2 Christmas, New Year
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 1:18-25 Sermon
January 4, 2014

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
125 "The Old Year Now Hath Passed Away"
120 "Help us, O Lord!  Behold, We Enter"
123 "Our God, Our Help In Ages Past"
119 "Great God, We Sing That Mighty Hand"  


TEXT:  (v. 21-23) “[The Virgin Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  'Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel' (which means, God with us)."

            Every year at Christmas time, we hear various stories connected with the season.  Most of us would know about Charles Dickens' famous story entitled "A Christmas Carol."  It was first published onDecember 19, 1843 and it has gained popularity over the years.  It has been dramatized and performed countless times by many different people, even the famous Bill Murray.  There was also an animated version with the fictional Mr. Magoo having the lead role.

            When I mentioned the title of this story, what was the first name that came to your mind?  Was it Bob Cratchit, or Tiny Tim, or Jacob Marley?  You probably immediately recognize those names, but the one name that always comes up first is Ebenezer Scrooge. 

            Yes, good old Ebenezer Scrooge is the leading role in this story.  He is a very bitter old miser whose god is money and wealth.  When it comes to Christmas, Mr. Scrooge had no time for any of it.  "Bah humbug!"  he'd say.  He is very critical of his bookkeeper, Bob Cratchit when he asks for Christmas Day off.  Listen to his quote when the subject of Christmas is broached: "If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "Every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.  He should!"  Now that's a bad attitude!

            So on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited in a dream by the ghost of his former business associate, Jacob Marley.  This is followed by a visit from the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

            Following these visits, Ebenezer Scrooge has a complete change of heart, and winds up being a tremendous blessing for Bob Cratchit and his family.  Eventually Tiny Tim gets the medical attention that saves his life.  And thanks to old Ebenezer, the Cratchit family has a lovely Christmas celebration.  The story ends at the dinner table with Ebenezer together with the Cratchit family; and Tiny Tim Cratchit exclaims, "God bless us, everyone!"  And everybody lives happily ever after.

            Moving into the 20th century now, the children's author Ted Geisel, the man we know as Dr. Seuss, dreamed up his own Christmas story that parallels quite well with what Dickens wrote in "A Christmas Carol."  Ted Geisel created a creature we know as the Grinch.  The story title is, "How The Grinch Stole Christmas."

            Again, we have various characters in this story.  There are all the "Whos" down in "Who-ville" who were celebrating Christmas.  There was little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two.  There was Max, the little dog.  But again, the central character is the old Grinch himself, who really defies description.  He's sort of an anthropomorphic version of a rather sick monster-like creature.  The song that was written about him has this stanza:  "You're a monster, Mr. Grinch, your heart's an empty hole; your brain is full of spiders, you have garlic in your soul, Mr. Grinch; I wouldn't touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole."   And the author opines that the Grinch was born with a heart that was two sizes too small.  The Grinch was not a nice creature at all.

            The Grinch hated Christmas with a passion, and it wasn't because of the commercialism and abuse we see today.  The Grinch hated to see people happy and celebrating and having a good time.  Since he was miserable, he wanted everybody else to be just as miserable as he was.  And so, he set out to ruin Christmas for the Whos living in Who-ville by sneaking into town, and stealing all of their presents, their Christmas decorations, their food (including the traditional Christmas "roast beast," whatever that is)  and even the very last can of "Who hash." 

            He thought he had the final victory, and so he waited and listened for them all to be crying and wailing because their Christmas had been stolen.  And what happened?

            Listen to the words of the author himself:  "So he paused - and the Grinch put a hand to his ear. And he *did* hear a sound rising over the snow. It started in low... then it started to grow.  But this... this sound wasn't sad. Why... this sound sounded glad. Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing, without *any* presents at all! He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming, it *came*! Somehow or other... it came just the same. How could it be so? It came without ribbons!... it came without tags!... it came without packages, boxes, or bags!  He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought... doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps... means a little bit more! And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say - that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day. And then - the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of *ten* Grinches, plus two!  He brought everything back, all the food for the feast. And he, he himself, the Grinch - carved the roast beast."  And that's the story of the Grinch who stole Christmas. 

            So now, we have two familiar stories that have relatively the same plot.  Scrooge and the Grinch both hated Christmas, and they tried to put an end to it.  But then they had a change of heart, and they wind up making a complete reversal of their former selves.

            Okay, now I'd like you to think about a few different situations.  Let's say you're working for a person who is a slave driving tyrant who's more concerned about money than anything else.  What might you say?  "My boss should have the name 'Scrooge' on his office door."  Or perhaps you are talking about someone who is neither frugal nor economical, but downright cheap. You find yourself saying, "Boy, what a Scrooge he is!"

            Maybe there's somebody who is negative about celebrating Christmas, and who, by either their attitude or their actions, try to spoil it for everybody else.  So we ask, "Why do you have to be such a Grinch?  Isn't there a heart in there someplace?"  Or somebody steals part of the Christmas nativity display from a church, like happened at Southminster Presbyterian a couple of weeks ago.  We say, "What kind of a Grinch would do such a thing?"

            Do you see what is happening here?  All of those references to Scrooge and the Grinch refer to them the way they were, and not according to the way they became.  Most of you probably didn't see a problem with that.  And if you are like me, I know that I myself have referred to a cheap miserly person as a "Scrooge," and somebody who doesn't like Christmas as a "Grinch." 

            But realistically, especially as Christians, we shouldn't do that at all.  If we were to give these two stories a more distinct Christian reference, we could say that Scrooge and the Grinch were repentant sinners who were sorry for the evil they had done, and they had amended their sinful ways.  And these weren't just words or empty promises either.  It was backed up by personal action.

