Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Evergreen: Our Immanuel: Sermon on Matthew 1:1-25

Pause your busy lives a moment, if you would. Take a trip with me. You're walking through the countryside. It isn't morning, nor even quite afternoon anymore; evening is starting to fall. You happen upon a village, one of the smallest you've ever glimpsed – just a few hundred people on ten acres. Less than half a mile across from east to west, and an eighth of a mile from north to south, from the looks of it. A cluster of not too many houses, none more than two stories, built of mud-brick. You pause at the gate to one and call out. A teen boy comes to the gate, sees you, invites you in, and so you step into the courtyard. They're just settling down to dinner under the awning. It isn't too hot a night, so they're sitting in a circle on the floor – a father, a mother, seven children. They rutsch aside to make a tenth spot for you, the lonely traveler. You sit down on the ground next to them.

Spread out in the center of the circle are some earthenware dishes. What looks like a congealed lentil stew at the heart of it, some cheese, olives, onions, a few fresh figs, a couple salted fish. Cups of water with a bit of wine added to kill the germs. The man of the house offers up a short prayer of blessing – you reverently bow your head – and then he lifts up a dried round of barley bread, a bit gritty-looking, in his rough, labor-hardened hands, and rips it with a crack. Says to you his wife ground and baked it herself; she casts her eyes downward in demur humility. He shares the bread with her, with you, with the older children; the younger have bowls of liquified bread like porridge. They dip pieces into little dishes of olive oil or vinegar, or in the stew, to moisten it enough to eat. Can you smell the food, taste a bit on your tongue? And then the dinner conversation begins.

A little boy – not the youngest, but not the oldest either – blurts out to his father, “Abba, tell me a story, a family story!” The others chime in. “Yeah, abba, tell us, tell us!” The man – you can scarcely believe he and his wife are old enough to have this many children – smiles, his kindly eyes gleaming, and says to them, “Now to that, I'll never say no! Which one would you like, little Joses? How about Father Abraham – how the Lord called him from his home to a land he never knew?”

No!” cries the boy, “I already know that one, we heard about it in synagogue just yesterday. You know we did, abba! Give me a different one, please?” “Yeah, please!” implored a slightly older boy, not as old as the one who let you in. “Fine, Joses, fine, Jacob,” says the father. “Well, then, maybe you'd like to hear about David, the boy who knocked down the giant and became a king and was a man after God's own heart?” “No!” cries Jacob, “I know that one real well. Can we have a different one, a never-we-heard one?”

Oh, so you want one I haven't told you much about yet, do you? Well, then, let's see...” And as they eat, their father tells them a story. A story from long before, about a man named Nahshon, who grows up a slave in Egypt and whose sister Elisheba marries a man named Aaron, whose brother is named Moses. How Nahshon goes out with Moses and all the people into the desert. How he went up on the mountain and ate a meal right under God's very own feet. How Nahshon leads the whole tribe of Judah, and gives gifts at the tabernacle. How Nahshon has to watch his nephews, the very first priests of Israel. Two of them make a mistake and die – those were Nadab and Abihu – but then the others, Eleazar and Ithamar, they live, and all the priests ever since had come from them. How Nahshon didn't live to make it into the promised land, but his son sure did. How Nahshon reminds them that, no matter how great the priests might seem, they should always remember that they're cousins to all Nahshon's kids – including those sitting in this poor village house.

One of the daughters pipes up. “Abba... may we have another?” “Of course, my shy Salome. Let me see, let me see...” And the family keeps eating as their father tells them a second story. He warns them it won't be a happy one. He tells them of an old man named Ahithophel, a counselor to the king. Ahithophel was very smart, so smart that it seemed like asking him a question was the next-best thing to asking God himself. Ahithophel stopped liking the king, though, after he married Ahithophel's granddaughter Bathsheba in some questionable circumstances. So Ahithophel waited until he could help the king's vain son Absalom rebel and chase his father David out of Jerusalem. But David prayed for God to confound Ahithophel's wisdom, and God made Absalom listen to the bad advice of a spy instead of the smart but mean advice of Ahithophel. And so Ahithophel knew he had lost, so he went home and made himself die. And from this we can see that it isn't enough to be smart; you have to put God first and honor what he chooses. But just the same, we also learn that God can use and redeem even the worst traitors – because God made Ahithophel an ancestor to a lot of very great people.

