The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Luke 21:25-36
In Christ Jesus, our Light in the darkness, our Joy in sorrow, our Hope in times of distress, dear fellow redeemed:
Well it’s that time of year. Major changes are just around the corner. It’s time for us to get ready! It’s time to put away our winter coats and snow shovels, take out the patio table and chairs, and tune up the lawnmower. If it were April or May, what I just said would make sense. But it’s not, it’s December. Our minds are not set on summer; we are focused on getting through the cold, dark days of winter.
But Jesus calls us to have a springtime mindset. He doesn’t want us to get sleepy in the long autumn and winter months. He wants us to be watchful, prepared. He wants us to recognize that His coming on the last day is drawing near. The signs of His return are all around us, just as budding trees and plants in springtime give evidence that “summer is already near.”
Jesus tells us what to watch for. A few verses before today’s text, He says that as His second advent approaches, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences” (Luk. 21:10-11). These things are all happening, and they have been for a long time. We have not experienced all of them ourselves, but they are certainly taking place around the world. And like we have learned this year with “pestilences,” these troubles can strike at any time and place.
Jesus identifies still more signs that will come before His return—“signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Some signs are welcome. When lights are hung outside, a tree is set up in the house, and beautifully wrapped gifts start to appear, children know that Christmas is coming. They look forward to it with great excitement. But the signs before Jesus’ second coming sound terrifying: roaring sea and waves, people fainting with fear, the powers of the heavens shaken. And then Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, will come “in a cloud with great power and glory.”
Why does the Lord have to choose such distressing signs to come before His return? Well they certainly get people’s attention. Jesus describes life-altering events that force people to reckon with their own mortality, to realize that they are not in control. But experiencing or observing a sign and correctly interpreting it are two different things.
When God knocks us sinners off our pedestals of power and pride, we usually just resolve to build bigger pedestals. Earthquakes, floods, or other disasters in nature happen, and we say we have to try to stop them somehow. The same goes for sickness and aging and maybe even death. Instead of understanding these things as reminders from God to get ready and stay focused on Christ’s return, we sinners stay focused on ourselves.
We look to other gods to help us, false gods. So when illness spreads in a community or on a larger scale like we have witnessed this year, people look first to medical practitioners for help and not to the almighty God. Their fervent commitment to this false god is even expressed in a creed-like way: “We believe in science,” as though science has never or could never fail.
Or we trust in some elected official as our god—he or she will make everything right. For many, nature is their god. They say that if we take better care of it, it will take better care of us. Some live as though the troubling signs that Jesus describes aren’t even happening. All they care about is their stuff, their prosperity, their pleasure-seeking. That is their god.
All of the gods we set up for ourselves are a corruption of what God intended for our good. He is the one who gives us medicine and skilled doctors and nurses, and we are most grateful for their care. He gives governing authorities to maintain order in society and to promote what is right. He gives us the beauty and abundance of nature which also sustains our life. He gives us the gifts of home and property. But instead of glorifying Him, our Creator, for these wonderful blessings, we want to give glory to the created thing.
Do you see why God needs to shake the world a bit? Why He needs to shake us? None of the false gods we look to can keep us from dying. None of them can save our soul. Only He can. He gives the terrifying signs He does because He loves us. He doesn’t want to let the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh “pull the wool over our eyes.” When troubles come our way, He wants us to look to Him, eyes wide open, focused on His promise to be merciful and gracious toward us.
Notice that when Jesus describes the signs of the end times, He doesn’t tell us to go find a bunker somewhere and hide. He doesn’t tell us to cower in fear. He says, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Now to “redeem” is to “buy back.” We have already been redeemed through Jesus’ death for us. Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).
So what “redemption” do we still have to look forward to? The redemption that draws near is our final deliverance from sin and every evil. When Jesus comes on the last day, we will no longer be troubled by the weakness of our flesh, the sorrow of death, or the devil’s temptations. All those things will be ended. Jesus will call His people, both the ones who are sleeping in the tomb and the ones who are yet alive, to come forth in glory. We “groan inwardly” waiting for this day, “[waiting] eagerly for… the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).
We should look eagerly for our Savior’s return and our final redemption. But it’s hard to stay focused on spring and summer when there is so much winter to live through. Winter drags us down. The cold, wind, and snow force us inside. We feel less hopeful. The dark, dreary days seem like they will never end. Worry gets the better of us, and we might try to address it by overindulging in food or drink or some other drug.
