We long for God to come to be with us, we hope for this promise that Christ abides with us; but when our Lord comes he’s disruptive, life-changing, and thanks be to God for that.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fourth Sunday of Advent, year A; texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. He had it all in his mind how it would be: a perfect day, the whole town celebrating, a dance, his beautiful bride. And then children, if the LORD God willed it, boys whom he would teach his craft, or girls whom his wife would teach to care for a home.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, this stunning thing of her being pregnant. Truthfully, it wouldn’t have been so bad if the reason was that they couldn’t wait. That had happened before in this town, and while it was humiliating for a while to be teased, it always passed and people went on with their lives. That, he could have handled.
But this pregnancy . . . well . . . he had nothing to do with it. That was the terrible thing. That was the thing he couldn’t even bear to say out loud for fear it would mean it wasn’t just a bad dream. For Joseph, his hopes for his life were shattered.
Or at least that’s what he thought. It would be well for us, sitting on Fourth Advent, looking ahead to our Christmas celebrations, it would be well for us to see if we might need to learn what Joseph, guardian of our Lord, needed to learn. Because what he learned was a hard lesson, though ultimately it was a lesson which gave him life like he’d never dreamed of. What he learned was how God works salvation for us. It was a hard lesson for him; it may be a hard lesson for us. Because God does this salvation by surprising us with the unexpected, the ridiculous, even the terrible, or the terrifying. But in that surprise we have hope, and life. In that surprise God is with us.
We call Jesus’ birth holy, but in fact it’s a holy disruption, for his family, and for the world.
It’s a thing we have to keep in mind as we’re tempted to sentimentalize the Christmas story. Matthew’s account is not terribly sentimental, after all. He tells of a good man, a righteous man, who is torn between his loyalty to his fiancée and his sense of what is right, a man who seeks to quietly divorce her rather than have her stoned to death.
This threatening opening to Jesus’ story is only the start of what is to come. Because Matthew will tell us of the cost of this birth to the children of Bethlehem. And then he will tell us what this child, grown to be a man, became, and what he asks of us, of all who would follow him.
Jesus the child became a man who called us to take up our cross and follow him. To give up our lives for each other. To love our enemies and to be people embodying justice and love in the world.
This is the kind of wisdom, the way of life, this holy Child came to bring. The disruption in his earthly parents’ lives was only the beginning. Jesus’ whole way is a disruption of everything we are and do.
The promise Matthew makes today is that this Child will be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” It’s a good name. Until we comprehend what that means. That’s what Joseph and Mary learned.
Once God comes to be with us, God starts talking to us. God starts asking things of us. God starts trying to lead us into new ways of life. God-with-us is not a neutral, no-impact proposition. God’s ways of justice and peace and self-giving love: this is the way Jesus talked and walked and preached.
Jesus came to lead us onto paths that lead to the life of the Triune God. He points humanity, points each of us, down roads that are very different from our current paths and directions.
So however much we get mushy at Christmas, the end result of this impending birth is change for us. Massive change. Earth-shaking change. And, like Joseph, we may not always like it at first.
What we know, though, is that the need for God-with-us is also as real as it has ever been for the world.
The readings from Scripture this morning speak of the human need for God to come and help us. In Isaiah, Ahaz, the king of Judah, is faced with serious military threats from Israel, the northern kingdom, and from Aram, also to the north and east, and he’s facing moral collapse from within his kingdom. Injustice and oppression are increasing among his people.
And to this Isaiah promises that a child will be born as a sign, a child called “God-with-us.” A sign that God still cares about Judah. But also a sign to call the nation to new life.
The time of Joseph and Mary likewise cried out for help from God. Oppression from Rome, poverty and want: this people desperately needed God. And the promise to Joseph today is that a child will be born, called “God-with-us”.
And even when we move forward now to our time, we long for God to save us. How can we count the ways we are anxious and frightened? Seemingly ever-increasing intolerance and hatred in our world and our society. Threats of terrorism, of heart-rending violence and death close to home and across the oceans. Soldiers – ours, and those of many nations – still fighting in wars, still far from wherever their homes are, still dying, year after year.
In more places than we can count in this world there are people ever in danger, being destroyed by others because of who they were born to be, or because of their faith, or because of any number of other things we find to hate each other about. We who hope in the one true God want God to come and save us. We long for this.
Advent is a time when this longing is spoken aloud, sung aloud, dared to be voiced, but this desire, this hope for Emmanuel never leaves us. And the good news is also the difficulty, all at the same time: God does come to be with us. But in an unexpected, and disruptive way.
There’s a reason for the disruption, though. God’s whole purpose for coming in person was to create change in us and in the world. This is what God means by “saved”.
And again, the clue is in the promised child’s name, now from the angel’s voice to Joseph: his name will be Jesus, which means “God saves.” “Because he will save his people from their sins,” the angel says.
But for Jesus this isn’t some judicial exchange. He doesn’t come simply to remove consequences or even punishment for our sins. He comes to save us from them, God’s messenger declares. That is, to bring us into new ways without sin.
God’s whole plan was to personally, in person, lead us away from paths that lead to sin into paths that lead to life. That’s the world’s answer from God. That’s how God is with us.
The answer for Ahaz and the people of Judah was to live new lives of justice in God’s ways, trusting God to save them, not foreign alliances. This meant change for them, serious change.
The answer for Joseph and Mary and their people was to live in God’s ways and trust that God had come in person to bring about new life. This meant change for them, too, serious change.
And it means change for us. If we’re going to worship this Child, we must remember to worship the man, the Son of God, he became. A man who was also God, who called us to new lives.
New lives that reflect the justice of God, that all people live safely, freely, and in peace. When we do things or support things that do not bring that about, or that prevent such justice, this God-child, this man-to-be, who embodied such justice, this One calls us to change.
We are called to new lives that reflect the love of God, that all people have value and worth in God’s eyes, and are precious. When we do things or support things that do not show that love, or that prevent people from knowing it, this God-child, this man-to-be, who lived that love with every fiber of his being, his teaching, his healing, this One calls us to change.
And we are called to new lives that reflect the vulnerability of God, that are willing to lose all for others, even to giving our lives, rather than dominating or controlling others. When we seek to be in power, to be the ones who get our way, to be ones who live while others die, this God-child, this man-to-be, who himself died and rose to new life, this One calls us to change.
God needed to come because we were destroying ourselves and this world. Because we still are. God chose to come, to be with us, to show us the way to end that destruction and to find life. But that meant we’d need to change. And we don’t like that at all. So we killed him.
But when we killed this God-child, the man he became, God overcame our hatred with resurrection life. And now, risen, this Child continues to stand at the head of new roads, new paths, encouraging us to follow.
And that’s going to be a disruption. But truly a holy one after all.
Because when God comes it’s usually not the way we expect, or often even want. But it is the way we need.
As we enter our Christmas celebrations next week, let us never stop praying for Emmanuel, for God-with-us, despite what it will mean for changing us. And may God bless us with the courage and faith of Joseph and Mary to accept God’s coming, and all the changes it means, so that through us, too, God will come to the world and continue to transform it from fear to love, from death to life.
It’s not how we thought it would be. But it’s God’s gift of life to us and to the world. And our Lord will be with us every step of the way on this new path, thanks be to God, because that’s his name, after all. God-with-us. Emmanuel.
Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen