Given Grace to Give Grace
December 22, 2019*
(Fourth Sunday of Advent)
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 7:10-16 Matthew 1:18-25 Romans 1:1-7
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to know the future?
Sometimes it might be a good thing. When we’re going through difficult and challenging times it might be nice to know that things are going to turn out well for us. When we worry about our children or grandchildren, it might be nice to know that they will eventually find their way, get an education, find a good job, and become responsible, productive, people of faith who love God. Certainly, if we knew what the stock market was going to do next year, or even next week, we could make a lot of money.
But, on the other hand, would you want to know that your difficult and challenging times were only going to get worse? Or that your children and grandchildren were not going to find their way? Would you want to know the future if it was full of bad news? Probably not. And that’s exactly why Israel’s kings usually cringed whenever the prophets of God came to visit them. God’s prophets had a reputation of only showing up when there was bad news and were sometimes thought of as harbingers of doom. King Obadiah called Elijah the “troubler of Israel.” God’s prophets knew that it wasn’t popular to know the future if the future wasn’t filled with good news.
And that’s a part of what is going on in the story we’re about to read, as Isaiah shares God’s words with King Ahaz of Judah in Isaiah 7:10-16.
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
Ahaz remembers that the people of God are not supposed to put God to the test, and that is so ingrained in him that he won’t do it even when God asks him to do it. God tells Ahaz that he will accomplish whatever it takes to prove to him that the things that Isaiah is saying will truly happen. But, since Ahaz refuses to ask for such a sign, God names one instead and says that “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”
Now, if you think about that for a minute, Isaiah’s prophecy sounds a little weird if the only meaning is the one that we remember at Christmastime because a that wouldn’t have answered King Ahaz’s question at all. But, many of God’s prophecies had not one, but two meanings and two fulfillments. The first would be one that made sense in the immediate future and the second would make sense in the more distant future. This is one of those times. The first meaning was that a young, unmarried woman, quite possibly a woman that both Isaiah and King Ahaz knew, such as the woman who was betrothed to Isaiah, who we would think of as Isaiah’s fiancée, and future wife, would, in a short amount of time, become pregnant and have a baby. The second meaning, of course, is the one with which we are more familiar and that is one that became understood as something that would happen with the coming of Israel’s messiah.
And so, in this passage, God promises Ahaz that before Isaiah’s baby is old enough the choose right from wrong, traditionally about 12 or 13 years old, those who were attacking him, the kingdoms of Aram and the northern tribes of Israel, would come to an end. And, while that sounds like good news, if you read the rest of that passage it quickly becomes clear that this is one of those times where things are going to get worse before they get better. But, in any case, the second meaning is God’s promise of a messiah who would rescue his people for all time. And it is that fulfillment that we see in the story of Matthew 1:18-25 where we hear these words:
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Just as God had promised to King Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah, the rescuer of humanity, God’s messiah, is born to a virgin. But Joseph was terrified. The woman to whom he had been pledged in marriage was pregnant and it was clear that he wasn’t the father. At that point, Joseph had three choices and none of them were particularly good. Since having sex before marriage was prohibited under the law of Moses, and it would seem obvious to most people that this is what Mary had done (since that was the ordinary way in which pregnancy happens), Mary would not only be seen as violating the law, but also as bringing disgrace to her family, bringing disgrace to Joseph’s family, and also breaking the contract that bound the two of them together.
Joseph’s first option, under the law, was to publicly humiliate Mary and announce what she had done, and possibly even have her stoned to death (although that rarely, if ever, actually happened). The second choice would be to quietly divorce her on the grounds that she had already broken the contract between their families. The third choice was probably the worst choice of all, and that was to go ahead with their marriage. This option would bring disgrace, humiliation, and financial hardship to both of their families, and would make Joseph, his father, and all of his family look stupid for going ahead with a marriage to a woman who had violated her promise even before their wedding.
But even though all these choices seemed like bad ones, Joseph, being a nice guy, thought that he would choose the one that was the least damaging to everyone.
But God had other ideas.
God tells Joseph, in a dream, not to be afraid, that Mary had really not slept with anyone else, that the child she was carrying was actually the child of God and would become the one who would rescue God’s people from sin. And when he woke up, Joseph did what God told him to do and in doing so, models for us some of the best characteristics of God, God’s people, and humanity. In order to do what Joseph does requires extraordinary trust, abundant love, a mountain of faith, a pile of forgiveness, a large measure of grace, and more an ample amount of hope.
But what is it that we should take away from these stories? How does the story of Christmas guide us as we live our lives in the twenty-first century? And, even though he lived two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul understood a part of that answer as he wrote to the church in Rome as we see in Romans 1:1-7.
1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul reminds everyone in the church that the Gospel message, the story of the messiah’s birth, death, and resurrection, was a story that God promised, through the prophets, hundreds of years before it happened. It was because of God’s love for us that he created a way for us to be rescued from our own selfishness and sinfulness. Just as Joseph rescued Mary by taking her home to live with him, just as Joseph chose hope, love, and grace, so did God. Just as Joseph showed mercy and grace to Mary, God showed mercy and grace to us by sending his Son to rescue us. It is through Jesus Christ that we received these gifts from God and, Paul says, because we have received these gifts from God, through Jesus Christ, we are, in turn, called by God to share this Good News with the rest of the world.
Paul is clear that the message of Jesus Christ was never just a message for the Jews, but has always been a message for the Jews, the Gentiles, and for the entire world. And while I am sure that Paul didn’t intend for this to be Christmas message, it certainly is one because when Paul says that the Gentiles are being called to belong to Jesus Christ it reminds us of this:
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. (Luke 2:8-10)
Good news. For all the people.
We have been given grace, so that we might give grace to those around us, to the people we love, to the people we fear, to the people we hate, to the insiders, to the outsiders, to the connected, to the outcasts, to citizens, to foreigners…
The world would not have heard the message of Jesus if Joseph didn’t have enough faith and trust in God to show mercy and grace to Mary.
And two thousand years of history hasn’t changed that.
One of the clear messages in the story of Christmas is that we are called to share God’s mercy and grace so that everyone around us can hear the message of Jesus.
As we leave this place, let us remember that we are God’s agents of grace.
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