Old Testament Readings 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Jeremiah 23:1-6
Epistle Reading: Ephesians 2:11-22
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon: “God With Us”
This morning we are going to take an opportunity to set back – way, way back, and look at the vast sweep of God’s dealings with this world he has created and with the 12 sons of one person in particular – the one whom God renamed Israel. We know him better as Jacob. Looking back in history that far is an awesome sight. Its sort of like looking out of an airplane window at 30,000 feet. The details are all missing, but the larger patterns are more easily seen. Instead of trees and flowers and houses and a street, we see forests and arrays of fields, whole cities and networks of roads connecting them.
The working of God in history is like that too. On the individual level, we see the sale of a little brat into slavey by his brothers, the anointing of a shepherd boy to be a king, gentile astronomers noting a new Star in the east. These are events separated by hundreds of years and seem to have nothing in common at all, until we back away and take the long view. The readings this morning seem very much like that. They relate moments hundreds of years apart, yet they are connected by a wondrous thread of grace and redemption.
Read individually, we sometimes lose sight of the glorious whole. So with your indulgence this morning, let me tell you a story of a people formed by God who where shaped and formed who fell away and who were brought back again and again. Of course, we have to pick a starting place. God has been at work since the creation of time itself, but Jacob will do for now. His family is a good starting spot because of the obvious disfunction, love, jealousy, grace, greed and providence that marks them as fitting examples of what God has chosen to work with throughout history.
Thought the brothers sold Joseph as a slave to get rid of him, God used Joseph to provide a place where not only could that family find safety in a time of drought and famine but also a place where they would be left alone to grow in a nation. Jacob knew and foretold of the great nation and great strife that would come of his boys and singled out one – Judah to be special – listen to this ancient hint of things to come: (Genesis 49:10 NIV) “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”
After nearly 400 years, God arranged for a little Hebrew boy to be adopted into Pharaohs house, to the taught to lead and then to spend 40 years in the backside of knowhere to learn the more important lesson of humility and patience. At the time of the exodus, it was a sizable people that God drew out of Egypt, Lead by Moses and his brother Aaron out to mount Sinai to meet God and to receive the laws that were to be their foundation for millennia to come. The failures were regular and the lessons harsh, but eventually this hoard of runaway slaves were forged into the special nation formed by God. They were lead into the land of Canaan where they prospered and struggled and often forgot their heritage. Along the way God appointed judges to lead them – last of all the great Priest and prophet Samuel.
At this point in the journey we swoop in a little closer for a moment to note another beginning – the Kingdom. When the people demanded a king, the first choice, Saul of the tribe of Benjamin didn’t work out too well. And so God chose another, this time from the tribe of Judah whom Jacob had prophesied about so many years before. We have been reading of David this summer, of his early bravery with Goliath and his struggles under Saul. With our reading today, David has finally become king over all of the tribes of Israel and has established secure borders and takes a pause to consider all that God has done for him. He decides that he should build a temple to God to hold the precious Ark of the covenant. But God has another plan – his son Solomon will build that structure, but God will create for David an eternal heritage – his line is to last forever as we heard clearly in Psalm 87 that called us to worship today.
It was a wonderful and gracious promise to a faithful, but oh so very human king. His sons prove to be every bit as much of a problem as had Jacobs so long before. His son Solomon rose to great splendor, but the forced labor and taxes that built up that Glory split the nation in two after his death. So now we journey back up and out in perspective and note the years of the divided kingdom – the heirs of David ruling in the southern kingdom of Judah, occasioned by a good and faithful king once in a while and the northern Kingdom of Israel – at times powerful, but never faithful. Ruled by an increasingly chaotic series of dynasties sometimes succeeding each other by assassination. Both nations felt the pull of the surrounding empires of Egypt and Assyria, often putting their trust in alliances and treaties rather than God. These as the Shepherds that Jeremiah bewails in his prophecy as the kingdom age comes to a close
Both nations fell into idolatry and injustice and so God allowed those surrounding nations to defeat and exile the descendants of Jacob. FIrst the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722BC only to be conquered themselves by the Babylonians who captured Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah in 586BC. Where now was this promise of an eternal kingdom? Did God lie? No, of course not, but another series of fundamental changes was on the way. Jeremiah hints at it when we read this morning (Jeremiah 23:5-6 NIV)  “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”
These are strange, brave words when Nebuchadnezzar’s army is at your gates! They must have seemed a forlorn hope when the nation is in exile for 70 years in a foreign land and Jerusalem lies in rubble. Yet Ezekiel writes from among those exiles saying.(Ezekiel 37:24-28 NIV)  “ ‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees.  They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.  I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever.  My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.  Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.”
God did bring them back from exile when the Persians conquered the Babylonians and let them go back. Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt, but there was no king. Later, they suffered further as Alexander the Great greek armies defeated the Persians and later still as the iron boot of Rome descended. All just as the prophet Daniel had said would come about. It was then that something so utterly unexpected, yet so longed and hoped for happened. It was just as the prophets had spoken – God entered history in a new way – in Person – specifically in the person of Jesus, the son of God – eternally with God in the Holy Trinity, but now revealed in human flesh. Isaiah proclaimed him Emmanuel – “God with us”.
This Jesus, whom we now honor as Lord and Savior, was born King of the Jews just as Matthew records the wise men from the east saying when they came to worship him. This marvelous coming which we celebrate every year at Christmas and again today, is a new and wonderful way in which God reveals God’s own self to us. Jesus lived among us, healed, taught and served his countrymen and others too. But now the story of Salvation takes several more rapid turns. He was rejected by his own and submitted to a cruel death. But of course that is not the end of the story. On the third day he was rose from the dead, forever shattering the power of sin and even death itself. Not only that, but he sent his disciples out in the power of the Holy Spirit to teach all nations.
You see, the grace of God has always been greater than any one country and one people, though in scripture, we are shown it mainly through Israel. It was natural I suppose for barriers to arise, but no more, as Paul reminds the congregations around Ephesus: (Ephesians 2:18-22 NIV)  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.  Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Now then, one more part of the story remains to be told. Would you take out Your Bibles and turn to the 29 chapter of the book of Acts, or as it was originally known: the Acts of the Apostles… Sorry, old preachers joke. There is no 29th chapter in Acts, it simply stops at 28 without comment or ending, because the rest of the story is still being written day by day in the lives of all who put their trust in Jesus Christ – Emmanuel, God with us. It has been nearly 2000 years since his resurrection and ascension back to heaven, but the story still continues. We celebrate Jesus’ coming and we look with eagerness for his return and the restoration of all things.
In the meantime, the church, like those ancient shepherds has similar responsibilities to lead and nurture, guide and protect. Never to wound or mislead or use for self interest. We are to seek the lost, heal the sick and practice sacrificial service just as Jesus did while he was here among us. It is common these days for people to morn the state of the world and think that things are truly horrible. They say that the church is dying and we are too small and weak to turn it around. Dear friends, this is what our 30,000 foot trip has been all about this morning. God is still sovereign and history is every bit as much in his hands today as it has always been. We are not in charge, God is. So… lets remember, rejoice and recommit ourselves to our God who is with us, and shapes us still. Its always Christmas for we always find ourselves in the presence of Emmanuel.