Jesus warns us to beware of such things in our physical life and our spiritual life. He warns us about being dragged down by the devil’s discouragements, closing ourselves off from others, feeling hopeless in the face of death. He tells us to “watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation [with the distractions of worldly living] and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”
Some get so stuck in spiritual winter that they stop looking for springtime. They stop trusting their Lord’s promise of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. They stop trusting God’s unchanging love and mercy toward them. They give themselves over to the darkness of the world.
But this winter will pass. Already the days before Christ’s return are getting longer and warmer. The birds are starting to sing. The green blades of grass are poking their heads through the soil. Bright leaves and blossoms are pushing out from the tips of hard, brown branches. It’s difficult to imagine this right now, but it’s true. The springtime of our salvation is here, which means summertime is right around the corner.
We know Christ’s return is coming because of the signs all around us. He told us these things would take place, and He told us how to interpret them. He does not send them to make us fearful, but hopeful. A much better future is in store for us. The Lord has made sure of it.
God the Father saw how we run after other gods, and how they leave us in despair. So He sent His only Son into our world as a Man. Jesus came to expose the impotence of those false gods, to destroy the power of the devil, to shine the light of life into darkened minds and hearts.
God’s Son came for you, to save your soul. He loved you so completely that He gladly accepted the punishment for all your wrongs. He died for you, and then He rose again to show you that death cannot win. Death will not keep you forever. As flowers emerge even after a long, frozen winter and come out in great beauty and splendor, so you will rise from your grave in glory when Christ returns.
The Summertime of Christ’s Return Is Coming. There are sorrows now, but joy is on the horizon. Now is the time for watchfulness and prayer. Winter does not last forever and neither will our trials. The world can mock us for our springtime mindset in these dark and dreary days. But we will stay dressed for action and keep our lamps burning (Luk. 12:35), because we know our Lord is coming, and that He is coming soon. We join the hymnwriter in singing with hope and joy:
O blessed Jesus, what You have given,
Through dying on the cross in bitter pain,
Has filled my heart with the peace of heaven;
My winter’s gone, and spring is mine again.
O Christian friends, let our song ascending
Give honor, praise to Him who set us free!
Our tribulations may seem unending;
But soon with Him we shall forever be. Amen. (ELH #61, vv. 2-3)
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from stained glass at Jerico Lutheran Church)
The Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In Christ Jesus, who gives us hope in our uncertainties and comfort in our struggles and sorrows, dear fellow redeemed:
We could list a lot of things that make us feel more pessimistic than optimistic about the future. Our country is divided politically, and the sides seem to be moving further apart rather than closer together. We have ongoing concerns about a virus that infects more people each day. We wonder how stable the economy will be going forward. But in the middle of these divisions and uncertainties, the inspired words of today’s text give us hope.
The apostle Paul sent these words to the Christians in Thessalonica. He had preached and taught among them for only a short time before he was forced to leave the town. Some jealous opponents had stirred up a mob against him and even dragged one of the new Christian converts before the authorities (Act. 17:1-10). From this time forward, it would have been uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous to be a Christian in Thessalonica.
But the Thessalonians remained faithful. They endured suffering and waited eagerly for Christ’s return in glory. They were told to expect His second coming very soon. But as time passed, these new Christians faced a new problem. Some of their fellow believers were dying. What were they to make of that? Would the dead miss out on the glorious return of Jesus and the promise of eternal life in heaven?
Paul’s letter brought them great comfort. He referred to the dead in the same way Jesus had spoken about a deceased little girl, that she was “not dead but sleeping” (Mar. 5:39). The crowd laughed at Jesus then, but they weren’t laughing when He took her by the hand and brought her back to life. For Jesus, waking the dead is just as easy as waking someone up from a nap. Death is only a sleep to Him, a temporary, peaceful slumber.
We should not wonder if Jesus can do this. We have the examples of His raising the little girl, the young man from Nain, and His friend Lazarus. But the most compelling evidence of Jesus’ power over death is His own resurrection from the dead. Not only could He raise others, He could even raise Himself! Now that’s power!
A whole bunch of people regard Jesus as a good teacher but nothing more. They lump Him in with teachers like Confucius, Buddha, or Muhammed. But when those men died, they stayed dead. Their flesh decayed, and perhaps by now their bones have even turned to dust. Jesus died, but His flesh did not see corruption. Death held Him for parts of three days—and only because He let it.
