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Isaiah 7:10-16;Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7;Matthew 1:18-25
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
December 22, 2019 –Fourth Sunday in Advent
We light the fourth Advent Candle, celebrating the virtue of Trust in our season of hopeful, watchful expectation. We find ourselves at the darkest time of the year, but it is the time when the light shines most brightly.
Edna St. Vincent Millay put it so perfectly with her poem:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes – and oh my friends;
It gives a lovely light.
A light shines in the darkness. The immortal becomes mortal…and the mortal becomes immortal…with the waiting we do this precious Sunday of Trust, just before Christmas day.
In our reading from Isaiah, King Ahaz of Judah is under attack from friend and foe alike. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, and the Arameans both attack Judah. The Judeans fend them off but the attack from those quarters shakes their confidence in their security. It is their 9/11. Their candle is burns at both ends.
God sends Isaiah to assure Ahaz and to tell him to put his trust in God.
“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or as high as heaven”. A virtual blank check. But Ahaz says no; he’s not going to ask for a sign. He says, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”
When we lose the ability to trust in each other or in God, the end of so much is in sight. The darkness begins to overcome the light.
But when we do decide to trust in God, God’s own truth, and one another…the world becomes new again. Isaiah speaks words into the heart of Ahaz and Judah this morning, and into our hearts as well:
“Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign…”
While we may lose our trust in God, God does not lose his trust in us. A woman is about to give birth to a son and you shall name him Immanuel…which means ‘God is with us.’
Not only is the event full of hope, but the hope is to be celebrated through the name that is to be given to the child. So if you were about to welcome a child into the world right now…in December of 2019 …what name would you give the child?
I was supposed to be named Susan. I am older than ultrasound. When it turned out that I was a boy, I was named John. Then, when my mother’s mother saw me, with bright red hair, I got a middle name of Kelly. And it has all been a surprise since.
There is a gravitational wave at work in the names we have been given. We thought my daughter would be the only Amanda in her school, it was such an old person’s name. But there were two other Amandas in her class.
Caleb’s name came out of the Bible. No other Calebs in anyone’s family, but there were two other Calebs in his class.
Our names are an expression of the hope and joy…and trust…our parents felt at the great occasion of our birth. Something new is coming into the world. It will be wonderful in some way.
What name can we put on that sense of wonder? How can we express our trust in the God who gave us life…and now gives life to us again? We understand our family’s love for us once more… and we understand God’s love for the world.
Do we welcome God’s new presence in our lives with trust and joy, or with suspicion and dread? We are malcontents by nature.
It’s like the guy who got two sweaters for Christmas from his aunt. There was a family dinner later that day, so he picked out the sweater that he thought looked most like Christmas to him and wore it.
His aunt recognized the sweater, of course, and came over to him and said, “So…you didn’t like the other one?” We are so complicated…and not complicated at all.
In our gospel account, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth come to us as a complicated social narrative, but a very simple faith story. Mary and Joseph are not married yet, but Mary is with child from the Holy Spirit.
This must have come to Joseph as a surprise…and one that was filled with a bunch of negative social consequences when it arrived. Surely, he loved Mary and saw in her the same radiance God could see…but what would people think?
His first thought is to bow to the social customs of his day rather than take on the challenges that certainly lay ahead for the mother and child. He goes to bed that night with his love and his fear tugging him one way and another.
Will he trust, as Isaiah pleaded with Ahaz to trust? Or will he move on, leaning only on his own mortal possibilities? It there more to this than appears on the surface?
We have to choose, every minute of every day, what we will do next. Will we turn to the left or to the right? Will we respond to our circumstances with love or with fear? Can we steer our ship with hope…leaving fear astern?
Every choice we make tells us who we are and whose we are. Are we just reacting to what we hear, or are we pondering it in our hearts? Do we take the time to think things through? Do we lift up the challenges before us and ask God to help us sort the truth from the chatter…the substance from the image…before we make important decisions?
We seem to be at war with each other…no one trusting anyone else …drawing the most negative conclusions from whatever comes our way…and then moving on, without pausing to think how the course we have chosen will play out …where it will deliver us in the long run.
