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4th Sunday of Advent – December 18, 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7 ; Matthew 1:18-25
Advent 4A

The ways in which we sinful human beings can misunderstand God, faith and righteousness are countless.

The Isaiah prophecy that is fulfilled in Matthew starts with Judah’s King Ahaz refusing to ask for a sign. His argument seems sound: “I won’t test God.” But one can almost hear the exasperated sigh of the prophet when he says, “Well, God will give you one anyway.” Ahaz is told to request a sign as “deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” In other words, go big or go home. Ahaz chooses the latter. Is it his faithfulness that refuses to ask for a sign or his fear? Ahaz may not want a sign from God because those God-signs point the way in big neon letters – making refusing to follow impossible or clearly disobedient. If Ahaz asks for and receives a sign, he may have to change his plans in order to be a part of God’s. No wonder he acquiesces and says, “Oh, no, I won’t test God.”

Have we ever done likewise? In the name of pious reverence, have we failed to ask God for a sign, direction or wisdom, because deep down we really wanted to go our own way and asking for God’s guidance might complicate our plans?

Then we get righteous Joseph in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s Gospel has the birth narrative of the Messiah embedded in worldly affairs and grand political power plays. The writer of Luke’s Gospel names both emperor and governor. Shortly thereafter, angels and shepherds show up. The cast of characters is large and varied. Not so in Matthew’s version. At least not yet. The lens through which we see Jesus’ birth is small, intimate, a family affair. Matthew gives us a glimpse in to the closest circle possible: Mary, Joseph, a singular angel.

The verse that won’t let me go this year is Matthew 1:19, “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Like Ahaz before him, even righteous Joseph gets God all wrong. No, I won’t test God. No, I won’t publicly shame this woman. God wouldn’t want me to engage in such behavior. I know exactly what to do. I know the right thing to do. I know the Godly thing to do. Ever fallen into that line of thinking? I am a faithful person. I want to follow God. I am not like those who seek vengeance or test God or exploit the vulnerable or say I told you so or demand what is really due me or eat with the unclean or work on the Sabbath or, or, or.

I will dismiss her quietly. That is what a righteous, God-fearing, God-following, faithful person should do. Right? Given what could become of her, she could be stoned for such an offense, surely sending her off without announcing her crime is benevolent, taking the high road, magnanimous even.

Have you ever been Joseph? Quietly dismissing the will of God out of righteousness? I recently saw a Scripture passage affixed not to one rear passenger window of a car, but on both sides. It had a brief explication of the text written just above the Bible verse. The sign read: “This is what God thinks of those who panhandle: ‘Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.’ – 2 Thessalonians 3:10.” The righteous driver of that Volvo station wagon was able to dismiss quietly many people without a word ever spoken. (If I’d had a sticky note handy I might have written “Matthew 25:44-46” and placed it underneath that Thessalonians reference. But I digress.)

Quietly dismissing the will of God as a result of our own righteousness allows us to remain comfortable. Who wants to explain why the woman you are engaged to has come up pregnant well before the wedding? Shame and ridicule won’t be only Mary’s if Joseph stays the course. If we dismiss her quietly we can feel good about ourselves, we could have done much worse and we can get on with our life. A win-win.

We can drive by the homeless woman on the corner, confident that God says if she wants to eat she should work. We can refrain from helping another because we don’t want to enable some destructive behavior or engage in “toxic charity.” We can quietly dismiss the request to host the group meeting with those recently released from prison because the church has a pre-school. We can take a tag off the angel tree, return a wrapped gift and not think about the families those numbered tags represent for another year. Are these the right things to do?

Even when we want to be faithful, too often our righteousness gets in the way of hearing and heeding the will of God. We misunderstand what to ask of God and when to ask it. We seek signs when we shouldn’t and fail to see them when God sends ones no less obvious than a burning bush or a heavenly host of angels. We think we are doing the right thing, the magnanimous, bigger person thing, when really we only want to do the comfortable, less difficult thing. We look to the letter of the law rather than the character of God who decreed it.

See, it says right here in SCRIPTURE, “Those who don’t work, don’t eat.” Even as Jesus stands on the corner with a sign that reads, “Anything will help. God bless you.”

The good news is this: The deepest, highest sign from God, the One who points us to who God is and what God requires, is just about here. Emmanuel, God with us, will soon arrive. The ultimate divine intervention into our ignorance, self-righteousness, obliviousness and sinfulness is coming. Soon we won’t have to guess at the will of God, we will witness it. Just like Joseph, we will need to change our plans, jettison our prior sense of what is right and required and go a whole new, life-upending way. We will be asked to believe the unbelievable until the unbelievable undeniably appears.

We will need to stick with Mary and those like her whom the world hastens to judge, dismiss and ridicule. We will need to concern ourselves with what God commands rather than what people conclude. Instead of dismissing quietly that which makes us uncomfortable, we will have to embrace it totally so that we will be privy to the pain and joy of new life. We will need to exchange certain righteousness for awe-struck wonder. We, like Paul, will need to redefine who we are as a result of our relationship to the Messiah. Our identity, purpose, community and worldview will be completely rearranged with coming of Jesus Christ our Lord.

We will still get so much so wrong. We won’t ask for a sign when we should; we will when we shouldn’t. We won’t follow faithfully even when a sign is given. We will dismiss quietly God’s desires and feel righteous when we do. We will know the Bible but miss Emmanuel. But now with the promised Savior – the incarnation, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – no longer can we be separated from the love of God. Now, even in our myriad of misunderstanding, willful disobedience and inevitable sin, the Christ child enters in to save. Let’s welcome him, loudly.

This week:

  1. Take a look at the differences in the Luke and Matthew accounts of Jesus’ birth. What do you make of those differences? What are the Gospel writers trying to emphasize with what they include or omit?
  2. Read the Romans text for this week and note how much Paul packs into such a few words. It is a very brief statement of faith. Take a shot at writing one of your own – one that is concise, but yet full of who God is, what God has done and who you are and what you are to do as a result.
  3. Are there social norms, expectations or even rules that cause us to quietly dismiss what God wants from us? When have you allowed social pressure to influence you? When have you been able to act or speak despite it?
  4. Have you ever asked for a sign from God? What happened? Do a word study of “sign” and note the variety of biblical opinions regarding asking God for a sign.
  5. Does God still communicate with us through angels, dreams and visions?
  6. Pray this prayer for the fourth Sunday of Advent from “A New Zealand Prayer Book

God of all hope and joy, open our hearts in welcome, that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.    

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