DO NOT BE AFRAID! GOD IS WITH US!

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Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

 

We must have missed the sign.  My brother and I were hiking Picacho Peak in Arizona, probably 15 years ago.  It’s a pretty demanding trail. In some places you have to pull yourself up rock faces using anchored cables.  There are sharp drop-offs and steep switchbacks.  It’s a pretty intense climb.  And we made it much worse for ourselves because, as I said, we must have missed a sign.  On our way back down we ended up on the wrong path, if you can even call it that.  I don’t remember seeing any footprints in the few places where there was dirt.  Basically, we were on a sheer rock with what I would guess was a 400-800 foot drop-off to the left, trying not to slip to our death.  My brother was a little bit more of an experienced mountaineer than I was (he spent 5 years serving one of our WELS schools on the Apache Reservation in AZ), but I remember asking him one of those panicked questions that makes no sense, “What happens if I fall?”  His response was, “Don’t fall.”  Well, we made it back, but missing a sign was unnerving to say the least.

Talk about missing signs. Could you imagine if people had missed a weather report or a road closed sign earlier this week?  I drove north of town on 83 just to see for myself how bad it was out there.  Driving north of the new Bismarck Motor Company was crazy.  For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was in my lane or the other.  I couldn’t tell where the cars were.  I knew the intersection with 71st Ave was coming, but I couldn’t see where.  A true North Dakota blizzard is nothing to mess with.  It could be terrifying to miss a sign in a winter whiteout.

Joseph had missed the sign.  We are first introduced to this carpenter from Nazareth during his own personal nightmare.  Remember the events?  Joseph was pledged to be married to a girl named, Mary.  That means he had courted her in the customary Jewish way.  He had paid Mary’s parents their asking price for her hand in marriage.  They had publically made their vows and signed all the legal documents signaling that these two were “off limits”.  People would view them as husband and wife. It would take a divorce to end that relationship.  They were just waiting for the appointed time when Joseph would go over to Mary’s house and take her to his home to move in with him and begin their lives together.  That’s when the big celebration would take place.

But before that, his world came crashing down.  One day Mary showed up pregnant.  Can you imagine the things that ran through his head?  “Why!?!!! Mary, what did you do?  What did I do wrong?  Who’s the father of this baby?  What’s going to happen to me?  What should I do with you?”  Joseph misses the sign.  It’s very clear that his legal wife is pregnant, but he doesn’t understand what’s really happening.  It didn’t make sense. The way he was looking at things it was horrible news.  He couldn’t see the sign.  He didn’t understand the big picture.  I don’t know if any of us blame him.  He needed help to see things from a better vantage point.

I know I can relate to that, can you?  Missing a sign is downright dangerous on a mountain trail or in a whiteout storm, but those aren’t the only scary times for us.  Christmas can be filled with anxiety and fear.  Are all the plans coming together? Are you staying within the budget?  Are they going to like what you give them?  On a scale of 1 to 10 how well have you been avoiding the Christmas stress?  Christmas can get chaotic. I know I’ve felt the pinch about services and sermons and classes and, Lord-willing, the follow-up with guests.

But it’s not just Christmas.  Every day in this life there is some pretty scary stuff out there.  Maybe it’s not what Joseph was going through, but it can cause just as much fear and confusion.  Do you every wonder why there is a really popular course from David Ramsey called Financial Peace University?  It’s because finances and planning your future is scary, especially if you are putting so much emphasis on that part of your life.  Relationships can be scary.  What’s he going to think of my faith?  What’s her past like?  Is this working?  Do they have what you’re looking for?  So many questions can come to mind that some people are afraid of it.  No one wants to be another statistic.  And how about illness?  Coughs can turn into the flu and the flu can turn into pneumonia and that can lead to a hospital stay.  How about cancer?  That’s a scary word and it’s becoming more and more familiar.

How do you handle these things?  Well, how was Joseph handling his situation?  He had a few options.  He could accept Mary’s news and take her anyways.  He could do what most would do and publically draw attention to an unfaithful spouse.  Mary’s life would never be the same, and Joseph’s would be much better.  Or he could go easy on her, taking advantage of the lax divorce procedures of the day by sending her away quietly.  That way Mary would have to deal with everything alone.  But imagine the fears going through Joseph’s head as he considers each option.  There’s the slanderous gossip and the snobbish glances.  No one likes that feeling that other people are talking about you behind your back.  There are the fallen hopes of the families.  There’s the baggage that he would carry into the future of one failed marriage…before it even got going.   For a good guy like Joseph, there’s the fear for Mary.  What’s a pregnant teen going to do with no man in the picture?  She’d be damaged goods and go to a man of far less character.  No matter what option he picked, it was going to be an unsettling few months.

Do you know what?  Whichever option we pick doesn’t get rid of our fears in life, either.  The bottom of a bottle doesn’t remove fear.  The internet has tons of life hack videos and self-help solutions, but it can’t remove fears.  More stuff doesn’t make the scary stuff go away. Financial peace, a healthy and happy start to a relationship, or advancement in medicines cannot cover up fears.  See, when the focus is on the trouble, the pain, the stress, the problems, then the fear remains and always will.  When we miss the sign, we’re going to feel a lot like Joseph was feeling.

Can you notice how does God sees the situation? What’s his point of view?  For Mary and Joseph it was a trying time, but God was going to use it as a blessing for men, women and children across all the world of all time.  It was not going to be easy for them for the next few years, but God was going to work it out for good for them and for all.  God has a way of doing that.

Do you think God can still do that for you?  Can the eternal King of all creation work things out for your good, for your spiritual and eternal benefit?  Can he get rid of your fears?  Of course!  God relieves our fears by getting us to take a step back from our own personal problems and see the much bigger picture that God has painted with our lives.

Joseph just needed God to show him that this was all working out according to plan, his plan, his all-knowing and all-powerful plan. God wanted Joseph to know, “Mary has not been unfaithful to you.  This is the sign that everyone has been waiting for.”   The angel appeared to Joseph to help him see God’s view.  The angel said, “You don’t need to be afraid.”

Fear is always going to hurt you.  It was tearing Joseph up at this point. Fear is the exact opposite of faith.  Fear doesn’t see God’s promises, purposes, and plans. Living in fear is so dangerous for us eternally because fear destroys us.  And that’s why God has such a great way of taking our fears away.

The angel calls Joseph the son of David.  But Joseph’s dad was Jacob.  He’d be familiar with people saying, “Joseph, son of Jacob, come over here…”  “Joseph, son of Jacob, what are you doing over there?”  It wasn’t Joseph, son of David.  But that’s how God wants the angel to address him, because he wants Joseph to remember the he is a descendant of the great King.  David ruled God’s people.  Even though there were plenty of battles and plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns, David buried his fear with faith in God’s never-failing, never-ending promises.   Whether he was fighting Philistines, unruly family members trying to ruin him, or ungodly giants, David knew that faith in God’s promises overcomes fear.  God has the angel call him “son of David” because he wants Joseph to remember the promise of David’s son.

The promise of David’s son was the sign that so many people missed, but not anymore.  Joseph didn’t need to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife because this was the sign for all people that we have a God who keeps his promises, we have a God who does things this world cannot fathom, we have a God who loves us enough to leave heaven.

That was the sign, after all.  “Don’t you remember, Joseph?  Can’t you hear Isaiah?  ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’  Joseph, I’m not going let you miss the sign.  Mary is that virgin.  She’s going to give birth to a son.  You are going to call him, Immanuel.  Joseph, that means I’m going to live with you.  You won’t need to be afraid, because I am coming.  This child is the Promised One.  What has been hidden for generations is coming into the world.  Joseph, that’s the sign: God is with us in person.

Brothers and sisters, we have the same God, who left heaven to be with us in the flesh.  That’s our sign, too.  And by God’s grace he made sure we wouldn’t miss it.  Jesus wasn’t here to crush us.  He wasn’t here to judge us.  He wasn’t here to teach us how to earn heaven.  He was here to rescue us.  He was here to live among us and remove the fears forever.  He was here to open heaven for people who keep forgetting, for people who are scared and alone, for people who are lost and condemned.  God is with us.

You know, I went back to Picacho Peak.  It was a few years later with my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, and Mandy.  We did the whole thing again.  There were still really steep sections with cables to pull yourself up.  It was still a sheer rock face.  But this time there was no fear, because we saw all the signs.  It never felt like we were on a path that had never been walked.  It never felt like I was doomed to death.  What a difference it is when you actually see and understand the signs.

Joseph woke up and he didn’t miss the sign.  It was all true.  Somehow, someway God had found a way to make it clear to him.  And the sign, a virgin with child giving birth to Immanuel, would change the world.  No more fear, because God is with us.  That’s how we prepare for Christmas fearlessly.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

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THIS IS FRUIT-BEARING SEASON

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Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” 

4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

 

2 feet of snow has a way of signaling a few things.  All the feelings of fall have been rudely stopped cold in their tracks. It sure was nice while it lasted, but it’s all gone now.  Winter has arrived!  This year it was swift kick in the face.  There was no introduction, just one of the bigger storms ND has seen over the past decades.  So that means we will enjoy this white winter wonderland for the next 4, maybe 5, months.

And yet, at this time the appointed readings from God’s Word tell us in the cold snowy north to get ready for fruit.  In fact, every year at this time God tells us in worship to prepare as you would for a harvest.  He says there are things we must produce.  And he’s not talking about writing up a Christmas list or taking a shopping trip.  He’s not talking about decorating or baking.  Because this is fruit-bearing season.

If that is the case, that God says this can be a fruit-bearing season, then do you ever wonder why during these exciting days we put so much emphasis on a tree that has been cut down (or a fake representation of it)?  I mean, why did we spend all that time last week setting this stuff up.  None of it is living.  None of it is producing anything for us or for God.  Those trees that have been cut down are dying and there’s nothing that can stop it.  But every year we do the same thing.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas we spend money and time picking out the right tree, or we spend time and serious, backbreaking energy hauling this lifeless representation of a tree out to our living room.  It has become one of the main things that mark our preparations, but this kind of tree is never going to be productive.  There is never any useful fruit from it.  So, to cover up that fact, on this dying tree we attach lights to make it shine brightly and beautifully.  It might hide the fact that the tree is not in good shape, but it won’t change the outcome.  We also add little round balls to ornament this tree with fake “fruit.”

Did you know that’s kind of how ornaments started?  Without going into too much detail, people in Europe and America in the 1800s were doing this Christmas tree thing, too.  But the trees were decorated with candles, paper roses, beads, snowflakes, and little treats.  Well, as the story goes some people wanted to add edible snacks to the tree.  And because people during winter were always looking forward to spring, some thought it would be a good idea to put fruit on the trees as a way to ponder and promote growth and new life that would be coming.  After a while, the tree became more about decorating, so the fruit changed to round and shiny ornaments that symbolized fruit.

I don’t think that’s what John the Baptist had in mind, do you?  When he said produce fruit, he wasn’t talking about hanging little balls on a dying or fake tree.  It’s all a commercialized sham now.  And we eat it up.  Getting into the Christmas spirit with a tree, lights and ornaments isn’t going to give you the productivity that you need this year.  It’s a dying or fake tree.

Now, I have nothing against a Christmas tree.  There is some good symbolism to it and it does add to the overall festive nature of Christmas.  But I think that this whole Christmas tree thing serves as a great illustration today as we listen to God’s Word.  It describes what is wrong in our lives.

God saw it happening long ago.  People were trying to cover up the problems in their lives. Back in the days of Isaiah, the prophet, they were saying things like, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about?  We are God’s chosen nation.  We are descendants of Abraham.  Nothing can happen to us.  We’ll be fine.”  They did what they wanted and I’m sure it they convinced themselves that it was ok, because at least they weren’t as bad as other people.

Then, centuries later John the Baptist comes to prepare people again.  And there were people who didn’t learn.  These Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious gurus.  They knew the Old Testament. They knew what happened to God’s chosen nation, both the highs and lows.  They knew how God kept his promises to people who didn’t deserve it.  And when John started preaching out in the desert these religious leaders thought he was nuts.  They said, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about?  We are God’s people.  We have Abraham as our forefather.  We follow the laws. We’ll be fine.”

Do you notice how they were just like these dying trees that we put in our houses at this time of year?  They were trying to ignore the reality of their sinfulness.  They were trying to make their life shine brighter than others do by their actions and their religiousness.  They were ornamenting their lives to look good on the outside, but it didn’t change the facts.  They were dying inside.

People still haven’t learned.  Today the preparations for Jesus’ coming can look pretty similar.  We can be like the dying trees.  You try to cover up the problems.  You try to hide the mistakes.  You illuminate what is good and ornament our lives with what the world calls fruitful and productive things.  “As long as there is more good than bad in my life, then I’m fine.  And have you noticed the kind of people in this world.  Look at all those protesters out there.  I would never be like them.  I would never spread lies or cover up facts.  I would never cause mischief or harm for others.”  And have you ever noticed how we bring up family connections when it comes to religion?  “My family tree is full of Christians.  I went to church and Sunday school as a kid.  I went to Lutheran high school or I want to send my kids to a Lutheran high school.  That means I’m a healthy branch on a healthy tree.  Nothing is wrong with me.”

Friends, there is a reason why John tells us today to “produce fruit in keep with repentance.”  Because so often the kind of stuff we come up with won’t produce that kind of fruit.  Repentance is not trying to convince yourself that you aren’t that bad.  Repentance is not trying to make a dying tree look productive and beautiful.  Repentance is not making your life better than callused criminals, disgruntled coworkers, or passionate protesters.  Repentance is not what I do so that God will give me what I want.  That kind of repentance does not exist.  It’s fake.  It takes the focus away from God and puts it on others and me.  When that’s where my focus is, how can I be productive?  How can I be on a straight path to heaven?

