Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 18, 2016)

Advent 4 – Series A (December 18, 2016)

Matthew 1:18-25


You are a Jewish man living in the backwater town of Nazareth a little over 2,000 years ago.  You are engaged to a young woman.  Your family arranged the marriage, but you have grown to love and admire this girl, the epitome of purity and faithfulness – faithfulness to you, and faithfulness to God.  You are engaged, but according to the custom of the day, you are married.  You haven’t consummated the marriage yet.  That will wait until the day a few months from now when you bring her to your home in a joyful procession.  You are a poor carpenter, so neither you nor your parents can afford a really big shindig.  It will be modest, but it will be wonderful nonetheless.  You can’t wait for that happy day when you will take your bride home with you, to live “happily ever after”… “till death us do part.”

But then, your world falls apart.  Your fiancée returns from a three-month visit to her relative down south, and it’s obvious that she is pregnant.  You know that you cannot be the father.  It’s like someone has punched you square in the gut.  When you finally come to your senses, you ask yourself, “What do I do now?”

You’ve been in Joseph’s shoes.  Well, maybe not exactly.  But you have certainly faced various difficult, challenging, seemingly impossible situations in your life.  If you haven’t yet...believe me, you will.  There will be times when you feel like you are up against a wall, when you feel like you are between a rock and a hard place, and you ask yourself, “What do I do now?”

Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes.  What would you have felt?  You probably would have felt anger towards Mary.  If not anger, then certainly disappointment.  You may have felt embarrassed.  If you thought this was something that was forced upon Mary, you would of course be angry with the perpetrator.  Most definitely Joseph was confused.  You can imagine him thinking, “How could this have happened?  I had such great plans for our life together.  Why did you let this happen, God?  What do I do now?”

Although Joseph may have initially thought that Mary had sinned, there was no sin involved in the conception of Christ.  He is the holy offspring of the Virgin Mary.  He was conceived in a miraculous way, kept from the stain of original sin.  But not you and me.  Psalm 51:5 (NIV) says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Therefore, sin—our own sins and the sins of others—must be taken into account when we consider the reasons for the messes we get into.  Whether the sins of others have affected us, or whether our own sin has put us between a rock and a hard place, we would feel the same emotions as Joseph…anger, disappointment, embarrassment, confusion.  And especially when we are at fault, we would have to add the knowledge of guilt and the feeling of shame.

Whatever your circumstances, you can relate to Joseph.  Whether someone else’s sin has caused you grief…whether your own sin has made things difficult for you…or whether you simply feel mired in confusion and consternation, stuck in uncertainty and anxiety, not knowing where to turn or what to do, you know the feeling: “What do I do now?”

St. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “just man.”  He was a faithful Jew, and so he wanted to do the right thing.  The Old Testament Law of the people of Israel said that if a woman had committed adultery she should be stoned to death.  The least the Old Testament Law required was that if a man found some indecency in his wife, he was to write out a certificate of divorce and send her on her way.  This was the path of action that Joseph determined to take, but he took it one step further.  Still loving Mary, despite whatever she had done or whatever had happened to her, in spite of whatever unbelievable explanation she may have given for the fact that she was pregnant (like an angel telling her that the baby in her womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit), he decided to do things quietly.  He did not want to see her exposed to the ugly criticisms of a self-righteous community.

But before Joseph picked up his quill and dipped it in ink to begin filling out the divorce papers, God graciously intervened.  Into the sting of Joseph’s sadness, into the center of Joseph’s confusion and consternation bursts God’s gracious Word of promise: “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.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

What would have happened if Joseph had woken up from his dream and not believed the angel’s words?   What if Joseph had woken up and decided that it was all just a crazy dream, as some of our dreams often are?  I suppose we would have to consider him condemned and separated from salvation, for in rejecting the angel’s words about the Savior, Joseph would have rejected the Savior himself.  Despite the angel’s message, what if he had said, “I just can’t have Mary as my wife.  As much as I love her, and as much as I don’t want to see her publicly ridiculed, it just wouldn’t be right for me to marry her.  I want to remain faithful to God’s Law.  I want my wife to be one who does the same.  And I could never see that baby as my own.”