You're enjoying the stories, they all seem to hope. Another of the sons, little Judah, asks for another from his father. “Aren't you all just the story-hungry people today? I've barely eaten! But how can I say no to you when you ask for stories like these? Let me take just a few more bites while I think what to tell you next.” So he eats and he drinks from his cup, and then he tells another story. He tells of a king named Hezekiah, living and ruling in Jerusalem – a good king, who loved the Lord. A king who got sick, but when he prayed just once, God loved him so much, he healed him and made him live longer. A king who prayed, and God made a whole army fall outside the city to keep him safe. But a king who, when told his people would be taken into exile in Babylon, didn't care enough to pray. You see, this king didn't care what happened when he was gone. Even though, as a little boy, Hezekiah heard Isaiah tell his dad, “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” And Hezekiah heard Isaiah say, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” And he heard Isaiah say, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” And when the Assyrians came and ravaged the land of Judah, he even heard news that Micah was saying, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me One who is to be Ruler in Israel.” Hezekiah didn't care about the future even when he heard these things! “Now, children,” says the father, “you must be like Hezekiah in his love for God, but you must not be like him in this. You must care about these things, which are coming to pass in our days, and you must take care to pray always and never give up.”

One of the older sons promises, “Yes, abba, I promise, I'll always pray! But may we please have another story, too?” His father, though visibly tired of talking, relents. “Yes, Jacob, another for you. Let me take a few more bites, and...” With that, he launched into a fourth story. A man born in Babylon, called 'Seed of Babylon' by his name Zerubbabel. A young man when the Persians conquer Babylon and let the people go free. Zerubbabel and his uncle lead the Jews back home, Zerubbabel becomes governor after his uncle, but years went by and no temple was rebuilt, even with the foundation laid. They were too poor, too small, too weak; Zerubbabel felt so discouraged. So God raised up prophets like Haggai and Zechariah to encourage him – telling him to put God first, to work on God's great house and not all the little houses of the people. The prophets promise Zerubbabel that he'll be like a signet ring on God's finger, that he'll finish the temple no matter how bad the odds seem, no matter how big the mountain of obstacles looms. He struggled with self-doubt, felt small and hemmed in, and wondered if God could bring any glory to this work he was doing. But by trusting in God, he did it. Just so, the father tells his children, when you wonder if any good can come from our little family or our little village, think of our ancestor Zerubbabel, who built the temple in Jerusalem.

The circle falls into silence for a while. You and the children alike try to absorb the lessons of the four stories while the gentle father gets to eat his food. As you reflect, maybe those stories sound familiar. If you've been here faithfully during the Advent season this year, you've heard three or even all four of them yourself already – they're the stories we've told and the lessons we've learned on the last four Sunday mornings. Maybe that's been challenging – so many names and dates and places. But it's no wonder, when you consider that those four little-heard stories cover essentially the entire sweep of the Old Testament. And God loves to teach us with stories.

At any rate, dinner is done, eaten. You can't say you feel full, but it isn't like they have terribly much to their name, this family – nor were they expecting you. You think to go, but the oldest son looks at you and then turns to the father and asks for one more story – a recent one, the one where he was born. The man of the house looks surprised. But he looks at you out of the corner of his eye, and says, “Alright, that one.” Some of the other children sigh. You have a feeling they might be tired of their parents' story. But the mother laughs – she rather likes it. And so the father begins.

