Today’s message starts 732 years before the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem. King Ahaz has just become king of Judah after the death of his father Jotham. He is a mere twenty years old and immediately is faced with a dual threat from the north. The kingdoms of Israel and Damascus have joined forces in an effort to invade Judah and conquer it.
This is a daunting challenge for a new king who has not yet secured the loyalty of either his people or his military commanders. What he does in the next couple of weeks will determine if he remains king or is removed or made a vasal of another stronger kingdom.
Is Ahaz anxious? Of course he is. Who wouldn’t be? And so he seeks the advise of the greatest prophet of that age, the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is not new to the prophecy world. He prophesied during the reigns of both Ahaz’s father and grandfather. Both of the former kings trusted his advice even if they didn’t always like it. As so, in this time of crisis, Ahaz turns to Isaiah as well. He wants to know the outcome of the current threat from the north.
In response to that concern, Isaiah provides this message in Isaiah 7:14 (NIV) which say this: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” It’s important to the message of Christmas to understand what this means.
Ahaz is in a tough place. He needs some assurance, some sign that all will be okay, that God will intervene if necessary and support the kingdom of Judah. And so Isaiah speaking the word of the LORD offers a sign: A virgin will give birth to a son and his name will be Immanuel which means God with us. There are critics who claim that the Hebrew word translated as virgin could also mean young woman. And that is true and so they say that this is no sign at all because young women give birth all the time.
But here’s the point. A sign is not something ordinary because if it was ordinary, it would never be noticed. Signs, by definition, must be extraordinary or even miraculous. That’s why it is proper to translate the Hebrew word as virgin. Otherwise it would not be a sign at all.
Why is this sign important to Ahaz and the people of Judah? It is important because a baby is a sign of hope. It is a sign that life will go on. In this case it is a sign that God will deliver the people of Judah from the invaders from the north. The baby is also a sign of mercy. For King Ahaz will not be a king who is faithful to God. According to the book of 2 Kings, he did detestable things and followed after other gods. Despite God knowing this, he still, through the sign of a virgin giving birth, promises to save the people from the invaders. Through the baby God shows his mercy to Ahaz and the people of Judah.
JOSEPH SHOWS MERCY
Fast forward 730 years. Joseph is engaged to be married to Mary but something quite unforeseen happens. We read the story in Matthew 1:18-19:
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. 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.
What happens? Joseph discovers that Mary, the woman whom he is supposed to wed, is pregnant. Okay, so these things happen from time to time. The bigger problem is that Joseph knows that he is not the father so it must have been somebody else. And so Joseph does what any man in his day and age would do. He decides to break off the engagement. Matthew writes that he decides to divorce her. That sounds a bit confusing to us but engagement and divorce meant different things back then than they do now. Back then, when a couple got engaged it was a deeper sense of commitment even than it is now. It was almost like a first stage of marriage. To be engaged was enter into a lifelong commitment with the other person. The couple was, in effect, married. They just weren’t yet living together because the marriage ceremony had not yet been celebrated.
Joseph, decides to divorce Mary. But look at verse 19 because what it says is that he was going to divorce her quietly. What does that mean? Think of it this way. For all intents and purposes, as far as Joseph knew, Mary had committed adultery because while she was engaged to him, he was not the father of her child. In those days, there was a penalty for adultery and that penalty was death by stoning. Joseph could have demanded that she be stoned. He could have made a big show of how wronged he had been by this unfaithful woman. And he could have cast the first stone in her death. But he didn’t do that. He was a faithful man but he was also a good man. In choosing to divorce Mary quietly, he showed mercy because he was allowing her to live when he could have demanded her death.
Mercy is a funny things. It is something that we all want to receive. All of us know that we make mistakes. Most of us expect to be accountable for the mistakes that we make. Sometimes those mistakes can be minor. You forget to take the garbage out on garbage day. You forget your spouse’s birthday or that you were supposed to buy stamps to mail the Christmas cards. Those things might tick someone off for a little while. But none of them is earth shattering and we can atone for all of them. You forget to put the garbage out? Oh well, you’ll put out twice as much next week. Thank goodness that Kingsville does not limit the number of trash cans of bags that we can place at the curb. You forget your spouse’s birthday. Tell them how sorry you are and make it up to them with a nice dinner and an even bigger present than usual. That’ll work. You forgot to mail the Christmas cards. So you’ll take them to the post office tomorrow and put the stamps on them right then and there. Problem solved. No big deal. Mercy is almost an afterthought even if it is given.
