Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Psalm 80:7

“A very young boy living on a farm who was instructed by his mother to go out on a pitch-dark night to check if the barn door was closed and locked. The young boy left through the kitchen door and returned in less than a minute. When asked what was wrong, the boy replied that it was too dark to see where the barn was and he was afraid to walk out where he could not see. His mother handed him a flashlight and told him to try again. But once again he returned in less than a minute, explaining that the flashlight was too weak and he still couldn’t see the barn. “You don’t need to see the barn,” responded his mother. “Just walk to the end of the light.” The insight in the story is that by walking to the end of the light, more of the path ahead is exposed. It is sufficient to have a basic sense of direction—a clear purpose, intentional outcomes, and a willingness to calmly begin the journey in order to learn the steps that are not yet apparent. It takes courage to walk to the end of the light” (Quietly Courageous, Gil Rendle).

God asks each of us – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and us today, to trust God just enough to walk to the end of the light according to God’s word, even when we cannot yet see the destination.  May the light of Christ, whose birth we are soon celebrating, shine brightly enough for you to take that next step, even when you are not quite sure where you are going.  You have the light, and that is what matters.  You may learn to trust Christ in new ways.  You may find new meaning in your relationship with Him.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you do not see the whole staircase.”  If we take the first step with the light that is the light of Christ, it does not matter where we are going.  We are stepping with the light of Christ.

This week is a call for resolve.  First, we reflected on a call to hope.  Then, we surrendered to God’s peace.  Last week, we experienced awe in God’s joy.  This week, we resolve to God’s love.  What is a way that you can trust in God’s love this season?  Do you have confidence that God loves you and wants the best for you?  If so, then seek God, and let God guide you and do his work in you.  Do you have faith that God’s love expressed through you can make a difference in this world?  If so, then be kind; you do not know what is happening in another person’s life, and being kind can change their day around.  It is very simple to spread love.  We do not just do it this time of year; we should do it all throughout the year.

Yesterday was our big pick-up day for Giving Tree.  Do we know how many people offered their kindness by volunteering their time to make someone else’s Christmas a little bit brighter.  How many hours of time were offered for this project?  I do not think we kept track.  It does not matter.  What matters is all the kindness that was spread to spread a little love this Christmas.  What matters is that everyone who helped was selfless in their giving, knowing that the only benefit they would receive is the knowledge that someone else’s day was a little bit brighter.  Why do we love one another this way?  What calls us to be selfless with our time?  “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:9).

In Romans, Paul expresses the fact that God loves the people, and he also shares his love with the people he is ministering to.  He calls the people in Rome “God’s beloved” (Romans 1:7).  He tells them that they belong to Jesus.  They belong to a group of neighbors who love and support one another.  And he is also clear that he himself loves them; he gives them a blessing; “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7).  He is not paid for his work (1 Corinthians 9).  He notes that he is probably owed payment, but he does it out of the goodness of his heart.  We might say the same about those who worked on projects like the Giving Tree this year, or the Back to School program, or Serve Bellevue, or leading elements at our Bellevue Thanksgiving Service, like directing the choir and playing the organ.

In the gospel today, we read about the angel appearing to Joseph, telling him that he should go forward with Mary and trust God.  The angel confirms everything that Mary had said.  The child is to be named Jesus because he saves.  They shall call him Emmanuel because God is with us.  He is the Messiah, the chosen one.  This is more than love shared from person to person.  This is love from God.  God loves the people so much that He wants to be with them.  He does not want them to succumb to their sins.  He wants them to be saved.  And God wants the same for us today.  This is why, still two thousand years later, we are telling the same story of God coming down to earth for a visit.  We are sharing the same story, of Joseph and Mary deciding to trust God even though everything they knew went against it.  They showed an extraordinary trust in God.  They trusted in God’s extraordinary love.

In Psalm 80, we find a resolve.  Our focus is to resolve in God’s love.  Hear these words at the end of the psalm: “Give us life, and we will call on your name.  Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:18-19).  Do you think this prayer will be answered?  Perhaps we will find out this week.  It is a call to God’s love.  The people trusted in God’s love.  They asked God to let his face shine.  In the birth of the Christ child, I believe God’s face shone.  I know that the people were saved.  And just like the prayer in the psalm, when God gave life, God in the flesh, many people called on his name.

Therefore, what will make you call on God’s name today?  Is this Christmas just like any other holiday?  Do you feel resolved to call on God in a new way as God comes to continually surprise us?  I believe we are called to three steps late in this Advent season so that we can experience God’s love and peace in witnessing the story of the Christ’s birth told again.  First, see God’s love.  See God’s love reaching out to you in this birth, in this season, through the love of someone else, and in the love that God shows by placing things in our path like people and opportunity.  See God’s love.  Recognize that God’s love is in your midst.  Second, resolve to trust in God’s promise.  Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and all those who we see going to the stable trusted in God’s promise.  The disciples trusted in God’s promise.  So many in our stories that we tell each year left everything to follow God’s promise.  Trust in God’s promise.  How can you more faithfully trust God this year?  What worries can you give over to God?  Do you need to worry what other people are going to think of you?  You may not see the destination, but you can walk with the light.  And third, love one another.  Our love is inspired by God’s love for us.  Do whatever you can to show love to the world, just as God brought love to the world in the birth of Jesus.  This call is never ending.

Emmanuel means God with us.  On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we are looking with increased anticipation toward the birth that we are about to celebrate, when we are reminded that God is with us.  Though we may at times still have doubts.  This is why a group of students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, set up a confession booth at a college weekend festival.  “When students entered the confession booth, they were surprised that the Christians who set it up began confessing to them, and not the other way around.  They confessed their lack of love and bitterness.  They apologized for the televangelists, for neglecting the poor and the lonely.  They expressed sorrow for having misrepresented Jesus on campus.  The Christian students ask for forgiveness!” (FOTW A.1.83).  In confessing their failures, the students believed that God could rescue them from their state.  They believed that God could come among them and teach them a better way.  When we celebrate God-with-us, we celebrate God giving us a hope, and teaching us the way to live.  We celebrate the resolve to do what we can to better represent God among us in our community.

 Do whatever you can to recognize the love of God among you, for God is with us indeed.  Then, work on trusting in God’s promise more than you ever have.  Pray about it if that helps; it almost always does.  And once you have recognized God’s love shared with you, and faithfully trusted your life to God, you can confidently share God’s love with others, wanting nothing in return.  God is with us.  Let God’s love be shown.  Let all honor and glory be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Romans 1:1-7
1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,
1:3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh
1:4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,
1:6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
1:7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
1:20 But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,
1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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