Sunday, December 27, 2015

Are You Done with Christmas? Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12
Introduction: One of the things I’ve learned in the area of linguistics is that language is very “fluid,” always changing (If you have any doubt about that, compare your KJV Bible with an NIV!). I know English teachers may bristle a bit over the changes that happen in grammar and word usage, and though the process can be slow, it is inevitable. So are you “done with Christmas” or are you “down with Christmas”?  Have you “had enough” of the shopping and get-togethers and activities, or are you resonating with the message and truth of what all this is really about? It’s not about “words,” but about the Word who was made flesh, and lived for a while among us.
       This week, we return to Matthew’s Gospel, and come to the story of the visit of the Magi in chapter 2.  So far we’ve looked at one side of the genealogy of Jesus, which does not hide the human failures in his legal family tree through Joseph. Especially the mention of Rahab, Tamar, and the wife of Uriah [Bathsheba] remind us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. In fact if the kings of Israel teach us anything, they show us that no merely human king would be able to give the deliverance that we so desperately need. Then we saw the story of Joseph, who received a revelation from God and believed it, nothing is impossible for God!  In this passage we see two contrasting responses to the message that Messiah had come in the story of the Magi... To some, the message we have been talking about over the last several weeks is foolishness.  Have you ever had anyone complain, “Why do you have to ruin Christmas by making it religious!” People like food and presents, and parties. But don’t bring up Jesus! Most people would rather continue their own way, and not be reminded of the depth of their need. Most people prefer their own ideas about life and who is in charge. Paul said in 1 Cor 1:18,21,   
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...  21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” 
Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, fools despise wisdom and instruction…” Rather than hearing God and submitting to his authority, most people prefer to go their own way. They like to presume that they are in control of their own life, and that essentially they make their own rules. It is illusion, self-deception, but that is what the “natural man” likes to think. To admit that Jesus is who He claimed to be is to admit that we owe Him our allegiance. If we recognize that God is God, then He has a claim on us, we owe him everything.
         The story of the Magi in Matthew 2 is one of the best known and most loved scenes surrounding the incarnation. We’ve all seen the phrase, it fits nicely on a bumper sticker, “Wise Men Still Seek Him.” Every nativity scene includes them, though some of the details are more traditional than biblical. Why does Matthew include this story in his account? In this very Jewish Gospel we saw that he mentioned four gentile women in Jesus’ genealogy. And now the first visitors that he reports who come to worship the one who is born King of the Jews, are a group of gentile wise men.  We are reminded again, as we will be in the great commission at the end of Matthew, that the whole world is God’s world, and world evangelization is God’s work!  It has been observed  that at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew the message is still, “Come and see!” and we see that with the wise men. They came to Israel, first to the capital, seeking Him.  At the end of the Gospel there is a change, the Great Commission tells us, “Go and tell!”  Don’t miss the significance of that transition.  He came to be the Savior of all who would believe, from every race and nation.  So the spiritual truth here is relevant to all of us... What will you do with Jesus?
The Maine Idea: The issue then and now is the same: Is knowing and worshipping Jesus at the heart of your life?  I want to look at that from three perspectives that we see in this passage:
     1) Do you treasure Jesus above all, is He your Savior and Lord (1-3)? Is His glory and fame really most important?
     2) Do you long to hear His Word so that you can obey it (4-10)? We know Him through His Word, and to know Him is to love Him. If we really are ready to acknowledge that He is who he claimed to be, we’ll also long to obey Him.
     3) Is it your desire to worship Him with all that you have, to give your best, to give yourself, to the Master?
I. Do you treasure Jesus as your Savior and Lord (1-3)?
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,  2 saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him."  3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him...
We see very different reactions in these verses to the rule of God and the coming of His Son.  By God’s grace some seek His rule and come to Him in subjection. Most however, are troubled at the thought of relinquishing their supposed “autonomy” and resist God’s rule.  Autonomy comes from two Greek words:  auto which means “self”; and nomos which means “Law, or rule.”  Fallen humans suppose that they are a “law unto themselves” and the idea of submitting to a higher authority is not acceptable, especially an absolute authority that has the right to demand our obedience.
       “Magi came from the east…”  We don’t know much about them.  Where precisely did they come from?  How many were there?  There were probably more than three, maybe a caravan. It could be that they received special revelation from God, perhaps more likely, Daniel, as he served pagan kings in the Captivity, had influenced wise men and taught them about the God of Israel, including the promise of a Messiah.
