Fourth Sunday in Advent Sunday,
December 18 2016
Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25
Rev Anita Venter, Bethlehem Bible College
In less than a week, we will celebrate another Christmas Eve. Our Advent season is drawing to a close.
On the first Sunday of advent, Páraic reminded us of the first coming of Christ, and that Christ will come again. That this is all we need to know. And in that sufficient knowledge we can go forth, today and every day, to connect, to heal, and to bring hope.
Although that is very true, I need to confess: I am having a hard time not wondering about the time in between these two events. Looking at the current situation in our world, it feels like we have been left orphaned until then. It feels like we are on our own, having to battle life one day after the other. Good thing (or maybe not), it looks like I am not alone in this boat that travels down the river with its crazy white water rapids.
In this season when every Christian heart should be happy, there is an increasing sense of fear and discouragement in the air that steals the joy right out of our Christmas stockings. This has been another crazy year. As if events like the outcome of the US elections, Brexit, the ongoing heart-breaking situation in Aleppo, the terrible draught in South Africa and floods in other parts of the world are not enough, just last week another wave of terror plagued our world with the bombings in Turkey and Egypt. While we are still on the road to recovery from past traumas, a new tsunami of fear is sweeping over mother earth and finding its entrance into many hearts.
This week at Bethlehem Bible College during morning devotions, we were discussing these recent events. I was not surprised to hear that 95% of the staff and students are anxious and terrified that one day soon they will have to face ISIS too. Needless to say, Islamophobia has not decreased, but rather increased to a new worrisome level. Some even indicated that there is no joy in celebrating Christmas anymore. How sad is that!
The most common question that echoes in our world right now is, “Where on earth is God in all of this?” We utter this question as if this is the only point in time that everybody suffers. However, if we look throughout the Bible, this question is not new.
From the beginning to the end of the Bible we see terrifying times where people cried out, “Where is God?” Just think of the time of exodus when the Israelites where trapped between the Egyptians and the Red Sea. Job is probably the one who must have uttered this question many times. The obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind. I can hear the cries of the people when King Herod went on a rampage killing hundreds of babies. I can hear the disciples and mother Mary cry out, “God, where are you?” when Jesus was crucified.
In this same train of thought, our lectionary readings in Isaiah and Matthew highlight a very important point. In Isaiah, King Ahaz of Judah finds himself between the devil and the deep blue sea, jammed between two forces that are out to get him. If he determined to side with Israel which aligned itself with Damascus, the Assyrians would attack him. On the other hand, if he sided with the Assyrians, Israel would attack him. Either way, he and his people were facing grave danger of being killed.
In this “catch-22” situation, I am sure Ahaz was terrified. He needed to make the right decision, or else he and his kingdom would be destroyed. In the midst of this, God faithfully stepped on the scene through his messenger. The message was to remain neutral, not to take sides but to trust God to deliver him. He was even given the opportunity to ask for a sign, which Ahaz, pretending to be pious, turned down. Even after this, God still decided to give him the sign of a young woman who was going to have a baby named Immanuel, meaning “God with us”, Ahaz decided that this was not in line with traditional political strategy. He operated in fear and chose not to trust God. He ignored the sign, and allied himself with Assyria, which ultimately led to his downfall.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we have a different story yet with the same message from God. In this Christmas narrative, we have Joseph, a righteous, law-abiding man who served God with a sincere heart, yet he too faced fear. He was engaged to Mary. Everything seemed to be going well, but then he heard that she was pregnant! How did that happen? Did Mary betray him? What would the people say?
Oh, my word! In that culture of shame and honour, both Joseph and Mary faced a very difficult situation. Joseph knew that the law required an investigation to determine whether Mary was seduced or raped. A public inquiry would need to be launched to decide whether she should be stoned, or whether only the biological father should be stoned – if he could be identified. But Joseph was also a man of compassion and mercy. His instinct was not to launch an investigation that would humiliate her. Instead he decided to quietly divorce her. This seemed to be the right thing to do.
Again, God stepped onto the scene, and again, the message was counterintuitive – against the traditional understandings of sexual morality. Joseph was commanded not to fear, but to marry Mary for the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit! If people knew that Mary was pregnant by someone else when Joseph married her, it would have been shameful to him for the rest of his life. But that was the message! He was to marry her, and name the child Jesus, for he would save the people from their sins. It would fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that a virgin would conceive, and bear a son called Emmanuel – “God with us.”
Unlike King Ahaz, Joseph understood the joy of the message. He trusted God, and obeyed the messenger’s instructions. We know the end of this story, as we are all included in the plan of salvation. We are all expected to trust that God is with us.
However, the constant fear that we live in – fear of a nearby danger, fear of the future, or worse, being afraid of a God perceived as terrifying and unmerciful – paralyzes humanity. It keeps us captive as it chains us in despair and hopelessness, causing us to forget the promise that is still relevant to us today. We forget or do not believe the promise of Emmanuel anymore.
Fear hijacks our advent themes of hope, peace, love and joy. Politicians are utilizing and encouraging this fear for selfish evil reasons. The sad outcome is that many Christians close the doors to love in their unwillingness to care for the refugee and their neighbor. We lose our Christ-likeness when we begin to fight evil with evil and lose out on the much-needed peace in our world. Fear crushes our hope in God. Fear crushes our Christian witness, and leaves us deaf as a post to the message that God is with us.
This kind of mentality can cause us to lose the joy of Jesus’ birth.
Acting as terrified orphans, we miss out on the joy in the message Jesus told us through his disciple John (John 14.16-20). He promised to send us an advocate; a helper to be with us forever. He promised that we would not be left behind as orphans, but that He would be with us through the Holy Spirit until His return. He would be in His Father, and we in Him and He in us.
Jesus reminds us through the Gospel of Matthew that he will be with us to the end of the age. He echoes the Old Testament promise the He will never leave us, nor forsake us. Awaiting the second physical return of Christ, His promise to send a helper was already fulfilled as far back as the day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:1-4)
The virgin birth is more, much more, than just a Christmas story. Think of it as a picture of how close Christ will come to you. The first stop on his itinerary was a womb. Where will God go to touch the world? We have to look deep within Mary for the answer. We have to re-visit Jesus’ promise that He will send us a helper that will be within us too in the form of the Holy Spirit. We need to become like the shepherds who received and believed this joyful news of Jesus’ birth.
Look at this Advent wreath. Let the flames of the four candles and the Holy Ghost light your spirit again.
If I could, I would blow out all of these candles right now, and light them again, but this time I would light them in reverse order. As joy comes to those who hope – who believe – in God (Psalm 146), I would light the candle of joy first. This joy would rekindle love for others, therefore then I would light the candle of love. As perfect love casts out fear and brings peace, thirdly I would light the candle of peace. Since joy, love and peace join forces and allow hope to burst into our hearts, I would light the candle of hope last.
The joy of knowing that God dealt with our sins and failures, the joy of realizing that God has remembered his covenant, the joy of realizing that we are not forgotten, we are not orphans,and the joy of knowing God is with us must and will drive out all fear.
So, the question to us today is, “Who do we resemble?” Are we Ahaz or Joseph? Do we believe the message or do we not?
As we go out in this world today, let us walk by faith again and not by sight. Let us not be moved by what is happening in our current world but let us boldly proclaim Emmanuel again.
Take heart, fear not, rejoice – God is with us still and always will be!