Archive for the ‘Miracles’ 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!