Fourth Sunday of Advent
The world is about to turn
- Isaiah 7:10-16
- Romans 1:1-7
- Matthew 1:18-25
God is with us
This is the Gospel of the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us .
Jesus is Born….into a hurting world…..Then and now
God is truly with us even as we come to the climax of this holy season of Advent awaiting the Coming Christ….again. We and the world are in great need of God with us in Jesus, Emmanuel, a name which combines the Hebrew words meaning “with us” and “God” (El). This is the culmination of the great Advent preparation and hope climaxing on Christmas Eve when we come to celebrate the birth of Jesus, proclaiming in word and song and prayer our wonder for the One whom God has sent, is even now sending, and will send again into the world and yet who is always with us “to the end of the age.”
But it isn’t all that neat and tidy is it? Advent shows us how conflicted and untidy was God’s incarnate intrusion in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us .
Matthew begins the birth story with words filled with adorable and innocent promise: “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way” How much more adorable or innocent can we get than the birth of a newborn baby, especially this baby who is God with us ? The untidiness of Jesus’ birth is immediately seen in Joseph’s dilemma over what to do with a young pregnant woman to whom he is betrothed when the baby she bears is not his own.
Untidiness persists when Joseph hears a vision from the Lord that the Holy Spirit is at work so, “Don’t be afraid.” But how can Joseph not be afraid? And yet he lets go of fear and obeys God’s startling and unexpected command to “take Mary as your wife” and trust that God is with him. In untidy circumstances Joseph chooses to live the heart of the law in obedience to God rather than keep the letter of the law. In setting aside a previous understanding of God’s will in obedience to God’s immediate life-giving call, Matthew portrays Joseph as the first model of living out a higher righteousness of God’s kingdom (Boring, Matthew , NIB, 136).
Matthew continues the story with an angel quoting the prophet Isaiah saying, “God has given you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and name him Immanuel.” We heard these words from Isaiah mouth (7:14) already in worship.
The 13 th century cathedral of Chartres has four stained glass windows depicting each of the Gospel writers standing on the shoulders of an OT prophet. Matthew stands on Isaiah’s shoulders. “It was impossible for Isaiah in the eighth century B.C.E. to see Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us. [But] without Isaiah, Matthew would not have been able to search the Hebrew scriptures for the Spirit-filled words” to tell the good news of the long-awaited Messiah (Verna Holyhead, Building on a Rock, 11).
I don’t know about you, but I have experienced Advent as a wrenching realism yet filled with joyful hope. The clash has also resounded deep within the biblical word proclaimed for our hearing each Sunday. The biblical Word we have heard over these four Sundays of Advent and the next two Sundays of Christmas and Epiphany will not let us forget or ignore the reality of the world into which Jesus came as God with us . Jesus was born under Roman occupation called Pax Romana – the peace of the Roman empire. Our world into which Jesus comes is American empire called Pax Americana as if we knew nothing of Jesus’ life. The texts and the times then prepare us to see Jesus now so that we are not blinded by the false peace of empire.
One of the most startling and disturbing messages of this season that I have seen appears in the December issue of National Geographic . The cover article is on “Big bad Bizarre Dinosaurs,” which is not the message of interest. Also on the cover of the National Geographic appears the innocent words: “Bethlehem 2007.” Inside the article begins:
This is not how Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem but this is how you enter now. You wait at the wall. It’s a daunting concrete barricade, three stories high, thorned with razor wire…..Israeli soldiers armed with assault rifles examine your papers. They search your vehicle. No Israeli civilian….is allowed in. And few Bethlehem residents are permitted out….The truth is that Bethlehem, the ‘little town’ venerated during Christmas, where Jesus was born is now one of the most contentious places on Earth (p. 64).
From a very different source we get a similar message. Christian Peacemaker Teams’ Winter issue of Signs of the Times , leads with the headline, “Bethlehem: No Way to the Inn.” The CPT story begins, “If the Christmas story were to happen today, Mary and Joseph would have a hard time getting to Bethlehem.” It goes on to explain how a concrete barrier up to 26 feet high surrounds Bethlehem and snakes through Occupied Palestinian Territory. [cf. 18 feet high sanctuary ceiling] CPT calls for us to erect high barriers around our nativity sets in our homes and churches to raise awareness of this wall of separation that surrounds the birthplace of Jesus.
