Sunday, December 22, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
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Three weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent, we began our worship service by singing “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” In that hymn we prayed to the Lord, “from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.” Now, in the 4th Sunday of Advent, 3 days before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we claim to be God’s Messiah, the Agent in whom God’s kingdom draws near to us, we have come full circle. We have just read two biblical texts – one from Isaiah 7 and one from Matthew 1 – that proclaim the presence of One who is called Immanuel, God-with-us. These texts announce that God’s presence counters our fears and frees us from our sins – precisely the release into salvation and freedom that we prayed for 3 weeks ago. In our text from Isaiah, King Ahaz was mired in his fears, and in our text from Matthew, the angel tells Joseph to name his son “Jesus,” because he will save his people from their sins.
In our own time, at the end of 2019, as we are living and moving through this season of presidential impeachment and partisan polarization and mistrust and hatred, in our own time, no less than in the fearful time of Ahaz, or the Roman imperial time of Joseph and Mary, or any other time in the history of God’s people, the dreadful duo of “fears and sins” is still a pretty good way to describe the bulk of that from which we need to be set free. Taken together, fear and sin are 2 of the primary agents of the powers of death that always want to threaten the well-being of the world. And the news at the end of 2019, no less than during the time of King Ahaz, or the time of Joseph and Mary, or any other time, is that the presence of God – Immanuel, God-with-us – is more than enough to counter all of our fears and free us from all of our sins. The presence of God with us is more than enough to counter all of our fears and free us from all of our sins.
As we have observed before in this room, the world will find this hard to believe. That’s because the world believes that fear and sin are indomitable, too strong. Now the powers that be in the world will rarely say that out loud with their words, but they more than say that with their actions. The world will always find Immanuel to be far too small, far too weak, far too vulnerable to deal effectively with fear and sin. For some in our world, this leads to despair, as they resign themselves to thinking that our sin is too great, the powers that be are too strong. The system is too rigged in favor of the powerful and the wealthy and the highly educated. For those who actually hold great power, this way of thinking can easily lead to presumptive arrogance, as they may believe that there is actually no real check on their autonomy or power.
But the holy promise of this season is that the presence of Immanuel offers more than enough resolve in the face of our greatest fears, and provides everlasting hope in the face of our greatest sins.
Interestingly, the social context of Isaiah 7 – and you might want to flip to Isaiah 7 to check this out – for King Ahaz and the southern kingdom of Judah where Jerusalem was located, is international geopolitics. At that time, the Assyrian Empire was the dominant superpower of the day, and a regional alliance of the northern kingdom of Israel, led by King Pekah, and the kingdom of Aram, led by King Rezin, is applying great military pressure against the southern kingdom of Judah and King Ahaz to bully them into joining an alliance against the Assryrians. King Ahaz, whom the biblical tradition regards as a lousy leader, is terrified. He feels caught between the dominant superpower of Assyria on the one hand and the regional threat of Israel and Aram on the other. He feels like he has no good options. He feels stuck in a binary situation of heads they win, tails he loses. He is panicking.
If you have ever been in a situation at work, or in your family, or in society, where you felt pressure coming at you from all sides, where everyone wanted you on their side, and no side felt like a really great side to be on, then you have an idea how Ahaz felt. And when you think that there is no way forward for you, you can begin to panic.
Into Ahaz’s panic comes the prophetic voice of Isaiah, who brings the voice of God to bear on Ahaz’ situation. Isaiah invites Ahaz to reach out from his fear and anxiety to God for a word or a sign of help, but Ahaz piously refuses in verse 12, saying, “Oh, I don’t want to test the Lord.” That sounds good, but what seems to have been going on is that Ahaz was unable and unwilling to entertain any new possibility, any new opening from God. What was going on was not piety from Ahaz, but a hardness of heart, brought on by his fear.
That’s the thing about fear. When fear grabs your heart, it shuts it down and closes it off. But Ahaz’s fear does not stop God. “You’re not willing to ask for a word?” God says with something of a rebuke in verse 13. “Then I’ll just give you a word, I’ll give you a sign. A young woman is about to give birth to a son. The child’s name will be Immanuel, or God with us. You may think you’re on your own, with no good options, but God is with you, and you always have options. God always has a plan and a will for you. Isaiah says that by the time the child is able to know right from wrong, by the time the child is two, the two little countries that you’re so afraid of right now – Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel – are no longer going to be around. Because I’m with you, you’ve always got options. You never need to be afraid.”
Isaiah’s Immanuel promise in Isaiah 7 is picked up by Matthew chapter 1 to announce the birth of Jesus. More than any other gospel, Matthew gives us a window into the experience of Joseph when Mary, the young woman to whom he was betrothed but not yet married, became pregnant. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him that this child is heir to the Immanuel promise that Isaiah spoke to King Ahaz, the promise of God with the people. And his name would not only be Immanuel, it would be Jesus, the angel says, because he will save his people from their sins.
There are a couple of ways that Jesus saves us from our sins. On the cross, Jesus draws the full force of sin and death into his own body, he draws the vicious sting of sin all the way out, so that sin no longer has any ultimate power to define or destroy us. After all, the baby who is born in the manger becomes the One crucified on the cross; the incarnation of Jesus, which we celebrate this week, leads to the crucifixion of Jesus, which we observe during Holy Week. We may be very slow to learn and trust this justifying work of Jesus, we may still give sin far too much room to operate in our lives, but our slowness does not negate the reality that Jesus has actually defeated sin’s terrible power. We do not need to be afraid anymore. Secondly, Jesus saves us from our sins by imparting his life to us, by leading us in a different way. He not only justifies us and wipes the record clean for us; he comes to us in the mess of our lives, and he sanctifies us and builds in us the willingness and the readiness to follow him.
From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee. Jesus, who saves us from our sins. Immanuel, God with us. That is what we celebrate this week. Last night at the Longest Night Service, Pastor Jen shared with us that Samuel Wells, an English priest and theologian and former dean of the chapel at Duke University, has said that the word “with” is the most important word in Christian theology. The word “with” “captures God’s incarnation in Christ….it says, “I am with you in this dark night” – whatever dark night you are in, whether it is a night of fear, a night of sin, a night of overwhelming loss. And Christ says, “I will be with you when the dawn begins to break.” Glory be to God, and to God alone. Amen.