This Christmas, when my focus is on doing all the things that other people, or the TV commercials, or the internet deals and steals are telling me to do then I’ll have a great December 24 and 25. But it won’t be a great Christmas.  It won’t be productive for my faith. It won’t be productive to others.  It won’t be fruitful for God.  And John tells me and he tells you what happens to a tree that isn’t productive and fruitful. “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

God has done it before.  The family tree of Abraham was falling apart.  Branch after branch became diseased and fell off.  The family tree of God’s chosen people resembled those firs and spruces that people throw out in January.  The fruit God was trying to produce was gone.  God warned them.  With such fatherly love and patience, he warned them.  He said unproductive, fruitless trees serve no purpose.  They get cut down.  And then it happened.  God cut down the family tree of Abraham.  They were cut off from the land of Israel.  Their homes were destroyed.  God’s own house, the Temple, was leveled.

Now, we might think that nothing good, nothing productive, nothing fruitful would come from that.  And I know that we make stuff out of dead trees. Lumber is good for lots of stuff.  I even have a fire pit in my back yard so that I can enjoy burn up old dead wood for cooking and s’mores.  But a dead tree isn’t going to live.  It isn’t going to produce fruit.  It’s isn’t going to produce seeds for more trees.  It’s dead.

Did you hear what Isaiah spoke about 700 years before those Pharisees and Sadducees went out to see this crazy prophet by the Jordan River?  “A shoot will come from the stump… from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”  Do you know what that says?  It says God doesn’t do things the way this world does things.

We know that a cut off tree isn’t going to be productive.  All the time spent decorating and ornamenting isn’t going to bring the tree to life and make it fruitful again.  And we know that the stump doesn’t do much good either.  You grind a stump away.  You dig it up so you can do something useful with that spot in your yard or that soil.  But the way God looks at it, he sees possibilities with the stump.

See, out of the ruble that was left in Abraham’s family tree God kept a promise.  He said through Abraham all nations would be blessed.  12 generations later, there was a man named Jesse and again, God promised to his son, King David, that there would be a king that would sit on his throne forever.  And even after God cut that whole family tree down, God saw the hope.   A little offshoot sprang up from the stump.  Where there was death, God brought life.  He made a productive tree.  No, Jesus was not here to be a productive political king.  No, Jesus was not here to be a productive entertainer or educator.  But he was a here to produce forgiveness.  He was here to produce a new and lasting life.  He was here to produce eternal salvation.  And what a job he did.

People tried to cut him down.  People tried to get rid of him.  People tried to replace him with their own better versions.  But it didn’t work.  Jesus accomplished his mission.  He came to give us a new life, a productive and fruitful life.  He came to give us a life that is not focused on trying to make a dying tree look good.  He gave us a life where the tree and branches are all living and productive and fruitful.

Did Jesus need your permission for that?  Did he need you to ask him to do it?  Did he need anything from you in order to be your Savior and mine?  NO!  So, gone is the focus on me.  Gone is the focus on the commercials and internet steals and deals.  Gone is the focus on what other people are doing.  Those things were cut off and thrown out.  Jesus made us new because he loves us.  That’s what happened in baptism.  He came with the Holy Spirit to change who you are.  The old way is destroyed.  The sinful nature is no longer in control.  Instead,  we are God’s children.  We are connected to Christ.  We are part of his chosen nation.  We are grafted into his family tree.  And that means we have a good fruit to produce, just like John said: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Like I said, repentance is not something I do to get God’s attention.  It’s not something I do to meet God’s requirements.  It’s not a one-time choice so that I can have eternal blessings.  Repentance is not a worldly sorrow that I got caught doing something I shouldn’t have.  Repentance is not a childish sorrow that is bummed out about missing all the fun.  Repentance is producing God’s fruit.

If you are forgiven by Christ, if you are filled with the Spirit through Word and Sacrament, if you are a child of God by his grace, then repentance is a natural thing for you.  You make a mistake and you don’t need to cover it up, like we cover up dying or fake trees.  That’s not productive.  You can’t hide that from God anyways, but you can confess to your loving Father and he forgives you.  You hurt someone and you don’t need to hide from it, you can humbly admit what happened and say sorry.  You get caught up with the ways of this world and you don’t have to make excuses for it.  Your Savior already took those things to the cross and died for them all.  Repentance is simply acknowledging the facts: I have sinned.  Jesus has forgiven me.  I am a child of God by his grace.  I have fruits of faith to produce.

So as you look at your Christmas tree, think about that.  Don’t think about all the things that need to get checked off your list before Christmas comes.  Think about all the things this little baby in Bethlehem has done, how productive his life was for you.  Think about the faith that was planted in your heart to make you a fruitful child of God.  And think about how you can be productive, yes, even in the middle of the cold north, months away from any gardens growing or trees producing, you can bear fruit for God.  Amen.