Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

'Emmanuel: God is With Us' (Matthew 1:18-25)

Have you ever noticed how deeply the idea of God’s presence with us is built into our language – especially our prayer language? We pray for someone who is going through some serious trouble in their lives, perhaps a terminal illness or a family crisis, and we say, “Please be with them, Lord”. We seem to know instinctively that if people can just have a sense that God is walking alongside of them through their difficulties, then things will be a lot easier for them, even if the problem itself doesn’t go away.

When we say, “Goodbye” to someone, what are we saying? The word “Goodbye” is a contraction of “God be with ye”. We take leave of someone and we pray for them that, as the old hymn says, God will be with them until we meet again. To say “goodbye” is actually a way of wishing someone a blessing, the blessing of God’s presence.

On the other hand, we sometimes say of a particularly desolate area that it is a “godforsaken place”. What does that mean? To say that God has ‘forsaken’ a place means to say that he is so disgusted with it that he has abandoned it – and the result is that, well, it’s not looking too good! The way we use this word tells us that we understand the implications of God not being present somewhere.

In the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew claims that the birth of Jesus is a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. We read, ‘All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel”, which means, “God is with us”’ (1:22-24). Matthew is claiming that the birth of Jesus is evidence of the fact that God is with his people in a very special way. Let’s take a closer look at why this might be so.

The context of the original prophecy from Isaiah that Matthew is quoting is a time of national emergency. The nation of Judah is threatened by a major enemy – the two armies of King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel - and the prospects are not good. The people are feeling that God has abandoned them to their enemies. And so God sends the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz and tells him, “Here’s the sign I’ll give you. A young woman is about to give birth to a child, and she’s going to call him Immanuel. Before that child is old enough to tell right from wrong, the land of these two kings you’re so afraid of will be deserted. So quit worrying!”

Obviously the prophecy had an application at the time it was originally written, but Matthew sees a principle there, and so he takes the words of Isaiah and applies them to his own time too. Isaiah wanted to assure the people of Judah that they did not need to be afraid of their enemies; God was with them and God would save them. That’s what the name ‘Jesus’ means, by the way; it’s the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’ or ‘Yeshua’ which means ‘God saves’, or even ‘God to the rescue’. Normally in the Old Testament the idea of salvation has a military context: God will save his people from their enemies. But Matthew gives it a startling new interpretation: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21).

I think we all understand instinctively the idea that our sins can be our enemies. We sometimes say of someone, “He’s his own worst enemy”. What do we mean by that? We mean that his habitual way of behaving comes back to bite him every time, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to get free of it. I think of alcoholics and drug addicts, struggling to get free of a powerful addiction; I think of people who struggle to manage their anger, or people who’ve gotten into the habit of always doing the easiest possible thing, no matter whether it’s the best thing or not. Yes, our sins can be our enemies – in some ways, perhaps the most potent enemies we face.

What does it mean to say that God is with us as we struggle with our sins – that in some sense he will ‘save’ us from them? Isn’t that something of a surprise? We talked earlier about a land being a ‘Godforsaken’ place, and we might expect that when we fall into sin God would get angry and ‘forsake’ us, too. But no – what we see here is that God is coming to be with us in our sins, and that he will save or deliver us from them.

Why is the birth of the baby a sign of this? Because Matthew sees Jesus as the son of God, the one who was sent from heaven for us. Later in the New Testament, the gospel of John takes this idea even further; Jesus is ‘the Word’ who was with God in the beginning and in fact is himself God. The New Testament writers are straining the limits of language to describe how God could at the same time be present as creator and sustainer of the entire universe and also be sleeping in the manger at Bethlehem. If you can’t begin to grasp that, don’t let it bother you; Christian writers and thinkers have been trying to make sense of it for two thousand years, and we still haven’t been able to grasp the fullness of it. We simply bow before the mystery that in Jesus God came to visit the human race, to reveal himself to us, to show us the way, and to save us from evil and sin. Far from ‘forsaking’ the human race because of our sinfulness, God has chosen to come even closer to us, to be with us in a way we couldn’t even begin to imagine – to be born in Bethlehem as one of us.

The baby in the manger will grow up to be the man Jesus, whose life and teaching give us such a bright vision of God and of God’s will for us. He will go all the way to the cross to show us the full extent of God’s love for us – even when we reject him and kill him, God does not stop loving us. By his resurrection he will win the great victory over the power of evil, and he will then begin to send his Holy Spirit into the hearts of the men and women who follow him, so that in their struggle against sin they have access to a strength far beyond their own – the strength of God who is not only ‘with’ them, but in fact is living ‘in’ them.

In his New Testament letter to the Romans Paul asks a rhetorical question about what it means for God to be ‘with us’. He asks, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ (Romans 8:31). A few verses later he goes on to ask, ‘who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (8:35). I don’t know, Paul – having no food or clothing, or being persecuted with the sword – those sound like pretty powerful enemies to me! But Paul goes on to say, ‘No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (8:37-39).

At our service on Friday night I told the story of Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a little Dutch spinster lady, a devout Christian, and during World War Two she and her family were actively involved in hiding Jewish refugees and getting them away from the Nazis. Eventually the family were caught and arrested, and they were sent away to concentration camps. Corrie and her sister Betsy went to Ravensbruck, and you can well imagine the terrible sufferings they endured there: the lack of food and clothing, the awful cold in winter, the long hours of backbreaking labour and the brutal discipline.

Betsy was determined to serve the Lord in the camp and she started a Bible study group at night in their cell block. She and Corrie often wondered why the guards never interfered with the group; in fact, they never seemed to come near that particular block at all. One day they discovered that it was because of the fleas that infested that cell block; the guards were afraid of them and so they stayed away. Corrie had often complained about the fleas, and said she would never learn to thank God for them, but when they heard this story Betsy looked at her sister and said, “See? Even the fleas!”

Eventually Betsy died because of the sufferings and brutal treatment at the camp. When she was dying, she gave her sister a commission. She said to Corrie, “You must go all over the world and tell everyone that there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And they will believe you, because you have been here”.

That’s what it means to say, ‘God is with us’. It means that no matter what pit we find ourselves in, God is in it with us. God is not our enemy; God has not forsaken us. Rather, God has come among us and shared our human life, and he will never leave us alone again. And no matter how tasty the turkey is or how expensive the presents are, that truth - that God is with us - will still be the single most important message of Christmas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome sermon. love it.