4th Sunday of Advent (Year A) – December 22, 2013 – Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25
St. Jacob’s-Spaders and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Pastor Evan Davis
He was surrounded. King Ahaz of Judah, sitting on his throne in Jerusalem, almost 8 centuries before Jesus, is shaking in his sandals, because his two greatest enemies have joined forces against him. Together they could easily crush poor little Judah. As mighty as these two kings and their armies seemed to Ahaz, God was not impressed, and God declared through Isaiah “it shall not come to pass” (7:7). But Ahaz was still shakin’ scared, and so God says, go on, “ask for a sign,” any sign, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” I’ll prove it!, God says. But Ahaz replies, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” Ahaz didn’t want a sign from God. Maybe because he knew it was against the Torah to put God to the test, but God was inviting him. Maybe it was because Ahaz had heard the word on the street, the word in the scriptures, that God rarely gives the sign you want. Jonah, anyone?
But speaking through Isaiah, God goes right on ahead and gives an unexpected and mysterious sign to Ahaz, in the form of a promised child: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Then and now, that name, Immanuel, means literally “God with us.” In Isaiah, the names of children always mean something – in this case, that God will be with Judah. They’ve got nothing to fear. Let go and let God. Before he learns how to tell right from wrong, God says, that kid’ll be eating curds and honey (food not currently available in these hard times1) and those two kings you’re worried about, and their countries, “will be deserted.” Ahaz didn’t want a sign, but before he could even think to ask, God gave him Immanuel. God has something more for Ahaz.
She was pregnant. The news hit Joseph like a freight train. How could she? He thought he knew Mary, his betrothed. They had already been formally engaged, the traditional first step in Jewish marriage customs. The marriage feast, after which Mary would come to live in Joseph’s home, was still to come, but their engagement was already too far along – now it could only be broken by divorce.2 What was he going to do? How could she have put him in this position? He loved her. As Matthew puts it, “just when he had resolved to [dismiss her quietly],” God gave him an unexpected and mysterious sign. An angel appears to him in a dream and tells him, guess what? Mary has not broken her vows to you – in fact, she has been chosen to bear a son by the Holy Spirit, and you are to name him Jesus (which means “the LORD saves”) for he will save the people from their sins. Yo, Joseph, actually…I think this one’s a keeper. Go on and have that marriage feast.
Joseph probably just wanted a quiet, normal marriage – but whoa, she was pregnant…with a child from God. Like any Jewish man, Joseph was probably eager to be a dad, but this was something different. This was a life-altering sign from God, a sign he didn’t ask for. A job of parenting an unexpected and mysterious child from God. Like Ahaz, Joseph probably would have preferred to proceed with his life without divine intervention, but God interrupts his life with Emmanuel. God had something more for Joseph.
Here we are. Most of us are like Ahaz – we’d rather pass on a sign from God, a sign that probably will take us where we don’t want to go. We’d rather get from God what we think we need to do what we already want to do. Most of us are like Joseph – all we want is a quiet, normal life. Like Joseph, we’d rather not be surprised that a baby’s on the way, a baby he was quite sure he hadn’t fathered. We prefer the expected. The planned and prepared for. A nice home, good and rewarding work, food on the table, the chance to provide a good childhood for our kids. Presents and carols and Christmas traditions. Memories, portraits, jokes and laughter. All of this is good, and God provides it – although some among us enjoy more than others. But as we are about to sing, “unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.”3
You see, God has something more – something more surprising, more unsettling, but more wonderful and amazing than we could ever imagine. An angel broke the big news to Joseph – guess what, buddy, you’re gonna be a daddy! And it’s gonna change your life! Ain’t nothin’ gonna be the same! Well, folks, God is sending us Emmanuel, too, and when God is with us, guess what, your life is going to change. Ain’t nothin’ gonna be the same!
Before we could ever think to ask, knowing indeed that we would never ask for who we really need, God sends us himself – Emmanuel, God with us. A little child whom we did not create, a sign of the future – God’s future – that we do not write. A sign of our destiny that we do not secure. A sign of the ever-loving and sustaining peace of God’s embrace.
And while for Ahaz, the child Immanuel was just a sign, for Mary and Joseph and for us Jesus is more than a sign – Jesus IS Emmanuel – the reality of God with us. The union of God and our fragile, vulnerable humanity. We didn’t ask for God, but God shows up in our lives. In the baby Emmanuel, Jesus, God hits the streets! Unannounced. Unexpected. This is totally out of our control.
Maybe we just want a quiet, normal life as a congregation. No surprises. Everything done as it has always been done. We want to keep all this going, right? We want to continue in our mission as St. Jacob’s Lutheran Church. Through hard moments and difficult circumstances, God has enabled you to keep the doors open to this community of faith. But keeping the doors open is not enough. The question we must answer is, why does God need us to keep the doors open? Why does God need us to be a church, here, and now? Whose life will we interrupt with the gospel as ours has been interrupted?
Well guess what, everybody? Now, WE ARE THE SIGN. Because Jesus, Emmanuel, has claimed each of you in Baptism, and made all of us together to be the Body of Christ, his Body in the world, we are now the sign of Emmanuel to our community. We are the people through whom the world meets God. Not because we deserve to be but because, radically, God has chosen to reveal himself through humanity – through Jesus, and now through us. In what we say and what we do. In where we show up unannounced. In what we’re willing to sacrifice. Ain’t nothin’ gonna be the same for you and for me.
God gives Emmanuel to us so that we can be Emmanuel to the world. And the world is not looking for us anymore than we were looking for God, before God surprised us with an unexpected and mysterious child we didn’t ask for. The world does not want us, but the world needs us, because the world needs Christ, Emmanuel.
When the world meets an unexpected and mysterious church, a church that shows up among the least, the last, and the lost, a church that strangely does not play by the rules of violence and materialism in our culture, a church that interrupts people’s lives, a church that offers real life and a relationship with the living God-with-us, Emmanuel, well, ain’t nothin’ gonna be the same in the life of the world. Amen.
1Mary Lin Hudson, Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16 on New Proclamation, http://members.newproclamation.com/commentary.php?d8m=12&d8d=22&d8y=2013&event_id=4&cycle=A&atom_id=28629 (accessed December 21, 2013).
2Arland Hultgren, Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25 on Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1936 (accessed December 20, 2013).
3Jeannette M. Lindholm, text of “Unexpected and Mysterious” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).