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Sunday December 20,
Focus Text: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us." [1:23]
Fulfillment: "God is Here"
What is the most wonderful gift you have ever received? Can you recall a time when a gift you received was just exactly the right thing -- the "perfect" gift? A gift that warmed your heart and thrilled your soul. "Just what I was hoping for!" you said.
Or have you ever struggled to find the perfect gift for someone else? You tremble as they open the gift. "I sure hope she likes it," you're thinking. Husbands and boyfriends are particularly vulnerable to these "perfect gift jitters." Like the fellow in this story:
It was a few days before Christmas when I met with a couple who were going to be married the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Although I don't usually perform weddings on Christmas Eve, I agreed to this one because this couple had been through some very difficult times and they saw their relationship as a gift from God. "We really want to celebrate our marriage on Chrstmas Eve because we are each other's greatest gift." There was a contagious quality about the "we're so in love" glow they wore.
When they showed up for their appointment however, it was clear that not all was well with "Romeo and Juliette." They went to opposite ends of the large sofa in my office and plunked themselves down. They sat silently -- looking glum. It was clear I was going to have to jump start the conversation for these two usually bubbly people.
"What's up?" I tendered.
She glares at him, "You tell him!"
"I gave her her Christmas present."
"That's a bad thing?" I respond.
She continues, "Tell him what you gave me!"
"Let me explain." He's obviously wounded. "I gave her the gift early because she needed it..."
"You gave me a set of tires!" she blurts out!"
"They were Michelins!" he responds, "Sheess!" The temperature is rising fast.
The rest of our conversation was along the lines of "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus". The groom to be confessed that the bride to be would probably not get that warm and glowing feling of fulfillment deep within from a set of tires. And she agreed that however misguided, her fiancée was trying to respond to a need he saw. (I shared with them my own experience of giving my wife a very nice set of pots and pans for Christmas early on in our marriage. She had even pointed them out in the store as something she would like to have. Nuff said!)
When you reflect on the most wonderful gift you have ever received, it will more than likely be something more than a material thing -- or it will be a material object with tremendous meaning attached to it.
I visited with an elderly couple in a new parish some years ago. They lived alone and as far as I knew they did not have any children. They were sharing some of their memories as they showed me around the small home. On a dresser in the bedroom sat a funny greenish clay saucer or bowl -- you couldn't really tell. In faded black letters written by a child's hand were the words, "Love, Joey."
"And what is this?" I asked.
Tears filled the woman's eyes as she explained, "That's a candy dish our son made for us in school when he was six years old. We lost him in a drowning accident when he was eight." As it turns out Joey was their only child.
There is not enough money in the world to buy that funny green dish! It is a one of a kind, never to be replaced gift. The value of Joey's gift goes beyond anything the world could ever give.
Our Scripture today speaks of a gift that is one of a kind -- and it is a gift that also goes beyond anything the world could every offer. A never to be repeated, amazing gift of God to every one who will receive it. It is the gift of John 3:16, the most memorized verse in the Christian world:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
Matthew's story points us to two dimensions of gift giving. There is the wrapping and manner in which the gift is given. Secondly there is the actual content of the gift.
The Wrapping of God's Great Gift
Very often the way a gift is wrapped and presented can mean everything. A dozen roses delivered by a singing quartet to your wife's place of work will make for a birthday gift never to be forgotten. (Also guaranteed to demolish a doghouse in about 3 seconds flat!) The woman who was proposed to on the Oprah show in front of a nationwide television audience will never forget the way she received her engagement ring.
You would not likely wrap an engagement ring in newspaper or a Rolex watch in a brown paper bag. Who would display a dozen roses in an oil can or showcase a crystal chandelier in a bedroom closet?
So how do you suppose God wrapped up and displayed the greatest gift of all -- the gift St. Paul called "indescribable"? If it were you or me, would we not want the Son of God to be born in a royal household where heralds would trumpet his arrival and servants would wait upon his every need. Should the Son of God not have the finest silken gowns and bejeweled pillows upon which to lay his head? Shouldn't the whole world be waiting at the palace gates to hear the news of his birth?
