Sunday, December 23, 2007

Faith in the Midst of Unfaithfulness - Matthew 1:18-25 - Advent IV

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Dear Brothers and Sisters Called to Faith in Christ:

We are not the only ones waiting and struggling against doubt in these days before Christmas. There are others who are trusting in God's advent - his coming to save.
It wasn't much of a paradise in Paradise California this last week for a father and three children waiting for someone to come and rescue them from bitter cold. The storms had dumped more than a foot of snow on the woods as the four hid themselves from the elements in the hollow of a forest log. Their quick jaunt into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree had gone terribly wrong. For three days through an almost continual prayer to God to keep his kids alive, Frederick Dominguez fought the doubt that they would not be found until it was too late. Singing Christian hymns with his children, he passed the hours of waiting. And when asked by a rescue worker how he had survived, he replied, "Jesus Christ."
Faith in the midst of the storms of doubt and wandering is not only a summary of a lost family in the midst of deadly winter storms, it is the resume of an entire fallen human race. Faith in the Word of the Lord and his promise to come and accomplish his saving work, even in the midst of the most threatening of conditions.
It is faith and the resulting anticipation it produces that meets our ears and hearts this morning on the Fourth and final Sunday in Advent. Faith and anticipation — in the midst of gnawing doubt — that gives us the ability to sing, "The King of kings is drawing near; the Savior of the world is here," and "The cloudless sun of joy is He, who comes to set his people free."
Faith and anticipation — in the midst of our incomplete comprehension of how and when God will do his heaven-restoring work — makes it possible for us to proclaim together the words of the 45th Psalm, "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his Word I put my hope" and "He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities."
Faith and anticipation — in the midst of forces that threaten to shipwreck our salvation — give us the courage to pray, "Come Lord, and help us by your might, that the sins which weigh us down may be lifted quickly by your grace and mercy."
The King of glory comes to his people. But, as Psalm 24 asks, "Who is this King of glory?"
That's the million dollar question in these days before December 25th. That's the heart of the matter that separates faith from doubt, confusion from courage and patience and perseverance and hope.
"Who is this King of glory that comes to rescue?" was the question Mary was asking herself over and over again as she meditated not only on how she was going to break the shocking news to Joseph her betrothed husband, but as she searched the holy Word of the Lord: the psalms and the writings of Moses and the prophets.
It's difficult to know what went through her mind and soul as Gabriel left her after announcing the coming of the Lord in the most remarkable way: through a lowly handmaiden even now the betrothed wife of a Nazarene woodworker. Yes, she had believed in the Word sent by the angel, that she would, by God's pure grace, be the mother of her Lord's anointed.
But how would she approach Joseph with the news? What would she say? She felt speechless when the time finally came. "Please sit down, Joseph. I have a word to share with you." And what a word it was.
Even though we don't know exactly how Mary told her husband Joseph, and exactly how Joseph responded, their faith continued to struggle with doubt and fear and confusion and the unbelief that such a thing could be from God and be a part of his divine plan.
No matter what the exact words were between Mary and Joseph, they were worlds away from the response of wicked King Ahaz as he stood before the Lord and his mouthpiece Isaiah the prophet. "I refuse to put my trust in the Lord's offer to give a miraculous sign of salvation!" the king responded to Isaiah's gracious invitation.
But, thanks be to God, the promise of the Lord's coming was confirmed that day before rebellious Ahaz and God's rebellious people Israel. "This will be the sign: the Virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel."
Eight centuries before Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and John and Jesus, God reveals that the King of glory will surely come. He will come according to his divine nature, as the Son of God, the divine Word sent by the Father through the Holy Spirit; and he will come according to his human nature, son of David, from the house of David.
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. All of this packed into the name: Immanuel — God-himself is-with-us.
Now there are two ways to end a seemingly unfaithful marriage: Either loudly with public accusations and stones, or quietly and privately and a legal piece of paper. It appeared that Joseph had the same options as the Lord had with his bride, his Israel, his chosen people: put his beloved under the crushing weight of divine judgment or release her quietly through a legal declaration.
And being a righteous man, Joseph chose the best for his wife and the child she was now carrying: there would be no public humiliation or revenge or finger-pointing. Even in the midst of his inability to believe that the new life growing in Mary's womb was a result of a close encounter with the Spirit of God, he made plans for her sake and not for his own.
Joseph knew the Law of Moses. But, you know what? The Law of Moses wasn't enough to save him or Mary or the Child from this completely unexplainable situation. Joseph had followed the commands of Moses to a "t," but things were still spiraling out of control.
What would everyone say at the carpenter's union? What would the Magilacuty's across the road think? Everyone in the little village of Nazareth would be talking and coming into his woodshop nosing around, hoping to get a glimpse of the child who's father was anyone but Joseph.
With only the Law as his guide, Joseph didn't have a contigency plan for betrothed wives conceiving children without the direct involvement of a human father. The scenario Mary had described was simply beyond him. With only Moses and the Law, the only decision was how to separate himself from Mary his wife. How to prevent her from coming under his roof.
"I will divorce her quietly, with a paper holding a legal declaration of divorce. This way she might have shelter in her household, the opportunity to give birth to a son innocent of any sin of unfaithfulness, and the opportunity to marry another." But it would be a bitter separation any way he cut it.
A husband and wife struggling to please God and his Law in the midst of a seemingly no-win-situation. There was no way the families and the neighbors wouldn't find out. Their pride in living under the Word of God was on the rocks. Now shame would follow the three of them for the rest of their lives.
But in the silence of their speechlessness in addressing their situation, God's advent breaks through, the Lord comes through his messenger to Joseph with a word that strengthens his faith and begins to calm his fears. God intervenes to save Joseph from unbelief — just as he had come in previous generations of believers as they cried out, "Save me and my family from the storms that make my faith numb with cold. I wait for you, my deliverer!"
Joseph in his sleepless sleep of wondering, agonizing, praying, receives another unexpected character in the unfolding drama of God's great plan of salvation: an angel from the Lord.
This was the first of at least four angelic visits Joseph received during the course of these first years of Jesus' life. And appearing, the angel calls to Joseph by his legal name: "Joseph, son of David." Not "Joseph of Nazareth." Not "Joseph, the master carpenter." Not "Joseph, resident of Galilee." But "Joseph, son of David."
This is how this worker of wood from an insignificant northern village of Israel will figure into God's sending of his very Son into the midst of human sin and unbelief — right into the center of a condemned race of estranged and unbelieving people.
Through Matthew's narrative we hear that Joseph was from the lineage, the house of David. As a son of David, Joseph is directed to, by faith, take his wife, Mary, into his house, for the child conceived in her is — even now — a son of David — the Son of David. Jesus is to be the Son of David in a two-fold way: from Joseph, the Son of David by law; from Mary, the Son of David by blood.
Now, humanly speaking, Joseph got the short end of the stick in more than a few ways, not the least when it came to naming his first-born. Following in the path of men like Isaiah and Zechariah, Joseph was told by heaven the name that heaven had already given. "Savior? From this situation? Won't the giving of that name just make things that much worse for everyone?" he wondered.
But with the revelation of God's Word comes the power for unbelieving, doubting, can't-put-all-the-pieces-together people like Joseph to believe. And he allows faith to lead: guiding his hands and feet as he takes Mary under his roof, and guiding his mouth as he gives this child the name that marks him as God's appointed deliverer.
Joseph would have plenty of time to consider the weight of that name in the days and months and years ahead. But all he could think about at the moment was the impossibility of being delivered from this seemingly "no-good-way-out" situation.
While the picture for Joseph was still quite cloudy, Saint Matthew sharpens the focus for us and for all who hear in faith his Holy Spirit inspired Good News.
This whole thing happened in order that what was spoken of by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: Behold! The virgin shall be with child, and she will give birth to a son, and they shall call his name "Immanuel."
And for those listeners and readers whose Hebrew skills are a little rusty, Matthew adds: "Which is translated, "God-is-with-us."
On this final Sunday in Advent, we hear again Scripture's account of God's redeeming intervention in the midst of a confused, weak and doubting people. He graciously sends his Word and Spirit over lifeless water, as he did at the beginning of all time, to create and sustain a people who would be redeemed by the blood of his Son.
Yes this child named "Jesus" is a deliverer of God's helpless people, in the line of Moses and Joshua. But he will accomplish and fulfill and complete what neither Moses or Joshua could even dream of winning: deliverance from sin.
"Who is this King of glory who's advent is now — even now — at hand?"
He is "God-with-us," God-for-us, God-as-one-of-us — born to save and deliver and redeem and rescue as heaven's sacrificial substitute.
May Immanuel be the gift we wait patiently to receive in these days before Christmas: the Son of God and Mary's Son; the Son of David and David's Lord; the Son of Joseph and Joseph's Deliverer — even from doubt and the inability to believe in the unexpected way salvation comes.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen