Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

We Call Him Immanuel!

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

Advent 4A-December 23, 2007
Vicar Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego
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Matthew 123Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel! (Which means, God with us).

In our society, it appears as though people have grown tired of God; they seem to have no room in their lives for the miraculous.  Everywhere we turn we seem to be confronted with an apparent indifference, even intolerance to Christian truths.  In this world of instant gratification, short term happiness seems to be preferred over eternal salvation.  Sadly, all around us our society seems to be insisting that we abandon our public proclamation of faith in the miracles of God and instead find solidarity with others in a system that lives without a God who is with us. 

In our Old Testament lesson this morning (Isaiah 7), we join a dialogue between Ahaz, the king of Judah and the Lord God Almighty, by way of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah has approached Ahaz who is quaking with fear at the thought of an invasion by the Arameans and the northern kingdom of Israel.  God was sending Isaiah with a Word of Prophecy to strengthen King Ahaz’s faith and take away his fear.  But Ahaz had already decided in his heart to do what he knew God would call sin; he would create an alliance with a powerful neighbor that God had already judged evil to the core…Assyria.

Let’s imagine together that we are there with the prophet, and we are approaching the King.  Remember, God sent his prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz to confront him and with him was his little son whose name was Shear-Yashub.  Now why would God want Isaiah to bring his little boy with him?  Well, the boys name in Hebrew means “turn away-return to God” or simply put REPENT!  We can only imagine the tension that this caused throughout their meeting.  Remember, Ahaz is trying to be confident in his attempt to hide his guilt from Isaiah; he’s guilty because in his mind he has already decided to ignore God’s council.  We see in our mind’s eye Ahaz being polite and asking Isaiah to step out of the day’s heat with his son and enjoy some refreshments, after all, he is the prophet of the Lord.  Isaiah enters the shelter and hollers at his small son, “REPENT!  Quit messing around, and follow me!”  King Ahaz thinks, “Oh no, this isn’t starting out well at all!”  Nervously, he asks the prophet what brings so far out on a hot day like this, and Isaiah says, “REPENT!  Mind me and stay close or you will be punished!  Quit misbehaving and be obedient.”  King Ahaz must have been shaken to the core.”

While we can find humor from our vantage point, what came next certainly was no laughing matter, but then it never is when God confronts us with our own sin.  God through Isaiah asked Ahaz to pick a sign, any sign that he could perform so that Ahaz would be certain that God was with him and would protect him from the attack of his enemies.  But King Ahaz’s heart had already turned to evil, and he had already decided to seek protection from the Assyrians.  Trying to dismiss the prophet’s instruction, King Ahaz countered, “Oh, I couldn’t do that.  I can’t ask God for a sign and put the Lord to the test!”  Isaiah countered that the Lord had given permission for the test so that Ahaz’s faith might be strengthened.  Ask O King.  “Ask a sign of your God, and let it be as deep as Sheol or high as Heaven.”  NO!  I WILL NOT! And that was the end of God’s offer of help for a stubborn heart.

King Ahaz would not chose a sign, a sign that would have benefited him, so God Himself gave a sign for others who would receive it.  “Very well”, says Isaiah, “then the Lord Himself will give you a sign.  Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call Him Immanuel.”  But what does this oracle of God mean?  For the answer we must fast forward in time some 700 years to a small town in Nazareth. 

In our gospel reading this morning (Matthew 1), we encounter a couple committed to a marriage not yet consummated.  Specifically, we encounter a man, a carpenter to be exact, who many scholars speculate was much older than his wife who was about 15 years old.  Following the custom of their day, they were betrothed, a legal marriage without the cohabitation.  That would follow latter after a period of about six months of separation had been completed. 

We can easily imagine all of the excitement and planning that was taking place; all in anticipation of the day the young maiden Mary was to leave her parents home and becomes the wife of Joseph. 

Now what made the waiting even harder for Joseph was the fact that his beautiful bride had been away for almost 3 months visiting her cousin Elizabeth.  We can imagine that their reunion went something like this:  Joseph is at work in his carpenter’s shop, when he hears this report ring out from down the road, “Mary’s coming!  Mary’s come home!”  Joseph throws off his carpenter’s apron and quickly meets the wagon that is carrying his bride.  He is joined by Mary’s mother and father who are also eager to greet their returning daughter.  Together they lovingly embrace Mary, when something unimaginable is discovered-Mary is pregnant!