Anybody who is anybody today has a public relations expert to advise them on important issues. Certainly a publicist would consider Matthew 1:18-25 a terrible way to go about the birth of the long awaited Messiah!
Think about it. An unplanned pregnancy of an unwed mother engaged to a blue collar Galilean without the means or connections to arrange a birthing suite! "Lord," the publicity person would protest, "This simply won't fly -- no one will believe it. Messiah born in a barn? To a woman pregnant before her marriage? This will never do!"
And yet, as St. Paul says, "The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom..." (I Cor. 1:25) Could there be any more powerful way to invite the "eyeryone" of John 3:16? If Messiah had been born in a castle, to a royal family in the midst of all the spendor this world can offer -- he could not be my Messiah -- for I am none of those things. No, God wrapped his great gift of love in the most simple way and presented it through the most humble parents and thus made it possible for any of us, from the greatest to the least to reach out and receive God's gift!
Deep within our hearts there sometiomes lingers a sense that we might not be acceptable to a holy, almighty, righteous God. But a God who comes to a stable and chooses humble folk like Mary and Joseph to be parents of the Messiah -- well such a God just might care for the likes of me!
The Content of God's Great Gift
When I come to unwrap God's great gift, there are two powerful words that tell me what I have received.
Jesus! and Emmanuel!
The name Jesus (or Joshua) means savior.¹ In Jesus, God has given us the "One who saves". This savior who was born in a barn and condemned to a cross can surely understand the trials and difficulties you and I face.
The name Emmanuel means "God is with us." In Jesus, God has come to be present with us -- all of us! The manger and the cross give strong witness to that. To his followers Jesus promised, "I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you..." (John 14:18) It is the ancient promise God made to young Joshua who felt the incredible weight of the mantle of Moses. "I will never leave you or forsake you." (Joshua 1:5)
The Gift of God's Presence is the ultimate, perfect gift that fulfills the deepest longings of the human heart. The gift Matthew speaks of in our scripture is the perfect gift we've all longed for -- sometimes without even knowing consciously. The virgin's child will be called Emmanuel -- God is with us. This gift is the fulfillment of the deepest hopes and dreams of human history -- the arrival of God in our midst. This is the gift that Augustine spoke of when he said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee."
In a time of national trial, Isaiah cried out for the presence of God, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence..." (64:1) The prophet Joel spoke of a time when Israel's trials would be over and says on behalf of God, "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other." (Joel 2:27) The concluding vision of fulfillment in the bible is that of Revelation 21:3-4, "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
In other words, when God is with us, there is perfect peace and every longing of every heart is fulfilled. We glimpse something of this in Christmas worship when our hearts are open and expectant and we sing the words of Phillips Brooks, "O holy child of Bethlehem! Descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in; Be born in us today."
As we come to the very threshold of another Christmas, may God grant that each one of us may by faith unwrap the great gift of God.
God is with us!
Notes On The Text
¹ Actually the word Jesus "Yeshua" means "Yahweh is salvation"
v. 21 The words "Jesus, for he shall save" -- are almost lilting in Hebrew -- Jesus (Yeshua) shall save (Yoshia). "Yeshua, yoshia."
v.22 "... to fulfill what had been spoken" - Matthew uses this fulfillment formula seven different times, (1:22, 2:15, 3:15, 8:17, 12:17, 13:35, 21:4) which is consistent with his desire to show the strong connection between the O.T. and the coming of Messiah in Jesus.
There is voluminous literature on the subject of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew's use of the verse. We note here simply a summary of three essential positions:
1) There are some who see Isa. 7:14 as refering to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth alone. (The "single reference") theory. Isaiah's intent would be along the line of: "Since you refuse to trust in God -- your alliance with the Assyrians will finally not be the ansswer for Judah. Judah will crumbe! However, God has a sign for you anyway, a virgin will conceive...." The fact that the sign would not have a current application does not matter because Ahaz has already tuned out anyway.
