December 23, 2001
The underlined text will take you to
"When God's Kingdom Comes"
"God is with us!"
On this fourth and last Sunday of Advent, we come to the central affirmation of the Advent preparations we have been making. Once again - for close to the two thousandth time - the church lifts up the glorious proclamation of Matthew's gospel.
Matthew is quoting the prophet Isaiah who had gone to Ahaz the king of Judah with these words, "... the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." ¹ [Is. 7:14 NIV]
When Isaiah spoke these words to King Ahaz of Judah, the nation faced a perilous time as foreign armies were poised to bring the nation to its knees. Second Chronicles tells the story this way, "The LORD had humbled Judah because of Ahaz king of Israel, for he had promoted wickedness in Judah and had been most unfaithful to the LORD." [28:19] Isaiah came with a promise that the immediate threat to Judah would pass - there was a virgin (or young woman) would would bear a child and while the child was still young, the immediate threat would pass. But - some very tough times were ahead for the nation.
Although Ahaz the wicked King of Judah could not see beyond his own time and would not have understood Isaiah's words of promise from God as having to do with a birth eight hundred years later, there is power in the prophet's words. The promise of "Immanuel" or - "God is with us" - has brought peace to God's people throughout the ages.
Ever since the loss of innocence and intimacy with God in the Edenic garden, there has been an emptiness and a longing for the nearness of God in the human heart. Often, that longing is misinterpreted and people search for fulfillment in everything but God. Ahaz had been a terrible leader of Judah who took the nation headlong into an idolatrous journey away from God. Yet, even in the worst of circumstances, the good news of God's nearness can be found. Though Ahaz does not have a clue as to what Isaiah's words are all about, the promise is nevertheless there. "God is with us."
There is an absolutely wonderful story about God's presence and protection in the Old Testament book of Second Kings. The King of Aram (Syria) has sent a large contingent of chariots and soldiers to capture the prophet Elisha. Elisha was onto the King's every move because the Spirit of God revealed the information. The King of course, thinks there is a spy in his camp, but is told otherwise, "It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber." [2 Kings 6:12]
When Elisha's servant wakes up in the morning to see the enemy surrounding the city of Dothan, he panics. 2 Kings tells it this way:
This is hard for the servant because there isn't a friendly chariot or soldier to be seen. Then comes the powerful reality that cannot be seen by the eyes of this present world. The protective power and presence of God is a spiritual reality which can only be perceived with spiritual eyes. Listen carefully:
What a joy it is for you and me to be on this side of the incarnation - the birth of Christ. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior, it is good to reflect on the profound good fortune we have to know and understand the incredible greatness and love of God who comes near to us in this Christmas event.
We are a part of a continuing stream of people of faith who are renewed year by year in the celebration of the incarnation. St. Athanasius more than 1500 years ago expressed the amazing truth of God's coming to us in the child of Bethlehem this way:
God is with us people!
We have come to the threshold of another Christmas season. The joy in the days that surround this celebration points to the deep and abiding joy that is God's gift to those who receive the child of Bethlehem in faith. In the incarnation, God has given to us the possibility of knowing the joy of life in the presence of God - the possibility of restoring the Edenic joy.
We look into the tiny innocent Christ child's face as we come to the manger together in worship. Deep within our spirits comes the life-giving, affirmation, "God is with us!"
What do you see when you look into the manger?
There is of course a new born child. Nothing captures our hearts like the innocence of a new baby and nothing is more precious than the warm breath of a newborn's lungs on a mother's cheek. Nothing can compare with the gentle softness of a tiny baby's skin.
But there is more than a baby here as we imagine the manger.
What do you see when you look into the manger?
There is a poor young father and a young mother who could not even find room in a poor motel room for the birth of their child. Instead of medical attendants and an entourage of happy relatives, the Christ child has a feeding trough for a crib and barn animals for company.
But there is more than a family involved in this scene.
What do you see when you look into the manger?
Those who come to welcome the child are poor shepherds who are working the midnight shift during lambing season. There are no religious or political dignitaries to welcome the Christ child who has come to redeem the world. There will be no reception nor glad celebration in the nation God is reaching out to.
Yet, as we look to this manger scene once again our hearts are warmed by the words of Matthew's gospel. "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
"God is with us!"
What a wonderful affirmation.
In the tough times of Israel's waning days, the sense of God's presence could give courage and peace. During the long years of exile, the presence of God was the only thing that could sustain faith. When nations from across the ancient world walked the length and breadth of what was once a proud Israel, the presence of God was but a shadowy dream. From the last words of the prophet Micah until the gospel announcement of the coming of Christ, there is a long and difficult period of 400 years. Every faithful heart during those years longs to hear from God and yearns for the presence of Messiah.
What joy it is to celebrate once again the presence of God with us!
What do we see when we look into the manger?
In a wonderful mystery only the eyes of faith can see, we behold a child, a newborn babe who is for us the very presence of God. He is, "Emmanuel," --- "God with us!"
¹ See the note on the text under Isaiah below.
² St. Athanasius' work on the incarnation is available at the CCEL >>here<<
You will want to decide how much or how little you want to deal with the historical and linguistic issues which attend to the Matt. 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14 linkage. Our sermon gives only passing attention to these issues, centering instead on the central theme of God's presence with the people of God throughout the ages. The particular heart of the passage for us is the presence of God with us in the incarnation - a fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of the ages. There is a very helpful article on the difficulties of the Isaiah text, especially 7:14 - at the Journal of Biblical Studies Online >>here<<
Fore further background study, there is a concise and helpful essay on Isaiah >>here<<
[Notes from Last cycle]
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!
It's all about a promise!
Paul sets the good news of God's promise right at the beginning of his letter to the church at Rome. His beginning words are instructive.
His identity is squarely rooted in his relationship with Christ and his call to serve Christ. He affirms his "servanthood" before he affirms his "apostolic" call. Good instructions for leaders. Servant first - preacher, teacher, apostle etc. - next.
There is a clear presentation of the "Good News" or gospel. It can help us re-center on the heart of the church. The gospel is:
Critical concepts for a brief text - yet an important text as it is Paul's introduction to the important Christian community that resides in the heart of the Empire's capital.
Call To Worship
Leader: The days have gone
by and the time has come.
Confession of Sin
Lord, sometimes we are so timid. Even when we hear your word clearly, we will not trust and follow. Your ways are not the world's ways and too often we would seek the security we think we see in the world. Forgive us Lord, and help us to learn how to use the grain of faith You have given us so that we might move the mountains in life. In the name of Christ we pray.
Assurance of Forgiveness
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the promise of God is that if we confess our sins with the whole of our hearts, we will find forgiveness of sin and the abundant mercy that frees us for new life in Christ. Amen.
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.