       It is striking that in this very Jewish gospel, Matthew emphasizes that Gentile wise men were the first visitors to come and see the child king.  Just as he mentioned Tamar, Rahab, “the wife of Uriah,” and Ruth in the genealogy of Jesus, just as he will affirm the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations, Matthew wants to emphasize that a Savior has been born to the whole world.
       There is another contrast in the book of Matthew.  In the Old Testament dispensation the nations were invited to come to the God of Israel – that is nothing new.  At the end of the Gospel however we see the church being sent to the nations. The concern is the same: Jesus came for all, He would save a remnant from every race and nation! “He is not willing that any should perish…”
       Might we take to heart the mission God has given us! Uganda, Haiti, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and Boothbay, Edgecomb and Southport as well.  Word of Life clubs continue to be a great opportunity! Outreaches like VBS and “Set for Success” are important.  I continue to believe that each one of us praying for those in our “8-15”, our oikos, (the between 8 and 15 people that we see and interact with most regularly) is the key to growing our church.  God has arranged the circumstances of your life and placed you exactly where you are.  You are God’s under-cover missionary in your sphere of influence! Every now and then someone might walk through our door “seeking,” but in most of those cases a lot of groundwork has been laid by a Christian sometime in their life.
       NB. v. 3, “When Herod had heard these things he was troubled…” The term means “to shake up, throw into turmoil.” It is used in Scripture to describe those unsettling, disturbing moments, when it seems as though something is out of control, something is going desperately wrong.
       Though Herod certainly did not believe the prophecies, he was both power hungry and paranoid. He had his favorite wife and some of this own sons executed when he imagined they might be conspiring to usurp his throne. He was unsettled by this news that a king had been born.  It seems he had an uneasy, dreadful feeling that it just might be true.  It was like the reaction of Saul against David when he was filled with jealousy at his popularity—he tried to kill him!
       I suspect that most unbelievers, who try so hard to suppress the revelation of God and ignore it, experience the same feeling from time to time. Have you ever tried to share Christ with someone and had them react “harshly” or with anger? Don’t take it personally! It’s not you they are angry at!  They need to know the One who is the reason for the season. The issue then and now is the same: Is knowing and worshipping Jesus at the heart of your life?
II. Do you long to hear His word so that you can obey it (4-10)? We see here very different attitudes toward the Word of God.  Some people know the Word and don’t act on it. Others put on an outward mask of piety for their own reasons.  Relatively few hear it, and unconditionally obey it.
4 ...and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:  6 "' And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'"  7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."  9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
            First notice the Chief Priest and Scribes in verses 4-6: they knew what the Bible said, they could tell Herod the Scripture, but they failed to act on the Word of God. These religious leaders, when Herod inquired of them as to where the Messiah should be born, had the right answer: they knew the Scripture. They correctly told him the prophecy of Micah as to where the Messiah would be born, yet they themselves did not respond to it! They knew intellectually, but were indifferent or unwilling to act on their knowledge!  Liberal scholars tend to study the scripture from a literary or a historical basis, but they don’t read the Bible from the perspective of faith. James warned us: “Don’t be hearers only, but doers of the Word”! Our response should be to “trust” and “obey.”
       In vv.7-8, we see Herod’s response:  Hypocritical affirmation. One of the standard complaints that people in the world have of churches it that they are full of hypocrites.  It doesn’t take much for one person living inconsistently in their Christian life to give an excuse to someone not to believe, or even not to consider the claims that Christ rightly has on our lives. We want to be consistent. We also want to let people know we aren’t perfect. We are a work in progress. The pretended piety and false religion of Herod are also paradigmatic of that kind of “false religion,” an attitude toward God’s word that feigns faith, but all the while intends to do things it’s own way.  Some people affirm the scriptures, even their intent to obey it, when all along they are intent only on doing their own thing.  Tragically some of these are so used to the mask they are wearing, they even deceive themselves.  [By the way, the depth of human depravity is exposed in the next scene, where Herod orders the execution of all the male children under two in Bethlehem. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it? (Jer 17:9; cf. Ps 2:1-3)].
            The magi are different. They heard the Word and they acted on it.  By the way, as far as we know, they had one verse of Scripture, and they believed it, they acted on it, and it brought them to Jesus.  Their submission and obedience to just one verse of Scripture brought them to Christ (Micah 5:2)!  Most of us have Bibles, probably several different translations to compare and study.  Are we committed to reading it and obeying it? “Trust and Obey, there is no other way…” It is through the Word we know the Christ of Christmas. And it is through the Word that we learn how we should therefore live. The issue then and now is the same: Is knowing and worshipping Jesus at the heart of your life?

