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God with us as Emmanuel (Horizons 7)

“God’s Promise: I Am With You”
Lesson 7: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

Who needs a savior? As armies come towards Jerusalem, the people of Judah do.

The prophet Isaiah assures King Ahaz that the armies pose no threat, but Ahaz chooses fear over trust and makes an alliance with Assyria, the kingdom that will ultimately devastate the land. The people of Israel, who are under Roman captivity, want a savior who will free them from Roman tyranny. For millions of refugees and migrants, a savior would bring protection, a new home and work to provide for their families.

But we have warm homes, comfort, freedom of worship and speech, and the rule of law. Do we still need a savior and, if so, from what threat do we need saving?

I can imagine that you, dear readers, will say that Jesus comes to save us from our sins, and of course that is correct. But day to day, from what specifically do we need to be saved? The answer for me comes from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Jesus teaches against materialism, judgmentalism and unleashed anger. He tells us that love of God is primary and forgiveness, reconciliation and love for our enemies is what distinguishes us as his followers. As we read through Matthew’s Gospel, we realize there is much that we need saving from.

Though it is embarrassing to admit, I am prone to “retail therapy,” the momentary lift when I find a good bargain. The problem is that I buy things that I don’t need. Recently I filled a very large bag with clothes to go to a nonprofit clothes closet. Whether it is clothes, books, tools or gadgets, we are a materialistic culture. Our materialism creates mountains of trash, which harms the planet and clogs up our spirits.

Jesus has strong words about money and material goods. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. … You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:19-20, 24). The Presbyterian tradition used to be known for simplicity of lifestyle and frugality, which enabled people to be generous in their giving to the church and to the needs of others. But now many of us need saving from our addiction to having too much stuff.

From what do we need saving? The anger and retaliation that have enslaved our culture. Nastiness infects our entertainment, politics and our relationships. Jesus teaches us that we are to take the initiative to reconcile our differences with another person, to forgive repeatedly and to love our enemies. We need saving from the virus of divisiveness and the hatred that inflames our culture.

In Isaiah 7, Ahaz is faced with a choice of choosing to trust God or the armies of an empire. In Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph is faced with a choice between publicly disgracing Mary or being guided by God’s message to him. Trusting God can be challenging and difficult, as it was for King Ahaz and Joseph. But God also provides.

Many years ago, I was going for a holiday visit to my kinfolk, which I dreaded because of an unpleasant relative. My prayer group assured me that they would be praying for me and, remarkably, the visit was far better than most. Through the years, I have heard from people how God strengthened them to forgive, endure pain and illness, and brought comfort in facing death and sudden peace in terrible situations.

Martin Luther King Jr. received many daily death threats during the Montgomery bus boycott. January 27, 1956, late at night when the rest of his family was asleep, King received a phone call threatening to kill his family. He was exhausted and discouraged, so he turned to God. In “Stride Towards Freedom,” he described his encounter with God as he prayed:

“I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.

“At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Jesus is the one who saves us and empowers us to live as his people. He is God with us as we seek to be faithful.

rosalind-banburyRosalind Banbury is the interim pastor of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church in Fishersville, Virginia.

You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.