Maybe we just ask what ‘the easy thing’ is. Maybe we only ask what fits most conveniently into how we think things should be instead of how they really are. What is below the surface? What is really going on here?
And is it what we think is safe or comfortable or righteous that should control us…or is there a greater good we can serve?
At the outset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln thought the war was about preserving the Union… that government of the people, by the people and for the people should not perish from the earth
But by the time the war was over and he gave his Second Inaugural Address it had become obvious that the war had been about slavery… and freedom…and that freedom had won out.
Lincoln said that it seemed to him that he was only the instrument of some greater guiding hand, and it was moving him more than he was moving anyone or anything else.
So when Joseph is pondering and wondering and wrestling with the very personal and very important decision he must make…for himself and for all time, God sends an angel to visit him…as Isaiah visited Ahaz.
Joseph sees that there is some great invisible hand at work here, too, and that the child is holy and important in some way that a mere mortal like him cannot see at this moment.
It is as the prophet Isaiah said, “A young woman shall bear a child,” and as the child Isaiah foretold was to be named Immanuel, this child is to be named Jesus…which means ‘to deliver’ or ‘to rescue.’
So stay with your beloved Mary, my brother, Joseph. Raise this child in your humble circumstances and the world will be blessed by the trust you put in God and the trust this child…this Jesus… will put in God as well.
What we name our children says much about the hopes we have for them…and what our hopes are, too. May God’s hopes be our hopes today.
How we greet one another says a lot about the hopes we have for the world. …and what we hear when we listen for that still small voice of God says all that can be said about our trust in the eventual triumph of goodness over evil.
I watched the movie Gandhi last week as I stuffed the rest of my Christmas cards and tidied up my house for more remodeling in the holidays. Mohandas Gandhi…a lawyer…who became the Great Mahatma…holy soul…was able to see a good outcome where no one else saw it simply by leaning… with trust…into what was right.
The thing that he said more than once…and at the end…of the movie, was “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail.”
The world the Lord has made is good. We may bend it to our purposes for a time with sheer force of will, but it always comes back to where God meant for it to be.
If we think about what is going on in our house…and in our village… and in our country…and in our world…long enough…with hearts and minds that are open enough… goodness will always find us…and ask us to let it in.
God humbles the proud and raises up the humble. Goodness abides. That is our Christmas story. We shall name him Immanuel. We shall name him Jesus. As an expression of our hope…and as an expression of our trust in the Goodness of God.
By trusting that goodness will always prevail, we turn toward the light and away from the darkness, and God’s Word becomes a lamp unto our feet.
God’s truth does not come to us in the loud things that come and go, but in the quiet things that abide with us always. It is not in the great wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the still, small voice.
God does not shout at us, “Do this!” or “Do that!” God whispers to us, “I love you,” and “I am with you.”
Your Rowdy Bunch Book Club took a field trip a couple of weeks ago to see a movie about a quiet man I was too old to watch every day he was on television.
He had the conversation with a whole generation of young people…maybe a few generations of young people….that their parents could not slow down enough to have with the most precious things in their lives…their children.
Tom Hanks said the hard part about playing Mr. Rogers in the movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was that he kept talking too fast. He needed to slow down. He needed to speak more softly. And sometimes he needed to just sit quietly for a minute or two.
What God whispered to the Christ child is maybe a lot like what God whispered to Mary…and Joseph…and what Mr. Rogers still has to tell us…again and again:
“Don't ever give up on yourself or your dreams. You're worthwhile and always will be, no matter what. Just remember to always be who you are because that person is very special. There is no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are."
Imagine what the world would be like if we could all say to each other, “I like you just the way you are.” Imagine what our community would be like if everyone told each other, “I like you just the way you are.”
God has put you in a place at a time when you can say that to more people than any generation of human beings has ever been able to say it to.
You have heard these words spoken by the spirit of Christmas Past. I hope we all pray that our children and grandchildren will hear these words spoken to them by the spirit of Christmases to Come.
We can all say these words to everyone we meet…this week…this season…this year…if we pause to think…at every turn in the path …who we are and whose we are… and have always been…since a child was born unto us…a son was given unto us…and his name is Jesus.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…and through me…this day? Amen.