Sermon for Advent IV | December 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
“Before they lived together, Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” If we know our Bible well, this declaration from Matthew will remind us of Eve, one of the primal parents who announced at the birth of her son Cain, the first human child, “I have produced a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1). Interesting that she does not say, “with the help of Adam.” And, if we linger in the Bible, we will discover that Sarah, the mother of Isaac, Rachel, the mother of Joseph, Samson’s unnamed mother, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and then Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, all gave birth with divine assistance. But that assistance from God was focused solely on this: their children were marked for a task that would benefit their people. This was not an experiment in divine biology but rather divine mission, God guiding a people into their future through the work of ordinary people. Thus, Isaiah would write that a young girl would conceive and give birth to a son who shall be called Emmanuel: “God is with us.” Thus, Matthew – using a Greek translation of Isaiah, not the Hebrew original, would write that a virgin – that is, a young girl – will conceive and bear a son who will be called Emmanuel, a son marked for a task, indeed a life that would benefit others.
Consider, then, the time in which Matthew wrote these words, some fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew’s fledgling Christian community was experiencing conflicts between its Jewish Christ followers and a smaller group of Gentile Christ followers. His little community had separated from their mother religion, Judaism, and felt incredibly alone, isolated, in the world. And, this, too: now that they were a separate group who worshipped a Jew put to death by Rome, they were viewed with growing skepticism by their neighbors who were alarmed by these Christians who refused to worship the emperor as a god and refused to make sacrifices to the Roman gods of the state. And this as well: they lived under the rule of Domitian, a Roman emperor known for his despotic rule, a narcissistic political leader unhappy with the thought that some of his subjects refused to worship him. Conflict, isolation, skepticism, and the threat of retribution. Imagine, then, that you are part of this Christian community, a group who would eventually feel the sting of government persecution. Would you not want to hear that in the midst of life’s uncertainties and cruelties that God is with you and with you in the flesh; that God has become flesh in the members of your community; has become one with you in the watery font of rebirth; has become present with you in broken bread and wine cup; has become one with you out of love for you: a palpable sign of divine mercy in a world – that world then and our world now – that has not yet accepted mercy as its fundamental value and mode of relationship with others? No wonder the adult son of Mary and Joseph would say, “I desire mercy … not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
In 1865, Philip Brooks, an Episcopal priest and rector of Trinity Church Boston, travelled to the Holy Land where he spent much time in Bethlehem. Upon his return to Boston, he was inspired to write a carol that we know as “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” While the first verse narrates the birth of Jesus, the fourth and last verse is a simple prayer: “O holy Child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.” I wonder sometimes if the sheer familiarity of well-known Christmas texts can obscure for us what they ask of us and, if we spent but a moment or two reflecting on them, would we close our mouths and not sing them? For this text is nothing less than an echo of today’s gospel reading but with a twist: for it asks quite honestly that you and I be the divine presence in our world, in daily life. “O holy child of Bethlehem, be born in us today.”
Of course, it leaves unanswered the question, “To what kind of holy child are we praying?” Is it the child who is obedient in all things, who has been taught that if you simply follow the rules, all will be well? Is it the child who acts up at the most inopportune moments and subverts our sense of control? Is it the child who refuses to settle for the easy answers adults can so easily dispense and questions, questions, questions – at times to the point of annoyance? Is it the child who tires of the silly entertainments intended to distract them from their much-felt and real struggles, entertainments we find so frequently in church services, homes, and schools? Or is it the child who feels the pain of loss in life, of things gone awry, of little injustices and not so little ones that need to be made right? “O holy child of Bethlehem be born in us today.”
Dear friends, there is great consolation in this Fourth Sunday of Advent: God is with us in the midst of our messiness, in conflicts, in the feeling of isolation, in any sense that we are less than we are called to be. And there is great challenge: How shall you and I be more clearly the divine presence of mercy in the world today?
The poet, Daniel Ladinsky, offers us this invitation:
If You Want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy, and say, “I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ taking birth forever, as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul, as God grasps your arms for help;
for each of us is His beloved servant never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the street pregnant
with Light and [she will] sing …
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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.