III. Is it your desire to worship Him with all that you have (11-12)? Some men worship the King and have their lives directed by Him.  Others reject Him, and are rejected by Him.
11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.  12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
            The Wise men: Worshipping Him and directed by Him.    They found Jesus and offered gifts in worship.  Allistair Begg said, “The real question of Christmas should not be “what did you get”? but rather “what did you give?” Since there were three gifts mentioned, we have traditionally assumed that there were three wise men. Not necessarily. It was probably more of a Caravan. There may be some symbolism in the gifts as well.
       First Gold is mentioned, a precious metal worthy of a King: perhaps symbolizing his royalty. Matthew certainly presents Jesus as the promised and coming King.
       Then Frankincense: a costly incense, used in certain offerings at the Temple: emphasizing Jesus’ deity. Did the Magi sense this was a human baby, but also much more? They worshipped him!
       Finally Myrrh: A valuable perfume, sometimes used in wine as an anesthetic, but also mixed with spices and used to prepare a body for burial (see John 19:39). 
Thus Gold emphasized his royalty, Frankincense his deity, and Myrrh his humanity, which would include suffering and death. 
       It is not clear how much the magi knew about what this new born King would accomplish, but it does seem that their “worship” indicates they understood something about who He was. We see moments in Scripture when confused pagans try to worship mere men, like Cornelius when Peter came to his house, or the people in Lystra when they thought Paul and Barnabas were Zeus and Hermes. But in those instances the believers immediately corrected those who tried to worship them. Worship is reserved for God alone.
       If this is what the gifts were symbolizing, what were they used for?  We have no clear statement, but commentators speculate that they may have financed the family’s exile to Egypt, and perhaps helped get them reestablished in Nazareth when they returned there.
       Consider the sovereignty of God once again. Leading these men from afar so that their arrival would coincide with the time of the family being in Bethlehem, bringing safely all that way the gifts that perhaps could be used to take care of Jesus and his family when Herod sought to destroy Him. He is the Lord of History!
       The point is, they sought God, and when they found Jesus they worshipped him.  NB. They were led by God. Paul said “...those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God...” (Rom 8:14).  We see these magi being led by God, first directly, by a star, now through his word, and later by a vision.
       Contrast Herod: rejecting God’s revelation, rejecting Jesus. Before he ever saw him, he had decided, “I will not have this man to be my king!” The hypocrisy of Herod did not fool God. He spoke to the Wise men in a dream so they returned another way.  He preserved the family, who returned to the land after Herod’s death, fulfilling another prophecy as He did it. God had a plan!
What is God saying to me in this passage? Just as at the time of the incarnation, some men sought the child King while others resisted Him, the same continues to be true today.  The issue then and now is the same: Is knowing and worshipping Jesus at the heart of your life?
What would God have me to do in response to this passage? The wise men obeyed God’s Word, and so came to Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel will end with the “marching orders” we have to take the message of Christ to the World (Matt 28:18-20). Will you be a witness for Him in the sphere of influence in which He has placed you? Will you present to him the only gift he asks (Rom 12:1,2)? Last week at youth group I shared the story of the little girl who always went to children’s church, but stayed in church that Sunday. She was at the end of the row, sitting by the center aisle when the offering plate came to her. She looked at it for a moment, then she took it, and put it on the floor in the middle of the aisle and stepped into it. Her embarrassed parents whispered, “What are you doing?”  She replied, “Last week in Sunday school we learned that that Jesus wants us to give him our whole self, and I’m doing it!” Will you give yourself to Him?  Remember He gave Himself for you, isn’t it the least you could do?                                                      Think about that.  AMEN.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Shepherd's Story: The Grace of Advent (based on Luke 2 and other texts)

[This post is the "script" for a first person message given from the perspective of one of the shepherds in the Christmas story. It is only slightly revised from the version I used last year.]
Call me Yitzak, Yitzak ben Yehuda.  I am a humble shepherd, as was my father, and his father before him. I am a son of Abraham and a follower of Yeshua ha meshiach… Jesus, the Christ. I am what I am by the grace of the Most High – that is really the Story I have come to share – a story of Grace, the unmerited favor of God, and of the love He has shown us! Yes, a story of grace and LOVE, not my love for Him, but His love for His sheep.  I am old now, four score, 80 years, can it be? [I don’t feel a year over 60!]. I may be old, but I come today to tell you of a night many years ago, when I was but a boy... Well, my 10th birthday had passed, in my culture, I was nearly a man! It was time to work, time to join my father and the other men in the fields. All I ever wanted was to be a shepherd!
