Tag Archives: Isaiah 7:10-16

On the Way to the Holy Night: For Yonder Breaks a New and Glorious Morn

(a sermon for December 22, 2019, the 4th Sunday of Advent; 3rd in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25)

If it could ever be said that there’s a “forgotten” cast member of the story of Christmas, I think that it would also have to be said that that role easily belongs to Joseph.

Not long ago I came across the work of a clergy colleague on-line who did a survey of all the words contained within the Advent and Christmas hymns included in his congregation’s hymnal.  And what he discovered is that in those songs there were, as one might expect, 309 references made to the Christ Child; also 48 mentions of angels, 31 references to Mary and 23 words about shepherds.  But quite interestingly, he found that in this particular hymnal was no reference at all made to Joseph; not a one!  Well, of course, that piqued my curiosity, so I did a very quick search of our “Chalice Hymnal” and found… only one mention of Joseph (it’s from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” by the way: “See within a manger laid, Christ whom choirs of angels praise; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, while our hearts in love we raise.”); and even there, Joseph’s sort of an “add on” to the larger story!

Now, granted, if you dig a little deeper into the wealth of Christian hymnody there’s some wonderful music to be found in which Joseph figures prominently – “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” for instance – and there’s also some wonderful contemporary music out there (“Joseph’s Lullaby” comes to mind) that beautifully seeks to tell the story from Joseph’s perspective.  But by and large, the music of this season tends to cast Joseph in much the same way we see him in the crèche: as a quiet, ever stalwart presence kneeling at the manger even as he’s overshadowed by the likes of shepherds, wise men and farm animals; just another supporting player in the nativity drama dwelling in the shadows of holy light.

And yet… I would submit to you that despite this, shall we say, subdued presence in the Christmas story, it is Joseph, this adoptive father of Jesus, who not only brings Mary and by extension, us, to the manger, but who also by his very example leads us “yonder” to what is beautifully sung in “O Holy Night” as “a new and glorious morn.”  Joseph, you see, is perhaps the singular figure within the nativity story who quite literally takes us to Bethlehem… and beyond!

Now, to understand this, we need to remember that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, from which our text this morning is drawn, in terms of both narrative and tone, is most definitely different from that of Luke.  Luke’s story is filled with singing angels, adoring shepherds and the baby Jesus born in a stable.  Matthew’s version of events, however, is much more cut and dried, remarkably brief and arguably a far more somber account of things: to wit, after an entire first chapter listing off a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus, Matthew begins by simply saying, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”  No shepherds or angels on high, no “no room in the inn,” no manger, no swaddling clothes – in fact, the wise men don’t even show up until the second chapter – but what follows is, in fact, one of the most essential parts of the story and isn’t it interesting; it’s told from Joseph’s perspective.  And as such, if I might quote pastor and biblical scholar David Lose here, it’s not so much “a story of wonder [as it is] as story of heartache.”

Now, I know that to suggest such a thing runs headlong up against just about every image we’ve ever had about Christmas; make no mistake, there’s heartache in abundance here! Because as Lose also reminds us, Mary and Joseph were real people – very young people, in fact, not to mention impoverished and without any semblance of earthly privilege or power. “In our imagination,” Lose writes, “Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal.” And yes, that’s how we might prefer this story to go but in fact, as Matthew begins his version of the story, the whole event is bathed in… scandal.

To begin with, we’re immediately told by Matthew that “when [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Understand that in first century Palestine, engagement was not viewed as it is today – as a romantic declaration of marital intent – but rather, engagement was considered to be “a legal contract, binding in every respect… [it] was essentially to be married with having consummated that marriage or even living together.”  So for Mary to be “with child” now would have been seen as sure and certain evidence that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; and, in full accordance with Jewish law, would have been punishable by Mary being dragged out to her father’s house to be publically disgraced and to face death by stoning.  And that, in and of itself, is about as disturbing a possibility as we can imagine; remember this is Mary, the mother of Jesus (!) we’re talking about here!  But even that very real and, yes, very legal possibility aside, imagine the kind of pain and anguish Joseph must certainly have felt at learning this news… once again, Mary and Joseph were real people with real feelings living in a real, not to mention harsh and judgmental world.  Mary already understood what was happening to her, that’s true; and yes, Mary must have worried about how this claim about the Holy Spirit was going to be received in and around the village of Nazareth.  But Joseph… we’ve got to imagine he’s devastated by this turn of events.