2) Isaiah's verse is historically limited to the time when the throne of Ahaz, King of Juadah was threatened by the King of Israel (Pekah) and the King of Syria (Rezin). Isaiah urges Ahaz to trust Yahweh and even to ask a sign of God's protection. Ahaz declines the sign in phony humility -- and instead is trusting in an allianc with Asyria. Isaiah's response is to give the 7:14 sign anyway. A young woman will bear a child and name the child Emmanuel -- saying in effect, there are those who trust God in spite of all the current troubles. Matthew's use of the verse, in this view, is a bit tortured.
3) Some see Isa. 7:14 as having a "double reference". Isaish indeed speaks to Ahaz and the contemporary situation, but the spirit who "bears along" (prophero) the words of the prophet is pointing ahead to an ultimate salvation as well as giving a sign for the current crisis.
v.23 As with the discussion of Isaiah 7:14, The literature on the virgin birth is legion and we won't rehearse it here, except for a linguistic note or two. Matthew translates the hebrew, " 'almah" (young woman and by implication, virgin) using "parthenos", or "virgin". The Septuagint also translates Isaiah 7:14 'almah with "parthenos".
Obviously a discussion of the intent of Isaiah 7:14 relates to the disucssion of the virgin birth. Luke and Matthew have independent sources of the virgin birth, demonstrating the circulation of the teaching in Christian circles. The notion of a pagan source for this story or a "competing" motivation are without merit in that the creative power of God and intervention of the Spirit in both accounts would likely not be a product of stories about births resulting from interaction between gods and women or goddesses and men.
v.24 Interesting note that the O.T. Joseph's dreams got him into trouble, while the N.T. Joseph's dreams got him out of trouble!
Alternate Sermon Ideas
Dreams: A Way To Listen To God - Matthew 1:18-25
This is a full text sermon on the subject of dreams. It may not fit in with your Advent plans at all -- yet, somewhere in your spiritual direction of the people you serve, an examination of the issue of how dreams fit into our inner lives is in order. This is not totally out of line for Advent in that the inner - spiritual meaning of the season is frequently lost to our western, materialistic culture. If you do choose to look at this issue with your folk -- I highly reccommend Morton Kelsey's little book: Dreams a Way to Listen to God. You will find a link to this book in our bookstore.
DREAMS: A Way To Listen To God
Have you ever had a time when you wished that God would speak directly to you? Perhaps you have come to a time of decision, or a time of crisis, or simply a time when you wondered what your life was really all about, and you thought, "I wish the Lord would speak to me!"
The Prophet Isaiah cried out to God at a time of national crisis in Israel's life, "Oh God, if only You would tear open the heavens and come down! Are You going to keep silent and let us suffer?"
King Zedekiah of Israel, was the last king to reign in Israel before the fall of Jerusalem. The glory of Israel under Solomon's rule was a faint memory and the worship life of the nation was a mockery. Yet, during the last critical days, King Zedekiah summoned the Prophet Jeremiah hoping to hear from the Lord. He takes Jeremiah aside secretly and asks, "Is there any word from the Lord?"
It is not, however, only in ancient times that people have wished God would speak. During the bleak days of World War II the young pastor and theologian, Helmut Thielicke spoke to the horror which surrounded his German congregation and later published a book of those sermons called, "The Silence of God." How they longed to hear from God!
If you have ever wished that God would speak to you, you are not alone. In fact, the desire to hear from God is the ignition system of the human spirit. Jesus, who is the Word become flesh, said, "My words are spirit and they are life." In other words... if we do not somehow hear the voice of God, we are lifeless in the deepest spiritual sense.
There is another interesting comment Jesus made concerning people in His own time who were outwardly very religious, but inwardly didn't understand what He was trying to say about spiritual life. "You will not come to me that you might have life."
