The Promise of the Gift

December 5, 2010

When you think of Christmas what comes to your mind? Before you answer let me tell you a story I heard many years ago. It happened in a grade four Sunday School Class and the teacher was asking the class a question, I don’t know what the context was or why she was asking it, but she was. The question was this “What is grey, has a bushy tail, collects nuts and climbs trees.” Before anyone else could answer a little boy stuck up and his hand and blurted out “I know the answer is Jesus but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”

So we will give you this one. When I asked the question “When you think of Christmas what comes to mind?” I know without reservation that the answer that we all thought of immediately was “Jesus” goes without saying and I will in no way question your spirituality or commitment by thinking otherwise. So I will rephrase it. “When you think of Christmas what is the second thing that comes to mind?”

Maybe you are a house decorator and you think about all the decoration that you are going to put up for Christmas, all of the things that say Christmas to you, lights and tinsel, trees and penguins. And don’t get my wife started on how dumb penguins are for a Christmas decoration, trust me on that one, you don’t want to go down that road.

And some people do a great job, decorating and others, well less than spectacular. Have I mentioned that my sister is insane? Certifiably insane, she starts decorating her house in late October and on Halloween she dresses up like Mrs. Claus, plays Christmas music and hands out candy canes to the kids. I am not making this up. But to prove there is balance in the universe if it was up to me I wouldn’t put up a single decoration. Not that I’m opposed to decorations it just that I am motivationally challenged when it comes to things like that, that means I’m lazy.

For others it’s about the baking, you have already started baking and before you are finished you will have baked enough food to feed a small third world village. And others are thinking about all those cookies and squares and how good they will be, and how much weight you will gain but it wouldn’t be right to hurt the cooks feelings, would it?

For some of you it brings to mind family and this is the time of the year that you all get together for a big dinner, family pictures and time together. And maybe for others there are laws that keep that from happening.

But regardless of what the main thing is that comes to your mind when I say Christmas, the one thing that we are all thinking about, somewhere on the list, besides Jesus that goes without saying, are gifts. Either about the gifts we will receive or the gifts we will give. The talk of the season is about gifts.

Where we will buy them, how we will wrap them, how we will get them delivered, gifts, gifts gifts. And people see gift giving in different ways. Here is an example. (video clip from Big Bang Christmas)

Some people see gift giving like Penny, just as an opportunity to give and express your feelings for others. Others, whether you want to admit it or not, are like Sheldon, and although you may never have expressed your theory of reciprocity quite as eloquently as he did, you feel the same way, you don’t receive gifts you receive obligations.

If you are in the least bit familiar with the Christmas story then you know that gifts were an important part of that event. There were tangible gifts, in the form of the gold, frankincense and myrrh that were brought by the wise men as well as the gifts that couldn’t be held and shaken or wrapped but were no less real. Like the gift that the wise men had presented of themselves, they had travelled literally hundreds of miles over hostile terrain in order to worship the Christ child, there were the shepherds who left their flocks in the hills in order to come and offer their adoration for the one who was born to be the great shepherd.

We know from the story that there was no room in the inn, but someone had to offer the family space in a stable, presumably they didn’t just move in uninvited. If you looked out in your backyard and there was a family living in your shed you’d call the police. The fact that they had a place out of the weather, was a gift.

But the very essence of Christmas isn’t about gifts plural; it’s about a gift singular. Because that night in Bethlehem 2000 years ago the greatest gift of all was given to the world. The gift of Jesus the Son of God. And before that gift was given it was promised. In the Old Testament it was promised to the people of Israel and in the Christmas story the gift was promised to Mary and then to her fiancé Joseph.

It was the account of the promise to Joseph that was read for us earlier and we are going to look at that promise this morning. Matthew 1:22-23 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'”

And so we begin with Matthew 1:22-23 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'”

1) The Promise of the Gift This scripture is a reference to the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Now if you know your Old Testament history than you know that by this time what had been known as Israel has split into two separate entities after the death of King Solomon. The Northern and Southern Kingdoms, the Northern is called Israel while the Southern is called Judah and they are battling each other as well as outside forces.

Judah has come under siege from all sides and King Ahaz, is waiting for the other shoe to drop and for his country to be attacked by opposing forces and he knows that will result in the destruction and exile of the Southern Kingdom.

And this is the setting for the prophet Isaiah to speak. And from Isaiah’s writings we get several texts that we refer to as “Messianic Prophecies” or prophecies about the coming Messiah.

It was Isaiah who wrote Isaiah 9:6 For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

But the prophecy that is referenced here comes from Isaiah 7:14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).

And that was a prophecy that was held onto for the next four hundred years, that there would be one who would come and reunite the divided kingdom and bring the united Israel back to her former glory.

But there was a misunderstanding. For the majority of Israel they saw the coming Messiah as a military leader who would rally the people of Israel against their oppressors and lead them in an uprising.

But they were missing the entire point that Isaiah and every other prophet in the Old Testament had been trying to make and that was the reason why the Kingdom was divided and the reason why God allowed them to be oppressed and that was because of their disobedience to God and his commandments.

What needed fixing wasn’t the political situation in Israel, it was the hearts of the people of Israel. A people who had been called to follow God but who had turned their backs on him and his ways. Oh they still wanted to be known as a nation of God but that wasn’t evident in their worship or their lives, kind of like Canada referring to itself as a Christian nation, but I digress.

And so Isaiah was saying that one would come not to fix the symptoms, that God’s blessing was no longer upon his people, but to fix the problem, and that was the sin that had separated God from his people. God hadn’t moved away from the people, the people had moved away from God.

And the story continues.

Matthew 1:22-23 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'”

2) The Nature of the Gift: This is the very essence of Christmas; The virgin will conceive a child! It’s in our Christmas Carols, on our Christmas Cards, little children who have no idea what virgin means talk about it in Christmas pageants. But I wonder how much of that is lip service and how many actually believe that the Virgin conceived a child? There are some who argue that the Hebrew word that Isaiah used for virgin could have just as well meant “a young woman”, perhaps but that wouldn’t have been much of a sign would it?

Wouldn’t require you to be much of a prophet to make that kind of statement, would it? “And now a sign from God, a young woman will conceive!” And the sun will come up in the morning and go down in the evening. I mean if a young woman conceiving was a sign then Cornerstone would have been full of signs over the past year.

But regardless of what the word may or may not have meant, when the Angel came to Mary and told her that she would become pregnant with a son her response was Luke 1:34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” And she wasn’t saying that she was a young maiden, the word that Mary used only had one meaning and that was “Virgin”.

And there are some folks who still have a problem with the virgin birth because they say that it’s impossible, they kind of miss that’s the point. Personally I can’t figure that out. If you can believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God why can’t you believe that he was born of a virgin?

And if the issue isn’t whether or not Mary was a virgin but whether or not Jesus was the Son of God than you have bigger issues to deal with. If we believe that Jesus was indeed God then why wouldn’t he be born of a virgin?

If the idea was not just for Jesus to come and assume human form but instead was to experience all that we experienced he couldn’t just appear as an adult but had to be born. There has to be something in us that begins when the first cell separates and become two cells, I don’t know when our consciousness actually begins but that somehow leaves a mark on who we are and who we will become and Jesus experienced that with us.

And if Jesus is truly the Son of God then by definition his father would be God, not Joseph but God.

The how was explained to Joseph, remember Joseph he was engaged to Mary, and he assumed that she was a virgin, and then she drops the bomb shell that she is pregnant, he freaks out decides to break off the engagement and really who could blame him? And an angel appears to Joseph and we are told in Matthew 1:20-21 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The first part explains the how. The child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and the second part is the why and it is echoed in the scripture we have been looking at.

Matthew 1:22-23 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.'”

3) The Purpose of the Gift: The prophecy tells us that the virgin will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means “God is with us”. As I mentioned earlier the blessing of God had left the people of Israel because the people of Israel had turned their backs on God and his purposes. The reason for Israel’s problems was disobedience. It wasn’t a political issue it was a “Sin” issue.

And now God was taking the unimaginable step, he was coming to be with his people. People had always known that they could go to heaven, but now heaven was coming to them.

Now understand that Immanuel was not his name it was a description of who he would be. After all there is nowhere in the bible that we see Jesus called anything but Jesus. Immanuel is a description of Jesus’ purpose in coming that God would come to earth and offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice God would be with us. But more than that it was a description of the divinity of Jesus.

Mary was a virgin, she had never been with a man and yet she became pregnant, how? The angel told Joseph Matthew 1:20 . . . For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

And so the child was the son of God, he became God with us, but why? What would possess God to do that?

We were originally created to be friends with God and yet sin drove a wedge into the relationship. Isaiah 59:2 But there is a problem—your sins have cut you off from God. Because of your sin, he has turned away and will not listen anymore. That is reiterated in the book of Micah 3:4 Then you beg the Lord for help in times of trouble! Do you really expect him to listen? After all the evil you have done, he won’t even look at you! Sin has separated us from a Holy God. In the history of Israel God was approached through an intermediary, and that was the High Priest, people didn’t have a relationship with God He was a remote and distant figure.

And that doesn’t sound like, “God with us”

And into the void came Jesus, the son of God, who lived among us and who died on a cross and spilt his blood for our sins, in order to bring us back into fellowship with God. John the apostle wrote in His first letter in the book of 1 John 2:2 He is the sacrifice for our sins. He takes away not only our sins but the sins of all the world. and in the same letter in 1 John 4:10 This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

Finally Paul tells us in the book of Romans 3:23-25 For all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times.

In all three of those verses the word that is translated sacrifice or sacrificing was translated as propitiation back in 1611 when the King James Version was translated. That’s a neat word isn’t it propitiation, if I was to ask you for a definition I wonder how many would be game to try it? It easy, you see propitiation means the act of propitiating.

Not very helpful am I? Propitiation literally means “To appease the wrath of God, so that his justice and holiness will be satisfied and he can forgive our sins.”

And so because of this atoning sacrifice that Christ has made for us, once we have repented of our sins, and that simply means telling God that we are sorry for disobeying him and turning away from those actions, and have accepted the forgiveness that Christ offers us then he becomes Immanuel, God with us.

And here is the great part of that promise that was made to Joseph concerning the gift that his son would be Matthew 1:21 “And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The promise isn’t just that Jesus will save us from the consequences of our sin, as important as that is, but that he will save us from being the slave of sin. John 8:34-36 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. That is the gift, that you don’t have to sin. Not because you have the power to not sin but because Jesus came to set us free, if we choose to be free.

How about it? Has he set you free from sin?