4th Sunday of Advent Isaiah 7:10–14; Romans 1:1–7; Matthew 1:18–24
Who needs Santa? What we prepare to celebrate on Christmas is God’s presence among his people.
In his book Beyond East and West, John Wu has a fascinating passage. Let me read it for you.
My wife and I had never seen each other before our wedding. . . . Both of us. . . were brought up in the old Chinese way. It was our parents who engaged us to each other, when we were barely six years of age.
In my early teens I came to know where her house was. I had an intense desire to have a glimpse of her. In coming back from school, I sometimes took a roundabout way so as to pass by the door of her house. . . . But I never had the good fortune to see her.
Wu goes on to say that he realizes the old Chinese marriage system sounds incredible to Western readers. Some of his own Western friends could hardly believe it at first.
Wu says that he was surprised his friends found the system so incredible. He asked them whether they chose their parents, brothers, and sisters. Then he said, And don’t you love them just the same? John Wu’s passage from his book helps us appreciate better the relationship between Joseph and Mary before Jesus’ birth. Jewish marriage customs included three steps. The first step was engagement. Engagement was often worked out by the parents or a Jewish matchmaker. The young couple often didn’t know each other prior to the engagement.
The song “Matchmaker” from the movie Fiddler on the Roof celebrates this arrangement.
The second step was betrothal. Betrothal lasted about a year and gave the couple a chance to get to know each other. Once the betrothal took place, the couple were known as man and wife, although they did not come together as man and wife. Betrothal was so solemn that it could be terminated only by divorce.
The third step was the marriage proper.
It was in the second step of the Jewish marriage procedure that Joseph learned that Mary was with child.
There is a second point in today’s readings, however, that deserves even more attention. It’s Matthew’s reference to Isaiah’s “God is with us” prophecy. Let me reread the reference for you.
“Now all this happened in order to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel’ (which means, ‘God is with us’).” Matthew 1:22–23
This reference to Isaiah’s “God is with us” prophecy takes on its full significance when we note that Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus’ “I will be with you” promise. Recall the occasion.
Just before ascending to his Father, Jesus gathered his disciples and said to them:
Go, then, to all peoples everywhere. . . and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:19–20
By beginning and ending his Gospel with the theme “God is with us,” Matthew underscores an important point. It is this:
With the birth of Jesus, God becomes present to his people in a remarkable new way.
To appreciate this remarkable new presence, it helps to recall the three ways God is present to us.
First, God is present to us in his creation, especially by his sustaining power. God not only created everything but also holds it in existence.
God’s presence in creation might be compared to a movie projector that casts an image on a movie screen. The projector puts the image on the screen. And the image remains on the screen only as long as the projector keeps it there.
It is the same way with God. God is responsible for putting creation in existence. And creation remains in existence only as long as God keeps it there.
Second, God is present in his word in the Bible.
Someone described the Bible as the Father’s love letter to his children. Just as a human father reveals his thoughts to his children in a letter, so God reveals his thoughts to us in the Bible.
In a very true sense, therefore, the Bible makes God’s mind and heart present to us in a tangible and real way.
Finally, God is present to us in his Son, Jesus. With the birth of Jesus, God’s presence among us took a giant step forward.
God became present among us not only in creation, and not only in word, but also in person.
Jesus’ birth made God present to us in a way we could see, touch, and hear.
This is what we are preparing to celebrate on Christmas: God’s presence among us in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus. Some years ago a delightful Peanuts cartoon appeared around Christmastime. It showed Linus reading to Charlie Brown the gospel account of the birth of Jesus.
When he finished, Linus turned to Charlie Brown and said, That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie. Then he added, So who needs Santa Claus? Let us close by praying together the opening passage of John’s First Letter. Please follow along with me in silence:
We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning. We have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes; yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it. . . .
What we have seen and heard we announce to you also, so that you will join with us in the fellowship that we have with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We write this in order that our joy may be complete. John 1:1–4
Series II 4th Sunday of Advent Isaiah 7:10–14; Romans 1:1–7; Matthew 1:18–24
Call to trust Like Mary and Joseph, we must trust in God, in one another, and in ourselves.