But we’re also told that Joseph is a “righteous” man.  In the Greek, the word is dikaios, which means “upright,” “virtuous,” or “just in the eyes of God;” and as such, one who sought to live wholly in accordance with the law set forth in the Torah.  In other words, once Joseph had received this news, according to the letter of the law, there could well have been a rush to judgment for Mary.  But “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph chose the second option, “to dismiss her quietly,” quickly and quietly breaking the marriage contract; in essence granting her a divorce without any public fuss.  So right away we have this new perspective on Joseph, as a man who despite what must certainly have been a deep sense of betrayal and suffering, immediately looks to what’s best for Mary… and that’s just the beginning.

Because just when Joseph is about to bring some closure to this situation, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  She’s going to have a baby boy, Joseph, and you’re to give him the name of Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins; and the reason this is all happening this way is because of Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  The upshot of all of this is that as soon as Joseph awakes from this strange yet familiar dream, he’s calmed down and we’re left to assume that he’s got some deeper sense of God’s intention with all of this.  And thanks be to God that he did: in the words of Leonard Sweet, at the moment the angel of the Lord appeared “the whole miracle of Christmas momentarily rested on Joseph’s shoulders, awaiting his freely chosen decision to either accept or reject the stunning news of an impending Messiah.”  The good news is that like Mary before him, Joseph said yes, and “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

And a few months later, there’s that so-called registration in Bethlehem, which also not by coincidence was happening just about the same time as the baby was due; which meant that the city was crowded, the inns were full but maybe there’d be a stable out back… well, you know the story.  But first, to quote David Lose once more, “I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion..” actually not unlike the kinds of struggle we all face, baby or no, along the journey of life.

Actually, given all of this backstory, I’d like to think that Joseph spent those months getting ready.  It’s been said, you know, that when a woman is expecting (or for that matter, as we’ve seen in our own extended family this year, in the process of preparing for an adoption) her maternal instincts kick in immediately; but for the father, it sometimes takes that singular moment of holding that child in his arms that he becomes a father!  But not so with Joseph: I have a sense that in those days leading up to manger of Bethlehem Joseph was likely spending every moment surveying the landscape, so to speak, getting ready for this momentous, life-changing, world-shifting act of God, all the while trying somehow to comprehend what being the earthly father of the Son of God would actually be for him!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it.  And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.”  That’s perfect, and might I add, a very legitimate fear; and yet, as this incredible story begins to unfold what we discover is that not only was Joseph prepared for the day of his birth he was ready for the next day as well.

In fact, I have to say that these days, when I think of Joseph, it’s not so much the “silent, holy night” in the manger that I envision… in truth, I’m thinking about the next morning as the sun is rising.  I mean, in those moments after the birth itself, after the infant Jesus was wrapped in those swaddling clothes and lying asleep in the manger; when the shepherds had come and gone and Mary was silently pondering in her heart all that happened that night; and when the animals had grown weary of all the excitement and had opted to get some sleep themselves.  I like to think that in those moments after the bright star of that holy night had begun to fade and a new day was beginning, there was Joseph, standing at the gateway of the stable and watching the sun rise over the streets of Bethlehem; just the same way it had done on countless days before, but now in a way unlike ever before in the history of God’s creation.

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

There would be more to come:  the arrival, at some point soon, of magi from the East bringing expensive and very prophetic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the news that Herod wanted to “pay homage” to the new born king even as his minions were seeking to slaughter any and all newborns that might fit the profile and provide a threat to his power; and then, yes, another angel’s message in a dream telling Joseph to get up and take the child and his mother to Egypt to keep them safe.

In other words, the story was just beginning; but in these wee hours of the morning, Joseph was ready for what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing about Christmas: so often, especially given that it comes at the end of a long Advent season of waiting and watch, we assume that the manger of Bethlehem represents the end of the story, when in fact it’s just the beginning of the story of Christ’s coming into the world… the story of light piercing through the darkness of life… of redeeming hope in a culture that seemingly thrives on the threat of hopelessness… of joy unending and triumphant… and of our lives, yours and mine, beloved, changing forever because of this one holy child who grew up to save us all from our sin.

So Merry Christmas, friends… and I hope and pray that it’s everything it should be for you and yours.  But remember this… after it’s all done, our time at the manger, that’s when the work of Christmas and faith really begins:  to, like Joseph before us, walk into the new and glorious morn of Jesus’ birth, and by his counsel start to change this world for the better, making our fervent hope of peace on earth and goodwill a reality for our lives and living here and now.

And in doing so, making sure that…

…our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 22, 2019 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Old Testament, Sermon, Sermon Series


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Unwrapping God’s Gift: Mighty God

advent2a[1](a sermon for December 6, 2015, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 1:2-20, 7:10-17 and 9:6)

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6

Given that as of today, there are only 19 (!) days left till Christmas, I imagine that most of us have at least begun the yearly process of braving the crowds, navigating the mall or perhaps surfing the internet in order to get our holiday shopping done; there may even be a few over-achievers out there who are already finished!  But just in case you aren’t, let me give you something to think about as you’re out seeking those perfect gifts for the people you love:  and it’s that there are basically two kinds of gifts (good gifts, anyway!); the kind of gifts you really want, and the kind of gifts you really need!   The trick is to find that one special gift that is either one or the other, and ideally both at the same time!

The thing is that sometimes the best present you’ll ever receive is the one that may well be frivolous, silly or even impractical; but so often that’s the one that ends up fulfilling a secret Christmas wish or one that expresses the true feelings of the heart.  On the other hand, a so-called “practical gift” might just be exactly what’s needed at a particular time and place of one’s life, and shows forth a deep level of care, compassion and utter sensitivity on the part of the giver!  Of course, you have to be careful because sometimes things like that can backfire on you: we knew somebody years ago who, when he was first married, actually wrapped up and gave his new wife a six pack of motor oil for Christmas, because her car needed an oil change; and then was flabbergasted as to why she wasn’t at all thrilled about this generous and thoughtful gift!

Oh, well… as the saying goes, “it’s the thought that counts;” and the bottom line is that whether it’s diamonds and jewels, or wool socks and long johns, so often the best gifts of all are the ones you may not have thought you wanted and didn’t know you needed, but ended up being more than you could ever hope for!

I’ve actually been thinking about that in relation to this second name of the gift of Christ that’s offered up in Isaiah, this child who is to be will born unto us and who will be called “Mighty God.”  Think about it; in many ways, last Sunday, when we talked here about the Christ child as a “Wonderful Counselor,” that was easy to embrace as a gift; I mean, who can’t relate to someone who’s there for us with unfettered love and wise counsel?  But “Mighty God…” that’s a little more difficult; and the reason why comes in knowing that when the people of Israel heard this name prophesied in relation to the promised Messiah, they were thinking in terms of a great warrior; a military leader with great strength, skill and power to reign triumphant over his enemies, delivering God’s people to victory and then to reign over them on David’s throne.  That’s all part and parcel of the history of Israel, friends, and well detailed throughout scripture; but for me, at least, that description of the coming Messiah seems to run head-long against everything we like to think of about Jesus, and yes, about Christmas: swords beaten into plowshares, the lion dwelling with the lamb, peace on earth and goodwill to all… and especially in these troubling days when the culture of violence not only appears to be running rampant but also which is becoming all too commonplace, it’s kind of hard to think about our needing or wanting such a gift as this; much less that it comes to us in the guise of a child!

And yet, I would suggest to you this morning that if you look at this gift in the context of how and why it was given, you begin to understand.  That’s why I chose today a couple of readings from the first few chapters of Isaiah; because if you take a close look at what’s in scripture here, taken together these chapters pretty much make up a “divine rationale” for God’s coming into the world in Christ, and really give the name “Mighty God” its proper meaning.

For what we have in these verses is a depiction of Israel as a nation deeply flawed and in hard bondage to their own sinfulness; a people who by this time in their history had fallen so far away from their identity as God’s people they barely knew who they were anymore.  Friends, this may be Advent, but trust me, the first chapter of Isaiah is not the stuff of Christmas cards! “Ah, sinful nation,” the prophet says, “people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, [and] who have despised the Holy One of Israel.”  And it gets worse:  “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!  Your incense is detestable to me,” one translation (NIV) puts it. “I cannot bear your evil assemblies… even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.”

