December 18, 2016

Advent 4: Love

Passage: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Service Type:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman (virgin) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Do you still send Christmas cards? A few years ago I came across a wonderful source for Christmas cards. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have created cards using prints of some of the great art of history depicting the Biblical story of our Lord’s birth. Seeing this art inspired by the Christmas story is edifying. An enjoyable exercise is to put the words “Madonna and Child” into your web browser’s search engine and then scroll through the various images of art that are available.

I have chosen two examples of such art. The first is by French artist William Bouguereau painted in 1881 named Song of the Angels. The artist imagines the joy in heaven at the birth of this child. Angles come to serenade the Christ child asleep on his mother’s lap. I notice how intently the angels are looking on. “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways,” wrote the Psalmist. (Psalm 91:11)

The second painting is by the Italian painter Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato painted in the mid-seventeenth century (1600’s). A print of this painting was included in the Metropolitan Museum’s Christmas card offerings. I would enjoy both giving and receiving this card. The inscription inside the card includes Matthew 1:23, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ I love the way this painting, along with so many others, brings the text of scripture to life. The story isn’t merely words on a page. Christmas is story of flesh and blood—real people Mary, Jesus, and Joseph. These artists highlight aspects of the story that we can easily gloss over by reading text only.

1. The Apostle Matthew, in his account of “the birth of Jesus the Messiah,” links these events to a word spoken some seven hundred years earlier by the prophet Isaiah. The story of Joseph, the unusual circumstances surrounding the pregnancy of Mary his betrothed, the decision to divorce Mary, the reversal of that decision after an appearance of an angel of the Lord in a dream—all that took place in what Mathew understands as fulfilment of this word from Isaiah. Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman (virgin) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

When you look at this picture and imagine this mother Mary and her child Jesus do you see the sign? And further, what does it signify?

The year is 732 BC and you have just picked up a copy of the Jerusalem Herald from a newspaper stand. The editorial is troubling. The Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser (Pul)—think Damascus—was on the rise and threatening everyone in the middle east with takeover. To complicate matters for the Judean King Ahaz, his two closest neighbours—the two kingdoms geographically located in-between Jerusalem and Damascus—were wanting Ahaz to join them in a coalition against Assyria. They were advising a pre-emptive strike.

To make matters worse these two neighbouring kingdoms were now threatening to invade Jerusalem and force the coalition. King Pekah of Israel (northern ten tribes) and Rezin the king of Aram had grown tired of what they perceived as King Ahaz’s indecision, or worse, his siding with the hated Assyrians. They threatened military action against Judea and it’s Jerusalem King if he didn’t soon make the “right” decision. Needless to say the news coming out of the palace is unsettling. King Ahaz is between a rock and a hard place. And so the two kings now come to wage war. (2 Kings 16:5) They couldn’t take Jerusalem but were, for sure, making trouble for the Judean people living in the region around Jerusalem.

It was at this moment that God sends the prophet Isaiah to encourage King Ahaz not to join any coalition against Assyria. A word to trust God to be with them. Through Isaiah God makes his generous offer—“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” “Whatever you need from me to stay the course, Ahaz, ask and I will do it,” says God. God wants Ahaz to be confident in following God’s lead with respect to this threat. God has not forgotten his people nor his promise to King David regarding occupants of David’s throne. The story in the daily news is one take on events—but another story is being written. God’s story of his love for his people.

Ahaz, appearing to be all pious, responds by saying that he will not put the Lord to the test. In actual fact we know that Ahaz has decided to offer himself and Judea as subjects to Assyria. On his trip to Assyria to see King Tiglath-pileser he saw the altar in Damascus and had a replica built in Jerusalem in front of the temple. Ahaz is hedging his bets to see which deity will dominate. (2 Kings 16:10-16)

Consider the mercy and love of God even in the face of such duplicity. “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. … For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” What child does God have in mind? It is likely Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, son of his soon to be or just newly married wife Abi. (2 Kings 18:2)

The apostle Matthew, prompted by the Holy Spirit, sees in this promise that God also has another child in mind. The sign to Ahaz was the birth of a son—the assurance of an heir—and the promise of the name—God was “with” the sons of David. The two kings troubling Ahaz will soon disappear. God will not abandon his promises. But this second child God has in mind; what is the nature of this sign?

Akin to Ahaz, humanity wasn’t looking for a sign either. In the face of humanity telling God to take a hike—we are just fine with gods of our own making—God sends his sign. We are quite prepared to shape Christmas into an event of our own making. Christmas means being a little nicer than usual, maybe patching up broken relationships, digging a little deeper into our pockets to chip in to a charity or two, and just generally getting along with everyone so as not to spoil anyone's holiday cheer.

But God has gone ahead and given us his own sign. A son has been born—one who will inherit the throne of his ancestor David. (Luke 1:32) God has not forgotten his promises. Today’s newspapers give one account of what is going on in our world but there is another story unfolding. God’s story. The son is to be named Jesus; the name Jesus is Joshua in Hebrew which means “God saves.” He will save his people from their sins.

2. There is something crucial to note about this sign God is giving. They shall name him Emmanuel—God with us.” Matthew wants his hearers not to miss the point, so he interprets the Hebrew to make sure we do not miss it. “… and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” God has come among us. In Jesus God shows up. Don’t miss this. Jesus is both the sign and that which is being signified.

Now, what is God signalling to us, to the world, in this event we call Christmas? Let the Apostle John tell us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) For God so loved. This sign is the sign above all the others that announces to humanity that God loves the world. Since God is love and Jesus is God come among us, then Jesus is both the sign of that love and the love itself.

A reading or hearing of today’s news is no less unsettling than in the days of Isaiah. Nations continue to threaten one another. The threat of terrorism has people living on edge. Persecution of our Christian sisters and brothers around the world is not diminishing. What story do you think is being written? Are today’s headlines the reality of our existence?

In Jesus Cod is signalling that another story supersedes all these other accounts. Christmas announces God relentless love for the world that will unfold in the one life that is Jesus Christ. Crib and cross are together as one—this child is the one who will give himself without remainder for our sake. Jesus risen from the dead now victorious assures believers of the certainty of this other story. God wants you to be confident that Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality of all that exists; that turning from sin to follow Jesus is the way home.

Think about death’s errand boys, death’s flunkies that intimidate us throughout our lives. Some of death’s flunkies are sin, sorrow, and suffering. Sin hammers all of us. Christians of moderate maturity learn that the sin we sincerely repudiate crops up again and again such that we wonder if our faith is useless. Suffering, especially protracted suffering, wears us down and distorts our thinking and usurps time and energy. It whispers that you are useless. Think of how depression robs us of even wanting to try—we think we should be able to shake it off but the cloud remains. Depression whispers its lie; “God has abandoned you. Sorrow continues to afflict bereaved people long after they thought sorrow would have ceased haunting them. Its propaganda is heard; “your life is over; you will remain miserable.”

In this Christmas story God is signalling the end of death’s dominion. Jesus is God’s sign that another story is unfolding for any who would believe. Jesus is not only the sign of victory but also the One who will conquer death and defeat death’s flunkies wherever he meets them. There is another story. God’s story. The “God with us” story. Clinging in faith to the one who has won the victory he willing shares this victory with us. God wants believers to be confident that however much we are battered by death’s errand boys their propaganda is just that, propaganda. It is not the story of you; Jesus Christ is your story. Death’s flunkies are limited and time bound. God’s love for you is boundless and eternal.

4. How can we ever fully express the grandeur and glory of this sign God is giving to us? Words will never comprehend the one who is the word himself, yet we are compelled by his love to speak of him. I take you back to a Christmas sermon of a great preacher of the fourth century, Augustine.

He so loved us that, for our sake,
He was made man in time,
although through him all times were made.
He was made man, who made man.
He was created of a mother whom he created.
He was carried by hands that he formed.
He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word,
without whom all human eloquence is mute.
—Augustine, Sermon 188, 2

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’