But what happens if the issue is much, much bigger? What if someone we love is genuinely hurt, physically, emotionally or spiritually by someone else? Not just offended in some way, but legitimately harmed. That’s a far more difficult situation because it touches us at a very deep emotional level. And that is so hard to overcome.
And yet, the greater that harm, the greater the need for mercy. As I’ve been driving around in the car the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a commercial that comes on the radio from time to time. Maybe you’ve heard it too. It’s from Greg Montforton and Partners. I have to admit that I’m not at all familiar with Greg Montforton but apparently it a law firm specializing in personal injury. When you’re a lawyer in those circumstance, I imagine you see humanity at it’s very worse.
Personal injury might mean many things but if lawyers are getting involved, you can guarantee that it’s something far bigger that broken finger nail. Personal injury lawyers take cases where the the results of the injury are permanent and often debilitating. These are injuries that change people’s life, and usually not for the better. People end up in wheelchairs or unable to work or they require twenty-four hour care for the rest of their lives. This is big stuff.
I can’t quote the commercial exactly but in it Greg Montforton talks about the need to get past those things especially during the Christmas season. He talks about how he often finds himself at funerals for clients and how difficult that is. He alludes to family member who aren’t speaking with one another. And then he encourages them to do so and seek reconciliation. He closes the commercial by saying this: “I promise a great burden will be lifted and you will experience God’s peace.”
Maybe you’ve heard that commercial. Maybe you haven’t. But if you do get to hear it, please listen to what he has to say because I think he’s onto something. We all know families who live that way year after year. Hurts are not forgiven or forgotten. No mercy is given. Year after year, the separation continues. I don’t think that’s how God intended us to live. I think we’re going to see that in what happens next in our story.
That night, after Joseph decides what to do, God speaks to him in a dream which is recorded in Matthew 1:20-21 (NIV):
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. 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.”
What’s the angel saying? The angel is telling Joseph to not worry about the fact that Mary is pregnant. He is to take her to be his wife anyway because the child that she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
What do you think? Would that have been a hard pill to swallow? That Mary had not been unfaithful at all. She had not lain with another man but rather had conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Or to put it another way, God made Mary pregnant and God still wants you to take her home to be your wife. I have to admit that, had it been me, I would have found that dream to be a bit of a head scratcher. Men, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, I expect most of us would have thought the same thing. In fact, the angel is telling Joseph to show her even more mercy than he has already demonstrated. Remember that Joseph has already shown mercy by deciding not to have her stoned. Now he is to up the mercy ante another notch and not divorce her at all. Rather he is to take her to be his wife despite the fact that she is carrying a child that is not his.
Like Joseph, we are called to show mercy and forgive others for whatever wrongs they have done to us. That’s what the angel s saying to Joseph in the dream. He is saying, “You need to get past the fact that Mary is pregnant. You need to show her mercy and continue with your plan to marry her because this is the way God wants it to be.”
Joseph has to make a decision. How much mercy is he willing to show to Mary? Is God asking too much? What will the neighbours say when Mary starts to show and they start counting on their finger to see if the enough months have passed since they were married. You know what people are like especially in little villages like Nazareth where Mary and Joseph live.
I’m going to do something that I don’t normally do. I’m going to skip over a couple of verses and go right to Matthew 1:24-25 (NIV) where we find out what happens. We’ll go back and look at verses 22 and 23 in a minute:
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
What does Joseph do? He does exactly what he was told to do in his dream. He takes Mary to be his wife, Mary gives birth to a son and they call him Jesus. Joseph shows Mary all of the mercy he was told to show her and, in doing so, he provides Jesus with a good place to grow up to become the man created him to be. God chose well when he chose Joseph to be Jesus’ earthly father.
But what does the name of Jesus mean? It wasn’t just something for Mary and Joseph to call their son. Like most names in Hebrew, it’s significant. It means something. It means “God saves”. And isn’t that exactly what Jesus came to do. That little baby who was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn in the little town of Bethlehem, came into this world to save us from our sins. Thirty years later he would do that when he gave up his life for us on the cross of Calvary to pay the price of all of the sins of humanity for all time. Because he paid the price that we could not pay on our own, we are able to approach God with freedom and confidence that we are forgiven and free in Jesus’ name. And so God, in his mercy saves us.