He entered death when He wanted to, and He left it again when He wanted to. There was nothing death could do to stop Him. Death was utterly overcome, defeated. Jesus triumphed over death and will never be subject to it again. That means death won’t be able to overcome us who trust in Him. “But how can you be so sure?” the skeptic asks. “Show me an example in modern history of someone being dead for a matter of days and coming back to life again.”
The world always wants proof on its terms. Past evidence does not count. They need to see it with their own eyes today. We sinners repeat the same mistakes as the sinners of the past. We hardly ever learn. Each generation thinks it is better and smarter and more righteous than the generations before it. It is our common human pride and conceit.
This self-centeredness is why many refuse to believe that Jesus rose from the dead two thousand years ago or that He will raise the dead in the future. They are like doubting Thomas. They won’t trust the multiple eyewitness accounts of others. They need to see it with their own eyes, or they won’t believe it (Joh. 20:24-25). “If Jesus has this power,” they say, “let Him come down here and show us. If He brings someone back from the dead, then we will believe in Him.”
But even that wouldn’t be enough. Sinful people always find something to question, some reason for doubt. If Jesus came back and raised a dead person to life, many would say it was a trick. They would come up with some logical explanation for it. Seeing would not lead to them believing.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Joh. 20:29). He wants us to take Him at His Word. He has the right to expect that, doesn’t He? After all, He is the one who predicted His own resurrection and then followed through on it. If He made good on that promise, why wouldn’t He make good on His promise to raise the dead on the last day?
Paul made it clear that he wasn’t putting down his own opinions or wishes in his letter. He said, “this we declare to you by a word from the Lord.” The Lord promises that those who are alive when He comes on the last day will not have any advantage over those who are asleep in their graves. He will come with a great shout, and His powerful Word will awaken the dead. Then all believers will rise with glorified bodies that no longer show any effect of sin.
After the dead have risen, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The word translated “caught up” has the sense of a sudden and intense action. We will be snatched up to the clouds by the Lord. We won’t have to wait for our redemption. It will happen immediately when Jesus comes.
It won’t come a moment too soon. We long for Jesus’ return. This world is not where we want to be. As Christians first sang in the 12th century, so we still sing, “The world is very evil, / The times are waxing late” (ELH #534, v. 1). In the Holy Gospel for today (Mat. 24:15-28), Jesus describes the tribulation of the end times. “[I]f those days had not been cut short,” He said, “no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”
So what is Jesus waiting for? The apostle Peter reminds us “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Pe. 3:8-9). Jesus is not sleeping on the job or dragging His feet. He is showing patience with sinners. He wants them all to repent and be saved and join Him in heaven.
But we are not patient like our Lord is. This is why many are tempted to follow after “false christs and false prophets” (Mat. 24:24). We are tempted to follow after the smooth-talking liars who promise a prosperous life here on earth, a life without suffering, a life without trouble. Even if they could deliver on those promises, these false teachers can’t give life to the dead. Anyone who promises hope and salvation apart from the crucified and risen Christ is of the devil.
Apart from Jesus, there is no reason to be hopeful about anything. But with Jesus, we are filled with hope. So while our country is divided, and many of our politicians seem more interested in serving themselves than others, Jesus reigns as King over all things at the right hand of the Father. While people are getting sick this year at higher rates than usual, Jesus has the power to heal the sick or bring the souls of believers to heaven to be with Him. While there may be uncertainty in our financial plans and holdings, Jesus has secured eternal riches for us that will never pass away.
You can wring your hands and worry and lose sleep trying to control things you can’t control—and we all do plenty of that. But the Lord calls you to trust in Him, to trust that He will keep His promises toward you. Now leaving your life and your future in God’s hands like this is difficult. Your sinful flesh does not want to give up any of its independence or its perceived power. If you are going to place your trust in Him, you want proof that He isn’t going to let you down.
“You want proof?” He says. “Then look at Me hanging on the cross for you, shedding My blood to cleanse you from your sins. And come look into My empty tomb. I left it because death could not conquer Me. I rose from the dead to win victory over your death. I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus will not leave you to fight for yourself in this evil world. He came to save you not because He had to but because He wanted to. And He still fights for you, coming to give you strength through His Word and Sacraments and dwelling within you by faith.
As long as you have Jesus, your situation will never be hopeless. He promises to carry you through all your pain and sorrow in this short life and to take your soul to be with Him when you breathe your last. Then He promises to come again to wake your body from its peaceful sleep, so that you can enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven in both body and soul.