I am amazed sometimes at the lengths people will go to get direction for their lives. The human spirit longs for direction, and this reflects the God designed, built in longing to hear His voice. I've known people whose first action in the morning is to look up their daily horoscope in the newspaper. Others pick up the National Enquirer to see what Jean Dixon's latest predictions are. I watched an ad on late night TV which offered the opportunity to find out what your life is all about by calling a psychic who would tell you what's in store for your life. All you had to do was call a 900 number and get a "personal" consultation. Guess what? I called it and found out that I'm a wonderful guy who will get the reward I really deserve this year! That call cost me twenty two dollars. (I am really glad that I believe in the grace of God and that I won't get what I really deserve!)
In the scripture reading for today, Joseph has a dream at a critical moment in his life. The dream rearranges everything rational. In this dream an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph with some directions for his life. Directions which will affect not only his life, but millions of lives. (If you recall, this is not the first Joseph whose dreams affected history! See Genesis 37:5)
Although I do not want to encourage frivolous play with the issue of dreams and spiritual direction this morning I do want to lift up the issue of how we western folks have devalued the inner life. Dreams have historically held a place in the inner life of Christian people and I invite you to think with me for a few moments about dreams.
There is a wonderful story about the inner life in Kings 19:1-1 3. This scripture tells the story of the Prophet Elijah on the run. Wicked King Ahab of Israel and his infamous wife Jezebel were out to kill Elijah, essentially because Elijah insisted on bringing the voice of God to Israel. Although honesty may be the best policy, in Elijah's case it wasn't the most healthy policy because Ahab and Jezebel weren't interested in what God had to say! In any case, Elijah became discouraged and deeply depressed. Other prophets who told the truth had been summarily executed by the dynamic duo of Ahab and Jezebel and he felt absolutely alone. It is in those times of feeling alone and abandoned that you begin to wonder if it's worth it all and Elijah was no different than you and I might have been. Exhausted by fleeing for his life, he fired off a prayer which the Living Bible translates, "I've had enough, "he told the Lord. "Take away my life. I've got to die sometime and it might as well be now."
Knowing that Elijah is at his wits end, God speaks to him. The way God speaks is the critical point of the whole story.
1 Kings 19:11-13 The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Did you notice that? God did not speak to Elijah in the outward fireworks, but inwardly, with a gentle whisper. The old King James version of the Bible translates this, "a still, small voice."
The lesson is very clear. God speaks to His people in a voice that is within His people. This may be the primary meaning of Jesus' words in Luke's gospel when the Pharisees asked Him when the Kingdom of God would arrive. His answer was, "The Kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."
There are two difficulties which you and I encounter today when we wish God would speak to us. First of all, God speaks inwardly and our ears are pointed outward. Secondly, God speaks in a gentle whisper and we live in a very noisy world!
There is, however, a resource available to all of us which requires that we simply stop and pay attention to it. Listen to a quote from a book written by John Sanford:
"Suppose someone told you that there was something that spoke to you every night, that always presented you with a truth about your own life and soul, that was tailor made to your particular life story, and that offered to guide you throughout your lifetime and connect you with a source of wisdom far beyond yourself. And, furthermore, suppose that all of this was absolutely free. Naturally you would be astonished that something like this existed. Yet this is exactly the way it is with our dreams."John A. Sanford: Dreams and Healing
Morton Kelsey in his book, Dreams: A Way Of Listening To God bemoans the fact that the subject of dreams has been sorely neglected in relatively recent Christian history. Yet, he writes, "I discovered that throughout the history of Christianity, the dream has been a channel often used by God to talk to His people."
Most people In our culture today would see the study and interpretation of dreams as the province of psychologists and psychiatrists, yet dreams were received as a gift of God from biblical times on into centuries of Christian history long before Freud "discovered" them. Abraham Lincoln noted how much dreams appeared in scripture and paid close attention to his own dreams. "We know," John Sanford wrote, "That Lincoln believed God still spoke to people in dreams ... and has left us a record of some particularly interesting ones that immediately preceded his death, which seemed to him to be intimations of the forthcoming end of his life." In the very first book of the Bible, Joseph says of dreams, "Do not interpretations belong to God?"