Some time ago, author Ardis Whitman wrote a beautiful article entitled “The Courage to Trust.”
In it she says that one day, purely by chance, she found herself on an airplane seated next to Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. On the opposite side of Dr. King was a middle-aged white man from the South.
During the flight Whitman and King talked about many things, including the improved relationship between blacks and whites. The middle-aged man from the South was obviously listening to the conversation but said nothing. Finally he broke his silence and said:
My children will have no trouble accepting these things. I have learned to accept them. But my father he will never accept them.
Dr. King turned to the man and said compassionately, “Your father is doing what he believes is right.”
Moved by the remark, the man said to Dr. King, “Thank you for thinking that of my father.”
Ardis Whitman goes on to say that Dr. King had the wonderful ability to trust that even his enemies in their hearts had the desire to do what was right.
I like that story because I think it gets at the heart of today’s readings, especially the gospel reading. If there is one thing Mary and Joseph needed in connection with the birth of Jesus, it was trust.
First,Mary had to trust that even though she was a virgin, she would bear a child by the Holy Spirit. Mary trusted, and it was done to her as the angel said.
Second, Joseph had to trust that Mary’s pregnancy was indeed by the Holy Spirit and not by someone else. Joseph trusted, and received Mary into his home as his wife.
One of the most difficult things we are asked to do in life is to trust. And our trust must go in three directions. First, we must trust God, just as Mary and Joseph did.
There’s a story about the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. He used to go for early morning walks in a woods near his home. One morning he was observed to tip his hat to some birds and say:
Good morning, theologians. You wake up and sing a song. But I, old fool, wake up and worry about everything, instead of trusting in my heavenly Father’s care.
And so the first trust we must have is trust in God. “[H]ow happy are those,” says the Book of Psalms, “who trust in [God]!” Psalm 84:12
Second, we must trust each other, just as Mary and Joseph did.
In her article, Ardis Whitman recalls an event that happened when she was a child of eight.
One day her mother took her to the circus. She was absolutely thrilled by the trapeze performers as they swung back and forth high in the air, catching each other at the last minute.
As she was watching, she turned to her mother and said excitedly,
“Aren’t they scared,Momma? Aren’t they scared?”
Before her mother could answer, a man in the row in front of them turned and said to the little girl, “Honey, they aren’t scared. They trust each other.”
There was a brief silence and then someone else was heard to say, “That man should know. He used to perform on the high wire himself.”
And so the second trust we must have is trust in each other. Finally, there is the most difficult trust of all. It is far more difficult than trusting in God or trusting in each other.
It’s trusting in ourselves. It’s trusting in our own goodness as persons. It’s trusting in our own value. It’s trusting that God made us for some special purpose. Mary and Joseph had to make this difficult act of trust. They made it. And to them was born the Savior of the world. We too must make that same act of trust.
In his book Through Seasons of the Heart, author John Powell writes:
God sends each person into this world with a special message to deliver, with a special song to sing . . . with a special act of love to bestow.
No one else can speak our special message. No one else can sing our special song. No one else can bestow our special act of love. We must do this ourselves.
If we don’t speak our message, or sing our song, or perform our act of love, a part of God’s plan goes unfulfilled. A part of God’s glory goes unseen.
None of us in this church today is too young to speak our message, too old to sing our song, too weak to perform our act of love.
Regardless of who we are, we have a mission in this world. It was given to us by God himself.
And so, besides trusting in God, and besides trusting in one another, we must trust in ourselves.
We must trust in our own goodness. We must trust in our own value. We must trust that God made us for some special purpose.
Let’s close with a prayer by Cardinal Newman, the great British intellectual and writer of the last century.
It is a prayer that both Mary and Joseph could have prayed with special devotion in their situation in today’s gospel. It speaks of the trust we must have in God, in one another, and in ourselves.
Please pray it along with me in silence:
God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I shall do good. . . .
Therefore, I will trust him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him. . . .
[God] does nothing in vain. He may prolong my life, he may shorten it; he knows what he is about. . . .
O my God, I will put myself without reserve into your hands.
