4th Sunday of Advent—A—December 22, 2013
Preached at the Lutheran Church of Framingham
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight oh Lord, our strength, and our redeemer.
In the Protestant canon, there are four Gospels. They all tell basically the same story of Jesus’ ministry and how he died for our sins and was raised for the dead so that we might have eternal life. But each tells that story in a slightly different way. Various events are highlighted. Sometimes the seemingly same event is recounted, but a different aspect or theme is the focus.
And today, well really this time of the year, we have the perfect example: the birth story, or more broadly, the account of the incarnation of Jesus—God taking on human form.
In a few weeks, on the second Sunday of Christmas (January 5th), we will read John’s account—“in the beginning was the word…” Although it is not what you would a call a birth narrative, it is an account of the incarnation. But more about that then.
The Gospel of Mark begins talking about John and then Jesus’ baptism. There is no story of Jesus’ birth or even mention of the incarnation.
The Gospel of Matthew does include a birth narrative, but it is incredibly short, as you heard me read this morning.
The Gospel of Luke makes the biggest deal about that fateful night. That is why we always read Luke of Christmas Eve. It is the most Christmas-y of the Christmas Stories.
The length and detail is not the only reason that it is my favorite account. I also like that Mary is the main character…a little womanpower. I prefer to hear of the shepherds instead of the Magi, not only because I prefer to save the Magi for Epiphany, but also because I like what the message that is made by the shepherds being the first visitors. This lowly, disregarded, and despised population is the first to hear the good news, meet baby Jesus, and even preach to Mary. It is a great reversal of fortunes—something that Jesus continues to be about. But again, we won’t hear that account until Christmas Eve.
Do not get me wrong; I do not hate or even dislike Matthew’s version…it just is not my favorite. But by no means does that mean that it has no redeeming qualities, because it does!
As much as I like the shepherds, the Magi also make a great statement by being the first visitors. We get a better idea of how cosmic an impact Jesus’ birth had. And although the Magi were rich enough to travel a long way, get an audience with King Herod, and bring extravagant gifts…they remain aliens—not the little green kind, but the kind who from another country. Their presence at the beginning of Jesus’ life speaks to the universality of his work.
And although I love a good empowered woman story, Josephs’ story is pretty incredible too. He must have been so confused, but still had enough faith to listen to the angel in his dream, and take it seriously enough to actually follow through. He was righteous enough to forego the public stoning which would have been the popular alternative to a quiet dismissal. Joseph technically had no part of making Jesus, but he had a huge hand in his birth and rearing. And most importantly, he is the means by which Jesus is considered from the line of David.
If you read the first verses of the Gospel of Matthew, you will notice that this detail is very important. The generations lead from Abraham to David, and David to Jesus (through Joseph). The total number of generations being 14, which is the sum of the digits represented by letters of David’s name in Hebrew. Dalet is the 4th letter and vav is the 6th. And 4+6+4=14! So from the very beginning, Matthew is reminding his readers over and over again what kind of role Jesus is going to have. He is going to be royal, from the proper and expected line of David. He is going to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah and be a sign of relief, new life, and salvation for the world. Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us.
But Matthew says even more by quoting the prophecy from Isaiah. The prophecy was originally about a siege against Jerusalem. The kingdom of Judah, with Ahaz as their leader, was between a rock and a hard place. But God, through the prophet, assures the king and the kingdom that they will make it through and it will not take too long. Before the child, most likely a child of Ahaz’s, can decide which food is good and which he does not like, there will be relief.
To the best of our historical knowledge of Judah at this time, this prophecy and promise came true. Jerusalem was besieged for a few years, but never fell. So we know that the prophecy was true then. It seems to fit Jesus’ story as well, so we learn that prophecy can still speak after the fact and still be true. So what stops it from beginning true for us? God was with the people of Judah during the siege. God was with the people as Jesus walked the earth. And God is still with us, not protecting us from every ill, but with us in the good and the bad, on the mountain tops and the darkest valleys, throughout our life, God is speaking, working, guiding, and partnering with us.
Our God is not just some far off deity who left creation to just run like a watch, or some puppet master that is responsible for every good and bad thing that happens. God’s with-ness falls somewhere in between. God wants to be in relationship with us, but does not force that relationship. God is always there with us, whether we acknowledge the presence or not. God works through us and others to provide daily bread for all, to bring healing where it is needed, relief where there is suffering, and good news to the poor.
So whether you to prefer Luke’s account, complete with shepherds and Mary’s song, or have never really thought about it…do not discount the good news that Matthew has to share with us, and it is as simple but as grand as possible. In Greek and Hebrew it is just one word—E/Immanuel—God is with us! In the midst of stressful last minute Christmas preparations—God is with you. Whether we pray before Christmas Supper or not—God is with you. Even when you family cannot seem to get along—God is with you. Whether you get everything you wanted or are disappointed—God is with you. No matter what you do, friends and family might die, move away, or stop visiting, but God is always with you. For each of us, that presence looks a little different, but the face remains the same—God is with you. Amen.