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LSB Advent 4A Sermon – Matthew 1:18-25

December 23, 2013

December 22, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”

Commands from the LORD demand attention. They are to be heeded, even more so when what He commands is for a person’s welfare and advantage. You heard such a command given by the LORD. He speaks to Ahaz, king of Judah, a descendant of David. The LORD has a message for him in his plight. Ahaz’s nation was under threat. The unlikely alliance of Israel and Syria was making plans for war against Jerusalem. Ahaz was panicked. But in the midst of that great trouble, the LORD declares: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” 

The LORD’s promise is that He will bring salvation to His people. He will deliver them. The LORD tells Ahaz to place his trust in Him. In fact, the LORD commands Ahaz to ask for whatever he might desire to make firm his faith: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” This command is made for Ahaz’s benefit. The LORD desires to help him and the people of Judah. The king need just ask. He can ask for anything from the LORD, any type of sign to convince him that the LORD’s word is true.

But Ahaz’s response is total unbelief: “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And so the LORD’s command goes unfulfilled. This descendant of David loses the opportunity to receive the blessing that the LORD wishes to give. The LORD will act: Israel and Syria will be overthrown; Jerusalem will be kept safe. But the greater gift that the LORD has to offer is refused. In its place will be judgment: “The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” The LORD’s visitation will come upon Judah through the Assyrian Empire that will afflict the people.

But the LORD is not finished with His people. He has promised to deliver them, and no king’s unbelief will prevent that from happening. Even in the midst of Judah’s apostasy and idolatry that Ahaz epitomizes, the LORD gives a statement about what He will do: “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” A child is born in Jerusalem and during his lifetime the LORD’s promise about overthrowing Syria and Israel takes place. And yet, there is even more to come. The deliverance that the LORD promises is more than just preventing a war: a greater deliverance will come.

That greater deliverance is what you heard about in the Gospel Reading: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” You heard details about this birth. It is extraordinary. In fact, the events of it are nearly unbelievable: “When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Mary’s pregnancy caused a crisis for Joseph, who wished to follow the LORD’s Law in the matter of marriage: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” The marriage would be ended before it truly began. What was to be something great was headed to ruin.

But the LORD gives a command to Joseph, a descendant of David. The LORD has a message for him in his plight: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘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.’” The LORD’s message reveals what is taking place, that He is behind it all. Here is the answer to Joseph’s problem. His marriage to Mary need not be dissolved. In fact, it is to be preserved, for what is happening is for Joseph’s benefit: the promised Messiah is arriving, and Joseph will see Him.

So what does this son of David do? Does he respond in total unbelief? No, Joseph does not pull an Ahaz here. He does not doubt. He doesn’t even ask for a sign to prove or convince him. Instead, he receives the LORD’s command and follows through with it: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.” This is the act of faith, an act that is driven by belief in the LORD and His Word. Joseph is saved by this Jesus who is born of the Holy Spirit and Mary. This Jesus is “God with Joseph” and “God for Joseph,” as He lives up to the title that was foretold: “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).”

You have heard of two descendants of David who received commands from the LORD: Ahaz and Joseph. But which one do you resemble when the LORD’s word comes to you in the midst of panic or plight? Make no mistake: the LORD has spoken through His prophets and apostles. Immanuel has come; God has dwelt with His people and worked salvation for them. This Jesus has performed acts that lift the weight of sin from the backs of humanity: He has borne the guilt of the world, leaving it pinned to the cross; “He was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead.” And through His Church, this Jesus speaks to the world, offering the signs of His work to people.

So what is the response when that statement is made: “The Lord will give you a sign.”? What is your reaction when the LORD gives you a command? Or when He invites you to ask Him for things? Do you recognize this Jesus as the sign of the LORD’s graciousness to you? Do you see Him as Immanuel—God with you and for you? Are His signs of baptism and meal where you look for good benefits? Do you approach the LORD with boldness to ask Him to grant you what you need? Do you call upon Him in your day of trouble?

The reason those questions are asked is seen in the examples of Ahaz and Joseph. The major difference between these two descendants of David is faith or lack thereof. Ahaz’s lack of belief is why he wearies not only men but God. Joseph’s faith reveals him to be a just man. Their interaction with the LORD makes all the difference. Ahaz’s unbelief costs him dearly, even though the LORD does act. Joseph’s trust receives the LORD’s aid and guidance, so that he becomes known for all generations as the Guardian of Jesus; more importantly, he benefits from the salvation that Jesus brings.

Unbelief is a great sin. And at the end, it is as grave as it can be. The psalm prayed this morning discusses that: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” Placing hope in what is false, setting heart set on unrighteous things, having a record of transgressions: these will prevent you from being in the LORD’s presence, from climbing Mount Zion and entering into eternal bliss. But Jesus has been strong and mighty for you, working salvation for you. He has saved His people, so that your hands are cleansed, your hearts are purified, your souls are turned to what is true. That salvation is placed in the signs that He has established, so that the psalm testifies about you: “He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” 

That’s what’s meant for you to receive. That’s the fate that awaits those who believe, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, loved by God, and named as His saints. The LORD instructs you to ask for it, to seek His face, to request His aid. God is with you; that’s Jesus’ role, as He lives up to His name. As you prepare to hear of His birth this week, have your hearts set on Him and the salvation that He brings. Recognize that the LORD is with you and is working so that the designs of your enemies will not come to pass. Participate in the signs that He establishes, receiving His help that lifts the sins that weigh you down. That is the LORD’s command given for your welfare and advantage. Be firm in the faith, and ask for the goods that He offers. Do not be afraid, but take this Jesus as your Savior and benefit from the good He performs for you. 

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

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