Poor Joseph, how crushed he must have felt.  All of his anticipated joy must have rushed from his body along with the blood from his face as Mary now in the privacy of her parent’s home begins to recount how the Holy Spirit of God was the father of her child.  “An angel appeared to me and said, Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!  Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  But I said to him, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”  And the angel answered me, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will over-shadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy-the Son of God!”

“Now Joseph her husband, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.”  What else could he do?  Joseph was undoubtedly torn between love and duty, love for Mary his betrothed and duty to the Mosaic Law, which required that he publicly declare her a harlot (which could result in her death by stoning-Deut 22:20-21). “Now which was the more righteous thing to do”, Joseph must have wondered; “what should a God-fearing man do?” He surely did not want to hand the girl he loved over for execution, yet that is just what the Law indicated. Or could he just divorce her privately? Clearly, marrying her was out of the question; if only he could know for certain the truth about her pregnancy; “Oh yes, that’s right” he must have thought, “Mary said that God told her to trust Him.  But how can I be sure?  I haven’t received any kind of Word.”

Yes poor Joseph, we can all put ourselves in his position.  Perhaps there are some here this morning who think they know exactly how he felt.  Perhaps you too have heard others speak God’s Word, but you have your doubts and fears.  After all, he hasn’t talked to you yet, or has he?

A man fell off a cliff, but managed to grab a tree limb on the way down. The following conversation ensued: “Is anyone up there?”  “I am here. I am the Lord. Do you believe me?”  “Yes, Lord, I believe. I really believe, but I can’t hang on much longer.”  “That’s all right, if you really believe, you have nothing to worry about. I will save you. Just let go of the branch.”  A moment of pause, then: “Is anyone else up there?”

Joseph, like King Ahaz, and many in our own time, was caught up in the fear of the unknown and the unexplainable.  What should he do?  What would any of us do?

This, and more, was Joseph’s dilemma when in a dream, God’s Word came to Him through the ministry of an angel who informed him that the girl he loved was telling the truth, impossible as this might seem! “Joseph, son of David, 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.” You see friends, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet Isaiah (in our Old Testament lesson): “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 

Miracles happen in deed!  Israel’s long-awaited Messiah was about to come; and Joseph was given the highest honor awarded any male: he was to bring up that Messiah! He could marry Mary; no better yet, God required him to marry her! All his heavy burdens were lifted in an instant, all his problems were gone. No one could doubt Joseph’s sincerity, for he immediately proved it by finalizing his marriage to Mary.

Dear friends, every day, God’s Word confronts us, and like Joseph we are changed when we realize that our long awaited Savior has come.  Through the power of God’s Word, whether through men or angels, we are changed!  We are given faith!  People who receive God’s gift of faith are an exhilarating testimony, aren’t they? Like Joseph, they spread joy where gloom previously prevailed!  And all that is necessary is the Word of God, which through the work of the Holy Spirit brings faith and confidence in God’s Word.

It’s like a young boy who was forced to climb out on the roof because his house was on fire. His father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I’ll catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you!” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.” So the boy jumped safely into his father’s arms.

Friends, the essence of our Advent hope is this: In the midst of our fears and worries, in a world that tells us to abandon all hope in the miraculous, God has entered our reality through a baby, the child of Mary and the Father of all creation.  He is with us and all around us.  Even when we can’t sense His presence, He calls out to us and asks us to believe in Him.  Even when we cry out, “Lord, I can’t see you.”  Through His Word and Sacraments, He replies, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

St. Paul leaves us with some wonderful words that help us to believe: “Through Jesus Christ, we have received grace, which brings about the OBEDIENCE of faith.”  Friends, your faith does not operate in the realm of the possible because it belongs in the realm of the miraculous.   There is no glory for God in things that are humanly possible.  Faith begins where man’s power ends, and that is why the Virgin was with child.  That is why God became man, because a man could never save the world from it’s sinfulness; only the God-man could do that.  And He did it for you, through his suffering, death, and resurrection. And even more, He ascended into heaven so that you may one day be where He has prepared a place for you!  “He did this for the sake of His name among all the nations”, including you here today who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.  O come, O come Immanuel, come.  In Jesus name….         AMEN!

Immanuel-A Gift That Keeps On Giving!

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

  Advent 2A-December 9, 2007
Vicar Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego
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Isaiah 115Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

Over 2000 years ago, God gave a gift that is still being given today.  It is Immanuel, which means God with us, or even God among us!  Just the presence of this awesome gift can change lives and impact events, whether we realize it or not!  Immanuel is the one who is clothed with righteousness and faithfulness.  These qualities are what He provides for you to take as your own.  They are yours for the taking, so that you may be assured of eternal peace with the God who has created you.  Think of it, a relationship centered in love and forgiveness with the assurance that you need never feel rejected or unloved by God again!   

Sadly though, not all are children of God, but only those who are born of His Spirit!  New life, the righteousness of God, which comes through the gift of faith given through Jesus Christ, certainly is a gift to all men and women, but not all will claim this gift.  There was a gift left under the tree of life for each and every one of us over 2000 years ago, by the very same Immanuel, whose birthday we are soon to celebrate.  This gift was given freely to all, regardless of our relationship to the giver.  There is one with each of our names on it, some have received it and others have rejected it; but still it is for all.  This morning, we will explore this original Christmas gift and the giver of the gift, God Himself.

The Gift-What is that gift, you may be asking.  Well scripture is clear on the very nature of the gift.  John 3:16 says that, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  You see friends, the gift itself is centered in God’s love as expressed though the giving of His Son, and it’s essence is the very nature of our Savior: faithfulness, righteousness, and eternal life.  Another way to say this is that through Jesus, we are given the ability to believe in Him as our Savior so that we may also have eternal life.

Now some may ask, “Can a person get this gift of God through any other means.  Is it something they can find, after a diligent search on their own?   Ephesians 2 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)  This gift is something that God set up, which can only be received as a gift, so that no one can brag or boast that they found their own way to God; not only does scripture remove our right to claim any part of earning the gift, but it also tells us that it is the ultimate gift; a gift that will always be in style and work as if brand new!  Eternal life means being right with God forever!

The gift of course is eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.  Try as you might, you cannot earn eternal life or the faith in Jesus, which brings it.  Many have tried and many have failed.  Why there was even a magician in St. Peter’s time who tried to buy the gift.  This foreign thought so appalled Peter that he cursed the man’s money, because he thought he could buy the gift of faith.   

Now the average person may ask, “Then how do I get faith?  If I can’t earn it or buy, how will I ever acquire it?”  The answer of course is as simple or as difficult as you make it; you see, all we must do is ask him for it!  Yes you must swallow your pride and humbly bow before Him, confess that you are a sinner and that you are in need of His forgiveness which can only be obtained through the works of Jesus Christ.  If this seems difficult to do, then you must confess this difficulty to Him as well and ask Him to help you believe.  Do you remember the story of the father who humbly approached Jesus and asked Him to heal his child who was possessed by demons?  Jesus asked that boy’s father if he believed if Jesus could do this.  This was a very simple question, but at the same time, it was difficult to answer truthfully.  Think about it for a moment.  Our minds are so fickle; we believe something for a moment, when it is convenient, only to discard our belief later for something more advantageous to us.  How did this father answer Jesus?  He said, “I believe Lord, but help me with my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

In other words, he was saying right now I would believe you if it will help my child, but latter, my heart may grow cold with worry, pride, or the concerns for the moment, if it happens like that Lord, then please help me to believe even then.  This is where the gift of faith comes in!  We are given faith at our baptism, we are given faith when we hear His Word preached and taught, we are given faith each time we confess and are forgiven, and we are given faith each time we join together in the Lord’s Supper where we eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins.  Don’t worry, God is not asking you for anything, he just wants you to offer Him your empty hand of faith and receive all that He gives to you!

But what if someone rejects God’s gift?  Well scripture is clear about that as well.  You see wee all are sinners and need of the gift.  Romans 6:23 says: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  From God’s Word, we see that this gift is the only way that God has provided for all of us to not only live a good and abundant life, but to have an eternal life as well!

But what if someone accepted the gift before, but now they realize that they’ve lost it and they want it again?  Well the good news is that God promises us in baptism that He will never leave or forsake us.  Nothing in this world or out of this world can separate us from the Father’s love!  Romans 11:29 assures us of this; listen to what it says: “for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”  You see, that means even we can’t mess it up!  There is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us and wanting us to come back to Him.  And when we return, what can we expect?  To be filled once again with faith!

Now this brings us to the Giver of this wonderful gift.

The Nature Of The Giver–Today, during this time of Advent, we are preparing to celebrate the anniversary of our Lord’s coming to deliver His gift to us personally.    We take time out to remember that He came as a baby in a manger, and that He will come again one day to take us to be with Him.  We have placed all of our hope in the ability of the giver, God Almighty, to accomplish the purpose of His gift.  We believe that God can do this!  To have this belief, is to have hope in someone who is faithful and trustworthy.  That someone can only be God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, who does not change, but is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  That is what is in your Christmas package from God this year.  It is the gift of faith that keeps on giving, because it is tied into God’s faithfulness and His unchangeable desire to have an eternal relationship with you!

Now some may hear these words and nod very politely and smile, but inside they may be thinking, “Come on, that is pretty far fetched.  I mean God coming to the earth in a body!  Why would he do that?”  Because He loves you!  AT CHRISTMAS GOD EMPTIED HIMSELF FOR YOU. That is a truth fundamental to everything Christians believe. God emptied Himself. God emptied Himself and took up residence in the manger of Bethlehem out of His love for us.

It is said that Henry David Thoreau once spent a whole day in Walden Pond up to his neck in the water. His idea was to see and experience the world as a frog sees it! But Thoreau did not become a frog!

“Sesame Street” is closer to the Christmas story. They had a skit one time of the old fairy tale where the beautiful princess kisses an ugly frog and the frog becomes a handsome prince, but in the Sesame Street telling, however, the princess kissed the frog, whereupon she turned into a frog herself.  That is closer to what we celebrate at Christmas. God did not swoop down and survey the human situation from a safe distance. God emptied Himself.  He laid aside His celestial robes to put on the simple body of a man.  Divinity clothed itself with human flesh; God became the God-man Jesus Christ.  It is an incredible idea.

But why did he do this?  Well let me tell you another quick story about St. Jerome, a catholic scholar, who translated the Bible from Greek to Latin. 

Near the end of his life, St. Jerome was living near Bethlehem translating some of the Bible when he had a dream. In the dream, the Christ child appeared to him. He was so overwhelmed by the appearance of the Christ child that he felt he had to give Him something. So he got some money and offered it, saying, “Here! This is yours.”

The Christ child said, “I don’t want it.” Jerome brought some more possessions. The Christ child said, “I don’t want them either.” Jerome said, “If there is anything in the world that I can give you, tell me what it is.  Tell me! What do you want? What do you want me to give you?”

He said he dreamed that the Christ child looked at him and said this: “Give me your sin! That’s what I came for.” That is what Christ came for–to take away our sin.  God emptied Himself for you! 

You see God came to this earth so that he could personally deliver a gift that was purchased and wrapped just for you!  It was purchased with His own precious blood and wrapped in His suffering and death!  Yes friends, Jesus the God-man, came to this earth because He loves you!  Although He was born of a virgin, the fact is he was born just like you!  He lived a life very similar to ours, with one great difference, He never sinned.  While He knew of happiness, disappointment, love, sorrow, and pain, He never once sinned.  Yet, He suffered and was killed, why?  Because He chose to do it for you!  He didn’t have to do it; His life was his to lay down, and lay it down He did, as a payment for your sins, but miracle of miracles, he took it up again unto eternal life.  And now he is offering you that same gift, the gift of eternal life centered in His faithfulness and righteousness!

Sadly, some have given great thought on whether to open the gift, and not wanting to be beholding to the giver, they have left the package under the tree of life-the cross where He suffered and died, and they refuse to open it.  They have defiantly left the package completely abandoned, refusing to even acknowledge its existence. 

Some have gladly received the package, and they’ve even torn small openings in it, trying to get a glimpse of the object inside, but they feel unworthy to open it further, so they simply carry it around, still wrapped, and hiding the gift within.  Every Christmas, they will proudly show it to the curious, as proof that the giver remembered them that first Christmas morning.  But, for those who have opened their package, its hidden splendor has transformed them forever!  You see each package contains a scroll, and on it is the life giving words of the giver: “All that the Father has given me, I have given to you.”  And what does He give us friends?  Everything!  He gives to you His own peace, righteousness, and faithfulness-He gives to you His very self, God with us, Immanuel!  He is the one who because of His Word, lives within us. (John 15:3) And because His righteousness and faithfulness live within us, He is still present in this world; He is present in our communities and in our families.  Yes friends, Immanuel has come, and He is still with us today, speaking His Words of righteousness and faithfulness each time we share His Word.  We must share His Word, because He is coming again, and sadly much of this world is not ready!  May His righteousness continue to abide within you by faith, for His faithful name’s sake…AMEN.

Now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, until He comes again….  AMEN!