It all started, you see, in this village. I was a young man when I met your mother and asked her parents if I could marry her. I had to pay a handsome bride-price – I'd been saving up for years. But they gave me her hand – and I thanked the Lord for it! Oh, so beautiful was your mother – is, is!,” he corrected himself as she gave him a wry, questioning smile. “Still is, always is, always and forever is,” he whispered to her. He continued his tale. “Not too long after that, she went to Hebron to go tend to an older relative – you remember Elizabeth – for three months in her own pregnancy. Well, your mother came back, and I was astonished to see that she was going to have a child herself. Oh, sons, can you imagine how hurt I felt? I thought she had betrayed me; that she wasn't the kind of woman I'd hoped she was.

Well, I knew I couldn't marry your mother. Laws don't let a man keep a wife who's unfaithful to him – he'd be seen as aiding and abetting adultery. But, betrothed as we were, it was a legal arrangement. I could have taken her to court, made sure everyone knew what kind of a woman she was – or, at least, I thought she was – and, for that matter, gotten not only my bride-price back, but even her dowry, to which I was legally entitled. But then I thought about it, and wrestled with it. Hurt as I was, I couldn't bear the thought of her shame. I knew I had the option of a private ceremony, with a few witnesses to cover the break of the engagement. She'd leave the village quietly – go live elsewhere. I'd be out my life savings, of course. She'd probably never have married, and I'd have had to save up for years again before I could. But I felt I had to protect her, no matter what. Even from the consequences – or so I thought – of her own actions.

But then one night, I had a dream. In the dream, I was on my way to gather my witnesses, but then a man in white robes stood in my way, and he started to shine, and I knew he was an angel of the Lord! And he told me to not be afraid – he reminded me what family I came from, how noble our heritage. He told me to drop my misgivings about your mother. He said she hadn't done what I thought she'd done, but rather that it was a pure act of God. He said she was going to have a little boy, and he told me what his name would be and what great things he would grow up to do. All the hope Nahshon had in the desert – this boy was the boy he needed. All the sins of Ahithophel – this was the boy who could unwrite that story. All those words Hezekiah heard from Isaiah and Micah – this would be the boy they were about! All the promises Haggai and Zechariah gave to Zerubbabel – down through the years they'd fall onto the shoulders of this boy. I heard that in my dream.

I've heard the books of the prophets before, read them myself in the synagogue. I remember what Isaiah said. How Israel's enemies were like axe in the hands of a lumberjack, hacking Israel down like a dried-up tree. Our family tree was like that, maybe you'd say – cut down, over and over again, in judgment. What are those words in Isaiah? I've tried to learn them all by heart. I think it went like this: 'Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe.' And our family tree was like that – brought low from the days of princes and counselors and kings and governors to this little village and the labor of my shop.

But then, didn't Isaiah go on? He said, 'There shall come forth a shoot out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.' And that's the boy the angel was talking to me about – the shoot out of the stump of Jesse, growing to be a great big evergreen!

Well, back to my story. As soon as I woke up, I rushed over to her parents' house – I needed to see her right away! She knew I'd been upset since she'd come back to town, but as soon as she saw my eyes, she wasn't worried anymore. I remember how gently I touched her belly as I told her my dream. And then she'd told me how, months before, she'd met the angel, too – not in a dream, but one quiet day by the village well. I could hardly believe my ears, but it just went to show me that my dream was real. I knew just then that I had to marry her, like the angel said. And I had to do it quick, before the village gossips got out of hand. It wasn't too many more days 'til I got to bring her back here to this house, children,” the father told them. “People talked, of course, when they realized she was already going to have a baby. They figured either I was supporting her in sin, or else had been rather indiscreet myself. Well, let them talk. I know what the angel said. I know what I see in your mother's eyes.

A few months later, we heard the news about the census. I had to go back home to Bethlehem, where my folks were from, where our ancestor David was from. Didn't take more than a few days to get there, your mother and I. Knew we could stay with family, but when we arrived, my cousin had already received relatives into the guest room, so we were put on the lower level where the animals got brought in at night – speaking of which,” he noted as an aside to his wife, “dear, don't let me forget to bring them in after I finish this story.” She nodded and smiled quietly.

