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Sunday, December 14, 2014

With You in the Straw (Isaiah 41, 43, Luke 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - December 14, 2014
Text: Isaiah 41:10,14-15b; 43:1-2,5-7; Luke 1:26-38

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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "O Holy Night" (Kelsey Gilsdorf, piano)
Hymn of Praise: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (HYFRYDOL)
Hymn of Praise: "Lo, How a Rose" (ES IST EIN' ROS')
The Word in Music: "Go Tell it on the Mountain" (Children's Choir)
Offering of Music: "Joy to the World" (Mira Pearce, piano)
Nativity Hymn: "Christmas Offering" (Baloche)
Postlude: "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (Kelsey Gilsdorf, piano)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf): 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose. 

This Christmas season we are looking at God’s great promise to be with us. That promise is captured in one of the names given to Jesus: Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” We’ve looked at the origins of God’s presence with humanity in the Creation story. Then, remarkably, we’ve seen that God did not give up on us when we fell short and turned from Him; but God came after us in loving pursuit. Through a series of covenants, God pledged on His own name and life, to be with us and remain with us. He invited (and invites) us to faithfulness and relationship, but His love and presence are not contingent on that. We’ve also followed the progression of God’s presence from the mobile tabernacle in the oldest times to the fixed Temples of Jerusalem to the in-the-flesh presence of Jesus and the spiritual presence of the Holy Spirit in all who believe.

Thus far our main focus has been on God and God’s action. Today we turn a bit more toward what the means for us. What does it mean that God has come TO US where we are? We’ll see that God has indeed come among us and into our mess, both in the Old Testament as well as in the new.

Promised Presence (Isaiah 41,43)

10 ‘Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’… 13 “For I am the Lord your God, who upholds your right hand, Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’ 14 “Do not fear… your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:10,13-14b)

1 But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, And He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! 2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you. …5 “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, And gather you from the west. 6 “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring My sons from afar And My daughters from the ends of the earth, 7 Everyone who is called by My name, And whom I have created for My glory, Whom I have formed, even whom I have made.”  (Isaiah 43:1-2,5-7)
We start in Isaiah, in chapters 41 and 43. We’ve talked about the context for this before. It is some years after David and Solomon and God’s people have been disobedient, struggling, and have lost much. They have been conquered by foreign powers, taken captive, and scattered abroad. Indeed, much of what happened was a consequence of their disobedience and disregard for God. It would have been easy to draw the conclusion that God was done with them. (Have any of you ever drawn that conclusion about your own life?)

But God speaks through His prophet, Isaiah, to say a series of astounding – and comforting and encouraging – things.

From chapter 41:

    “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.” (v. 10)

    “I will strengthen you… help you… uphold you” (v. 10,13a)

    “Do not fear… do not fear… your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (v. 13-14)

What do you hear over and over? – “Do not fear.” And it’s not just, “Don’t be scared; pull yourself together.” It is, “Do not fear; I am with you.” “I’ve got you; I am with you; I am your God.” God has not abandoned His people, just as God hasn’t given up on you. God is the “Redeemer” and the “Holy One of Israel.”

And from chapter 43:

    “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!”

    “Through the waters… through the rivers… through the fire… and the flame”

    “Do not fear, for I am with you… I will bring you (and your children) home”

Again, “Do not fear… do not fear… I am with you.” This time, God gives context to his presence. It’s not just “with you” but with you in the most difficult places and parts of life: the raging water, the burning flame. And not only does God still claim His people “by name”; He also promises to bring the scattered people (and their children!) home.

These themes are echoed in 100 more places in the Old Testament. My mind goes to the 23rd Psalm and the declaration of the song-writer, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (v. 4) That is an example of someone trusting God’s promise and presence and describing that trust. But all the texts I chose today are God’s words to us: “I am with you; do not fear; I bring you blessing.”

Promises Fulfilled (Luke 1)

26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. 36 “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
In Luke 1, we hear the familiar Christmas story of the Angel coming to Mary. Though there is much to be learned from Mary there, today I want to focus on what God is saying and doing. The angel bears the news, greeting Mary and beginning with the same three things promised to all God’s people through Isaiah: “The Lord is with you (v. 28)… do not be afraid… you have found favor with God.” (v. 30)"

Then, in a fascinating connection with some of the things we talked about last week, the angel says these things: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of His father David; he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (v. 32-34)

Do you remember the promise to David? God would make an enduring house, and that wasn’t in reference to the Temple, but to David’s royal line. And though David’s children and the people of Israel were notoriously disobedient, God’s promise is good. That’s part of the reason for the genealogies in the beginning of Matthew and Luke – to show that Jesus is of the royal line of David.

But he will also be born of the Holy Spirit and will be a “holy Child” who “shall be called the Son of God.” (v. 35) And with this birth, God has come near, not as blazing deity or as invincible earthly king (both of which people expected in various ways). Rather, God came after us and came among us with this almost scandalous “low birth.”

In the Straw

That the God of Creation and the heir of King David would be conceived by a virgin not yet married and born into the straw of a stable in Bethlehem with shepherds and sheep gathered as witnesses while SIMULTANEOUSLY fulfilling the Old Testament promises and prophecies should be ample proof of the angel’s words in verse 37: “Nothing impossible with God.”

In another reminder of last week’s sermon, we see that Mary’s experience of God’s power and presence is intimately tied to her hearing and responding to God’s Word, here spoken by the angel. Mary hears all this and responds, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” (v. 38)

So what does this old (and even older) story mean for us today?

I continue to be amazed at the consistency and continuity of the message from the earliest pages of the Old Testament through to Jesus and beyond. That story is this: the perfect and powerful God made this world and humanity with it, inviting us to a unique relationship as those “in His image.” We made (and continue to make) a mess of it, but God did not and has not abandoned us. Nor has God simply waited for us to fix it or find our way back to His presence and blessing. Rather, God has come running after us, at times as unseemly and ungainly as the old father running out to meet his errant son and then slipping out of the party to invite his prideful son in.

Further, God has come down among us in Jesus, down in the straw. Someone asked me recently why it was important that Jesus experienced the suffering, temptation, and limitations of humanity. After some pondering, I think that it was not important for Jesus to have that experience, but for us to know that Jesus had that experience. With that, we see and know a God who we can trust has seen and known us, not from a privileged position, but from our own position.

With Jesus, God has come down in the straw with us. He is with us even now; with YOU even now. And whether you’d describe your life and your experiences as straw or a raging river or a burning fire or the valley of the shadow of death, God is with you even now. Don’t be afraid.

God is with you. Do not fear. In Him – in Christ – there is also the blessing of knowing, not only is God with me; I am with God. Amen.

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