Weekly Preaching: December 22, 2019 (Advent 4)

December 17th, 2019

Before I ruminate with you on Advent 4’s texts proper, I’ll refer you to my general blog on preaching during Advent (“God Became Small”), with lots of illustrative stuff applicable to any of the Sundays, and also (especially as Christmas Eve is in just days away) to my “Preaching Christmas” blog.

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Isaiah 7:10-16. I recall Religion 101 in college when my deeply religious friend got apoplectic when the professor tried to explain that the Hebrew here wasn’t “a virgin” but “the young woman.” Why do people cling so fiercely to the notion that prophecies are predictive? The text is far richer than any image of Isaiah gazing into the divine crystal ball and foretelling what would happen in 700+ years. What help would that have been to Ahaz or the Israelites anyhow? They were under extreme duress, with hard decisions looming.

So the gift of Isaiah 7:10-16? Pressured by the Assyrian juggernaut, Ahaz is flailing about, sensing that a lunge into a treaty might help, might not, but to do nothing? — which is Isaiah’s counsel, or at least that’s what “Trust God!” had to feel like. God curiously urges Ahaz to ask for a sign. Our people are fond of signs (usually in place of diligent Bible reflection, spiritual formation, Christian conversation and prayer), leading them into what Bruce Waltke (Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion?) called “the Hunch method.” The dream house I’ve driven by every day for years has a For Sale sign! It’s a sign from God we should buy it! A hunch, baptized. People never see a poor person with three poorly clothed children crossing the road and think Hmm, it’s a sign: God wants us to adopt an impoverished immigrant family.

Ahaz, rather piously, dodges the offer: “No, I will not put the Lord to the test.” I love Martin Luther’s view on this: “Impious Ahaz simulates a holy attitude… Thus hypocrites, when it is not necessary, are most religious; but when they ought to be humble, they are most haughty.” Ahaz may have rightly suspected that the sign to be given would not suit his power-grubbing, politically-advantageous fantasies. Your people likely feel weary of the bickering and inanity they see among politicians. Share with them Isaiah’s ding of Ahaz: “It is too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” You’re weary of politics? Think how exhausted God must be!

The unasked for sign is the last thing Ahaz wanted: “The young woman”  in Hebrew, ha-almah  will have a child. Which “the” woman? One standing nearby? Isaiah’s wife? Isaiah must have exasperated Mrs. Isaiah by his choice of baby names, like Mahershalalhashbaz, Shearyashuv, their names being prophecies. Another made-up, prophetic name is announced for this child: Immanuel, familiar to us now but a bizarre one back then  meaning, as we know, “God with us.” Ahaz wanted more, like a legion or thicker walls around Jerusalem. Instead, the infant-sized promise that God is with us. This is the heart of Advent and Christmas... and the whole Gospel.

Sam Wells shrewdly reminds us that the most important word in the Bible, and in all of theology, is with. God is with us, which is way better than a dazzling fortune-telling of what will happen centuries from now. God is as with us as this child is with its mother right now. This then informs how we do ministry: We don’t fix people, we aren’t charitable toward people, and we certainly don’t pity them; we are with them.

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Romans 1:1-7. Instead of a holy tablets view of Scripture, we can in this moment imagine Paul welcoming the secretary into the room, saying “Have a seat, get out your pen; I want to compose a letter to the people in Rome I’ve never met.” Pacing, uttering a few words, pausing, grimacing, wiping his brow, a few more words tumble out. Romans begins.

Right off he speaks of the Gospel which was “promised beforehand.” Just as with Isaiah, it’s not that the Gospel was predicted long ago. God’s eternal plan, God’s constant manner of being, God’s own heart, always laboring, always loving, culminating in the Jesus moment — it's not a backup plan, not a last ditch effort, but God’s holy intention from the commencement of creation itself.

Michelangelo’s creation of Adam depicts God with a woman and child tucked under his left arm, a visual of God’s eternal, beforehand promise and way.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

Notice the words we’d find in a theological dictionary, all piled on top of one another, as Paul tries to explicate the revolution that Jesus touched off: servant, called, sent, set apart, good news, holiness, grace, obedience of faith. All this “by a spirit of holiness” — the same one that came upon Mary! He probably anticipated that his listeners, once the letter was wrapped up, delivered, and finally read aloud in Rome, were people of low social standing. So he speaks to them of being “slaves” (maybe a step down for many of them!) with no rights, no standing, and yet with the ultimate standing, the freedom and nobility of being God’s family!

N.T. Wright suggests Paul is utilizing some “wry irony” when he speaks of being “set apart,” which the Pharisees boasted of being. We are set apart, not to be insulated from others, or superior to others, but set apart to be for others, called from the world to be in and for the world in obedience (the Greek, hupakoe, cherished by Diaspora Jews as the translated of shema, the treasured call to faith in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which they recited in a creedal way every day). It’s worth remembering that in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph were still devout Jews (as they would be after the birth too!), doing things like reciting the Shema, and singing Psalms. Jesus, in utero, would have heard his mother’s voice doing so, muffled a bit, but rejoicing his infant heart.