       Yes, I know that we Shepherds are not the most respected of people, especially by the pious Jews.  People say we smell like sheep! [sniffs himself, and then shrugs].  I say is that such a bad thing?  If I minded the smell of sheep I wouldn’t be a shepherd!  It is true that it has always been difficult for us to be observant Jews—we need to be in the fields taking care of the flocks—how can we get into the city for worship and sacrifice?  Of course, [sighs] ...that has changed for everyone since the Temple was destroyed last year, almost 40 years after the Master’s departure. Most of us Shepherds are not educated... few of us learn letters, but then why would a shepherd need to read? It’s not like anyone has their own copy of the Scriptures!  Even though we can’t read we can still hear the Word of the Lord, and learn it, and hide in our heart...
Kî-yeºled yullad-läºnû ... Bën niTTan-läºnû
waTTühî hammiSrâ `al-šikmô
wayyiqrä´ šümô :  Pele´ yô`ëc… ´ël GiBBôr         ´ábî`ad…    Sar-šälôm
Oh, you don’t speak Hebrew? Excuse me my Gentile friends! What do they teach you these days? Let me translate into your strange tongue:
For unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be on his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
        For centuries my people had waited for the Promised One. Yes, even simple shepherds like us had looked for his coming...  It is true, shepherds have been at the heart of the story of God’s dealing with my people! The fathers were shepherds were they not?  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…  Moses himself tended sheep—and this is the heart of the matter—when God was hardening the heart of Pharaoh, he told the people through Moses to sacrifice a Lamb, a spotless Lamb—and to put the blood over the door and on the door posts... The blood meant life in that home instead of death...
       I am just a simple shepherd, and like my father and his father before him I tend my sheep in the fields around a small and humble hamlet in Judea. The best of our lambs, spotless, without blemish, were reserved for the Temple sacrifices in those days.  The name of our town means House of Bread,” “Bethlehem” you call it... a small place but with a great history...  It was here that Ruth met Boaz. They married and had a son, Obed, who would be the grandfather of David the King. Yes, our father David was from this very place! He too tended sheep on these same hills.  Ahh, the City of David… The great prophet Micah spoke of this place when he wrote centuries before the Master’s birth…
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the clans of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting."
This would be the place from which the Messiah would come… The Promised One, the Son of the Most High… the Son of David for whom we had been waiting for so long.  [Looks aside with a sneer of disdain] We were under the thumb of Rome even in those days. We needed our Deliverer, we longed for His coming, we were looking and waiting for the Hope of Israel! Oh, but there was so much we did not under-stand.
        It was a quiet and cold night all those years ago, so long, yet it seems to me like yesterday…  We were in the fields taking care of the sheep with my father and a few other hardworking, humble shepherds.  It was a clear night… I love such nights! The Heavens truly declare the glory of God… so many stars!  I tried to count them more than once but I always ran out of numbers long before I ran out of stars… [I wasn’t the brightest candle in the menorah!]. It wasn’t a dream… I was laying on the ground, looking up at the marvel of the heavens… Suddenly, a glorious sight, I can hardly describe it even after all these years… There suspended above us in the sky was a shining angel of the Lord! I was already on the ground, but we all knew we were in the presence of holiness!  My father and the men with him fell to their faces in fear before that powerful creature from heaven!  Why was he here? What had we done? What did this mean?  And then, the incredible Word:  Fear not…”
       Fear not?  How could we not be afraid at such a glorious sight?  His voice was powerful, yet at the same time his words were comforting, calming, peaceful.  And you know, immediately, I was not afraid.  But he went on, and his next words brought a message that our people had longed to hear for so long… He said,  “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11).
Messiah had come? Messiah had come!  For centuries our people had looked for the coming of the promised One… It was our “blessed hope” at that time to be sure.  Messiah! The prophecies had started almost from the beginning… from the time of the Fall…  Adam and Eve sinned, and brought death and the curse upon humanity… But God even then promised a Seed, a Son, who would crush the Serpent’s head.  And he gave them skins for a covering… Think of that, God himself killed one of his creatures, shedding its blood, to provide a covering for the man and the woman. Yes, they learned quickly: sin would require a price, a life, it would require blood… The hope of a Savior, the Messiah, took many shapes in the Scriptures. The sacrifices, yes, also… The great prophet Isaiah spoke of a suffering Servant when he said,
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:2-7).
Like a sheep… We raised sheep, but only the finest, without spot, without blemish, could be used in the temple sacrifices. It was our Law. He, the Messiah, the King, the Good Shepherd, He was also the Lamb, without blemish, without sin… The sacrifices, the Servant, also David spoke of a Son, an ideal Son who would have an eternal reign. He would be called the Son of God, and would also be a righteous sufferer. This cord of three strands, the Lamb, the Servant, and the Son who would be King, was woven through the fabric of the Scriptures… How could they come together? When would the promised One arrive?  God’s timing is perfect:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law that we might receive the adoption as sons.”  
