A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
December 18, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Lections Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Today I begin with three questions:
- First, why does God give us signs?
- Second, what is the greatest sign of all?
- Third, how is this great sign made?
Starting with the first: Isaiah tells us one reason God gives us signs: because we weary him, that is, we try his patience. Ahaz, a king in the line of David, pretends to be doing something that he’s not: he’s doing his own thing, even as he says his concern is for God. Ahaz is egocentric, not theocentric, and Isaiah calls him out: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.”
A sign can be given any number of ways and for any number of reasons: street signs, road signs, store signs. We are familiar with all sorts of signs and the meaning and instructions they communicate: signs may indicate the significance of a person or place or signal an event on the horizon. Being is rife with signs, an infrastructure put in place for our encounter. To be given a sign means to have something pointed out in a new way. If Highway 53 A, which everyone calls the old dump road, is renamed Pleasant Street, we will look at it differently, and pay more for the houses along its route.
Let’s imagine ourselves as little children, the children of God, getting into all sorts of trouble. We are thinking only of ourselves and paying no attention to the desires of God and the signs put up to direct all our energy. When we recall the countless ways children can exhaust their parents and their grandparents, then we have a good sense of how God can feel at times. And just as an exhausted parent may decide to give his and her children something new to settle them down and to keep them out of trouble, God gives us signs. From one point of view, that is, God’s, signs are a shortcut to peace and quiet. From another point of view, that is, ours, signs are a gift that shifts our attention.
Specifically, in the season of Advent, God’s gift is the Sign of the Child. When Isaiah first starts talking about it, the delivery date is still several hundred years in the future, in the fullness of time, after unbelief and disobedience have laid waste to the land.
Ok. Let’s move on to the second question. Isaiah tells us about a specific sign, which we recognize as the Nativity of Jesus, that is, the Christ who is the Son of God: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel, we heard, means “God with us.” The Sign of the Child, we may say, has this intention: to restore the peace and quiet of creation, by teaching us how to get from egocentricity to theocentricity.
As an aside, this explains why meditation is a time-honored spiritual discipline: meditation aims, on an individual level, to imitate what God accomplished at Christmas on a cosmic level. And yes, the church teaches us that the greatest of all signs is precisely this Sign of the Child.
Matthew puts a name to all the kinds of trouble egocentricity gets us into; he calls it “sin,” and identifies it as the behavior that provokes God to give us signs: when our ignorance of God has reached its threshold – when we are totally committed to destruction – God makes his presence known in a new way, to deliver us from our sin. The Incarnation is the greatest of signs because, as Paul tells us, Jesus delivers humanity from the power of sin. Jesus is the most excellent example of a sinless human being.
For good reason, as the central figure in the drama of The Nativity, Jesus may seem to overshadow his parents; yet Mary and Joseph, both saints, are enduring examples of righteousness. By pointing to Mary and Joseph, Matthew answers our third question, how is this great sign made? We see the Sign of the Child being delivered through the agency of two human beings in relationship with each other. And this is something we can relate to, isn’t it? We are told, “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
We should say a few words – in review of what we’ve said before – about engagement – or betrothal – in Ancient Palestine. For instance, we know couples sometimes stayed engaged for years, and it wouldn’t have been customary for Mary and Joseph to see much of each other during their engagement. Marriages were transacted somewhat like business arrangements, and only at the wedding banquet were couples first permitted to be alone. Joseph’s intention to dismiss Mary quietly meant he had decided to break off their engagement without any fuss, even though he had learned that she was pregnant. Naturally, he thought that she had been unfaithful. But Joseph intended to act as a righteous man might, bearing dishonor himself, rather than casting aspersion on another.
“But just when he had resolved to do this,” Matthew tells us, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Here we note that Mary and Joseph each received one visit from an angel (Joseph’s in a dream). In both instances, the angel let them know the scope of the drama they were asked to take a role in. Neither were compelled to accept their roles; the angel was God’s way of sending them “grace to bring about the obedience of faith.” As Matthew says, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
In summary, let’s review how we’ve answered our questions:
- First, we see that God give us signs because we need them to overcome sin, that is, our unbelief.
- Second, the greatest sign of all signs is the Sign of the Child.
- Third, signs are sent by God through the agency of human beings, in this case, the saints Mary and Joseph.
In conclusion, we can observe the paradox of the gift: had we not been misbehaving – if we weren’t totally out of control – we wouldn’t have wearied God and we wouldn’t have received the Sign of the Child. In other words, God appears to be rewarding bad with good. Yet this is not the case. God lets his people run the course of egocentricity, which ends in destruction, and then shows them a sign, when they may be willing to heed it.
Can we help but marvel that God’s response to us, the greatest of all signs, is unconditional? His incarnation as “God with us,” through the agency of human beings, with whom we fully share our human capacity, encourages us to look forward, with trust, not backwards, despairing. We don’t have to say “No” to God, as Ahaz did; instead, we can say “yes,” as Mary and Joseph did. We do not need to expect to be visited by angels; we can progress in our vocation and discipleship with the signs we already have been given. This means you and I, from following the example of the saints, can expect to be gradually sanctified over the course of our lifetime. As human beings, by making good choices, we can improve ourselves.
In the advanced culture of Christian worship and society which we inhabit, the means of grace God sends through his church (to the people of God who assemble as his church) are comparable to the voice of angels: baptism, catechism, confession, communion, the example of the saints, prayer, and Scripture, are now sufficient to deliver a human being from sin. Here in the church we can find everything we need to follow in the way of the Holy Family: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Here we can find everything we need to offer back to God the refreshment – the peace and quiet – that is his.
Let us rejoice in what God has given us. Let us give thanks for the Sign of the Child, the gift of “God with us.” Let us keep in mind the picture of the Holy Family in the little town of Bethlehem, on a silent night, when all creation was forever changed.
And all the people said, Amen.