Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Immanuel - A Beautiful Name (Matthew 1:223-23)

Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Immanuel. What a beautiful-sounding name.
Immanuel. We stick this title on the cover of Christmas cards and include it in our Christmas songs. It forms the title of the quintessential Advent hymn. We do not sing "O Come, O Come, Great Encourager from God" or "O Come, O Come, Great Moral Example from God," but "O Come, O Come, Immanuel." This has been the song of the Christian Church in these days before Christmas for countless generations.
We Lutherans even use this title when giving a name to a new congregation — even though no one can decide whether this name begins with an "e" or an "i." For example, there are at least three congregations in our area named Immanuel Lutheran Church; in Orange, LaHabra and Long Beach. And each of the three congregations spell the word differently.
But regardless of how you spell it. There it is.
Immanuel. What a beautiful-sounding name. Over the last 25 years it has consistently ranked in the top 200 baby names in the United States.
Immanuel. A beautiful-sounding name, but, as we have been trained to ask since our first days of studying the Catechism, "What does this mean?" What does this name actually signify? And, most importantly, what does it mean that the center of these days of Advent: this coming Son of Mary, this Son of David, this Son of God — is given by heaven the name "Immanuel"?
What do you confess when you say, "I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Immanuel."? How would you respond if someone were to ask you, "What does this name actually mean? Why is this baby in a Bethlehem manger (who's birth we are patiently — or maybe not so patiently — waiting for) given the name "Immanuel"? What kind of answer would we give? Hopefully something more substantive than: "Good question. Let me google that and get back to you."
In these days before Christmas, Christ would bring us to his Word and feed us with the promises that all the faithful before that Christmas night lived clinging to, died hoping in, and now sing about in eternity.
May God in his grace prepare each of us for his coming through the Word of Christ, through the Spirit of Christ, that we would have an everlasting joy and an unshakable hope. Amen

Immanuel. What do we know about Jesus being given the name "Immanuel"? Well, the simplest, clearest place to go is the words given to us by the Holy Spirit through the inspired pen of the evangelist Saint Matthew. Carried along by the same Holy Spirit that inspired Isaiah and overshadowed Mary, Saint Matthew leaves no room for misunderstanding when he tells us in the 22nd and 23rd verses of the first chapter of his Gospel account:

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). (Matthew 1:22-23 ESV)

Oh. Now we get it. Immanuel means "God-with-us." In the coming infant Jesus, God is with us.

But, we ask, how is it that the birth of a virgin's son, the birth of God in human flesh and blood, the birth of Immanuel, is, for each of us and for the world, Good News? Really Good News. Good News that lasts not a week or a month, but an entire lifetime and into eternity.
That, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the million dollar question in this season of waiting and hoping and repenting and rejoicing and reflecting on what it actually means for the world and for each of us that our Lord Jesus Christ came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man, made human flesh and bone, took upon himself our very nature, yet without sin.
What is the connection between eternal peace and "God-with-us"?
Imagine being given the task of consoling the unconsolable, giving comfort to someone who can find no spiritual comfort, giving genuine, eternal Good News to someone racked with a true awareness of their weakness and failures and sin. "There is no hope for me," they cry out. "I cannot make satisfaction for my many sins. I have given up trying to make myself holy. It is impossible for me to stand before the almighty Lord of heaven and earth, the Lord who hates sin and sends wrath and judgment upon the unrighteous. It all makes me want to ask God to stay away from me."
In that kind of situation, how is "God-with-us" any comfort at all?
Just ask Isaiah about "God-with-us." In the 6th chapter of the book of Isaiah the prophet, the great Isaiah is as good-as-dead when brought into the holy presence of the Lord. Unbridled, out-in-the-open "God-with-us" spells judgment and eternal death for Isaiah, as it spells judgment and eternal death for all fallen and sinful children of our first parents.
God-with-us in his glory and holiness? That may be great for the designers of the world's holiday cards and winter television specials. But it is a death sentence for anyone who acknowledges sin as real sin. Because if the almighty Lord just showed up next to any of us in all his power and glory and might and majesty, we would be forced to confess, as Isaiah confessed, "Woe is me. I am as good as dead. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. And — I have seen the Lord. I have been brought face-to-face with almighty God.
This same frightening situation fell upon Peter right after the miraculous catch of fish — right after he realized that Jesus was indeed the almighty Lord of heaven and earth. Bowing his trembling face to the ground he cried out, "Depart from me Lord. For I am a sinful man."
No wonder why there are too many people — even a week before Christmas — who want God to stay away — to stay out of their lives and the decisions they have made. Their own lifestyle of convenience. Their playing fast and loose with God's revealed will and commands.
So "Immanuel" can bring terror and fear and eternal death just as easily as it can bring comfort and hope. "Immanuel" — God-with-us — can be God-with-us in wrath and judgment. We see this in the poor, miserable conditions surrounding Jesus' birth and especially our Lord's innocent suffering and death upon the Cross. God-with-us, to punish all sin and rebellion and disbelief. The disbelief of unbelieving Ahaz. The disbelief of a world that does not believe, will not believe that the Christ child has come from heaven to be born in the world's own poor and miserable manger, to take upon himself the world's own weakness and sin, to take upon himself the judgment Eve and Adam, Isaiah and Mary, Joseph and Peter and each of us rightly deserved.
Immanuel. God-with-us. Something we should dread if it is not in a way that hides the Lord's glory and covers his wrath.

