Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sermon for 19 December 2010, Advent 4A

The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.

Matthew 1:18-25

Rejoice! God Is With Us
Fourth Sunday in Advent, 19 December 2010
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
About this time of year, American Christians are used to hearing their pastors decry the secularization of Christmas, and counter that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” “You can’t have Christmas without Christ,” or some other worthwhile slogan. Americans often celebrate Christmas merely as part of their cultural heritage and spare no expense on the tree or the many, many gifts. The “Christmas spirit,” especially from the perspective of many Christmas specials, is nothing more than loving your neighbor, spending time with loved ones, and being generous and kind that one day out of the year. I must admit that the secular aspects of Christmas have bothered me more this year than in years before.
But if you think about it, isn’t that an easy thing to pick on? It is appropriate for me, as your pastor, to warn you against dangers to faith and things that would overshadow the Gospel or distract you from it. But this isn’t a “them” versus “us” thing. We’ve given in to many of the less than Christian aspects of holiday celebrations, haven’t we? Sometimes modern celebrations of Christmas, even in Christian homes, look more like the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. No, this can’t become a “them” versus “us” thing. We all are sinners. All are sinners in need of God’s grace. All have need of what St. Matthew presents.
This portion of Matthew, chapter one, deserves our attention. It presents the basics of the lead-up to the Christmas story. But not everyone believes or trusts this Word of God. Some who call themselves Christians attack the most basic of Christian teachings from the pulpit. And there are many who fall for this false teaching that is ancient heresy. On Christmas, there are some who deny the Virgin birth, the deity of Christ, and His sinlessness. That’s something important that often gets lost in all of our usual complaints about removing Christ from Christmas.

Jesus is true God. Jesus is true man. Both are true. Both are taught by the readings before us this day, especially the Epistle and Gospel. We also learn that Jesus was born without a human father by a virgin. But, in some “Christian,” even nominally “Lutheran” seminaries in North America, these things are not taught. The basic Christian confession of faith we hold to in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds are denied or at least called into question.
Bear with me and listen to how some liberal scholars explain away Christianity in print: "The exclusion of a human father in the birth of Jesus has become more problematic to modern Christians than it was in ancient times. Originally the confession of Jesus' birth from the Virgin Mary was a sign of his real humanity, pointing away from the (docetic) denial of his solidarity with the human race.  The fact that Jesus was born of a woman like every other child was proof that he was a real human being.  The point of the story was to work against docetism.  [This ancient and modern heresy claims Jesus didn’t have a real body and therefore didn’t really suffer but only looked like it.] Unfortunately, the symbol of the virgin birth no longer has a clear antidocetic ring for modern ears.  We cannot imagine how the story could concretize the interest of faith in the real humanity of the Savior.  Why should the absence of human paternity make the truth of God’s presence in the incarnation more apparent?  Is God the Father in competition with the role of our human father?  Did not God create fatherhood and look upon it as 'very good'?  Why then should human fatherhood be eliminated in the work of salvation?  If we grasp the original intention of the story to witness to the real humanity of Jesus, we must not allow a shift in the situation from ancient times to the present to play a trick on us, which it would do if we were to use the story apologetically to prove the divinity of Christ or to explain the sinlessness of Jesus.   The story has become increasingly ambiguous because our natural tendency is to take it to mean the opposite of what it originally intended."  -- Braaten/Jenson, Christian Dogmatics, Volume 1, pp.546-547
I had several reactions to that long paragraph the first time I read it. Perhaps you had some similar reactions just now, hearing it for the first time. It gives one a glazed-over, deer-in-the-headlights-look, doesn’t it? Didn’t the vocabulary seem unnecessarily complicated? I guess big words make heresy sound more pious, or at least more scholarly. When something sounds that complicated, I wonder what the author is trying to pull. What is he trying to say without actually saying it straight?
Here’s what these highly respected ELCA scholars are saying in the official textbook of that church body’s eight seminaries: ‘Jesus probably had a human father. The whole “virgin birth” thing was made up so that Jesus would appear more human to ancient Romans. This dogma, made up by whomever told the story to Matthew, also reinforced Church teaching that Jesus was true God and never sinned.’ When you boil it all down, they’re teaching blasphemy.
The point of Matthew one is not just to proclaim that Jesus was human. It also teaches that a virgin birth was fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy! It teaches that Jesus was divine and that He was to come as Savior from sin. Why so much second-guessing and assumptions about what Matthew was trying to get across? Why muddy up such a clear text?
Should a book be called Christian Dogmatics if it calls into question the basic Christian teaching of the virgin birth? I don’t think so. Can a person legitimately be a Christian if he or she denies the creation, virgin birth, and resurrection? Not from a Biblical standpoint.
“But pastor, who would really believe this stuff? I’ve never heard it before!” I’m glad if you haven’t heard it. You probably won’t hear these things in the Missouri Synod today, but it’s this kind of teaching that caused the seminary walkout and split over thirty-five years ago.
Some professors at Christian seminaries teach this because they believe it. Their students often buy into it. What happens when these people get into a congregation’s pulpit? They know enough to be ambiguous about what they believe when they give a sermon. They’re actually taught to teach these new doubts about Christianity to their Confirmation classes, so that the next generation will be fully indoctrinated against the traditional, Biblical, Christian message. And we wonder why so many Christian congregations are changing what they believe on the moral issues of sexuality, war, and abortion, and why they have so little difficulty selling out and having joint worship services with non-Christian faiths.
Enough of the so-called wisdom of men. Those within the church have probably done more to destroy the faith of other Christians than those outside the Church. One author has called this, “When Bad Christians Happen to Good People.” It happens. You’ve probably seen it happen, yourself. A congregation member or a pastor did, said, or failed to do something, and that so offended a fellow Christian, that they went away. We need to put ourselves in their shoes to better understand their hurt. No Christian is perfect, so we must all learn humility and recognize our mistakes and misdeeds, and dare to confess them as sins. Then, perhaps we can be of the right heart and mind to invite people back to Church. If they know we care about them and what happened to them, maybe they’ll accept an invitation to come on Christmas Eve.

