The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)
18 December 2016
We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
One of the most important concepts within my understanding of God is the idea that God is consistent. This may seem like an obvious thing to say. Deeply embedded in our imagination of God is the philosophically Aristotelian and thoroughly Thomist view of God as unchanging, the unmoved first mover, unaffected by creation, unaffected by us. Somehow, if it were otherwise God would be weak. This view, however, does not resonate with the witness of Scripture and the experience of God’s people. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that our God is dynamic, engaged with creation, moved, caring, relational, connected. Over and over again, God proves to have a stake in what is happening in creation and that while we can never diminish God, what we do adds to God, the love and justice we enact enhances the love and justice that are God’s very identity.
This is what I mean, then, when I say God is consistent rather than always the same. God is purposeful. God always acts according to God’s nature. God always acts according to God’s identity, which is Love, the desire for the well being of creation, of another creature, of another person not for our sake, but for theirs alone. Over and over again, usually through the voices of the prophets God has called the people to account, to the works of love and justice, to the furtherance of God’s steadfast purpose. And as I discussed a couple of weeks ago, prophets who take on this work, who speak God’s consistent truth, often suffer the consequences from the powerful whose own interests are not aligned with God’s. Over and over again, the prophets have suffered for their message at the hands of those whose self interest has conflicted with the consistent message of God.
One of God’s most consistent promises is the promise of Emmanuel, of God with us. Our God, who is no remote, uncaring, unmoved potentate, has always promised to be with us. Indeed, as witnessed in Hebrew Scripture, our God has always, in a myriad of ways, been with us: in Egypt, in the dessert, in the Land, wherever God’s people have sojourned. Today we hear Isaiah speaking of Emmanuel in his days in Jerusalem. To our ears, listening on the other side of the cross, we hear Isaiah’s words about Emmanuel and immediately we see Jesus. Isaiah was not, however, necessarily specifically talking about Jesus the Christ who was incarnate from Mary in those days of the Roman occupation of Judea. Rather, during another time of intense political and military crisis and facing a foreign occupation, Isaiah was speaking about the way God has always, and will continue to act, to come among us, lead us, and transform us, shape us more and more in our cooperation with God's loving purpose.
In speaking to the King Ahaz, in warning him to “take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint” in the face of the invading Syrian forces and their allies, Isaiah assures Ahaz,
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Isaiah, promising God’s very presence, God-with-us, is offering words of encouragement to a king who was later judged by the Deuteronomic author of Second Kings as not “doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done” (16:2) and enacting human sacrifice. Isaiah was encouraging this flawed leader to follow God’s purposeful path and rest assured that God would always take care to ensure the succession of David's line in Jerusalem. Ahaz, of course, did not listen and fired Isaiah and went his own way, much to his detriment and Judah’s.
God promises to be with us, to send us the help we need, to strengthen us so we do not give up on the work we are given to do, promises to fulfill the promise of an anointed one who will lead the people, who will be God’s very presence in the land, and who will bring about the Kingdom of God. This is the promise that God purposefully makes over and over again, to be with us, to send the anointed one, the Christ in the line of David to bring about the reversal of fortunes that will place God’s priorities ahead of those of the earthly rulers who seek their own gain and enrichment. This is the promise that was very much still a part of the Jewish imagination at the time of Jesus’ birth. Just as we hear Isaiah’s words today and think of Jesus, the people who met Jesus and witnessed and experienced his ministry made meaning of Jesus’ extraordinary life and ministry through the lens of this, God’s consistent promise. This the promise helped people understand just who Jesus was and realise the importance of what he was accomplishing.
When Matthew wrote about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, he represented Jesus as Emmanuel, about which Isaiah and the other prophets had spoken. Matthew tells us that Mary was betrothed, that is to say promised in marriage but not yet married, to Joseph, a man descended from the Davidic line. And before the wedding itself Mary was found to be pregnant and Joseph, quite naturally did not know what to make of it. Matthew tells us that
an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us).
Matthew shows us how what Joseph experienced made sense to him, as he had been steeped in the tradition of Emmanuel, the promise of God-with-us, the promise of God-with-us in a time of trouble, when God would lead Israel into a new age. This made sense to Joseph because he knows who God is and how God acts. This is the consistency of God. So Joseph takes his dream at its word, and “when [he] woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” He does not follow blindly. He follows not because he is believing in the unbelievable, but because he had an active, living connection with God, and the vision he receives makes sense in the light of that relationship, in the light of his knowledge and understanding, in the light of his faith.
This is still Advent and we have yet to meet Emmanuel. We have an idea of what he will look like from the promises of the prophets to give us a messiah in David’s line. People had ideas of what he would do and how he would do it. But none of these actually got it completely, for Emmanuel that we get is so much more, so different than we can even imagine and yet completely consistent with God’s purpose. We will get there Saturday night as we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord on Christmas Eve and I will talk then about what Emmanuel looks like, who Emmanuel is, how Emmanuel surprises us. Right now, we are left, like Joseph, to trust in the consistency of God, trust that God will always act as God always acts: relationally, dynamically, and moving always in the direction of reconciliation in love.
Today we hear about the promised messiah, a new David, born of a young woman, prophesied to a King in a time of great trouble as a reminder that God will always be present, always love and comfort God’s people, and always be moving in the direction of the resolution of the Kingdom. Today we hear about another man who knew God well, who had faith in that God, and who received a prophesy of the coming of the Messiah into a troubled world in a troubled place. That man, because he trusted in the consistency of God, did not humiliate and punish the girl who was to bear that messiah into the world, but rather gave her what she needed to make this all possible. One man we read about this morning failed to trust in the constancy of God and the personal consequences were grave. The other trusted and helped make possible the experience of Emmanuel that we shall celebrate in its fulness in just a week’s time. Emmanuel is an extraordinary promise made by our consistent, unwavering God, and it is one that makes all the difference in the orientation of our lives.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Ember Saturday in Advent, 17 December 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume