Fourth Sunday in Advent (Matthew 1:18-25)

Anton Raphael Mengs Angel Appears to Joseph in a Dream (1773-1774)

Our Gospel reading falls nearly at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  What comes very first is the introduction: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matt. 1:1)

Recall the promise given to Abraham: “In you and in your Offspring, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3) What is that blessing?

Prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen describe blessing as good things happening to you—good gifts abound in health, wealth, good government, good friends, and the like.  If there’s bad, it’s just a momentary setback. As long as you stay positive and hopeful you’ll make it through and then God will bless you again. This makes God no more than a vending machine for good things and a coach to encourage you to live you “best life now.”  What a bunch of malarkey!

If you want to know what blessing is, this portion of the Gospel explains what that blessing through Abraham’s son is.  There’s a reason the Holy Spirit inspired the Evangelist Matthew to write in the way he did. But it’s not a straight line to see the blessing:

“When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

Joseph found himself in a position not too unexpected in the world: his fiancée was pregnant and he wasn’t the father.  The most likely explanations were 1) that she had been unfaithful or 2) she was the victim of a wretched crime. Joseph, being a righteous man, didn’t want to sin to ripple into the community and bring God’s judgment and the damage from this to spread like a crack on a windshield.  So, he set his mind to do the least damage: end the betrothal quietly. This amounted to a divorce, breaking the marriage contract between the two families, and it was a shameful thing but it was the least of all the evil possibilities.

This is the world with which we’re all too familiar—broken promises, abuse, people taken advantage of, theft, and on and on.  This is all too often what our lives, our friendships, and our family’s lives look like.  

Yet, God intervenes to show that this is not business as usual: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘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. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”

This is God stepping into this world of sin—our sins and the sins of others—to save us from them.  The Name Jesus says what the blessing of Abraham is. The Name Jesus, or Joshua/Yeshua means “God saves.”  He will save the families of the earth from their sins.

He saves our families—our broken family ties, divorces, betrayals, what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do.  Certainly our lives are pockmarked with betrayals which have cut us to the heart, left us in misery, robbed both of peace and property.  But notice how the angel puts it: “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Of first important is that He saves each of us from our own sins.  When you’re a pastor, the topic of sins comes up a lot in your company, but one of the most common ways is to talk about other people’s sins.  You can’t trust anybody, the government has failed us, the doctor was a quack.  What about you?  What are your sins?  You can’t have healing or peace until you start confessing your sins, and not another’s.  Jesus can’t save you from other people’s sins. But He most certainly can bring God’s blessing to you—you who have profaned God’s Name by how you’ve lived and talked, you who have defamed others by your words, you who have been unfaithful and lazy.  

He is not God far off, telling you to deal with it yourselves.  He is Immanuel, God with us; God-Who-Saves with us.  God with us to come into the midst of our chaotic and broken lives with His mercy and grace, and give us peace in heaven.

He is God with us so that we have the peace to forgive and do good to those who have sinned against us.  Think back to Joseph, who faced what was an agonizing decision. He is called a “just man” who was unwilling to put Mary to public shame.  Even though the best guess he could make was that she had betrayed him, he didn’t want to smear her reputation and see her stoned. He was ready to forgive and do good, even to the one who—in his estimation—had ruined his future by sleeping with another man.  That was all before the angel announced God’s work.

This is an example to us of God at work in the lives of His people.  Hopefully you have your own stories of God working in you, turning you from selfish desire, from spitefulness, from greed in hording your wealth, and other evils.  He is God with us, and we are blessed forever by His coming. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Advent (Luke 1:39-56)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fourth Sunday in Advent + December 23, 2018

Text: Luke 1:39-56

THE WORLD WAS SAVED THROUGH CHILDBEARING

AND YOU ARE SAVED BY BELIEVING IN THE FRUIT OF THE VIRGIN’S WOMB.

Part 1 – God used two unlikely mothers to bring His Kingdom to earth.

“Thy Kingdom Come,” He taught us to pray.  But no human being would have imagined that the coming of His Kingdom would look like this: The meeting of two women, both very unlikely mothers.  Elizabeth, who was barren and had grown old.  Mary, who was a virgin betrothed to a man but remained pure.  This is where God was at work to bring His kingdom and save us.

Save us from what?  Sin had come into the world through another mother, Eve, the mother of all the living.[1]  The serpent deceived her and she rejected God’s ways, and her husband with her.  Together, they brought forth a race of humanity enslaved to sin, destined to die.  Their actions empowered the devil to set up his kingdom over men.  But a Word from the Lord gave them hope: “The Seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head”[2]  The woman’s Seed would destroy the works of the devil.[3]

God who made this promise brings us to this meeting of unlikely mothers.  They are daughters of Eve, but both have conceived in supernatural ways.  Natural conception only perpetuated the curse—sin from fathers to their children.  But there are times when God has stepped in to intervene, where He disrupted this world order to bring about something new, a greater hope.  God steps in and breaks this earthly cycle of sin and death.  Elizabeth and Mary are the final two in a line of 7 wombs which the Lord visited. [4]  Elizabeth’s conception reminds us of Sarah’s, and the future promise made to Abraham: “In you and in your offspring shall all nations of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18)  The fulfillment of that promise came in the virgin womb of Mary.  And how fitting it is that the final womb that God filled is of a virgin, so that which is conceived is called Holy and the Son of God![5]

Part 2 – God brought blessing by the fruit of Mary’s womb.

Now, when Mary came to Elizabeth, the latter makes an incredible statement: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  Mary is truly blessed among women, because not only had the Lord done great things to her, but He in fact did great things within her!  That second part of the benediction stands out though, because it recalls several other times blessings were spoken:

In Psalm 67, the faithful sing, “May God be gracious to us and bless us…that you rway may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.”[6]  Through Aaron the priest, the Lord put His threefold blessing on Israel: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.”[7]  Finally, David in Psalm 29, after ascribing glory and strength to the Lord, concludes by saying, “The Lord bless His people with peace.”[8]

So, when Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” it’s true.  Every divine blessing has one Source.  Yes, the Lord, but specifically this Lord in the flesh.  He is none other than the blessed Fruit of Mary’s womb.

In Psalm 127, Solomon says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” (v. 3)  This cannot be more true than of the fruit of Mary’s womb.  Through Jesus, God gives an everlasting heritage in a family of faith.  Through the fruit of Mary’s womb, the richest reward is given to all who believe: peace with God, freedom from sin, and victory over death!

Part 3 – God’s ways are disregarded, just as the fruit of the Virgin’s womb was not highly esteemed.

How incredible that God blesses and saves through a mother!  But who thinks highly of pregnancy and motherhood?  It’s so mundane! Being a mother is such a burden and inconvenient! It’s messy and babies ruin your supposedly “perfect” figure!  Just look at the teenage mothers!  If only they had avoided this terrible consequence, they wouldn’t be held back from careers and “real” success by these chains of motherhood!  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28)

This isn’t the first time that people looked down their noses at God’s ways.   The Child who was born of Mary was also despised, just as people despise the way He came to share our flesh.  Who thinks highly of the Fruit of Mary womb?  Jesus is just a historic figure, a role model to emulate, an eccentric prophet.  But a Savior?  How can the Christ be born in a nowhere town, to a young mother of no fame?  “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)  Yes, this is how God’s Kingdom entered the world: through the birth canal of a woman.  This is how “He has shown strength with His arm”—not with mighty thunder but with the cries of labor. 

Part 4 – All who receive the One born of woman are in fact born from above.

The Apostle Paul magnifies the Son of God’s human birth saying, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”[9]  Everyone who receives the Fruit of the Virgin’s womb, has actually themselves received a supernatural birth.  The Evangelist John writes, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”[10]

It took the intervention of God to break the cycle of sin and death in our natural birth.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, God’s Son was born.  Now that saving work of God has come to you.  Though you have human parents, you have been adopted by God the Father in heaven.  You have been “born from above” by water and the Holy Spirit.[11]  The blessings of God are yours because He has adopted you and given you His own Name.

THE WORLD WAS SAVED THROUGH CHILDBEARING AND YOU ARE SAVED BY BELIEVING IN THE FRUIT OF THE VIRGIN’S WOMB.

Because of this, the song of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the song of all believers.  We are His servants in humble estate, the communion of saints is His Israel, and we are offspring of Abraham according to His great promises.  So, let’s together turn back to the Gospel reading in the bulletin and magnify our God and Father with the song of Mary:

My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones

and exalted those of humble estate;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his offspring forever.  Amen.


[1] Genesis 3:20

[2] Genesis 3:15, NKJV

[3] 1 Timothy 2:14-15, 1 John 3:8

[4] Empty wombs that God intervened in: Sarai (Gen. 11:30), Rebekah (Gen. 25:21), Rachel (Gen. 29:31), mother of Samson (Jdg. 13:2), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:2), Elizabeth (Lk. 1:7), Mary (Mt. 1:18)

[5] Luke 1:35

[6] Psalm 67:1, 2

[7] Numbers 6:24-26

[8] Psalm 29:11

[9] Galatians 4:4-5

[10] John 1:12-13

[11] John 3:5

Fourth Sunday in Advent (Luke 1:46-55)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fourth Sunday in Advent (Rorate Coeli) + December 24, 2017
Text: Luke 1:46-55

“Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven”
 
This morning is the beginning of a three-part sermon series over today and tomorrow, in which we will focus on the part of the Nicene Creed where we, the Church, confess Jesus Christ, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.”  So this morning, we begin with the first part, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.”
 
Who’s on your Christmas list?  Who did you buy presents for?  Your spouse, kids, extended family, and close friends?  Beyond that, the rest might get a Christmas card.  But do you plan to give a gift to your ex-wife who sued you for custody of the children?  Are you going to get something nice for the guy who carelessly broke your daughter’s foot?  Will you be thinking of what would be really nice for the person who spread lies and got you blackballed from your employer?  I bet you didn’t.
 
But at Christmas, that’s exactly what God does.  St. Paul says in Romans 5, 6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6–8)  God’s gift was not for people who loved Him; it was for those very ones whose hearts were set against Him.
 
Yet it’s not that God welcomes in a bunch of His worst enemies to His proverbial Christmas party.  That would amount to God being indifferent toward people who hate, slander, and ignore Him.  No, the Lord is “a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6 NKJV)
 
This is how He does it: God showed grace to His enemies by giving His only-begotten Son so that those enemies would become friends.  No! Even better than friends!  That those former enemies would become members of His family for all eternity.  13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13)
 
 
The Magnificat, the Song of Mary, speaks to the riches of God’s grace, making children out of those who in their hearts formerly hated Him.
 
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:46–53)
 
Humble, lowly, and hungry were statements about more than Mary’s personality or material condition.  These speak of her as undeserving of the least of God’s favors, and they speak of you and me.  The Mighty one has shown His strength in the love incarnate in the manger at Bethlehem.  So it is that God exalts those who are harassed and helpless, and lifts them up to be seated with Christ in the realms of heaven![1]
 
You see, God’s gift at Christmas gave you, a stranger and enemy, reconciliation.  This is the gift which you needed beyond any money, sweater, fancy chocolate, or electronic gadget.  For us men and for our salvation is the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  God, out of great love for you, me, and all sinful people redeemed us from the singular most dangerous threat to our life.  That threat is not terrorism, or being maimed in a car accident, or even falling prey to cancer; it’s eternal death and to suffer in hell.  With this in full view, the Father sent His Son, born of woman, born under the Law to redeem us.[2]
 
But His gift was not free!  The gift which God gives you at Christmas came at the greatest price.  The Holy One traveled from heaven to earth, walked through our sin-filled world, carried His Present up the hill of Calvary, and God paid for it with the life of His own Son. But the gift was not complete with that, because the Son rose on the third day to win resurrection and eternal life.  And there’s still more to His gift because He ascended into heaven to show our return to the presence of God.  What a precious Gift!  Wrapped in the most glorious package!
 
And He delivers that gift to you in the waters of your Baptism.  At various times, you may through unbelief put that gift back in the box and on a shelf in your linen closet.  But He wants you to have that gift so badly, that He uses still more means to deliver it—the Word of God spoken by a godly friend or family member, an invitation to church, a message on a church sign.  Through His Word and Spirit, God leads you again to see how lowly your estate truly is, and He urges you to take that gift once given out of the box, dust it off, and rejoice in it once more.
 
He delights to give it again and again.  As often as you repent and confess your sins, He delivers His Gift again in the words of absolution.  Every time you come to the Sacrament of the Altar, there He is delivering His Gift to you—the Body of Jesus, broken for you; the Blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.
 
With that kind of Christmas gift, none other can compare.  Enjoy your material gifts, but always in view of God’s gift to you in the manger.  Amen!
[1] Matthew 9:36; Ephesians 2:6
[2] Galatians 4:4