But what else do we know about Jesus being given the name "Immanuel"? What is also revealed in that name "Immanuel" that makes it a comfort and joy for transgressors of God's holy will and law?

Well, we heard it clearly enough from the Old Testament and Gospel readings just a few minutes ago. From the mouth of God's holy prophet it is announced to believers and unbelievers alike:
… the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:10-14 ESV)
To doubting, unbelieving King Ahaz the Lord gives a sign as deep as Sheol and high as heaven. A sign that is so indescribably great angels bow the knee in silent awe. An announcement so unbelievable only God-given faith can receive it. A prophecy that trumpets the fulfillment of all salvation history in a way we could have never imagined: "The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
And, if you will believe it, this Word of the Lord spoken out of the mouth of Isaiah the prophet is fulfilled as another heaven-sent messenger comes to confused, anxious, fearful Joseph and says:

“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 1:20b-21 ESV)

The reason for the name to be given is made clear for Joseph and Mary and for you and me and your yet-to-believe neighbor down the street. "For this son, this son of David, this son of Mary has been sent — not to judge or condemn or terrorize but — to save his people from their sins."
Jesus; Divine Savior. Jesus; Divine Savior from sin. Jesus; Divine Savior of all — of every tribe and language and nation and people. Jesus; the second person of the Godhead come to rescue us from our inability to save ourselves, come to to redeem the Advent and Christmas season, come to to atone for our own transgressions against God and against our neighbor-in-need.
For, by faith, we believe what the world and our own worldly nature will never believe: Mary's son is David's Son is God's only-begotten Son. Come to save from sin. God in human flesh and blood. Here. For you and for your salvation. Here. As once-for-all sacrifice. As our all-righteous substitute.
Only by faith can we really sing: "O come, O come, Immanuel. God-with-us. God-for-us and for our salvation.
Immanuel. What a beautiful name. Amen

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Is that Opportunity Knocking? (Matthew 21:1-11)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Dear beloved in Christ:
"Opportunity knocks." That's the tag line on an annual car commercial on television. "It's opportunity knocking!"
The message? You only have a limited amount of time to take advantage of something really special. If you wait, it will be too late. Too late for the joy of knowing you seized the day and grabbed that one special thing before it walked on down the hall to knock on someone else's door.
And so we take that saying about opportunity knocking to heart and begin all our preparations for Christmas Day. Just try to list everything you are doing or have done or need to do so that December 25th will come in the way you want. Just think of all the things on your "to do" list.
If we're honest, it is a list that part of us believes will lead to a perfect Christmas.
But, when we sit down and think about it, it's a burdensome list and an unending list. The shopping for just the right things. The preparations around the house. The decorations. The special plates and silverware and scented candles and the train set. And the other decorations and the lights. And the invitations and the Christmas cards and letters and photographs. And the cleaning. And what ever happened to that little Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer sculpture that plays the Chipmunk's Christmas songs whenever it detects someone has come into the room? That needs to be found and put in its proper place as well.
"Opportunity is knocking," we tell ourselves as we begin the frenzied Christmas dance that will not end until we realize that it is Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and the door finally shuts and opportunity leaves for good — until it begins again next year.
Well, maybe this year you have everything under control. You've made you lists and checked them — not once or twice — but six times. You've had your Christmas letters ready to go since June. You know just the right gift for everyone — family and friends, and even the mailman and hairdresser — and you got them all at 30% off.
There's where the true joy of Christmas is to be found — isn't it? In seizing the day and accomplishing everything that we've decided needs to be done in order to make Christmas Day Christmas Day. The true joy of Christmas: knowing in your heart that you've made it the best Christmas ever.
But then there's that knock on the door. And it isn't Mr. Opportunity. It isn't anyone on your invitation list. It isn't anyone you expected or planned for.
It's some ordinary-looking Jewish guy with a donkey who you just know will come in and ruin everything.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the 21st chapter:
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold! [Rejoice!], your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:1-10 ESV)
The religious leaders in Jesus' day believed that the Passover holiday in Jerusalem was unfolding very nicely without Jesus showing up and spoiling everything. They had things quite under control. The ATM machines were all set up around the temple, the money-changers were ready to do their work. Thousands of holiday merry-makers were traveling to Jerusalem to do their holiday things and spend their holiday money. Despite the presence of the Roman soldiers, these religious leaders truly believed they had everything in hand. They had seized the day and all their preparations would now bear abundant fruit.
And then this guy from Nazareth with a donkey shows up. And they know now everything they had put their trust in is in danger of being eclipsed by the coming of this man who claims to be the Word of heaven itself. With the unexpected coming of this lowly servant king, all their planning and preparations could now very well go down the drain.
All that they had invested. All that they had done. All that they had accomplished. All they had sacrificed to make this the most special day of the entire year — and now this Jesus shows up believing he is the center and fulfillment of the day. Believing he is the source of true joy and peace for all who would celebrate that "day of arrival" just around the corner.
And so the religious leaders seized the day by grabbing a hold of Jesus. This was the opportunity they had really been looking for. With the dissatisfaction of Judas, they had found their one opportunity to silence this uninvited troublemaker and do away with him once and for all.
Jesus just shows up, seemingly unannounced. And he shows up in the most unspectacular way, among lambs and goats and cattle and donkeys and the rude furnishings of a cold and lowly manger.
So much for the world's excitement about the coming king. No media attention. No 30% off salvation, today only sale.
Jesus' gift in these days before Christmas? A season of simple promise — for every one of us. A word of promise that the world will never put its trust in. The promise announced by the prophets of old until Christ comes on that last day. A promise that says that trusting in Christ's Word, this life is a life of waiting, but waiting in expectant joy for our Lord to redeem the day.
The Savior will come and save us — from our weakness and sin and misplaced worry about attempting to make Christmas a big success.
The Savior will come and save us — from even our own inability to create true, lasting joy on our own.
In this peculiar season of Advent, rejoice! For the Savior comes to give the gifts of salvation: the gift of sins forgiven, the gift of contentment and peace — and even a little joy — as we wait — patiently, trustingly — for our coming king.
Joy for you and me and for all who are waiting to hear of a Christ and a Cross that gives true peace — that peace that surpasses all human understanding.
And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-11 ESV)
In expectant joy, may we join the voice of all the faithful as we wait for the coming of our king, waiting to shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest."
God in his mercy and grace grant each of us a blessed — a joyful — advent of our king.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen