Sunday, 19 December 2010

Ask Me for a Sign: a Short Sermon for Advent 4, Year A—with reference to Isaiah 7, Romans 1 and Matthew 1

Advent 4. 6 sleeps to Christmas and look what we’ve just read about:

Is 7.14 Isaiah’s prophecy to a recalcitrant King Ahaz; first the promise of a great supernatural blessing:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Words that grace thousands of Christmas cards and resonate through the church’s history because they so beautifully foreshadow the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Yet, look what follows in v16:
But 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.
The blessing comes in the midst of wrong and dread.

Fast forward to Matthew and there’s more that is less than ideal in the case of another virgin. Mt 1.18:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Evil and dread in Isaiah. Now public disgrace and divorce. What a disappointment it must have been for Joseph and for both families involved. The story continues—Mt 1.20:
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.
Do not be afraid. Fear. And not just for Joseph. Mary, too, must have been frightened. People were stoned for adultery in those days. Mt 1.21:
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.”
We can sin to the list. Wrong, dread, public disgrace, divorce, fear and sin. That is the context into which this great good news was spoken. It still is.

The reason we will have a longest night service on Tuesday is because life is far from perfect because of that list and because of losses and grief and pain. And if that isn’t enough of a reminder, we have two funerals this week—Marg Triskle on Tuesday at 2 and Bill Carlyle on Wednesday at 130.

Like Ahaz and Joseph and Mary, we need help. Here it is. Mt 1.18 again:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.
Our help came supernaturally by the Holy Spirit working through an extraordinary young woman. The greatest merely human being that ever lived, says Peter Kreeft. And…Mt 1.20:
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.
Joseph needed help. God helped him by speaking supernaturally through an angel and a dream.

We need help. God sent help—supernaturally. Mt 1.23:
“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
Matthew is quoting Isaiah 7.14. This is not a coincidental proof-text. He was prompted supernaturally to make that connection. And in doing so he communicates the supernatural reality of Jesus into our world of evil, dread, shame, divorce, fear, sin, longest night grief, death and funerals. This is Good News. On the cross, Jesus faced down and overcame everything on that list. And that’s not all. Look at Romans 1.4—Paul writing about Jesus Christ our LORD being “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” The Father’s ultimate supernatural act. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The supernatural act that defines us as the Christian church.

Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. And next weekend we celebrate the supernatural wonder of His birth.

God says to Ahaz “Ask me for a sign!”—ask me to act supernaturally in the midst of the evil you face and your dread. For what sign shall we ask for this Advent, this Christmas? For Marg’s family and for Kathleen as they mourn. For the folks who will be here on Tuesday night. For those who are without next weekend? Perhaps one of our guests at supper last night asked for a sign, and we were it. Is there anyone else for whom we might be a sign of the best news in the world, Jesus Christ, God with us, this Christmas? I wonder if there is anyone out there to whom God is saying, “Ask me for a sign.” If so, might the sign he has in mind be you, me or us?