So here’s the last question of the day. So what? Why is this significant?
Let’s go back to Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV) to find out. It says this:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
This takes us right back to where we started. It’s a repeat of the verses that we read from Isaiah 7 where Ahaz was given a sign that God would save him and his kingdom from the northern invaders. It was a sign of God’s mercy and grace that was undeserved and unearned by the Judah. But even though they did not deserve to be saved from the invaders, God, in his mercy, gave them a sign that he would save them anyway.
Matthew and the early Christians knew this passage from Isaiah and they saw in it a prophecy of the coming Messiah. The virgin giving birth would be a sign that God, in his mercy, continues to save his people. This time it is not from invading armies. It is from something much more deadly. It was from sin itself brought on by the sinfulness of humanity.
The same words that God used to show mercy to King Ahaz in the 8th century BCE are being used here to show God’s mercy to all of us. As Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV): “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Jesus Christ was born into the world to save sinners just like you and me. Because we could do nothing to save ourselves, Jesus came to do it for us. That journey which took him to the pain of Calvary and glory of the empty tomb began when a newly married couple heard their baby’s first birth cries break into the darkness of the town of Bethlehem.
This is God’s mercy shown to us.
This is where God comes to us and changes everything.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we approach you with awe and humility. Your strength is seen in the might of the rocky hills and roaring rivers. Your power is evident in the tremblings of earth and heaven. Your love is shown to us in a child born in Bethlehem.
We approach the day when we celebrate Jesus’ birth and are reminded, once again, of your presence in our lives. During this Advent season, we have focused on the hope that you give to us. We have tried to experience your peace. We have felt the joy. And we ask again for your precious gift of love. We thank you for Jesus, in whom you came to live with us in a new and wonderful way. Come to our hearts and live, anew, within us, we pray.
On the day, we also give thanks for the ribbon cutting at Murchadha House on Friday. Thank you for the hard work of Sandy Murphy and her team and the incredible support or the wider community to bring this venture to a successful conclusion. We look forward to welcoming the residents who will move in soon.
We also pray, O God, those for whom Christmas brings sadness. We lift up in prayer those who remember loved ones who are no longer with us. Especially this morning, we pray for Bob Piec and his family after the death of Bob’s father on Wednesday. We pray for those whose are living with the loss of health and security, for those who’s Christmas will be poorer because of a downturn in family economics. Touch them with a special measure of your joy.
We thank you for those who are able to help others who may be going through a difficult times. We thank you for the organizations that distributed toys and food hampers to special people with special needs. We thank you for the grace of those who are able to receive these gifts for it is not always easy.
We lift up in prayer, O God of Healing, those who have been in hospital this week; especially Mary and Jacqui. We ask that your special healing touch may be upon all of us.
Heavenly Father, we look forward to
the coming of the Christ Child of Bethlehem into our hearts and lives. God of
the coming Christmas, may we come to appreciate what a wonderful and special
gift he is. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
December 22, 2019 / Advent 4
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 1:18-25; Romans 1:1-7
CALL TO WORSHIP
Let us praise God as long as we live;
Blessed are those whose help is in the Spirit;
Christ’s reign will last forever;
Praise God, O my soul.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Praise God, O my soul. Praise God for the redemption that is ours in Christ. Praise God that love glistened from a stable in Bethlehem. Praise God that in amongst the rude and ordinary things of Creation, a Saviour was born to shine light into the world. Shine that light upon us now, O God of Love. Fill us anew with your Spirit and with the new life that you have promised. Praise God, O my soul. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
The desserts shout for joy and the rocks sing your praises. But we have been guilty of falling away. The road that you set before us is straight and easy to follow. But there are times when we choose another path. We prepare our homes for Christmas but we forget to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. We bake and cook our feasts but we put the hungry out of our minds. We ensure that there are many gifts under our trees but we neglect the needs of the poor. Convict us, forgive us and place our feet firmly upon the way of Christ. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
God’s love is shown most clearly and profoundly in Jesus who was born at Bethlehem. He gave his life as a sacrifice for us that we may receive the gift of eternal life. By his wounds we are healed.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We come to you with our offerings, O God, meagre though they may be compared to the abundance with which you have blessed us. In faith, we turn to you and ask that you would bless us and our gifts. Amen.
The love of Christ is shown in this world by the way we love one
another. May God’s compassion and peace be with us as we share the Good News of