That night the Angel answered with the joyous news… “TODAY, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you… He is Christ the Lord…”  Messiah!  Could it be?  Today?  THIS day? The fullness of time had really come! Generations before had longed for this day, and now it was here!  The Son of David, the Servant, the Lamb, my King, he was here!
        But what else did the angel say?  Could it be true?  “Unto YOU has been born a Savior…” To us?  Including humble shepherds like us?  We were not the pious ones, the tsaddaqim! We were not part of the religious elite!  We were not the aristocracy!  We were not royalty, not powerful or influential!  Could it be He came for the meek? Could it be that He came for sinners?  I must say that it didn’t strike me at that moment on that starry night, but for many nights afterward I heard my father and the other men speculate, “Why did the angel bring this marvelous news to us, to a group of lowly shepherds?” Why not to the priests or the Scribes?  Only many years later did it dawn on us; only after the Cross did we understand. We were in those fields caring for the sheep, some of those animals were destined for Temple Sacrifice.  He was THE sacrifice, God’s Lamb who would take away the sin of the world.  It was as though the angel was saying to us,    “Why are you here watching over these sheep? Get down to Bethlehem and see the Lamb of God!”
       Thirty years later, as he presented himself to his cousin, John the Baptizer, to begin his public ministry, John saw him and said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The blood of our sacrifices could not take away sin… a perfect sacrifice was needed, one of infinite worth… The Eternal Son, Emmanuel, God with us—The Lamb had been born! How could we imagine that one day, His precious blood would be shed? How could we know that our sins—your sins, my sins—would drive the spikes into His holy hands and feet?
         That night, on the hillside in Bethlehem, The word the Angel spoke was more than we could imagine… “This will be a sign for you… You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” In a manger?  Wrapped in rags? The Messiah?  Our King and Savior? The Great I AM, now incarnate, in an animal’s feeding bin?  Suddenly, there was with that Angel a multitude of Angels, the hosts of heaven, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."  Peace!  How long we had waited for it.  God’s favor had truly rested on us. Simple people, and yes, sinful people… But God chose us to receive the GOOD NEWS, he chose us to be his own, to be his witnesses, to be his messengers… Has He chosen you?  Do you believe Him? He would say one day, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me…”
       Well we believed the angel, and we hurried to town,and found them… exactly as the Angel had said: Emmanuel, God with us… Think of it, “...on such a slender thread as the feeble throb of an infant life, the salvation of the World should hang.” He came as a tiny baby – Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.” His first bed in this cold world a feeding bin, his first shelter, a grotto used as a shelter for animals.  But his name told the story: Yeshua, Jesus, Savior.
       We shouted to whoever would listen that Messiah had been born. The News was too good to keep to ourselves!  But, alas, many had shouted that before—who would listen to a handful of Shepherds?   You know the rest of the story…
       We were the first, but not the only ones that received a revelation that the Messiah had come. Sometime after His birth the Magi came from the East to see the new born king, they offered Him gifts and worshipped Him, and then left another way to return to their own land.  What followed next was the most horrific experience our village would ever know. That madman Herod!  We had no warning, Herod’s soldiers swooped into town, ripping babies and toddlers from their mothers’ arms, slaughter, every male child under 2! Oh the wailing! The unspeakable grief! They could not be comforted. The pain of violently losing a Son…  Do you know it?  God does... [pauses, looks downward and sighs] …but His time had not yet come.  So we later learned that Mary and Joseph had escaped with the Son to Egypt. Only after Herod died did they return to his family’s home in Nazareth.
      He grew up as did I, and for years, we heard almost nothing more about him. It was many years later that we began to hear reports of a rabbi who taught with authority… a prophet, a miracle worker and preacher.  When I heard the stories, I thought it might be Him!  He healed the sick, fed the hungry, cured lepers, and cast out demons. He gave sight to the blind, he even raised the dead! When I heard his name there was no doubt: JESUS!  The name his parents had given him that night in Bethlehem! We thought he would soon assume the throne of David and establish his kingdom.  Even we, the shepherds, forgot what the Lamb had come to do.
