Saturday, December 28, 2013

First Sunday after Christmas Day

Galatians 4:1-7 * Matthew 1:18-25

It is a principle of interpretation that the fullness of revelation in Christ unlocks the mysterious sayings of the Prophets. Always remember that it was the seventy rabbis in Antiquity, translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, who understood the words of Isaiah to mean “A virgin shall be with child.” For so they translated Almah into Parthenos before Jesus was born, before any Christian could interpret the words of the prophet: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).”     

It was a sign, that is a miracle to direct our attention to God, that a virgin was with child. It is no sign whatsoever for a “young woman” to be with child, inasmuch as it happens all the time. And, in what context did Isaiah speak this prophecy, some seven hundred years before Christ was born? In the context of a king, Ahaz, worried about a political and military conspiracy from a fifth column allied with a foreign power. That is, Isaiah answered the fearful inquiry of a political leader who was afraid of domestic rivals and foreign enemies. He answered in the context of concerns about politics and war. That is, the same old normal situation we see all the time and everywhere throughout history.

          Isaiah gave the Divine answer, as if God was ignoring the same old questions about power, politics and war, about the things people think about and talk about, the things people consider to be of the greatest importance. The answer to what really ails us is in the Sign: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” That is, “God with us.” The prophet did go on to answer the concerns of King Ahaz about the king of Assyria and domestic conspiracy; but first he foretold the greatest deliverance of all. He foretold the Sign of the only real salvation for all people for all time.

Human power cannot conceive this salvation. No military power, no intellectual power, not even any religious method; No one but God could make it happen. So, He chose and willed that a virgin would be with child. And, for the real salvation of the world, it takes no less than “God with us.” It takes no less than the Word (Logos) made flesh, the Person Who is One God with the Father and the Holy Spirit, with us as a human being, born of a virgin. The human race is impotent to save itself, because the real enemy is not the king of Assyria and domestic conspirators. The real war is not with man made weapons of destruction. In every generation and place these are the enemies most on our minds. But, the enemy of mankind is hidden away behind millions of lies, inciting hate and destruction. Because of that enemy, and his deception, we need salvation from sin and death.

“Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

          Jesus, in Hebrew Yeshua, means Salvation. “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He is our salvation (Isaiah 33:22).”

What does it mean to be saved from our sins? How eager are we, really, to be saved from them, and wouldn’t we prefer to be saved along with them? Therefore, the first command of the Gospel is to "Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand." We must repent, confess and live free of willful sin. Do we understand that salvation from death is not possible without salvation from sin? This is why, even in the joy of Christmas, we cannot afford to forget the cross. Indeed, as Martin Luther once observed, “If you think you have found God without the cross, you have found the Devil.”

God with us, the Word made flesh, our Salvation Himself, took away sin before He conquered death. First came the harsh wood of the cross, where He so willingly took away the sins of the world. It was on “the altar of the cross” that Jesus became the Lamb of God.

Just about everyone, understandably, speculates about life after death. The Ghost Hunters plumb the depths of this mystery – literally. People have engaged psychics and spiritualists, and today use electronic equipment. For Christians, there must be no psychics or spiritualists because God forbids such practices (as a doorway to the demonic realm). As for Ghost Hunters, and research into near death experiences – or, more accurately, real but temporary death experiences – those things actually involve scientific methods and genuine memories. But, the ultimate answers are still beyond the grasp of everyone looking to them.

The real hope is in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day. Christ rose from the dead and forever conquered death. His promise to all who repent and believe in Him is that He will raise each one “on the Last Day,” when he comes again. But, before we get to eternal life and all of “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead on the Last day,” we must take a long stop at the cross. Before He saved us from death He saved us from our sins. So, “Behold the Lamb of God.”

It doesn’t seem fair. We have been thinking about the baby born in Bethlehem, and here I am on this Sunday right after Christmas Day, speaking about the day, some thirty-three years later, when He would give up his life and die on the cross. Is there no break from the cross? Can we ever have such a break, some period when the cross is not part of message? Only if there is a break from the love of God (Romans 5: 8). For it is on the cross that Jesus saved us from our sins. That is what the angel Gabriel said to Joseph; without the cross His name would not be Jesus, Salvation.

This was the will of God; not the will of an “angry Father” created by human imagination. It was the will of God, of whom the Apostle John wrote, “God is Love.” It was the will of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It was the will, therefore, of Jesus, our Salvation, to take away our sins, to save us from our sins; our Salvation Himself, “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:25).

That is, He died for our offences, our sins, and was raised again on the third day for our justification. We are forgiven because of the cross, and justified because He rose from the dead afterward. It is not enough for God to have forgiven the past; it is also His will to make all things new, to make each of us new. For this we are given the great gift of sharing Christ’s resurrection. This is how “our sinful bodies” will “be made clean by His body,” cleansed from the defilement and uncleanness of death itself because “our souls [are] washed with His most precious blood.” He “was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.”

So, the angel Gabriel told Joseph the true meaning of the Prophet’s words. This is the good news of God’s salvation. We are saved from sin and therefore saved from death, looking forward to a whole new beginning because He is alive even now. In Bethlehem “the babe, the world’s redeemer, first revealed His sacred face.” To understand this great revelation of God’s love, we need to know the message of the Gospel in its fullness. That message is what the Prophets saw and foretold; it is the mystery opened up to Joseph in a dream by the words of Gabriel; and it is all the factual events to which the Apostles have borne witness.

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