And this is pretty much how it goes for six chapters!  What becomes clear is that God’s people have fallen so far from faith that even Isaiah’s call for Israel to come and “argue it out” and to “cease to do evil, [while] learn[ing] to do good” would seem to have fallen on deaf ears. But it has come to the point that whatever it is that Israel is trying to do for themselves is doomed to failure. They cannot save themselves, you see; they need someone to rescue them, to save them from themselves and their sin!

And so it is for you and me, as well.

And isn’t that interesting…because if you look at the original Hebrew for that name, “Mighty God?”  The word is El Gibbor and as it it’s used elsewhere in the Old Testament it can be literally translated as… hero!  It turns out, you see, that the promised Messiah is coming to this sinful, hurting people and his name will be HERO GOD!  Hero God, the one who has come to rescue his people; in fact, there is at least one reference in scripture to “the Hero God, [who is] the one who brings order out of chaos:” the one who can and does take that which is confusing and conflicted and dark, and makes it clear and unalloyed and full of light.   So you see, what we have here is this utter contrast between how imperiled and powerless we are as people, but how incredibly perfect God is!

And here’s the best part:  whereas we might think we have a load of judgment coming for having turned so far away from God; that the military might of this Warrior Messiah might well and deservedly turn against us for our sin, we find out that this “mighty,” hero God is going to come to us… as a baby!  A tiny, helpless, crying, living, breathing, hungry infant!  It’s there in that very familiar passage from chapter seven; “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

This is monumental… and not simply because now we start to hear talk of a “virgin birth.”  It’s monumental because here we have a God who has been utterly rejected by his creation, and yet says to them, Yes, you are sinful; no, you haven’t returned to me as I have begged and pleaded with you time and time again; certainly, you have had ample opportunities to rend your hearts and come to me and you haven’t; and you can’t even begin to do what you need to do to live a righteous life on your own; but my solution is not to destroy you, but to come to you and be with you… as a little baby!

And what an incredible gift that is!  Even now, even with you and me in our lives, by virtue of sin there exists this incredible gap between us and God, a chasm that we can’t begin to cross on our own; but now… here’s God, who in the guise of a child, will help us cross over; this one who will be our hero, our rescuer, this one who will be called “Mighty God!”

The thing is, of course, is there are countless people in the world today who don’t really feel they need rescuing, certainly not from God, whoever God might actually be to them; people who take great pride in their self-sufficiency; people who maintain to their dying breath that they can manage life on their own, thank you very much, and have no need of spiritual intervention to see them through.  Some are convinced that enough money, a good career and a proper social status will be more than enough to take of things; some believe that the value of life can only be measured in the accumulation of “stuff” (you know, the old adage that the one who dies with the most toys wins!); and yes, there are those who look to their families, friends, politicians and even the church to do it for them, because…well, that’s what they’re there for!

And the truth is, for people like that, life all seems well and good… until it’s not.  Until that time when their hearts are broken; when tragedy happens and everything changes in an instant; when the foundations of their lives start to crumble and suddenly there isn’t anything to hang on to.  And that’s when you and I need something more than what we are capable of providing for ourselves; and that’s when we need that gift that only God can provide. The irony is that this a gift that is both the easiest thing in the world to receive, and yet the most difficult one to accept, because opening that gift, taking it as your own, means living a different kind of life than the one you led before.  But… without it, friends, there’s no real life at all!

Those of us “of a certain age” will remember the late Paul Harvey, a radio broadcaster who not only reported the news but also made sure we knew “the rest of the story.”  Well, one of those stories I’ve never forgotten was one about a police officer who received a very special gift from his wife, whose name was Terri; and Terri was so excited about this gift that she literally couldn’t wait until Christmas, and insisted that her husband open the gift several days before the holiday; early December in fact… and, just as she had hoped, he loved it!

Well, as it happened, a few days later Patrolman David Schaeffer, working the night shift, pulled over a speeding vehicle; and as he approached the suspect, the driver pulled out a pistol and shot Schaeffer at point blank range at his stomach with a .45 caliber slug.