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie.” Not! If anything Bethlehem is even more oppressive than when Jesus was born posing a harsh reality longing for joyful hope.
Jesus Enters a World of Reason and Wonder Yet Again
The great Jewish philosopher prophet, Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us that there two ways of knowing: the way of reason or the way of wonder . The way of reason is the way of logic and science . The way of wonder is the way of radical amazement . As enlightenment people we tend toward the way of reason that seeks to explain the world and adapt to it. The second way, the way of wonder and radical amazement seeks to adjust our concepts and minds to God’s world of wonder.
We have again been prepared to enter the world of Emmanuel, God with us, in awed wonder (or “odd” wonder to borrow from Flannery O’Connor, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”) and radical amazement until God’s truth can touch us and form us in a new reality. (Richard Rohr tape on “The Spirituality of Imperfection”).
Madeleine L’Engle poetically demonstrates this radical amazement and obedience in one of her best known and shortest poems called “After annunciation” ( A Cry Like A Bell , p. 58).
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
Madeleine L’Engle tells us that Mary irrationally declined the reason of a walled Bethlehem to make room for the Christ-child.
We are called with Mary into this irrational Advent season. In the last few days of this irrational season I have sensed and seen the awesome wonder of God with us in many places; let me cite three of those places.
First, an Advent article called “The Eye and I,” connects the awesome intricacies of the eye with the vast marvels of the universe as testimony to the God of the universe. These are words that prepare our eyes for Advent:
Science yields plenty of clues to a Designer…Every planet circles the sun at precisely the one speed that keep it form drifting into deep space or crashing into the sun. The four fundamental forces in the universe are gravity (the attractive pull of every body), electromagnetism (bonding atoms), the strong nuclear force (binding elements within the nucleus), and the weak force (radioactive decay). If any of these forces were even minutely different, the advent of humans would have been unthinkable….If gravity were [minutely] weaker, Big Bang dust would have just continued to expand, never coalescing. If stronger nuclear force were a little weaker, no elements heavier than hydrogen would have formed. If electromagnetism were stronger, electrons would be so tightly bound by atoms, chemical compounds would have been impossible. Any weaker, and atoms would disintegrate at room temperature (William J. O’Malley, America , 12/10/07).
A second Advent illumination this week, was an inspiring reconciliation between some our friends on the street that ranged from the prayer room to the coffee table. Or I could also point to a public witness at City Hall on Wednesday evening to call this community and our leaders to pay more attention to the plight of those who like Jesus have no home and nowhere to lay their head at night. Here are witnesses to the Prince of Peace who comes into the world as Emmanuel, God with us .
My third Advent noticing this week comes from The Mennonite, in a one page article asking the question, “Does love really work?” The conclusion is that “love is a principle, not a law, and it works.” Love is grounded in the soil of the law as taught by the Deuteronomist and Jesus: “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself…yes, and even enemy.” The author gives a few quotes from young children about what love is. A 4 year old child saw an elderly next door neighbor weeping for his wife who had recently died. The 4 year old went over and climbed onto the man’s lap and just sat there. Later the child’s mother asked what he said to the crying man, the child answered, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” A 7 year old answered the question “What is love?” by saying, “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” (D. Lowell Nissley, 12/4/07, p. 15)
These are the children about whom Jesus says, “Unless you become as one of these little children you cannot enter God’s kingdom.” Jesus comes into the world as one of them.
Whether we look to the far reaches of the universe or to our own lives or to the cold streets of our city or to the wondrous wisdom of our children we see even today that God is with us!
How have you been preparing and been prepared for Jesus’ coming into the world? How attentive are we as we celebrate God’s incredible Incarnate Presence in Jesus Christ in this season?
“The birth of Jesus took place in this way…” Matthew tells us. It is a word for us today as much as for Matthew’s day for truly God is with us. Thanks be to God!
Ponder this wondrous word in silence before we lift our voices to God in personal and communal confession.
.………….Let us be in Silence before our God…………….