But you already know that’s not what happened.  God’s promise of a Savior came to Mary, and through that Word the Holy Spirit conceived the Savior in her womb.  God’s promise of a Savior came to Joseph, and through that Word the Holy Spirit conceived faith in his heart.  God’s Word gave Joseph the ability to receive the Word with faith and to trust God’s promises.

Moreover, God’s Word gave Joseph the strength and the determination to do the right thing even though facing a difficult, challenging, almost impossible situation.  Joseph probably knew that his wife Mary would be maligned as an adulteress.  He fully expected that his child would be called “illegitimate.”  In fact, it seems as if that’s what the Jewish leaders implied when they said to him in John chapter 8, “We were not born of sexual immorality” (John 8:41).  No matter how much ridicule he and his family might face in the future, Joseph was determined to take Mary as his wife and raise Jesus as his very own.

Likewise, God’s Word gives you the ability to receive his Word in faith and trust his promises.  You can trust that in spite of all appearances, that tiny little child growing in the womb of the Virgin Mary…that weak, poor, helpless little baby who was born in a barn…is exactly as the prophet Isaiah foretold:  he is “Immanuel”…he is “God with us.”  You can trust that in spite of all appearances, that baby lived up to his given name:  JesusYeshua…which means “the Lord saves.”  He lived up to that name by living a perfect, sinless life so that he could be the perfect sacrifice for your sins and mine.  What a difficult, challenging, almost impossible situation Jesus faced.  No matter how much ridicule he encountered in his life, no matter how often he was slandered, no matter how often he was rejected, no matter how many times his words fell on deaf ears, Jesus was determined to go to the cross for you and for me.

God’s Word gives you the ability to trust in Immanuel, to trust in Jesus.  And like Joseph, God’s Word gives you the strength and determination to do the right thing when you are faced with difficult, challenging, almost impossible circumstances.

            When you are faced with one of those “What do I do now?” moments, you can respond knowing that you have “Immanuel.”  God is with you.  Righteous indignation doesn’t have to get the best of you and turn into sinful hatred or a long-standing grudge.  Disappointment doesn’t have to get the best of you and turn into despair or doubt.

            When someone else’s wrongdoing has made your life difficult, you can forgive them as Christ has forgiven you.  Those who crucified Jesus sure made his life difficult (now there’s an understatement!).  But he was still able to say, “Father, forgive them.”  And like Joseph, who before he learned the real story, did his best to protect Mary’s reputation, you can defend the names and reputations of those who have hurt you.  There is no need to spread malicious gossip around about your neighbor, but instead, as Dr. Luther writes, you can “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

When it is your own wrongdoing that has made a mess of things, you can confess your sin.  You can take advantage of private confession, unburdening yourself to your pastor, knowing that your confession is confidential.  More importantly, you can know that when your pastor tells you, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” …you can know that in those words, Immanuel is present, wiping the slate clean.  In those words, Jesus applies to you his saving grace.

Whenever you are brought to any situation where you feel like crying out “What do I do now,” put yourself in Immanuel’s hands knowing that he is with you and that he will take care of you.  He is not just “out there somewhere.”  He is really with you.  He entered our flesh at Christmas.  He still enters into our existence today, giving us his body to eat and his blood to drink in his Holy Supper.

            And sometimes, when you cry out “What do I do now?” you still may not know what’s going to happen, you still may not know what to do, what path to take.  Even when confusion and consternation remain, you can still trust that God is with you.  You can still trust the Lord has saved you.  Despite your circumstances, you can still say, “I have Immanuel.  I have Jesus.”

Joseph, after God’s Word came to him, was able to do the right thing.  He took Mary as his wife and received her baby as his very own.

God’s Word has come to you.  Now you, too, can look into the manger and say, “That baby is my very own.  He is my very own Savior.”


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