A few hours later, another officer knocked on the door of the Schaeffer’s home; and this officer calmly explained to Terri Schaeffer what had happened that night.  But all that Terri can think about in that moment is how glad she was that she’d not waited until Christmas to give David that present; she’s thinking how glad she is that she’d insisted that he open the gift right then.  Because otherwise, having been shot at point blank range, her husband would surely have died; but the good news was that David was now in the hospital, not because of a gunshot wound, but with a bruise… Christmas, you see, literally came early for this family because David has this wonderful gift that his wife had given him: a bullet-proof vest.

I think it’s safe to say that was the best Christmas gift he ever got!  But here’s a haunting thought: what if David had really loved the gift, even got excited about it, but then insisted that he didn’t really need it, so didn’t wear it?

In the Christ, God has given us this wonderful gift of his might and power.  It is the kind of strength that draws close to him when we are filled with loneliness; it’s the kind of power that fills us with courage even when we are engulfed with fear; comfort when our hearts are broken; direction when we don’t know which way to turn; hope and joy when we’ve run out of both; justice when all the world seems to have turned against us; and yes… forgiveness of sin and fullness of grace.

Whatever our need, friends, the one who is called our Mighty, Hero God is able to meet that need;  but just like the gift under the tree that’s only a brightly wrapped package until it’s opened, this gift of divine love truly has to be received to be of value!

“Unto us a child is born.” I hope and pray, beloved, that we won’t let this Christmas gift go unopened.

And may our thanks be to God, who is the giver of this and every good gift!


c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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Sing We Now of Christmas: To Show God’s Love Aright

rose-in-snow1(a sermon for December 14, 2014, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25 and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”)

I suppose, if we’re going do this right, I should tell you up front that as beautiful as this song of Christmas is, in fact “Lo, How a Rose” is filled with errors; or if not errors, at least a fair number of uncertainties.  To begin with, biblically speaking the “rose” of this song is a reference to the “Rose of Sharon” from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament; and while traditionally “the Rose of Sharon” is thought of as one name for the coming Christ (as is “the lily of the valley”), when you turn to the 2nd chapter of Song of Solomon it becomes very clear that the verses of scripture from which this comes is in fact a love song – a romantic love song (albeit a spiritual one!) – and what’s more, sung with the voice of a beautiful woman!

And then there’s the assertion that “Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, this rose I have in mind,” which is fine except that there is no mention anywhere in Isaiah of roses; and for the most part, when flowers are spoken of at all, it’s usually in the context of them perishing in the harsh sands of the desert, which is not exactly the image we have in mind!  The connection to Isaiah, of course, is the passage from the 11th chapter, in which “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots;” and while that’s a powerful image in and of itself, a twig growing out of a stump is not quite the same thing as a rose blooming!

That aside, my real problem with this hymn is the very idea of it:  I mean, a rose blooming in the dead of winter?  It just doesn’t seem likely; at least not in this climate!  I’m no horticulturist but even I know what happens when plants get left out overnight in the frost; even the heartiest of flowers will succumb to the cold and darkness.  So to say of this rose that “it came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter when half-gone was the night;” blooming even given the harshness of the world around it; well, that would be… miraculous!

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it; the spiritual truth of these familiar words we sing every Christmas season, a beautiful message of hope in the midst of a dark and cold winter.  For just as this flower, to quote words of the song that aren’t included in our hymnal, has “fragrance tender [that] with sweetness fills the air [and] dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere,” so this “Rose of Sharon,” who is the light that shines in the darkness and is the true beauty of Christmas – this one who was “true man, yet very God” – saves us from sin and death, and lightens every burden we bear.

This rose that blooms – the evidence of spring arising out of the dead winter, with life bursting forth from the most unlikely of places – is a sign of God’s love and of the sure and certain hope he gives to us and to the world; but ultimately, you see, it’s a sign that points to something even more remarkable in God’s plan: and that was the birth of a baby; a baby born in, of all places, a stable somewhere in the shadows of some small backwater village; a birth attended by only a precious few, and which would happen, relatively unnoticed, amid the darkness of a silent, holy night; save, of course, for the light of a star overhead and the angels’ glorious proclamation to shepherds, and indeed, the whole world that this baby was, in fact, “the Messiah, the Lord.”

