Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Sermon -- Advent Vespers: Week 3 (December 19, 2018)

MATTHEW 1:18-25

They Are Saved.

In the name + of Jesus.

     When the priest, Zechariah, doubted the message of Gabriel that his barren, aged wife was going to give birth to a son, he suffered a stern rebuke.  The appearance of God's angel and the divine proclamation were not enough of a sign for Zechariah.  But what God had told Zechariah was not unprecedented.  Just as the Lord had blessed Abraham and Sarah long ago, so he was doing again through Zechariah and Elizabeth.  And God was true to his word.
     Neither Mary nor Joseph received a similar rebuke when our Lord was conceived in Mary's womb.  Mary was perplexed at how a virgin would become pregnant.  That was unprecedented.  There are no other virgin births in the Bible.  The angel revealed that God would work miraculously to bring it about, and Mary accepted God at his word.  Joseph was a righteous man, but he was not a gullible man.  Joseph knew of only one way that women become pregnant, which is also what the world has always known.  So, when Joseph learned that his betrothed was pregnant, he exercised common sense.  He deduced that Mary had been unfaithful to him, especially as she was accusing no one of raping her.  Mary was not devastated by her pregnancy; she accepted it as her vocation.  Joseph could not and would not be married to someone unfaithful.  And, while Jewish law permitted Joseph to publicly shame her and even stone her to death, he still had compassion for Mary.  He decided to divorce her quietly—which on Joseph's part was both honorable and merciful.
     Joseph had made some assumptions about Mary, and I don't think anyone would blame him for being unfair in his assumptions.  The only way Joseph could possibly have known the truth about Mary and the baby in her womb was by divine revelation.  And so, God revealed the truth to him.  “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.'” (Matthew 1:20-21)  In this way, Joseph's actions were not based upon assumptions, but the truth.
     It is alarming how often we believe our assumptions.  Sometimes we are eager to believe our assumptions and don't care about the truth.  For example, if there is someone you do not get along with, you are eager to believe the worst about that person.  You accept the most unflattering and salacious gossip as Gospel, because by it, you validate your hatred of that person.  It is not based on truth at all, but you are ready to assume the worst and to believe the lie because the lie is much more appealing.
     You may assume that God's favor rests upon you because everything in your life is going so well.  God may bless you with wealth, success, accolades, and awards, but that does not prove how God feels about you.  If it did, what conclusion would you draw when you are enduring troubles, tribulations, and temptations?  What if you lose a job, a loved one, or your health?  God's favor is not proved by worldly blessings.  And God's wrath is not proved by suffering or loss.  These are gross assumptions, and they are not based on truth. 
     Likewise, you may assume that God is pleased with you because you are so pleased with yourself.  Or you may assume that God hates you because you don't like yourself.  These, too, are gross assumptions.  Your feelings prove nothing about God's judgment of you.  It is especially important to remember this if you are enduring any kind of spiritual, emotional, or mental anguish.  If you are truly suffering depression, then understand that is a medical condition and seek help.  If you are suffering from self-loathing because of secret shame, then you know the crushing weight of sin and guilt.  Do not assume that justifying your sins will take away the shame.  Worse, it can result in despair.  Rather than believe the assumptions, hear the word of the Lord: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) 
     God's faithful people awaited the coming of the Lord because with the Lord there is forgiveness, there is hope, and there is peace—even for the most troubled soul.  This is the news that was revealed to Joseph, and this is the good news that is proclaimed to you.  It is not an assumption; it is the word and promise of God.
     God's faithful people await the coming of the Lord who saves them.  The angel Gabriel revealed to Joseph what Joseph could have never known for himself.  Mary was still faithful, still a virgin, and still meant for him to have as his wife.  The child in her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  He is the Lord become flesh.  And the name given by the angel to Joseph was to confess and reveal exactly that.  The angel declared, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
     The name Jesus means, “The Lord who saves.”  It is who Jesus is.  It is what Jesus does.  Rather than assume what God's feelings are toward you, cling to Jesus who flat out tells you both with word and actions.  “The Lord who saves” delivers you out of all sin, covers over your shame with his righteousness, and overrules every guilty feeling with words of absolution, comfort, and peace.  Every word of Jesus has been backed up by his innocent life, by his sufferings and death, and by his resurrection.  His innocent life covers your sins.  His sufferings and death takes away your punishment.  His resurrection puts God's stamp of approval on his saving work.  Jesus is “The Lord saves you.”  It is who he is.  It is what he does.
     God's faithful people await the coming of the Lord.  And we come together in God's house to have God's words declared to us and repeated to us.  Since we are never able to overcome all the temptations that plague us, we always need to hear the word of the Lord.  It is not enough to assume that we are forgiven.  Assumptions do not save anyone.  The Lord applies his forgiveness and salvation to us through his word.  It is that word of absolution declared by his minister in his stead and by his command.  It is that word combined with the waters of baptism by which the Lord has put his name on you and makes a covenant of forgiveness with you.  It is that word which is added to bread and wine, declaring that we eat the body of our Lord and drink the blood of our Lord for the forgiveness of sins.  These are not assumptions about what we receive; they are the words and promises of God.  And therefore, God's favor is given through them, and we find our salvation in them.  God's faithful people rally to them to be saved.
     When Joseph heard the word of the Lord, he put aside all assumptions about Mary and all reasoning about the child in her womb.  It probably did not make much sense to him, and he spent the rest of his life pondering what the angel had said about the boy to be born.  But he did not put his faith in his assumptions.  He put his faith in God's word, and he acted accordingly.  He took Mary to be his wife.  He stood faithfully by her, and cared for the child who is “God with us.” 
     God's faithful people await the coming of the Lord.  Like Joseph, we do not put our faith in our feelings or our assumptions.  We trust the word of the Lord which declares: You are saved, you are forgiven, and you are loved—whether you feel like it or not.  For Jesus is the Lord who saves.  It is who he is.  It is what he does.  And he has done it for you. 

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

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