Obviously, my message today can not begin to say all there is to say about dreams and how they can become a vital part of our spiritual lives. Today will simply serve as an introduction to the subject. We'll look at the important role dreams played in the Bible and how we can begin to listen to this "inner voice".
In the book of Genesis, at the very beginning of Israel's national life, God spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through their dreams. He guided and preserved the nation through the dreams of Joseph.
The prophets received the Word of God frequently in dreams. The whole book of Daniel has to do with dreams and interpretation of dreams God gave to point to the future.
At the beginning of the New Testament in the gospel of Matthew, Five times God gave Joseph direction through dreams.
In other words, our biblical heritage includes a very strong sense of God leading His people through the inner experience of the dream.
Twenty years ago, I began to record my own dreams and for fifteen years, I've paid close attention to the relationship between my spiritual life and my dream life. I've found insight, guidance and spiritual growth through what I've come to strongly believe is a much neglected, yet very valuable resource.
How is it that our dreams can be so important? First of all, when we are sleeping, we have tuned out the outer world. There are no distractions, the daily "humming" of our busy, conscious thinking shuts down. A Baptist minister named A.J. Gordon found his life and ministry profoundly revitalized through a dream and said, "Apparently we are most awake to God when we are asleep to the world." Secondly, when we are asleep, our minds do not stop functioning - rather they shift into another quieter, deeper mode. In this state, God is able to make direct contact with us. Contact which is not mediated by things outside of us.
I want to give you six beginning clues using the word DREAMS as an acronym. These clues will help you begin to explore the fascinating world of your inner life.
1. Desire: Nourish your desire to listen for the voice of God. Remember that it is desire for a vital relationship with God that is the ignition system of your spiritual life.
2. Record: Begin now to record your dreams. Listen to Daniel 7:1: "In the first year of Belshazzar, King of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream." Studies show that over 95% of our dream material is forgotten if we do not record them quickly. Keep a notebook and a penlight by your bedside.
3. Enlist: In the near future, we will offer an opportunity to enlist in a course called, "Developing Your Inner Life." This is a course which I've taught in churches and through the University of Wisconsin Adult Education Program. It will help you get a handle on how to nourish and grow your inner life and begin to use dreams in a positive way.
[*Note: I recommend Morton Kelseys book, Dreams, A Way To Listen To God, as a good introduction to this topic and a good discussion starter. You can find it on our bookstore page. Also, get a spiritual director or find someone who can assist with this in a Christian perspective theres lots of strange stuff out there in this field jpj]
4. Accept: Accept for your own life what has been true for the largest part of Christian history. Pay attention to your dreams as important gifts from God. As you pay more attention to your dreams, they will pay more attention to you.
5. Meditate: Include times of reflection on your dreams and what they are saying to you. Remember Daniel. He spent time reflecting on what God had been saying to him in the night hours before he lumped off into the day.
6. Stay with it! Spiritual life, like our physical life has to grow and mature and it needs exercise over a long period of time.
So there you have it. D R E A M Desire, Record, Enlist, Accept, Meditate and Stay with it!
God has a wonderful resource for you in your inner life. It is a gift which needs to be taken down off the shelf of Christian experience - like many spiritual gifts which we "moderns" have neglected. It is a gift which can add a quiet, but powerful sense of vitality to your spiritual life.
Call To Worship
Leader: The days have gone by and the time
People: The manger awaits the opening skies.
Leader: The choirs have assembled and the worshipers are here.
People: O come to us holy child of Bethlehem,
Leader: Let your light shine upon us and your glory appear,
People: For you are Emmanuel! The Lord here with us!
Prayer of Dedication
No offering, however costly O Lord, comes even close to what you have offered to us. Help and hope, life and joy, refuge and strength are ours in Christ. O may the gifts we bring help bring the love of Christmas to every waiting heart. Amen.
May the Great Shepherd of Israel, the One who shines above the cherubim, shine upon you, be gracious unto you and lead you all the days of your life. Amen.