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Matthew 1:18-25. A text so familiar, it's better to be the docent pointing to its wonder than to try to explain it or make it relevant or devise some moral takeaway. To me, three things here are noteworthy, if I’m the docent pointing to the wonder:

  1. The angels anticipates their fear. Yes, Mary and Joseph had good cause to fear, as do we, always. And yet Scott Bader-Saye’s wisdom comes to mind. Noting how, in our post-9/11 culture, security is everything, and so we wind up living timid lives: “Instead of being courageous, we are content to be safe… We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good… Our overwhelming fears need, themselves, to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.” Joseph and Mary’s fears certainly were.

  2. Matthew reminds us of the child with the prophetic name at Isaiah’s court, Immanuel, God with us — and then clarifies how this nickname jives marvelously with the proper name to be given to this child: Jesus, yeshu‘a, which means either “Lord, help!” or “the Lord saves” — or both. Madeleine L’Engle said Jesus’ first cry sounded like the ringing of a bell. Jesus is one with the cry of all humanity. And Jesus is the divine reply to the cry of all humanity, in his cry, in his being Immanuel.

  3. Or the preacher might simply want to tease out what Joseph, who only gets a little play here in all of the Gospels, might have been like, and mean for us. In my little Advent book, Why This Jubilee?, I wrote this:
Joseph has always been relegated to the background of Christmas pageants, looking on, doing nothing much besides gazing, peering over Mary’s shoulders, hanging on to the donkey’s reins, his face solemn, looking a little bit sheepish, even foolish, while attention is focused on the real “stars” of the drama, Jesus and his mother Mary. No dramatic skills required to pay Joseph. He’s just there.

We don’t know much about Joseph - and the little we know seems ridiculously inconsequential. He worked in construction. A laborer who worked hard for a living. Not a star. Oddly, God’s highest calling might be for us to be like Joseph. He was simply there. He stuck close to Jesus, and that was enough. “For me it is good to be near God” (Psalm 73:28).

Something else unspectacular on Joseph’s resume: he was virtuous (Matthew 1:19). Was he some titan of holiness? I see his greatest virtue as something humbler, and harder: he was merciful. He did not shun Mary after her pregnancy. He had his rights: in those days, to be “betrothed” was more binding than a mere “engagement” today. On betrothal, the groom assumed legal rights over the woman, and the arrangement could only be broken by a legal divorce. The law threatened the death penalty for a woman caught in adultery. We can only guess as to the whispering gossip he overheard, the chilly stares boring into him, and her. But he was quiet, and prayerful enough, to be in sync with God’s Spirit on this one, and so he refused to pass judgment. He stayed.
"Why This Jubilee?" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WhyThisJubilee
Maybe he had been shown mercy, and knew what it felt like. When Jesus was grown, he told people who knew precious little mercy, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus didn’t just talk mercy. He was abundantly merciful to people who knew no mercy at all: lepers, demoniacs, tax collectors. Had he witnessed this in Joseph? Weren’t Jesus’ best stories, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, all about the mercy that Jesus himself was?

Deep inside, don’t you crave mercy? to be loved despite your craziness, to be handled tenderly? Don’t we need to be tender, merciful, forgiving to others? Joseph, after all, did bear a magnificent name. Joseph, the son of Jacob, was eminently wise, and forgave his dastardly brothers who sold him into slavery and broke their father’s heart. He was the one who saw through all their misdeeds and perceived the divine plan: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

How do we get close to Joseph, who was so close to Jesus? I am adept at finding fault, and zeroing in on what’s wrong with everybody else. But Jesus came so we would not judge, so we could become merciful, like the mercy we itch for. A judgmental thought rings your doorbell? Don’t answer. A critical remark hangs on your lips? Hush. An ugly observation, about somebody out there, someone you love, or even yourself, suggests itself? Take a breath, and imagine Joseph hovering lovingly next to Mary, whom he could have despised, and over Jesus, God’s love bundled in the manger.

Joseph doesn’t fit in to our cynical culture very well. We are quick to doubt, swift to blame. A jaded skepticism seems to work for us. We are determined never to play the fool. But Joseph, the first of a great cloud of fools in Jesus’ wake, believes Mary’s story, and God’s, courting shame and embarrassment. He trusts. He stays.

The fact that he’s just standing there is all we really need to know, all we really need to do. Confronted by the scandalous surprise of God becoming flesh, granting every good reason to flee for the exits and be the center of attention in our own dramas, maybe this Advent we can learn what it means just to stand nearby the manger, to look, to wait, to stay, to trust. We may look a little foolish. At least, we hope we will.

What can we say December 22? Advent 4 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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