            Certain names mean certain things to us, and it goes beyond the references to a fictional Scrooge or Grinch.  What comes to mind when you hear Osama Bin Laden?  Or Saddam Hussein?  Or Adolph Hitler?  Or Mussolini?  Or Attila the Hun?  You think of bad things, right?  What about names like Billy Graham?  Or Mother Theresa?  Or Albert Schweitzer?  Or Abraham Lincoln?  We think good things about these people, don't we?

            There's a lot in a name, and God is one who understands this more than anybody.  Let's look at one name that had a very sinister connection.  The name?  Saul of Tarsus.  Acts chapter 9 tells us a lot about him.  He was persecuting Christians as actively as he could, still making threats of murder against the disciples of Jesus.  Jesus comes to him on the road to Damascus, and a dramatic conversion takes place.  But that name is still a problem for him.  Ananias was the first who objected.  We read in verses 13-15:  "But Ananias answered, 'Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.'   But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.'" 

            Ananias wasn't the only one.  We read in verse 21:   "And all who heard [Saul] were amazed and said, 'Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?'" The people knew Saul's name and the terror it brought to the Christians.  They had trouble trusting him, and we can understand why.  Continuing on, we read in verse 26:  "And when [Saul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple." The disciples had issues too! 

            Changing the name of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul was a necessity.  He needed to have a new identity that matched his new life.  He needed to be known as a called worker of God, the greatest Christian missionary that ever was, and identified as one whom God divinely inspired to record a large portion of the New Testament we have today.  Saul of Tarsus as the enemy of Christianity couldn't exist any longer.  God gave him a clean slate and a new identity. 

            I'm going to get back to the Apostle Paul in a few minutes, but first I want us to take a look at our Gospel Lesson, one of several that are appointed for the New Year observation.  This lesson, amongst other things, teaches us the significance of the name of Jesus, and the terms associated with it.  When the Angel speaks to Joseph (and remember, in those days it was always the father who named the child), God's instructions were abundantly clear.  In verse 21, the angel tells Joseph:  "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."   The name "Jesus" is translated from the Hebrew "Yeshua" (or in English, "Joshua"), and it means "one who saves," or "Saviour."  In Greek, it's pronounced "he-ay-sus."  In Spanish, it's very similar, "hay-sus."  And in Latin, which has also carried over into other languages, it's "Jesu."  Regardless of what language it's in, the name is always recognizable as the name given by God for our Saviour.  It's a name that is associated with God's love, mercy and grace.  There's nothing negative here.

            Then our Gospel lesson goes on with another Hebrew name.  In verse 23, Matthew quotes the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”  (which means, God with us).  Jesus Christ would take on human flesh in order to do what needed to be done to save sinful humanity, of which we all are a part.  In the first verses of John's Gospel we read (vs. 1 & 14):  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."    Jesus has come to this earth.  He is indeed "God with us" even down to this very day.  He is "God with us" for all of humanity; and as Paul tells us, his name is indeed above every other name, regardless of what any other name might be.

            I mentioned a few minutes ago that I wanted to get back to the Apostle Paul, and what was going on with him.  Paul, in writing to Timothy in his first letter, gives us a nice explanation of his relationship with Jesus.  In chapter 1, verses 12-16 Paul spares no detail about his past, and what Jesus has done for him.  We read:  "I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief,  and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.  But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life." 

            Paul is talking about what we all have through faith in Christ Jesus our Saviour.  And I think it's prudent at this time in the infancy of 2015 that we look at where we were, where we are, and where we are going. 

            Like Paul, we have to admit that we haven't been much better.  We have sinned much; and even though we might not think of our sins in the same category as the Apostle Paul's sins, they are sins against God nevertheless.  But Jesus came to this earth to save sinners the likes of you and me out of nothing but his undeserved love.  Through faith in Jesus, our sinful past is wiped clean, and we are given a new identity and a new life in Christ.  Where we once were is really of no consequence as far as God is concerned.  We could have been the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge all rolled into one for that matter.  But the past is gone, it is behind us, and our sin is removed.  We are now God's children by grace through faith, and that guarantees us a blessed future in heaven for all eternity.

            I don't know how often this has happened to you, but I'd be willing to bet that it has.  I'll run into somebody I haven't seen in years.  Maybe it's an old teacher, or somebody else I knew as a kid.  They'll smile and say, "Oh Danny, I remember when you were a little boy that you did...;" and you can fill in that blank with just about any mischievous act you want to.  I was a little pistol when I was a kid; you can ask my Uncle Ralph how I terrorized his house as a toddler.  That was then, and it really has no bearing as to what I am today.  But when you do something wrong or untoward, people will always remember that. 

            It's like the Grinch or Mr. Scrooge.  As great as they eventually turned out, we still remember their past when we refer to somebody metaphorically as a "Grinch" or a "Scrooge."  In fact, it would seem rather strange to have somebody give us some rather nice Christmas gifts and call them a "Scrooge," even though that's what Scrooge eventually did.  Or it would be out-of-place to have somebody invite us to their lovely decorated home and feed us a big Christmas dinner, and call them a "Grinch," even though that's how the Grinch turned out.

It's New Years, and time to look at our past, present, and future.  In the past, we were like the Apostle Paul as the chief of sinners.  But Jesus came and rescued us from our sinful state, so now we have been reborn into God's family through faith in Jesus Christ who has saved us.  And this faith gives us hope for the glorious future that awaits us in heaven when that new day dawns in eternity.