Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Sermon -- Advent Vespers, Week 3 (December 16, 2015)

MATTHEW 1:12-17

Through Returned Exiles.

In the name + of Jesus. 

     The Lord Jesus Christ has come to redeem his people from their sins.  Though they are all precious to the Lord, most of them are anonymous to you.  Even when their names are recorded in Scripture, you probably treat them as an intrusion and skim past them until you get to the important stuff in St. Matthew's Gospel.  Though these people are unknown and unimportant to you, they are certainly important and known to Christ.
     One of the reasons they are unfamiliar is because of the era in which they lived.  These are the ancestors of Christ from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ. (Matthew 1:17)  The last prophet of the Old Testament preached shortly after Israel's return to the Promised Land, so we do not have stories in the canon about most of these men.  And yet, though unfamiliar, these men are the returned exiles through whom the Lord begets the Christ.
     The first man in these verses was among the captives had been deported to Babylon.  Jechoniah had been king in Jerusalem.  He ruled over a people who became less and less interested in the word of the Lord.  The Lord sent prophets again and again to call his people to repent, but Israel reviled the prophets and rejected God's word.  The Lord may be slow to anger, but he does indeed get angry.  In judgment, the Lord summoned the nation of Babylon to destroy the city of Jerusalem, to burn the temple, and to carry unfaithful Israel into exile.  But even that the Lord did in love for his people and in faithfulness to his promise.
     The Lord had declared through Ezekiel, “Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to me; ... they are dross of silver....  As one gathers silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire on it in order to melt it, so … I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it.  As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have poured out my wrath upon you.” (Ezekiel 22:18,20-22)  Of course, you do not melt silver to destroy it, but to refine it.  So, the Lord sent Israel into exile for seventy years to refine them and to purify a remnant who would serve him faithfully.  Through that faithful remnant of returned exiles, the Lord begat the Christ.
     But life for the returned exiles was not much easier.  They were continually threatened by enemy nations.  Israel was the parade route for armies from Syria and Egypt going back and forth to battle one another.  The Promised Land was one of the the spoils for the victorious army.  The faithful among God's people also endured intense persecution from the likes of a Greek leader named Antiochus Epiphanes.  Antiochus Epiphanes rewarded the Jews who abandoned the Lord's covenant, and he put to death many who were determined to remain faithful.  In all of this, the Lord was refining and purifying his people like silver.  The faithful were all the more committed in their faithfulness.  And the Lord was still faithful to them, still preserving his people in order to preserve his promise: The Savior would come through Israel, a son of Abraham and a son of David.  See how the Lord begets the Christ through returned exiles.
     You and I have not known the level of persecution these Israelites did.  The Lord, however, does chastise us for the very same purpose that he chastised the Israelites.  If you should suffer loss or face oppression, God has not abandoned you.  He is working on you.  Suffering, loss, and oppression are hard and they hurt, but they do not undermine God's promises or undercut God's love.  The Lord has us endure these hardships to get us to recognize what we thought was reliable is only temporary and, therefore, not entirely reliable.  Even if our blessings are precious, like our reputation or our relatives—no matter how great a blessing they are—they cannot save us.  Do not put your trust in them.
     If the Lord removes his blessings or if he makes his cross on you weigh especially hard, he is purifying you to remove from you anything that clouds a pure faith.  Some things, like your sin, you forsake because sin produces death.  But other things the Lord takes away because they are not the source of your life.
     The Lord's ultimate goal in sending Israel into exile or submitting them to persecution was to preserve them so that he could preserve his promise of bringing the Savior into the world through them.  Likewise, the Lord's motive for letting you suffer hardships is to make you flee to your Savior so that he will preserve you in the faith.  He does not want you to merely say that Jesus is your only hope, strength, and consolation; sometimes he wants to prove to you that he is all that matters.  But when he does this, he is still your loving Savior.  Whether you are enduring your sufferings publicly or anonymously, they are not hidden to the Lord.  The Lord knows you, your struggles, and your crosses.  You are not anonymous to the Lord.  You are as important to him as people like Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar, and so on.
     See how the Lord begets the Christ through returned exiles.  When those exiles returned to the Promised Land, they resumed the worship that the Lord had given them.  That meant rebuilding the temple of the Lord.  Zerubbabel was the leader who was in charge of its construction.  The day of its dedication was met with mixed reviews.  Many rejoiced that the Lord's temple had been rebuilt.  Some, who remembered Solomon's magnificent structure, mourned because the new temple was not nearly as grand as the old one was.  But this is what the Lord said to them through the prophet Haggai: “‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory?  How do you see it now?  Is it not as nothing in your eyes?  Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord.   …Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. ...The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.  And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’” (Haggai 2:3-4,9)
     Though the temple was a humble structure, the Lord Christ would one day come to it.  God in the flesh would walk there and teach there.  Through these frail men who saw far more sufffering than glory, the Lord begat the Christ, and the Lord Jesus Christ would come to the temple they built and he would bring peace, forgiveness, and salvation.  Just as Zerubbabel's temple was humble and even seemed to be nothing compared to Solomon's temple, Zerubbabel's temple became more glorious because the Christ came into it.
     Likewise, you are Christ's temple; for, Christ dwells in you.  Your appearance is humble, and your glory will remain hidden until Jesus comes again.  Until then, you, like most of God's people, live anonymous lives.  They quietly serve God by serving their neighbors—and often do not get recognized for it.  They struggle against temptation and endure frustration, pain, and loss—and no one sees the cross they bear.  To most people, you are as memorable and meaningful as the list of names Matthew records.  But to Jesus Christ, you are as memorable and meaningful as the list of names Matthew records.  Just as you confess Jesus' name now, so he will remember and confess your name before his Father and before all the world on the Last Day.  To Christ, you are neither unknown nor unimportant.  To Christ, your name is not just some faceless person or some anonymous name; you are his redeemed, and your name is one he has written into the Book of Life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

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