       And then that final week He entered Jerusalem… They shouted to him, “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord…” Excitement was in the air, anticipation that the time was at hand!  A week is such a short time… the days pass quickly… Passover... would the Savior reveal himself at the feast?  Then it happened. Betrayal. Rejection. Denial. Scourging. A crown of thorns pushed cruely onto his holy brow. Darkness. The cross.  How could they do it?  Why did He let them?  We should have known (it was Passover after all!) and as Moses had written: “Without the shedding of blood, there could be no remission of sins.”  There was sadness and confusion among us for three days.  What had happened?  What did this mean?  Then, the morning of the third day, all doubt was removed forever! The tomb was empty!  And He appeared, first to the women, then to Cephas, then to the 12, and on one occasion to over 500 of the brethren at once!  I have spoken with those who were there—they saw him, they touched him, they even ate with Him—he is alive! The grave could not hold the Author of life!
       The time came for him to return to heaven…  After 40 days of teaching about the Kingdom, the disciples asked: “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”  The Master is so patient with us! He didn’t rebuke them, like a Shepherd guiding a lamb that was wandering he simply “redirected” them. It wasn’t a stupid question, it was just the wrong question!  Rather than ask “when?” the kingdom will come they should have asked “what shall we do until that day?”!
       He said they were to wait for the Comforter to come, the Spirit who would empower them, then they would be His witnesses starting in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth!  When He finished speaking, before their very eyes, He ascended into Heaven!  As they stood, gazing heavenward, an angel spoke:  “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing upward? This same Jesus, who you saw go into Heaven, will return in like manner!” HE WILL RETURN!  Now, in faith, we wait. Our beloved brother Paul said in his letter to Titus,
11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, 12teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ14who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works (2:11-14). 
That is my hope, that is how I must live!  And you, my friends?  Have you put your hope, your trust in Him? He is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who laid down his life for the sheep. This is how God showed His love among us, He sent His one and only Son into the world, that we might live through Him!
       Think of it, “…God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And, “God demonstrated His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He is “...the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Are you looking for that Blessed Hope, the glorious appearing of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ? THIS STORY IS NOT YET OVER!  IF YOU KNOW HIM, YOU ARE INCLUDED, YOU ARE A PART OF THE CAST!  As surely as He came the first time, in fulfillment of Scripture, He will come again, according to his promise.  How then will you live until he returns? 
Your trees and lights and decorations are beautiful. But even more beautiful is this truth: “The Word was made flesh, and lived for a while among us…” And, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, even to those who believe on His name…  
         Do you know Him? Have you received the true Gift of Christmas? Will you follow Him?  Think about that, AMEN. Baruch ha shem AdonaiYeshua, ha Meshiach! Blessed be the Name of the Lord!  Jesus, the Christ.   Shalom!      

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Immanuel, JESUS, Savior! Matthew 1:18-25

Immanuel, JESUS, Savior
Matthew 1:18-25
Introduction: Martin Luther said,
When I am told that God became man, I can follow the idea, but I just don’t understand what it means. For what men, if left to his natural promptings, if he were God, would humble himself to lie in the feedbox of a donkey or to hang on a cross? God laid upon Christ the iniquities of us all. This is the ineffable and infinite mercy of God which the slender capacity of man’s heart cannot comprehend, much less utter—the unfathomable depth and burning zeal of God’s love toward us... Who can sufficiently declare this exceeding great goodness of God?”
We can easily be overwhelmed when we consider the pervasive presence of evil in the world. This latest act of terrorism in the mass shooting in San Bernadino, CA reminds us again that all is not right in the world, the effects of the Fall are all around us. That is the backdrop, that is the motivation for the message of Christmas. We are living in darkness, the world in a real sense is the “Valley of Baca,” a “vale of tears’ as we saw two weeks ago in Psalm 84. The world is a dark place, but, as the prophet Isaiah said, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned...” (Isa 9:2, NIV).
Context: After setting forth the genealogy, and the legal qualification of Jesus as a descendant of David, Now this is how it happened...
The Maine Idea: The miracle of the virgin birth proves who Jesus is, and it was a prelude to what He came to accomplish: the salvation of a people for Himself. Come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!
I. In a certain sense this would be a birth like every other human birth, but in the most profound sense, this would be a birth like no other (18-20). There were other births in Scripture that were miraculous. Abraham and Sarah in their old age having Isaac. Elizabeth, the wife of Zachariah giving birth to John the Baptist. But this birth was a miracle of a completely different magnitude!
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "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.
