A Virgin Conceives and Bears a Son, Isaiah 7:10–17; Matthew 1:18–25, Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2019
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and the climax of our Christmas celebration is but two days away. The tree is adorned with lights and decorations. Four candles are lit on our Advent wreath, and our nativity is in front for all to see. In our readings we hear of angels visiting Joseph, of a virgin who conceives and bears a son for the salvation of all people.
Yet this day is not without its darkness as well. The Savior is not coming for a visit, as though He is some relative who lives in another state but will return home after the holidays. Jesus’ coming visitation is not a social call. He is a Savior who rescues people from a real problem. This is none other than the Son of God who shows up on the scene, the problem is a problem of cosmic proportions, it is sin itself.
Today we also hear how King Ahaz faced the terror of an enemy encamped upon his gates. Joseph faced the horrible, gut-wrenching pain of betrayal. The Savior has good news for both, and they both involve a young woman who is pregnant and the child that she bears. Both will be called to believe that the birth of this child affects them.
We too are called today to believe that, and act accordingly. To live in the promises of God is not as easy as it sounds. Christ has come into the world. He has saved the world. The Child of Mary, the Son of God, this Jesus of Nazareth, born in a stable has indeed redeemed the world.
But how do we live in that truth? How do we see this world differently, how do we act differently, how do we think differently about it all? How will the reality in which we live shape our lives? To live conformed to this world is a crisis of faith. Yet, to live in conformity with our faith brings us into conflict with this world in which we live. Like many, we often would rather not face these crises but rather try to ignore them.
Isaiah proclaimed to Ahaz that the enemies he faced would soon be undone and a child soon born would know the taste of curds and honey, the sorts of foods that come only in times of plenty and freedom. Yet, Isaiah also spoke of this other woman who would have child, born humbly, yet whose birth would herald a freedom for which the whole world hungers. It was that same birth which brought restoration to Joseph’s broken heart.
We also come to Christmas time this year amid the darkness of December and Sin’s cruel grasp. Thousands are wondering if unemployment benefits will run out this week, or a few months from now. Many have an empty seat at their family table this holiday season as a loved one serves in a distant land. All the while we still pray for the cancer victims, the aged, the poor, the suffering, and the grieving.
To us God says that a virgin conceives and bears a Son. Wrapped up in that birth, in some way which is often hard to see, are the plenty and the joy, like the feasting and the freedom we crave.
Ahaz would believe that God helped those who helped themselves. He did not trust that it is God who would work this deed. He summoned the forces of Assyria and destroyed his cousins to the North who were threatening him. Joseph on the other hand, took the child into his home. He gave him a legal status and standing in that community. It was an act born of faith, a trust in God’s ability to do what He promised.
If we look at young King Ahaz a little closer we learn he was only 21 years old. He was confronted by the fearsome spectacle of the two kings who were attacking him, yet he hears a word of promise from God.
God tells him that he will take care of this, but Ahaz does not trust this. He strips the temple bare of its treasure and buys off the Assyrians. The results are foretelling in a way. The northern ten tribes of Israel are destroyed. Within a few years his enemy will also surround the city of Jerusalem, and only be kept outside by God’s angel of death striking down hundreds of thousands of them.
Joseph on the other hand is confronted with another sort of terror. His heart is broken, his fiancé has told him that she is pregnant and he knows that he is not the father. He will step aside for her, let the “other man” marry his Mary, and in the little village of Nazareth he will probably watch them living happily-ever-after while he wonders what could have been.
But then God comes to him in a dream, an angel speaks, the child is from God, this is truly a holy thing. I probably would have awoken from that dream and sworn off all late night snacking, but Joseph believes. He trusts. He takes Mary into his home; he gives the child a home and commits himself to providing for the child by naming that baby. He called Him, Jesus.
Like Ahaz, Joseph heard the same words of Isaiah, a virgin will conceive, but Joseph believed. Luther said that the greatest miracle of Christmas was the faith of Mary and Joseph. God works that same faith in you and me.
Joseph brought Mary and Jesus home when he woke up from that dream. Literally, he brought the child into his home. We too, dare not leave this child born in Bethlehem’s manger, in this place. He gladly receives our sins here, but He comes to bless our whole life. He comes to render every day a holy day in Him. He comes to render every act an act of obedience to Him.
It looks ridiculous and impossible for the folks who are outside of this faith. Joseph looks like a fool and Ahaz looks like he is politically savvy. But the Bible records a very different story for us. Joseph gets a bazillion plastic statues made of him, to put up in front of churches in nativity scenes. Have you ever seen one of Ahaz?
You and I have many things which weigh us down, like Ahaz’s fear, like Joseph’s heart ache. They try to conform us, bend us over, and inward, and downward. However, God calls us to stand upright in Him. Jesus is the same rescuer who would have helped Ahaz, the same child who was not the heartache of Joseph.
We are given to look up to the cross where this Babe of Bethlehem died; it straightens us up as He lifts those burdens and bears them there.
The good news for all is that faith is a miracle, one which God continues to work in us. Faith is a relationship in which God wraps His arms around us despite our sins and loves us. That reality emboldens and empowers us to be different kind of people.
We are not here to question whether we have faith, but to marvel that God has worked it. We talk about faith as a reality which God has established, created by His Holy Spirit. Faith is the new reality that God has created in the work of Son and Spirit.
Joseph by himself surely could not have come to believe this dreamy angel who said that his bride was pregnant with God’s child. Imagine telling your extended family that the girl you were bringing home was pregnant, but you had heard in a dream from an angel that this was God’s child. My guess is they would be calling mental health services as soon as you turned your back. They would be hiding all the sharp knives in the house. But Joseph believes it, he changes his course of action because he believed this angels words.
As you anticipate the feast of Christmas this week, notice that churches will be full, or at least fuller. The world seems to stop and take a breather of sorts, throws a party, and gives a gift or two. Yes, some of this is simply materialism, but the materialism we loathe is only able to manifest itself because at the root of this day, at the heart of this season, lots and lots and lots of folks, including you and me, believe that Baby in a manger was something truly remarkable: He is God.
This is nothing less than a sign of the work of God. Just as Luther counted the faith of Mary and Joseph as the greatest miracle of Christmas, greater yet is that virgin birth and incarnation itself. We share that same faith, the relationship which God has established in us.
We too often sell this miracle short, imagining that folks come to church because we entertain them with good music, or entice them with fellowship. We are all for good music and fellowship, but those things are best and most attractive when they flow out of faith, rather than the manipulation of people into our doors. We are not praising God with an eye to see who is watching, we are simply praising God. Likewise, programs and all that we do, is rendered to God in loving and trusting response to His great deed done in Christ. Everything we do is an act of faith!
Isaiah calls this special Child to be born of a virgin “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” No one else in the Old Testament has this name except this special Child. If this Child is “Immanuel” in the fullest and the intended sense, then He is indeed God. This title expresses the wonder and glory of the incarnation, that God would come down from heaven and take on human flesh and live and dwell among us. Amen.