An unlikely happening?  Most certainly… not to mention a strange set of circumstances for a Savior to be born!   But that’s the funny thing about God’s signs; very often greatest ones of all are those that seem to us to be the least likely!

Consider our reading this morning from Isaiah.  We’re all familiar with the prophecy in this passage of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; but what we don’t often hear about in this passage is how Isaiah brought this prophecy to a weak and rather wicked king of Judah by the name of Ahaz.  You see, at this particular point in its history Judah was surrounded by foreign armies and was quite literally facing its own destruction;  and given all this Ahaz is worried, fearful and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being, all of this despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail.  But in fact Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise:  ask for anything, the Lord says, “Be extravagant.  Ask for the moon!” (The Messsage)

To his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, he offers up a sign anyway; that of “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and of a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  But even after this, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left with the sense that even with the incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in worrying about what his enemies might be planning to even notice.

It seems short-sighted and more than a little self-serving, but friends, I have to say that I understand it. What we have here is a ruler wholly focused on worldly matters, fixated on his own struggles for power and of the very survival of his kingdom; here’s a man whose back is quite literally against the wall, and here comes Isaiah in the midst of all of this bringing the Lord’s word about… babies?  Frankly, I can understand why Ahaz might be less than enthusiastic; because this wasn’t the kind of sign he’d ever have anticipated; moreover, it didn’t seem to be the kind of Messiah the people of Israel should be looking for.  But this was the sign that God provided!

christthesaviormanger02Truth be told, sometimes I wonder if Joseph thought the same thing at first.  As the story is told in our reading this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed.  Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world.  Surely, his head must have been spinning to think of just how much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” (one of the better film depictions of the Christmas story, in my estimation), in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it.  And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.”  That’s perfect, and  might I add, a very legitimate fear; especially considering that Joseph has suddenly been cast into this role of an adoptive father charged with raising up the very son of God!  You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me?  Why us?  Why now?

Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world.  That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord, and on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…

…well, we may still not wholly understand why, but it was, if I might draw from the words of our hymn again, truly “to show God’s love aright, [that] she bore to men a Savior when half-gone was the night.”

It was a sign; what you and I would a miracle: a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory.  That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance.  It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God.

It seems like every year about this time we’re presented with some newspaper or magazine article, or maybe a documentary on television that seeks to get to the “real story” of Christmas; and inevitably this will include some “expert” whose role it is to challenge the biblical account of the nativity; to give some sort of scientific rationale for the star shining over Bethlehem, for instance, or to call into question the possibility of a “virgin birth.”  But lest we think that this is something unique to our post-modern age, in truth this is nothing new: there have always been “King Ahazes” in the world, people who remain skeptical as to God and his promises, and who will do everything they can to analyze, disseminate and perhaps discredit any truth to the story; and again, truth be told, there are times that even we might count ourselves among the skeptical.

But friends, despite such intense scrutiny, the truth of our hope and our faith endures at Christmas and always; and our proof comes down to those incredible and world-bending signs that God has provided to show his love aright; in the assurance we’ve been given again and again throughout history and continuing throughout our very lives: that yes, in God all things are possible.

This needs to be our focus as we draw near to Christmas, as it should be always. As Walter Brueggemann has put it – quite beautifully, I think – the first thing we need to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas “is that the expectation of Jesus… is outside all of our normal categories.  Our business is not to explain this text [in Matthew, or Luke, or Isaiah, or anywhere else].  Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations.  This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.”

Not a bad prayer for you and me today, beloved; that as God’s unlikely and miraculous signs of joy and love begin now to unfold, we may truly be dazzled by it all, and moved by the sheer divine determination of it. Indeed, in these next couple of weeks, let us pray that God might again richly bless us in showing “his love aright” by the birth of the child; in the multitude of the heavenly host singing his praises, as well as through the wonder of the shepherds as they fairly well run to see just what’s happened.  And let us pray (and sing!) that as “earth receive(s) her King,” we might wholly receive him as well; and that in this our joy will be “to the world,” because we know in all certainty that “the Lord is come.”

So “let heaven and nature sing…”and us along with it!

And thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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