You can be certain of your resurrection because His resurrection is certain. The Holy Spirit states it definitively through the mouth of Paul: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” Put Your Hope in the Resurrected One. Then you will have a living hope, a hope that no one can take from you, a hope that will never die.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Second Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 15:4-13
In Christ Jesus, on whose blood and righteousness our hope of eternal life is built, dear fellow redeemed:
If God let you see who in your community would be going to heaven, how do you think you would react? Maybe He would reveal crowns on their heads visible only to your eyes. I think what you saw would surprise you. “You mean that person is going to be saved? This can’t be right!” “But what about them? Where are their crowns? There must be some mistake!” It may well be that some of the good and kind people you know will not be counted among the believers on the last day. And some of those who seem especially wicked now may be standing next to you praising the Lord.
The Israelites in the Old Testament could hardly imagine that the unbelieving peoples around them might ever join them in worshiping the true God. These pagans worshiped false gods and ignored God’s moral law. The Scriptures refer to them as belonging to the “nations,” a word that is also translated “Gentiles” like it is in today’s Epistle. A “Gentile” was a non-Israelite, one who did not know the Scriptures.
The Israelites had strict instructions to stay away from the Gentiles, so they would not be tempted to sin like they did. The Israelites did not always listen to this warning. As we know from Old Testament history, they often joined the Gentiles in their wickedness and worshiped other gods. At the same time, we also have examples of Gentiles who repented of their former ways and joined the Israelites. Rahab was one of these. She left her life of prostitution, married an Israelite man, and was part of the ancestral line of Jesus (Mat. 1:5).
In other words, nationality or family background were not the determining factors for whether or not a person believed. If these were the only factors, faith would not matter. As long as you had the right bloodline, the right family tree, you wouldn’t have to think much about your behavior or your actions. This could only lead to entitlement thinking and racism to the highest degree. There’s enough of that in the world; we don’t need it in the church too.
In the world, one group rejects another because of the color of their skin, the language they use, or where they came from. None of those factors should make a bit of difference to the members of Christ’s church. If you and I were to exclude others because of their family origins or background, don’t we see that we should exclude ourselves as well? I think most if not all of us descended from those pagan nations, from the Gentiles. These were the peoples the LORD carefully guarded the Israelites from.
Why did He do that? The LORD wanted the Israelites to be separate in order to preserve the promise, His promise. He said to Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). “All the nations” would be blessed through Abraham, because the Savior would come through Abraham. So God had to preserve a remnant who would know this promise and hand it down through the generations. This was done through the teaching of the Scriptures. The Scriptures were sometimes tucked away in a closet and forgotten about, but they were never lost.
We still have the Old Testament Scriptures today. That was by God’s design. In today’s Epistle, St. Paul states, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Then Paul goes on to quote the Scriptures. He quotes from the inspired words of David in Psalm 18(:49), then from Moses (Deu. 32:43), then from another Psalm (117:1), then from Isaiah (11:10). What do all these say? They tell us that God planned salvation not only for His chosen people, but for the Gentiles too.
This is good news for us! It means it is possible for anyone to be saved. We tell our kids that it is possible they could be the president of the United States one day. But that possibility does not apply to everyone. It only applies to those who were born as citizens of this country, who have lived here at least fourteen years, and are at least thirty-five years old.
The Gospel promise is for all people in all places. Jesus came to atone for everyone’s sins. Each person’s sin was counted against the Lord, not just the sins of those who would enter heaven someday. Jesus died in the place of both Jews and Gentiles, both males and females, both the outwardly good and the outwardly bad.
This shows us how great the mercy of the Lord is. It’s one thing to have mercy on someone you like, who displays humility and respect, and who showers thanks upon you for your kindness. But what about someone who curses your name, spits in your face, and casts your gifts aside? This is how we and the rest of the world were toward Jesus. Collectively we sinners sent Him to the cross. We sent Him there as though He were the wrongdoer, as though He were the law-breaker, as though He were the worst sinner—much worse than we are.
Jesus endured all this for us. That’s how merciful He is! That’s how much He loves us. Earlier in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:7-8). Christ died for sinners. That means He died for you.
When you pray for His mercy, you don’t have to wonder if He will give it. He has, He does, and He will. He is merciful even when we are not. Maybe we look at some members of our community as “second class.” Or we pick on people because of how they look. Or we love to remind others of the mistakes they have made. Or we treat those who disagree with us as less than human. Or we refuse to forgive someone because we want them to suffer like we have.
Mercy is not a natural component of human nature. Our sinful nature directs us toward selfishness, revenge, and a judgmental attitude. God had to teach us what mercy is, and He taught it through His Son. He did not give us what we deserved, which is eternal torment in hell for our sins. He gave us grace and forgiveness. He did this because His Son willingly took our place. His perfect Son was willing to bear the holy wrath of God, so we would have His mercy. God will not punish you for your sins, either now or in eternity. He punished His Son in your place instead.
Jesus died for you, but not just for you. He died for everyone around you too. Instead of imagining the people of our community as likely or not likely to join us in heaven based on their background, their circumstances, or their outward appearance, we should look at them as God does. God looks upon them with mercy. They are still living and breathing. Their fate—as far as we know—is not sealed. They need grace and forgiveness and hope just as much as we do. “Therefore welcome one another,” writes Paul, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
The Roman congregation to which Paul first addressed his letter was not perfectly united. It consisted of both Jewish and Gentile converts. Their backgrounds and customs were very different. One was a background of strict obedience to God’s law. The other was a background of license and freedom. How could the two ever come together? Their common ground was Christ, who fulfilled the Commandments for both, and who shed His holy blood for them all.
This is what has brought us together here as well. We do not all think the same. We do not see everything the same way. Sometimes our personalities clash, and we find it difficult to get along. But we are drawn together and kept together by the blood of Jesus. None of us is above another. None of us has more to boast about than another. None of us is more treasured in God’s sight than another. Each of us is equally forgiven of our sins, and each is clothed in the spotless garment of Jesus’ righteousness.
This, dear friends in Christ, is our hope. It is not an uncertain hope, a desperate hanging-on-by-our-fingertips kind of hope. Our hope is securely rooted in Jesus. It is a sure hope. This is the hope Paul writes about, which is planted and grows in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word. Where this hope is, there is faith toward God and love toward our neighbor, and there is a joyful anticipation of Christ’s return.
Do not let the devil, the world, and your own sinful weakness lead you to despair. The Lord looks upon you with mercy, and He will soon come again to free you from this world of trouble. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is window from Jerico Lutheran Church)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 1:18-25
In Christ Jesus, our Hope, our heart’s Delight (ELH #94, v. 1), dear fellow redeemed:
Before there were Christmas elves and bell ringers outside grocery stores, before there were letters addressed to the North Pole and a reindeer named Rudolph, before there was a man dressed in red and white whose belly shook like a bowl full of jelly, before lights were hung on houses and in trees, before there were Christmas trees and Christmas stockings, before a faithful pastor named St. Nicholas lived and worked in the third and fourth centuries—before all these things, there was Christmas, the birth of the Christ-Child, God come in the flesh.
But what was there before that? There was hope. There was hope that the woman’s Seed would crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). There was hope that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s Offspring (Gen. 22:18). There was hope that a living Redeemer would raise His people from the dead (Job. 19:25-27). There was hope that a Prophet like Moses would arise (Deu. 18:15). There was hope that a Prince of Peace would come (Is. 9:6). There was hope that a righteous Branch would grow from the line of Jesse (Is. 11:1) and David (Jer. 23:5-6) to rule in justice forever. There was hope.
But along with hope there was doubt. Doubt always accompanies hope; the devil and the flesh make sure of it. Doubt is quiet but persistent: Are you sure? What if this is all made up? What if there is no God? What if all the things you thought were fact are nothing but a fairy tale? Imagine living before the birth of Christ. You would have no idea when God’s promises would become reality. There was no countdown clock. The periods “B. C.” and “A. D.” were instituted long after Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. At the time of Adam or Noah or Abraham or David, you would not know if the coming of the Messiah was one year away, 1000 years away… or perhaps not at all.
All you had to go on was the Word. That doesn’t always seem like much. It does not satisfy the thirst for proof. Isn’t that the rallying cry in our day against everything recorded in the Bible? “Prove it!” But whether it passes any sort of objective or scientific test is not as important today as whether it passes the test of the heart. The main thing is how a person feels about what the Bible says. So then what is true for one, may not be true for another.
What does this lead to? It results in an unsure Word, a changing Word, one that is adjusted to fit the person instead of the other way around. A wavering Word means a wavering hope. Hope must stand on something solid, or it cannot stand at all. Without the promises given in the Bible, there would be no cause for anyone to be hopeful about anything in this life. If there is no forgiveness, we remain in our sins. If there is no life, we are on our way to a bitter death. The Apostle Paul wrote that as long as any are separated from Christ, they are without “hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Joseph was not without hope. He was an Israelite and a descendant of King David. He was taught the Old Testament Scriptures as all Jewish children were, and he worshipped in his local synagogue. It is evident that he believed what he had been taught, since in today’s text he is referred to as “a just man.”