       The line of the messiah had been traced. Abraham and David were a part of it, men who believed God, and followed Him, but men who desperately needed forgiveness and grace in their lives. The family tree also mentioned four women, which was unusual enough in an ancient near eastern genealogy, but they were foreign women, and three of the four guilty of immoral behavior, the other a foreigner from an accursed nation! By grace they were included. We were being reminded that grace would extend to the nations, and that grace was greater than all our sin. If you think you are beyond the reach of God’s grace, that there is no way you could be forgiven, take a look at the characters in the genealogy of Jesus. Finally it comes down to Joseph, a carpenter, who would be the step-father of messiah, and a young woman named Mary.
       Verse 18 summarizes that situation. Joseph and Mary were “betrothed,” they were engaged. More than engagement today betrothal was a commitment to marriage that actually required a certificate of divorce to dissolve. They had not yet “come together.” There was no physical, marital intimacy between them. They were both pious Jews, serious about their faith they knew and sought to obey the Scriptures. And then Joseph got the heart-breaking, what must have been unbelievable news: Mary was pregnant. Mary’s encounter with the angel is not described by Matthew. We have that only in Luke. That scene is described in Luke 1:30-38,   
30 And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,  33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."  34 And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"  35 And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy- the Son of God.  36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God."  38 And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
Mary’s struggle to understand makes sense—what the angel was describing was contrary to nature, it was unlike any human birth before. She was a virgin! But she believed this message came from God, and she believed that God could do anything. So she was available, and willing, “Behold the servant of the Lord...” In our passage, Matthew 1:18, we are simply told, “...she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit...” Apparently she told Joseph about the word she had received, but he could not believe it. Who would believe such a story?
       Joseph is described as a “just man” or “a righteous man.” In the context the idea seems to be not that he was “perfect,” but that he believed God and sought to obey His word. He did not want “vengeance,” that is, to exact the maximum penalty allowed by the Law, but he could not follow through and marry her if she had been unfaithful. He also loved Mary. And we see him extending grace, not wanting to “subject her to public humiliation...” he decides to quietly “divorce” her. But God had a plan. Joseph would be the “step-father” of this child, he too was chosen to raise the Son of God. So God spoke to him through an angel in a dream and confirmed the amazing truth, “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit...” This was a pregnancy like no other! The messiah would come in human form, but, like the first Adam, with a human nature unaffected by sin. The ancient Apostles' Creed summarizes, He was "...conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary..." The miracle of the virgin birth proves who Jesus is, and it was a prelude to what He came to accomplish: the salvation of a people for Himself. Do you believe that? Then, “Come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!”
II. This child would do what we could not do for ourselves (21).
21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
       V.21 makes it clear that God was in control. “She will bear a son...” There were no ultra-sounds in those days, and God didn’t give Mary and Joseph as choice about waiting to see the sex of the child, it would be a son. The “Son of David” who was promised who would have an eternal kingdom. The Seed of Abraham, who would be a blessing to the nations. The Seed of the Woman who would crush the serpent’s head. The Son of God, who one day will rule the nations with a rod of iron. His birth would be like no other, and He would do what we could not do for ourselves (see 21b).
       Names are interesting, our parents give them to us for all kinds of reasons. It may be a family name. Maybe it’s a name that is taken from a character in literature or film or history. Maybe it’s a name that one parent or the other just liked the sound of. Occasionally a name might say something about the faith of the parents or their hopes for the child (perhaps why we sometimes see Bible names). Within the Bible, names seem to more frequently reflect something of the character (or destiny) of the person. Abraham had his name “updated” by God himself, since he would be “the father of a multitude.” “Isaac” meant “laughter” and Sarah laughed at the idea of and her having a child in their old age. “Jacob” was the “heel grabber” or supplanter, and he was born holding onto his brother’s heel, and he would one day “supplant” him by trading for his birth right, and by stealing the blessing of the firstborn.  You remember that in Acts one man was such an encourager that the disciples named him “Barnabas,” i.e., “Son of Encouragement.”  The name “Jesus” was related in Hebrew and in Aramaic to the verb yasha, “he saves,” and the word “Yeshua,” in Hebrew meant “salvation.” The angel’s words would have immediately been understood by Joseph,
“ shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Now this pronouncement might have been shocking in the historical context, not only in terms of the miracle that was being explained, but also in terms of what this messianic figure would accomplish. Remember the history; David had been a military leader who led the army of Israel to victories over their pagan enemies. The nation had been re-established in the land, but had experienced oppression over the centuries. It was widely expected that the Messiah would come and deliver them from their enemies and restore their security and blessing and prosperity in the land. This was a new focus: “He will save his people from their sins...”
