Sermon for 12-13-09: “God is With Us”

Sermon Text: Matthew 1:18-25

During the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we often use the name “Emmanuel” to describe Jesus. We sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Or we sing, “Pleased, as man, with men to dwell/ Jesus our Emmanuel.” Emmanuel is a name meaning “God is with us,” and it’s associated with Christmas because of today’s scripture. Matthew relates the birth of Jesus Christ to something the prophet Isaiah said in Isaiah chapter 7, verse 14.

If we want to understand the full meaning of this Isaiah reference in Matthew, we need to spend a little bit of time understanding what it meant in the original context. In the eighth century B.C., the kingdom of Israel is divided into two kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom, called Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, called Judah. Although they are descended from Abraham and worship the same God, they have an antagonistic relationship with one another. In Isaiah chapter 7, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had joined a coalition with Syria, because they believed they could successfully resist the control and influence of the Assyrian Empire, the dominant power in the region. But they knew they would be stronger if they could persuade the Southern Kingdom of Judah to join them in their coalition against the Assyrians. Judah, under King Ahaz, refuses to join… at first, but he’s beginning to waver and second-guess himself in the face of military attacks by these two other kingdoms. They want to defeat Ahaz and install a puppet who will go along with their plans.

Maybe, the king reasons, he should just go along to get along and join with Israel and Syria. Otherwise the Southern Kingdom might be destroyed. The prophet Isaiah, however, comes to him and reassures him that, in spite of the way things looked, the king had made the right decision. As bad and hopeless as it appeared, as unwinnable as his position seemed, as much as the odds were stacked against him and his country, the king needed to trust that God would take care of Judah. So Isaiah says, in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign”—a sign that the Lord can be trusted to take care of Judah. Isaiah likely points to a pregnant woman, possibly the king’s wife, who is standing nearby. “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” He goes on to say that this child will barely be weened and out of diapers before these two great kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria, will be destroyed by the Assyrian Empire. And because the Southern Kingdom refuses to join their coalition, they will be saved.

So, in its original context, this sign of a child being born to a young woman—which in the Greek translation with which Matthew is familiar is translated “virgin”—is a sign of hope and salvation for the kingdom of Judah in their crisis with Israel and Syria. Matthew, however, sees an even deeper meaning in the passage and applies it to the birth of Christ: God hasn’t simply provided a way of salvation for a particular group of people in a particular time and place from a particular crisis; God has provided a way of salvation for all humanity, in all times and places, from the crisis that has been at the heart of all of humanity’s problems—including the things that Ahaz most fears: humanity’s tendency to violence, warfare, and oppression. Humanity’s underlying crisis is sin, evil, and death. Jesus Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection, dealt a decisive blow to these enemies and has saved us from them through our faith. And the sign of this salvation is that this young woman, Mary, a virgin, is giving birth by the Holy Spirit to the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Do you know this salvation? Have you experienced it? The best Christmas gift that God makes available to you and me at this or any time of year is this gift of eternal life through Christ. And it can be yours without price; it’s free; we don’t have to earn it or pay for it. But although it’s free, it’s not cheap. Faith is in fact very costly.

Joseph understood better than most people the true cost of faith. Because of his faith, Joseph first had to set aside any lingering doubts he might have had about the faithfulness of his bride and go through with the marriage. Did Mary cheat on him or didn’t she? And we may be tempted to think, “Yes, but an angel told him that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. See! It was easy.” To which I say, “Yes, but it happened in a dream!” What are your dreams like? Mine are often strange, ridiculous, unsettling, embarrassing, sometimes frightening. Here are some of your crazy dreams: [See this post.]

And guess what happens when I have my crazy dreams? I wake up! I wake up and feel great relief! Whew! It was only a dream. A crazy dream that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have any bearing on my life. I wonder what it would take for me to be like Joseph and believe that my strange, unsettling, crazy dreams had some kind of divine significance. What would it take for me to believe that God himself was trying to communicate something important to me through it, instead of just waking up and dismissing it?

You know what it would take: a great deal of faith. Faith to believe that even though it’s never happened before in human history, this child is conceived and born without a human father. It’s ridiculous, and yet it’s what Joseph is asked to believe.

There’s no way around faith; there’s no shortcut to it; it doesn’t come easy for us, and it never has. Faith would be incredibly easy, after all, if it were a commodity that we just put on a shelf—for display purposes, like a knick-knack or a decoration, a minor enhancement on the periphery of our lives, which we dust off every once in a while for appearances’ sake. But faith becomes difficult when we actually have to use it! It was difficult for King Ahaz to belief, despite appearances to the contrary, that he would be O.K. It was difficult for Joseph to believe that, despite appearances to the contrary, he would be O.K.

And it’s not as if Joseph’s life of faith got any easier after he had this dream. Joseph also had to come to grips with the fact that the life he planned for himself—including settling down with his bride in his hometown, leading a quiet, simple, uncomplicated life, working alongside his son in a carpentry shop—would not come to pass. He had to give up on his dreams! When he dreamed of what his life would be, he didn’t dream this. This new life of faith meant that everything changes; everything’s harder than it would have been before. O.K., so he accepts that God is the father of this child—and not some other man. Problem solved? Crisis averted? No! That’s just the beginning of his trouble: King Herod wants to kill the baby Jesus. Joseph has to leave Bethlehem in the middle of the night and escape to Egypt. He spent years there, away from home, until he could return home. But not so fast. He can’t return to his home because the new king is worse than the original. So they have to settle somewhere else. There’s nothing easy about that kind of faith! I’m not saying it isn’t worth it. I’m sure Joseph wouldn’t have had it any other way; but it’s difficult.

A couple of new members of this church, Chuck and Chris, who worship with us in Vinebranch, know about the difficulty of faith. Chuck and Chris are already parents of two college-aged children. For the past few years, however, Chuck and Chris have been dealing with a sense that God was calling them to do something important. They felt that God was leading them to adopt children from overseas. Having discerned that this was what God wanted them to do, they stepped out on faith, got in touch with an overseas adoption agency and have been following a long and at times emotionally difficult path. Last July, after other leads failed to pan out, they made arrangements to adopt two very special girls from Ethiopia. Chuck said that from the moment they learned about these two girls—even though they had never met—they were instantly Chuck and Chris’s daughters. They felt that bond that parents feel for their children. And they felt this way even though there was no guarantee that the courts in Ethiopia would approve of the adoption. The whole process has been fraught with uncertainty, disappointment, and delay.

Just last week they received the good news that their adoption had been approved. Although they still have a long way to go, they have cleared a major hurdle. And I know they feel great relief, but—really—this is just the beginning; there are so many challenges ahead. Childrearing even under the most normal of circumstances—as we define “normal”—is incredibly difficult. They’re being called by God to be parents in an even more challenging way. But they’re doing this because this is what the Holy Spirit has led them to do. It’s not easy.

Jesus, after he grew up, warned us that it would be this way. He said that if you want to gain your life, you have to lose it; if you want to find your truest and best self, you have to first die to your old self; if you want to follow Jesus, you have to carry your cross. It sounds hard because it is. It is in fact what Jesus calls a “narrow gate.” It’s hard to find; it’s hard to enter—it’s far easier to go down the broad road and enter through the wide gate, but that’s the way to live a counterfeit kind of life. If you want to truly know happiness and peace and joy, Jesus says, you have to choose the difficult path.

Are you going through a crisis in your life? Are you grieving the loss of a dream that you had to give up on? Does your future seem uncertain, even frightening? Are you in a hopeless situation and you don’t see a way out? For you and for others, I want to offer this sign: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” God is with us, and God is with you. Amen?

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