This “just man” became acquainted with a young woman named Mary. He asked if she would be his wife, and she agreed. It was a love story unlike many we see in sitcoms and movies today. Joseph and Mary did not hop in bed together after getting to know each other a bit. Even after they were engaged, they did not engage in sexual activity, because they were not married. They knew the meaning of the Sixth Commandment. They knew that to act otherwise was to go against God’s will.
Joseph thanked God for blessing him with a pious woman. He looked forward with joy to his wedding day as any godly man would. But then the horrible discovery: Mary was pregnant! How could she! How could he have not seen her for what she was? Was he so gullible, so ignorant? His heart broken, Joseph made plans to end their engagement. He could have made a public example of her, but instead resolved to end things quietly. He would leave the justice to God.
But before he had done this, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The angel told him to take Mary as his wife, for her child was not from man but from God. Her child in fact was God, who would “save His people from their sins.” Joseph woke up with a much different mindset than before. Before, he could hardly hope to be happy again. Now, there were two reasons for happiness: 1) Mary had not betrayed him after all, and 2) the Savior had come!
Joseph had hope, but that doesn’t mean he was without doubt. If you were in his shoes, wouldn’t you wonder if you might be the greatest fool in history? What if the angel in his dream was just a figment of his imagination? Then he would be about to marry someone who was both immoral and untruthful. Had his mind cooked up this hopeful dream as a way to cope with the betrayal of the woman he loved?
But there was something more to Joseph’s hope than the message of the angel. The evangelist Matthew helps us see this by quoting the words of the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel.’” Joseph knew this prophecy. It was written down by Isaiah over 700 years before this. It states clearly that an “Immanuel” would come, a “God with us,” who would be born of a virgin. God had chosen lowly Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, to bear the Savior of the world.
This prophecy in Isaiah is a major sticking point for those who deny the virgin birth today. They try to argue that the word for “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 can also be translated as “young woman.” They say that Isaiah must have been talking about some young woman who had a baby at that time. According to these skeptics, not only is a virgin birth impossible, but it would have been impossible for Isaiah to predict something so clearly hundreds of years before it happened. They say that if there was a Mary living in Nazareth some 2000 years ago, she conceived a child in the natural way, either with Joseph or some other man.
But if they don’t believe what the Bible says, why do they waste their time telling us so? If, as they say, the Bible is a collection of man-made fables, why do they argue about the details? It is because they don’t want you to believe it either. If they can get you to deny the virgin birth, it is just a small step beyond to deny everything the Bible says about Jesus. The Bible claims that Jesus is God from eternity, but He cannot be that if He was conceived naturally.
And what do these pagans gain by their assault on God’s Word and God’s people? With the Bible out of the way, they might be able to quiet their conscience to some extent. They might feel more comfortable in their sin. But they haven’t gained any hope. If there is no God, if God did not become man and suffer and die for sinners and rise again, then life has no real purpose, it has no goal. Then a person is left with empty accomplishments, meaningless possessions, and the guilt of a life poorly lived. But if the Lord has come, and if He came to rescue sinners from their miserable condition, then there is purpose for this life, then there is an end goal. Then there is hope.
We have hope. Our hope is not based on anything in us, on our own thinking and doing. Like Joseph, our hope is based on what God says, what He promises. God knows how we struggle to hang on to this hope. He knows how the devil and our own flesh tempt us to doubt. This is why He gives us Means to strengthen us. He gives pastors to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments. And He gives fellow Christians to encourage us along the way.
In these things that are seen, God gives us hope it what is unseen (Rom. 8:24-25). He gives us the sure and confident hope of life in heaven whenever our lives in this world come to an end. Eternal life is ours because Jesus saved us from the death and hell we deserved. Sin separated us from God, but Jesus reconciled us again by His innocent suffering and death. It is as the angel told Joseph, “He will save His people from their sins.” This is why He was to be called Jesus, a name which means, “The LORD saves.”
Jesus came to save you, to be your Immanuel. He came to give you hope of a future much brighter and a life far greater than this one. It is a hope that comes only by God’s grace and only through the power of His Word. It is through this Word that you, and Joseph and Mary, and all the faithful have been “born again to a living hope” (1Pe. 1:3). The incarnate Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, who died and rose again for you and all sinners—He is the reason for the season, and the “reason for the hope that is in you” (3:15).
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(painting of the angel’s visit to Joseph is by Toros Roslin, 1262)