He went on. “We'd been there a while 'til she went into labor. Those were a challenging few hours, the village midwife in there, me pacing outside with the other men of the house. Not really allowed in. But then, they called me back in – and handed me the most beautiful baby boy. I held him in my arms for a while, she held him in hers. When they got tired, we looked around, and I wiped out the feed-trough in the floor – it's just like ours, kids – and wrapped up that baby boy nice and tight and laid him in there. And we sat together, your tired mother and I, watching the baby, when there came a knock at the gate, late into the night as we were drifting off to sleep. Some shepherds, telling of angels in the sky, news that the Messiah had been born in a house in town, so they asked around for where the midwife had been, and here they were to see the baby. I remember how tough it was to keep from yawning as I told them our own story, too. And then they went away, leaving me and your mom, kids, alone with our thoughts – and the baby.”

He clapped his hand on the shoulder of the oldest boy in the circle, the young teen who'd invited you in. “And that's where this marvelous boy Jesus was born. Great things he'll do, the angel said. Save all us people from our sins, rule on David's throne forever. Can't say I understand it all myself, everything the angel said. But I trust the God who sent him. We'll see. But that's the story. Now, visitor, I hope you won't be needing lodging for the night – I'd really invite you to stay, but we scarcely have a few mats to fit ourselves and our children. I hope you won't forget our humble village of Nazareth. Come drop in any day you like!”

After those words, you bid Joseph and Mary goodbye, thank them for their hospitality, and step back out by way of the gate. You're halfway out of the village when you hear a voice behind you, the voice of that oldest boy, the one Joseph called Jesus. A knowing voice. And he says, “See you again real soon!” And with those words on your heart, you venture out into the cool Galilean night. And step back to your own time, back to the sixth day of Christmas in 2018, back here to this sanctuary.

What a remarkable journey you've been on today. There must have been many meals like that, in that house in Nazareth. Many times when the story was told and re-told, and Jesus grew up learning the scriptures, he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40), he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). And he heard the stories, and loved the stories. Maybe he remembered them in his dreams – what it was like to guide Israel from within the pillar of cloud and fire; what it was like to thwart the counsel of Ahithophel at David's request; what it was like to inspire the prophets and answer the prayers of King Hezekiah; what it was like to look down from above at the first sacrifice Zerubbabel had the high priest Jeshua offer on the foundations of the temple. I've often wondered what Jesus dreamed about. I can't say we know.

But what we do know is this. No matter how many times his family tree seemed like it was chopped down, they were never without the promise of that “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Never without the promise that one day, God would be present with and among them in a new way – “Immanuel.” And then Jesus came. And on the stump of his family tree, he's an evergreen. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). He's an evergreen tree of life, and “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). So it's written. So we therefore believe.

You see, Jesus, our Immanuel here, is our evergreen. Nothing can chop him down. Not even the cross and the tomb could prohibit his produce. He's fruitful in his season, and his season never ends, it just changes from time to time. There's a lot of variety in his fruit. It's life-giving fruit, a source of nourishment forever. And in his foliage ever-green is healing for every nation, every kind of people under God's sun. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what ethnicity or class or gender or whatever subdivision of human you are, there's healing in his leaves for you. And no matter what you do, it will never make his leaves wither away. It will never make them inefficacious. Jesus is our Immanuel, the Evergreen of God. Come to him. Go to him. Didn't he say he'd see you again real soon? Don't start your new year in a barren place, with leafless trees or lifeless stumps. Sit in the shade of the Evergreen of God. Eat of his fruit. Be healed by his leaves. They'll never go away from you. Just sit beneath him, taste of his goodness, trust him. There's no better way to end a year – or begin one. Grace to you. Amen.

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