Advent 4 - God With Us In All Circumstances
A sermon on Luke 1:78-79 and Malachi 4:1-2
[an audion recording of this sermon is availalbe here. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.]
This past week, both of my kids and I battled a nasty head cold, which means that I spent a LOT more time watching Disney movies that I normally have time for the week before Christmas.
One of those movies was the under-rated gem Anastasia.
If you haven’t seen it, the title character has amnesia, and we meet her as a young adult leaving the orphanage where she has been raised for the last 10 years. She is faced with a choice about which road to take, and she asks the universe for “a sign.”
Predictably, the sign is immediately produced… in the form of a puppy stealing her scarf and dragging it down the road to St. Petersburg … but, also predictably, Anastasia doesn’t immediately see this as the sign for which she just asked.
It’s a familiar plot device, but it drew my attention this week to the way that we human beings tend to interact with signs.
I expect that we all imagine that we would love clear, concrete guidance from God about what to do in anxious or uncertain situations.
But what if it’s not the sign we were expecting? Or… what if we weren’t, really, expecting a sign at all?
In a way, it is the unrequested nature of God’s message that holds together our two readings from the day.
That might surprise you because there seems to be a much more obvious link.
After all, Matthew adds an editorial note to his telling of Jesus’s birth story, explaining that all of this took place to fulfil the prophecy from Isaiah… except… that’s kind of a strange claim.
Because, even though he loosely quotes the Isaiah prophecy, the two stories are describing two very different events.
The original prophecy comes in the context of conflict between the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
The ten northern tribes, Israel, which had split off from David’s line in Jerusalem, had allied with the kingdom of Aram. Together, these two powers were threatening the southern kingdom of Judah.
Ahaz, of Judah, is understandably alarmed, but God sends the prophet Isaiah to reassure Ahaz that he should not be afraid. Isaiah even invites him to ask God for a sign, but for some reason – perhaps misplaced piety, perhaps because he knows he won’t trust it – Ahaz declines to “test the Lord.”
This irritates Isaiah, so he proceeds to tell Ahaz the sign anyhow:
“Look, see that young woman over there who is pregnant, she is going to have a son, and she is going to name him Immanuel (because she trusts that God is with your people, even if you don’t!). And by the time that baby is old enough to know the difference between good and bad, the two kingdoms that are scaring you will be destroyed, and this country will be experiencing such blessing and plenty that the little boy will be eating milk and honey.” (paraphrased, Isaiah 7:14-16).
It’s a rather humorous and prosaic pronouncement.
It is delivered by a feisty prophet who is annoyed by the fear and doubt of a leader,
So, he uses something that leader would never recognize as powerful – a pregnant woman and her baby – to teach the king how small his vision is.
Or, put another way, the prophet reminds the king that nothing is beneath God’s notice, and even when you don’t have faith, our God is a God who shows up.
The birth announcement in Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, could not be much more different.
Rather than a king, it is delivered to a poor but honorable craftsman, in a backwater region far from the power in Jerusalem.
And his concerns have nothing to do with matters of war or national alliances… quite the opposite, his worries are intensely personal.
And rather than being paralyzed by fear, Jospeh acts with (what he hopes is) compassionate decision. He will do the righteous thing: set aside his apparently unfaithful betrothed in a way that won’t cause a public scandal (although it also won’t actually provide any assurance for her future).
He asks for no sign because he does not see a need for one.
But, God sends the messenger anyhow, to instruct Joseph in what he does not understand.
And in the context of this very private, prosaic drama it is the sign that reveals unexpected dynamics of world-changing power.
This pregnancy is not just any pregnancy. It is a VIRGIN who will bear this child through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. And this son will literally be Emmanuel – God with us – come to save not just one nation but all people from their sins.
This announcement stops Joseph in his tracks, and it has captured the attention of millions upon millions of souls since.
It has made far-flung nations and countless generations familiar with a prophecy that, otherwise, probably would have faded into relative obscurity.
I bet you can quote it with me: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
Or is it…
“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel”?
Hmm. This raises a challenge for us, doesn’t it?
Because… how are we supposed to interpret this prophecy?
We are probably most familiar with Matthew’s version…
Many of you might not even have known before today that the original had such a different backstory.
But, now that we know, how do we know what it really means?
If we are afraid, or intimidated by new information that challenges our assumptions, we might try to ease our discomfort by glossing over the contrast with theological justifications.
We can talk about God’s mysterious ways that are beyond human wisdom, and, so, God worked through a prophet who didn’t understand himself what he was saying.
Alternatively, if we are more comfortable trusting our own reason and rules of logic, we might use this clear case of reinterpretation within the Bible itself as grounds for doubting its authority.
After all, how can we trust and be guided by an ancient book that is not even internally consistent?
But I think there is another way to hear this prophecy that requires neither the suspension of our brains, nor the rejection God’s Word.
We can receive it as a sign that WE did not ask for, but that we need nonetheless.
You see, these stories, and this prophecy, only really matter to us if they speak into OUR lives, here and now.
And having two stories…
two different contexts for this message of Emmanuel…
two different unsolicited signs by which God interrupts human expectations…
two different ways in which God’s people are comforted by the assurance that God is WITH them…
… that means this message can transcend specific circumstances.
It means that God can be Emmanuel – God With Us – as well.
The context is flexible, the sign can change, but the message stays the same:
God is with us.
When we are afraid of enemies that we feel unable to fight…. God is with us.
When we struggle to trust, or even to ask for help … God is with us.
When we feel betrayed by those closest to us… God is with us.
When we are sure of our own righteousness and don’t need God’s help to decide what to do, even though we might cause some unintended harm … even then, God is with us.
God keeps coming to us. That is what the name Emmanuel means.
God is endlessly creative and persistent in interrupting our stories with the news that we are not alone. And whatever our need, God is with us.
Thanks be to God.