We are here each Sunday to hear the Gospel, good news from God about salvation in Jesus Christ. Do you know better than the Lord does? I sure don’t. I’m here to be fed and comforted, just like you. Matthew accomplishes this well.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Joseph and Mary had not yet “come together.” That’s clear from the text. Yet, Mary was pregnant. Joseph knew he wasn’t the father, so that raised some doubts in his mind. He didn’t yet know that the Holy Spirit was involved. Being pregnant out of wedlock in Jewish society was scandalous. One could be stoned to death for such a thing. So Joseph, looking out for Mary, whatever eventually happened to her and her child, didn’t want to put her to shame or subject her to the death penalty, so he decided to divorce her.
Divorce. That’s how strong the marriage contracts were then. Once the families had made their agreements for the engagement, the marriage was as good as done. One had to divorce in order to call it all off. The marriage was finalized only when the groom took the bride home.
But as he considered these things, 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. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
It’s quite likely that this angel was Gabriel, the same angel who spoke to Mary, but we don’t know for sure from the text. Joseph had more than cold feet. He was going to call off the marriage. The angel gave him the reassurance that he probably never expected, along with a divine explanation for the pregnancy he knew he wasn’t responsible for.
…that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? God was at work here. Our Father who art in heaven would have an only-begotten Son. This child is divine, true God. Not only that, He would be true God in the flesh. That’s the whole meaning of that long church word, incarnation. Please return Wednesday at seven as our young people share the good news of Christ’s birth. The brief sermon then will focus upon Jesus as true man.
Joseph was instructed to name Mary’s son Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins. That’s what Jesus means. That’s what the Hebrew name Joshua means—Savior. When we confess that we are poor, miserable sinners, we identify ourselves as part of the people Jesus came to save! You have a Savior from Sin!
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).
Rejoice! God Is With Us! He is with us where there are two or three gathered in His name. He is with us, whom He has baptized into His Triune Name. He is present by His Holy Spirit in the Word as it is proclaimed and read. He is here to forgive your sins in Absolution and feed you with Christ’s very Body and Blood. And He is here to bless you in the benediction given to Moses and Aaron.
Rejoice! God Is With Us! Our congregation is called by Jesus’ name of Immanuel. After over a hundred years in this community, the Lord is still blessing you. He is with you in Word and Sacrament no matter if the community is in a boom or a bust. The Lord has continued to bless you. And you have returned to Him for His use the gifts He has entrusted to you as stewards. Joseph is a good example for us in following the Lord’s will.
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
St. Luke fills in the rest of the Christmas story. Unfortunately, Sts. Mark and John tell us nothing about Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the angels, and Bethlehem that first Christmas. But all of the sacred writers affirm that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and is also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, your Lord, who has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
            No doubts. No unbelief. No second-guessing from pious-sounding apostate professors. Matthew is a reliable witness and historian. Jesus is virgin-born, sinless, and divine. Rejoice! God Is With Us!
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.