Series III 4th Sunday of Advent Isaiah 7:10–14; Romans 1:1–7; Matthew 1:18–24
Faith Letting go and letting God . . .
Avirgin will be with child and give birth to a son, and he will be called Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Matthew 1:23
James Cone wrote a book called God of the Oppressed.
In it, he describes how every Sunday morning the Black slaves of Beardon dressed up in their cleanest clothes and went to church.
The service always began with singing. And the reason for the singing was that no sooner did they gather, than they sensed the powerful presence of Jesus in their midst.
When the singing reached a certain point, the pastor confirmed what everyone felt. He said in a loud voice, “Jesus is present among us.” And the people responded with tear-filled shouts of “Amen” and “Hallelujah.”
Then there was more singing, more praying, and more listening to God’s Word.
All the while, the sense of the powerful presence of Jesus among them grew and grew.
As it grew, the people of Beardon felt themselves being filled with the courage and strength they needed to make it through another six days of hard, back-breaking labor.
Some cried; some clapped their hands; others rocked back and forth depending on how the Spirit moved them.
All of these movements were simply the faith witness of Black slaves to Jesus’ presence among them.
At this point of his moving description, author Cone asks these questions:
How could Black slaves know that they were human beings when they were treated like cattle?
How could they know that they were somebody when everything in their environment said that they were nobody?
How could they know that they had a value that could not be defined in dollars and cents?
They knew it because the people of Beardon knew that Christ was present with them and that his presence included the divine promise to come again and take them to the “New Jerusalem.” This beautiful description in Cone’s book dramatizes two important points that Matthew makes in today’s Gospel. The first point is that, by the birth of Jesus, the powerful God of the universe became present among us as one of us. Matthew makes this point by quoting this prophecy of Isaiah:
A virgin will be with child and give birth to a son, and he will be called Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”
Matthew begins his Gospel with the theme of “God’s presence” because this is what Christmas is all about. It is about God coming to live among us as one of us.
Matthew repeats this theme again midway through his Gospel. There he promises his disciples: Where two or three come together in my name, I am with them. Matthew 18:20
Matthew repeats this once again by way of a conclusion to his Gospel. Just before ascending to his Father, he makes this promise to his disciples, I will be with you always, to the end of the world. Matthew 28:20
This brings us to a second point in today’s Gospel: the angel’s message to Joseph that his virgin bride,Mary, is with child by the Holy Spirit.
Even though Joseph could not understand how this could be possible, he put total faith and trust in the angel’s words.
Matthew’s point in telling us this is clear. He wants us to do what Joseph did. He wants us to put total trust in the angel’s words even though we do not understand them either.
There’s an old story that illustrates the kind of total trust and faith in God that God invites us to have. You, no doubt, have heard it at one time or another.
A man fell off a cliff. About ten feet down, he managed to grab hold of a tree root. As he clung to it desperately, he shouted: “Lord help me!”
A voice from the sky answered him, “Do you really believe in me? Do you really trust me?” The man shouted, “Yes! I do believe in you. Yes, I trust you!” The voice from the sky answered, “Good! Now, let go of that tree root.”
The point of the story is this: When it comes to faith and trust in God, there comes a time when we must “let go and let God.”
As long as we want to hold on to a safety net of our own, we have not fully understood what it means to let go and put faith and total trust in God.
And what does this mean? Over 15 centuries ago, Saint Augustine answered the question this way. It means:
To trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love, and the future to God’s providence. It means to trust in God the way the people of Beardon did. It means to trust in God the way Joseph did. It means to let go of our safety net and put total faith in God.
Let us close with a poem. It dramatizes what we mean by letting go of our safety net. It reads:
The road of life was bright. It stretched before my sight. The Lord was at my side to be my friend and guide. And so I started out.
But then the sky turned dark; the road grew steep and stark. Rocks and ruts cut my feet. My legs grew sore and weak. I scarce could travel on.
I turned and cried, “My Lord! Why this pain; why this plight? Why these ruts; why these rocks? Where’s the road; Where’s the light? I cannot carry on.”
The Lord turned and said, “My child, where’s your faith? Where’s your trust? Love chose this road for you. Just trust and travel on.” M. L.