Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas 1 of Series A (Isaiah 63:7-14)

“In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixty-third chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: Where would we be without our memory? Can you imagine being unable to remember what has gone before in your life? We expect memories to fade throughout time- none of us has a perfect memory- but it would be a tragedy if we lost all of our memories. Medically we call such a condition amnesia, and it afflicts people for a variety of reasons. While medical amnesia is unfortunate, spiritual amnesia is even worse. When we have forgotten God’s past deeds, we can’t believe that He will help us here and now. Even more terrifying is amnesia on God’s part. If He forgets His past acts of salvation, then there is little reason to believe He will ever act to deliver us again. Isaiah knows this, he knows that we can trust God saving now because He has saved in the past, and so He calls on both us and God to remember. “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

God has acted to save His people in the past. In His great love, He established Israel as His treasured possession, the nation by which all other nations would be blessed. He said about them, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” Because they are His children, they will not deal falsely with Him. They will follow the covenant that He established with them, worshipping the true God, serving Him with their words and their deeds. They will remember who they are, His treasured possession, His people, His children. Their obedience doesn’t make them His children; instead, because they were His children, He called them to obedience. So when they were in trouble, in bondage in Egypt, Isaiah tells us that “He became their Savior.”

God saw their slavery and their suffering under Pharaoh’s taskmasters, and in one of the more beautiful phrases in all of Scripture, Isaiah tells us that “In all their affliction He was afflicted.” God Himself was afflicted because His people were afflicted, and His compassion and love moved Him to do something about that affliction. He identified with their need and acted to fulfill it. “The Angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity he redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” The Angel of His presence came among them and delivered them; He was God’s instrument of salvation, in Him the Lord fulfilled the title of Savior. The Angel of His presence led the people out of bondage, He carried them into the wilderness on the paths that led to the Promised Land. God saw their affliction, and He acted in salvation.

Just like a fairy tale, we would expect everyone to live ‘happily ever after.’ Having received such a great salvation, what more can the people do than obey this saving God and follow Him all their days? But even deliverance from Egyptian bondage does not rid them of their sin. Isaiah tells us that “they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit.” God mourns over the sin and rebellion of His people, it is a tragedy that moves Him to tears. It is the same grief that He had in the days of Noah, when the wickedness of mankind was so great that He send a devastating flood. Christian friends, what about you and me? How have we grieved the Holy Spirit like God’s people of old? He has given us such a great gift of salvation, but yet we still dwell in our sins. We come here on Sundays to drink of the deep well of the Gospel, and then live the rest of our lives as if what we do here matters little at all. The Holy Spirit has created faith within us, but so often Christians and Israelites trample on that faith with our thoughts, words, and actions. We can’t look down on God’s people in the wilderness for they are us. They have been given a great deliverance, as we have, and both of us have grieved the Holy Spirit. What is the consequence of such sin and rebellion? Isaiah tells us: “Therefore He turned to be their enemy, and Himself fought against them.”

We don’t like to think of God as an enemy, but because of mankind’s sin and rebellion, that is what He is. Who else could a just and holy God be than the one who punishes sin? In the wilderness, God turned around from leading His people and fought against them. He disciplined them for their grumbling and rebellion, teaching them that He is a God of justice, a God who cannot tolerate sin. God loves His people, but because of their rebellion, He became the enemy of the ones He loved. He must punish sin, and for us, those who have sinned, those who are corrupted by sin to our very cores, this is a scary thought. Sin brings justice, sin brings judgment, sin brings punishment. Our sin condemns us to join the Israelites as those whom Isaiah describes: “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned to be their enemy, and Himself fought against them.”
A God with amnesia is a scary thing. A God who does not remember past acts of deliverance has little reason to deliver in the future. Therefore, the words of Isaiah in verse eleven of our text are among the most comforting in all of Scripture: “Then He remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people.” In the original Hebrew text it is even more striking and sudden. “Then He remembered the days of old: Moses! My people!” He calls out the names of His beloved; He remembers. God remembers His past acts of salvation, He remembers His promises. But for God remembering isn’t some passive activity of the mind, instead it leads to activity, it causes Him to do something.

God was afflicted by our affliction. He saw our sin, our rebellion, and it grieved Him. And His response to our sin was remarkably similar to His response to the affliction of His people of old in Egypt. “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence saved them; in his love and in His pity He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Once again He sent as our Savior the Angel of His presence. This individual is known throughout the Old Testament as the Angel of the Lord, the Son of Man, the anointed one. We know of Him through the proclamation of the angels one winter’s night in Judea: “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’” This baby, dressed in rags and laying in straw, is the Angel of God’s presence, He is God truly present among us, Immanuel, God with us. And as He did in Egypt so long ago, the Angel of God’s presence has come to save.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus reenacts the Exodus. God sends the holy family to Egypt to flee the persecution of Herod, and then when the time is right, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus come out of Egypt and back into the Promised Land. Matthew quotes from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” The One who has come to bring the greater Exodus goes through His own exodus, proclaiming that He has come to lead us out of bondage. God remembered us, He remembered His love for us, He remembered His past acts of salvation, and He acted. Christmas is God’s answer to our sin, to our rebellion, as He sends once again the Angel of His presence among us, this time in our own human flesh. On the cross this Jesus will be afflicted by our affliction, as He paid the price for our sin and rebellion. The Father turned toward His Son as an enemy, because the Son bore all of our sin. The judgment rendered on the cross was that our sin has been paid for, death defeated, Satan crushed. The verdict is the same one that Isaiah declares in verse eight of our text: “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” Because Christ, His Son, the Angel of His presence, God Himself in the flesh, died for you, you are now God’s children. That is why Jesus was born as a child in Bethlehem, so that we may become God’s children. St. Paul puts it so well: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” God made Israel His people, His children in bringing them salvation from bondage in Egypt. He makes you and me His people, His children, in bringing us salvation from the bondage of sin.

In His love and compassion, Jesus carries you and me out of that bondage, and He leads us to the Promised Land. This child, whom shepherds guard and angels sing, is the Good Shepherd, leading His people like a flock to the green pastures of eternity. “Then He remembered the days of old, of Moses and His people. Where is He who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of His flock? Where is He who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused His glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for Himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name.” He leads His beloved flock from the bondage of sin to the rest of paradise, to the fertile fields of the Promised Land. That is their destination, that is their goal. He will lead them, He will carry them, He will shepherd them each and every step of the way. Like a horse galloping through the desert, they shall not stumble. You are that flock, the sheep of His pasture, and the Angel of God’s presence, the child born Immanuel will lead you to the destination that He promised to you. God has remembered you, and He has become for you a Savior, the Savior from sin and death. “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn king!’” Amen.

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