       I was thinking this week that we tend to be quick to criticize the Jewish nation of Jesus’ day for losing sight of the miracle of grace that was at the heart of Jesus’ mission. You remember when Jesus fed the multitude in John 6, a few verses later they wanted to come and make him king by force. A king that fed them, that was a king they could deal with! And then there were those loathsome Romans, marching around like the land was theirs. Disrespecting the Jews and the promises of their God!  But rather than coming on a battle horse with a sword, Jesus came on a donkey, in humility, as a servant, as a suffering servant, the people hastened his execution by proclaiming, “We’ll not have THIS man to be our king!” They lost sight of what was most important, they seemed to minimize what they should have known to be their greatest need: forgiveness of their sins and reconciliation with God.  
       But here we are, 2,000 years later. What do we look to God for? When do we usually give testimony and acknowledge that “God is good”? We pray for healing. We pray for help with our finances. We pray for work so that we can feed our families. We pray about decisions we need to make. We look to Him for a lot of our needs, and all of that is good, after all every good thing comes from above. He gives us our daily bread, and so we thank Him, and say "God is good." But what about the father in Sudan who is barely feeding his family, or the Syrian Christian who has a sword put to his neck but refuses to deny Christ? We have no promise of health and prosperity in this life (in fact, he assures us, “In the world you will have tribulation...”!). One day sin will be eradicated and our Enemy will be judged, and God will dwell among us and wipe the tears from our eyes. But not today. Today we are pilgrims. We are still in the Valley of Baca, bad things happen all the time, to believers and unbelievers alike.  But God is still good, and worthy of our praise!
       He came to save his people from their sins. Listen: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God.” That is reason to worship Him, to love Him with your whole heart, and to spread His fame to those around you!  Christmas is not about jolly red suited elves and reindeer, it’s about God entering our story to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. The miracle of the virgin birth proves who Jesus is, and it was a prelude to what He came to accomplish: the salvation of a people for Himself. Come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord! A birth like no other, of a child who could do for us what we could not do for ourselves, because...

III.  This child would be like no other: the promised savior, the great I AM, who took on a human nature: God became a Man!  (22-25).
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  23 "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).  24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,  25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
       This child was the fulfillment of the promises of God (22-23a).  One of the results of seeing the many prophecies that were fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is realizing and understanding that God was in control, the life of Jesus unfolded in every detail exactly as the father had planned it. It also serves as evidence that Jesus is the promised messiah. If the messiah was to be born of a virgin, born in Bethlehem, exiled to Egypt, raised in Nazareth, rejected by his own people, and ultimately crucified and resurrected, all those things, in precise detail happened in the life of only one man: Jesus. According to one count, over 300 predictions were fulfilled in Jesus’ life and death! That is beyond any reasonable mathematical probability. There is only one explanation: In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son.
       This child would be God, incarnate (23b).  Like Luther said, “...the idea that God became a man, I can follow the idea...” but in truth it is a difficult concept to grasp!  Like Paul said of Him in his letter to the Philippians, “...who, though He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant...” God became man, “...the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us...”
       This child would be human, born of a woman. In one of his sermons Augustine eloquently described the wonder of the incarnation as follows...
The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born in time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day for his human birth. In the bosom of the Father He existed before all the cycles of the ages; born of an earthly mother, he entered upon the course of the years on this day.
     The Maker of men became man that He, the ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the fountain, might thirst; that He the Light, might sleep; that He the Way, might be wearied on the journey; that He the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He the Judge of the living and the dead might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged  by whips; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended on a Cross; that Courage might be weakened; that security might be wounded; that Life might die.
       To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this, although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil, and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands had done nothing to merit these benefits... (from Sermons on Liturgical Seasons).
What grace! What love! He did all of that willingly, for us. He came to take our sins in His own body on the Cross—to be “...made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him...”  God became a man to make a way for us to have peace with God.
       This child would be Jesus, the One and only Savior. Notice the obedience of Joseph. “He did not know her until she gave birth to a Son...” There would be no questions, no doubt about the virgin birth. And He obeyed the word of the Lord, and named Him “Jesus.” And there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved. So Joseph believed God, and He obeyed Him.
What is God saying to me in this passage? The miracle of the virgin birth proves who Jesus is, and it was a prelude to what He came to accomplish: the salvation of a people for Himself. Come, let us adore Him, Christ, the Lord!

What would God have me to do in response to this passage?  The central goal of my preaching is always to help us see God more clearly, to know Him better, because to know Him is to love Him. Love for God is also our motivation to seek to “make Him known,” to spread His fame through our region and ultimately the world. This second Sunday of Advent, as we share the Table, let us remember why He came, let us remember who He is and what He did. Christmas should stir our hearts to love Him more.  Let us worship Him together. Come worship the King! AMEN.