of tranquility?
4.      What great acts of obedience and faith were required of Joseph and Mary? What gave them the strength to do so? Vs. 20-23; Luke 1:26-38. What is the means by which God brings about the “obedience of faith” in us? Romans 1:5-6
5.      What was the purpose of God’s arrival on the scene of human history? v. 21; Galatians 4:4-5. Even before Jesus’ birth, the purpose of His life is laid out. Why is it important that we remember this greater purpose, even at Christmastime?
6.      How is Jesus always Emmanuel, not just during the years of His life on earth? Matthew 28:20. How is He still present among His people? Matthew 18:20; 25:40; 26:26-28; John 12:26; 14:26.
7.      How does the greatness of Christ’s salvation far exceed the evil and trouble of our sin? Romans 5:20. What confidence does this give us for God’ help, comfort, and aid? Why can we be assured that God wants to come to us, and be with us for the purpose of rescuing us from our sins?

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