Fourth Sunday in Advent December 20, 1998
75, 90, 76, 70
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. So far the holy Word.
In Christ Jesus our Savior, Whose coming we again look forward at this season, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
How many of you are fans of Charles Dickens? He’s the author of David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, and A Tale of Two Cities. I have to confess that I’m not wild about his writings, although I was forced to read some of them in literature classes in school. There’s one work of his that I’ll bet you’re all familiar with, though—the story called, “A Christmas Carol”. Each year at this season, at least two or three different movie versions of the story appear on television. In it, you remember, a man called Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed, at Christmastime, from a penny-pinching miser into a generous lover of mankind. One might even call it a “miraculous” transformation. In fact, that’s exactly the kind of miracle people hope for at Christmastime—a warming of cold hearts, peace on earth, and love for one another.
We sort of get pulled along with that idea, too, don’t we? At Christmastime we hope for “little” miracles: we look forward to a certain Christmas spirit, a sort of pervasive cheer, and a softening of attitudes. But aren’t we hoping for too little? There are much greater miracles to be had at Christmastime! This season we’ve been considering a few of them, as we follow the series, Advent Invitations. Today we turn our attention to the virgin birth of our Savior, as foretold by the prophet. Our theme is—
Again this year, in pulpits of huge churches across the country, preachers are calling for great things in the name of Christmas. They are calling for world peace, freedom from hunger, the end of wars. In the name of the Christchild they are calling for an end to hostilities in the Middle East, and a cease-fire in Northern Ireland. It’s called the Social Gospel, and it’s what a lot of clergymen in the large, liberal churches concern themselves with. You’ll hear about it, of course, and you’ll probably take it all with a grain of salt. After all, these hopes are a little too ambitious, a little too huge. It’s just too much to hope for, even at Christmastime!
Is it too much to hope for—? Or is it too little? Christmas is a time of great miracles. In our Scripture Reading we heard how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear a Child. Even though she was a virgin, she would give birth to the very Son of God! In our text for this morning, the prophet Isaiah predicts this incredible happening, at a time when the actual fulfillment of the prophesy is still hundreds of years away. Chances are, though, that if you visited one of those large churches in Tacoma or Seattle, you wouldn’t hear much about the virgin birth. Did you know that even in the multi-million member ELCA—a church that calls itself Lutheran!—there are pastors and professors who deny the virgin birth? They say that such a miracle couldn’t happen, that Jesus’ only father was Joseph, or possibly even a passing Roman soldier with whom Mary was acquainted. Of course, that means that Jesus wasn’t really the Son of God, but that doesn’t seem to bother these so-called “Lutherans”. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be! The Apostle Peter warned us a long time ago that “…There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways.” II Pet 2:1-2.
But not us. We have not followed their destructive ways, and we never will! We believe that every syllable of the Bible is God’s inspired Word; we dare not add anything to it, or take anything from it. And that’s why we hope for great things at Christmas. Real miracles—impossible, unthinkable happenings! Christmas miracles like the one Isaiah predicted in our text, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son!”
Most of us here have been Christians all our lives. Sometimes I think the phrase “virgin birth” rolls off our tongues a little too easily. Every Sunday we confess, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary.” And sometimes we don’t pay much attention to it, do we? But stop and think about that statement for a moment. What an amazing miracle! For once, in the history of all mankind, conception would take place in the womb of a woman without the participation of a human father. That’s the “sign”—the miracle—that the Lord was predicting through Isaiah. It had never happened before, and it has never happened since.
The word “incredible” literally means, “not able to be believed.” This virgin birth was, literally, an incredible miracle. It was something people simply would not be able to believe. Mary must have known that. The news that the angel brought filled her with joy, but there must have been some second thoughts, too. Who would believe that she could still be a virgin as the months passed and the signs of her pregnancy became more and more obvious?
One person who believed it was Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. She believed it because the Lord had performed a miracle in her life, too. Although she had been old and childless, the Lord had promised that she and her husband Zechariah would bear a son: John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. In fact, Elizabeth was already six months along when Mary came to visit her. As soon as Mary stepped in the door, Elizabeth cried out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her of the Lord.” Lk 1:42-45.
And what about Mary’s promised husband? After all, they hadn’t begun to live together yet; what would Joseph think when Mary showed up on his doorstep pregnant? I’m afraid that for Joseph, too, this would have been a miracle that he would be unable to believe. So the Lord sent the angel Gabriel to Joseph, too. “Joseph, son of David,” he said, “do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” Mt 1:20-21. Then the angel quoted Isaiah’s prophesy. “Remember, Joseph? Remember what Isaiah said about a virgin bearing the Savior? Well, Mary is that virgin, and Jesus will be that Savior!”
It was incredible miracle—as incredible as if I were to tell you that tomorrow is the first day of July! But this miracle was true. Mary believed it, Elizabeth believed it, Joseph believed it, Isaiah believed it—and we believe it! But you know, the biggest miracle of all comes at the end of Isaiah’s prophesy: “…And you shall call His name Immanuel.”
“Immanuel”, meaning “God With Us.” Now there’s a miracle for you—that the Almighty God should come down to earth in the form of a human Child! That the Creator of the universe should consent to live on earth with us sinful mortals! Most amazing of all, that He should sacrifice His own life on the cross to save wretched sinners like you and me from hell! Because of our sins, God was against us. But now, because of Jesus’ perfect life, and innocent sufferings and death, God is WITH us! Through Christ, God is no longer our stern judge, but rather our loving Father. He provides for all our needs, and grants us free forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. And, as Paul said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” No one! With our Savior by our side, we have nothing left to fear, in this life or the next. That’s the real miracle of Christmas!
In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the story ends with old Ebenezer Scrooge changing his ways and giving generous gifts to his clerk Bob Cratchet and his family. Do you think that’s the miracle of Christmas? Do you think that’s love? Don’t hope for too little of Christmas. God wants us to hope for a lot! First John four, verse nine: “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In THIS is love”—AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.