"Do Not Be Afraid... God-Is-With-Us" Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 18, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 7:10–16 | Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19 | Romans 1:1–7 | Matthew 1:18–25
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23).
Can you believe Advent is almost over?
Christmas day is only one week away. Are we ready yet?
Over the past three weeks, along with Christians around the world, we have been reflecting on what it means to get ready for the coming of Christ: first of all, remembering the story of His birth, but also looking forward to His return as our Saviour King, as the One who is coming again to set us free forever.
Each year during Advent, we explore four gifts of God that Christ shares with us: first we looked at the gift of Hope, followed by the gifts of Peace, and Joy. And this final Sunday of Advent we contemplate the gift of Love… a gift that is deeply connected to this time of year, both inside and outside the Church.
For lots of folks, Christmas is the season we’re meant to spend with those we love: gathering together with family and friends… to throw parties… and exchange presents… to sing old familiar songs… to practice and pass on long-cherished traditions, to share in all sorts of delicious food… and basically do all of those things that help us feel warm and fuzzy inside, so to speak.
Of course, the holidays aren’t easy for everyone. Lots of us have painful memories wrapped up in this season too.
Perhaps we’ve been wounded by those who were once close to us, leaving behind angry scars where once we had peace. Maybe we’ve lost someone we love, someone we shared our lives with, and though we still cherish the gift that their life has been to us, we also feel the sting of grief that makes it hard to celebrate. Maybe we’re dealing with other losses… or loneliness, or struggles that seem to somehow overshadow the festivities that everyone else around us seem to enjoy. Perhaps we are struggling just to get by, and need to lean on the kindness of others for help.
If this is you today, please know that you’re not alone. Please know that your brothers and sisters here at St. Luke’s are here for you… to share in each other’s joys and sorrows. To celebrate with, and come alongside to lend our support and strength when things get rough. Not only during Advent, and Christmas, but all throughout the year, we are here to love one another… not just with words, but with our lives.
But this is exactly where the kind of love that Advent calls us to contemplate and share in comes into focus, challenging many of the ways our world understands and practices love. Perhaps “challenges” is not quite right… it’s more like Advent, and the whole Christian story for that matter, invites us to love in ways that go far beyond what comes naturally… to go beyond the kinds of love we feel for those those who are like us… or those who are close to us… our natural relations, and friends, and those we feel drawn towards.
The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this about this natural kind of love:
“In loving those who love us, our kindred, our people, our friends, yes, even our own Christian community, we are no different than the Gentiles and the tax-collectors. That kind of love is self-evident, regular, natural, but not distinctly Christian… loving those who belong to me through blood, history, or friendship is the same for non-Christians and Christians. Jesus does not have a lot to say about that kind of love. People know all by themselves what it is. He does not need to light its flame, to emphasize it or exalt it. Natural circumstances alone force it to be recognized, for non-Christians and for Christians. Jesus does not need to say that people should love their sisters and brothers, their people, their friends. That goes without saying.”
But God’s gift of love, the love that Advent and Christ Himself shares with us, goes far beyond this natural, reasonable kind of love… and it calls you and I to do the same.
In our Gospel reading this morning we were introduced to Joseph’s story, which starts out as a story of natural love: Joseph was engaged to a woman named Mary, getting ready for their new life together… but then he becomes aware that it seems that Mary has betrayed his love. She’s suddenly found to be pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father.
What else was he to believe? And what was he supposed to do now?
It would have been well within his rights and ability in their culture to have her publicly disgraced, and possibly even put to death, depending on the lengths their community was willing to go to preserve their own purity. After all, the Mosaic Laws given to Israel at Mount Sinai were pretty specific about adultery, which would have included infidelity after an engagement was established. Leviticus 20:10 dictates that “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” But even if he didn’t want to go that far, Joseph could have easily ruined her life, publicly shaming her to re-establish his own reputation and honour.
This might seem cruel to us… but how often might we be inclined to do the same kind of thing? If not in our outward actions, then at least in our hearts? To insist on punishing those who brought us pain, or shaming those who have insulted us… of insisting that those who have wronged us get a taste of their own medicine… all without going against the reasonable, natural expectations of our communities?
Joseph could have easily went down this road, and no one would have faulted him. And yet… knowing full well what the obvious explanation for Mary’s pregnancy was… knowing he could vent his anger and heap shame on her, and still wash his hands in innocence… Joseph, though confused, and hurt, and with all of his hopes for the future dashed to the ground… deep inside, he still doesn’t want to see Mary brought to harm, even if she deserved it. Joseph looked at her with compassion, and made up his mind to end things quietly.
What about justice? What about everyone getting what they deserve? What about the Laws of God? Doesn’t this kind of compassion spit in the face of holiness? I mean, what kind of a world would we live in if we all acted like Joseph?
We can wrestle with all of these questions, and how they might relate to our own stories… but St. Matthew, who cares deeply about God’s holiness, and our obedience to the ways of our LORD, explains why it is that Joseph responds to Mary the way he does: Matthew tells us Joseph “was a righteous man”… someone whose life was in line with the heart of the Living God.
And far from demanding that everyone, especially those who wrong us, ‘get what they deserve’, St. Matthew wants us to see that true righteousness is inseparable from compassion.
And this has always been the case! It’s not just a New Testament development. From the very first pages of Genesis, and all throughout the story of Scripture, the Living God is constantly moved with compassion towards His people, despite their constant betrayals of their sacred relationship, and complete disregard for His holiness and love.
Our first reading today, from the book of Isaiah gives us a great example of this. We heard how the prophet Isaiah was sent by God to Jerusalem to offer King Ahaz a sign… something to encourage him and bring hope to God’s people at a time everything seemed about to collapse for good.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel, the ten tribes cut off from Judah in the South by civil war, and the Kingdom of Aram, had made an alliance against Ahaz and Judah, and had planned to wipe them out. Now Jerusalem was under siege… surrounded by these enemy armies… but God wanted them to know they could still put their trust in Him.
Isaiah 7:1-4, “In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim [that is, Israel], the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub… and say to him, ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.”
These words of assurance and hope would have been a great gift for anyone, but what makes it amazing is that Ahaz had been a horrible king, just like his forefathers… leading God’s people into all sorts of evil and unfaithfulness… worshipping idols of other gods, a betrayal often spoken of as adultery by the prophets.
Time and again, God’s people had betrayed their LORD, but He still remained faithful to them… exasperated, outright angry even, but faithful nonetheless.
So now in verse 10, God sends Isaiah to offer Ahaz another sign of hope, anything Ahaz might request… but Ahaz refuses to go along… so God gives to unfaithful Ahaz and all of the people a sign they had not even asked for… one they would never have dreamed up on their own, and one that would ask them to trust Him, even amid all their troubles, and to wait for the promise to be fulfilled: the sign would be that a young woman (the same word for a virgin), would soon give birth to a son, and His name would be Immanuel, ‘God-with-us’… and before he had come of age, knowing right from wrong, their dreaded enemies, Aram and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, would themselves be wiped away.
They would still have to wait… to endure the difficulties that lay ahead, and even greater dangers would need to be faced further down the road… but now they could hold on to hope with the promise that God Himself would be with them, and that with His help, they did not need to live in fear… and they would be saved.
Of course, God could have left them to destruction… to being humiliated, and brought down by the neighbouring nations. They had already broken the Covenant time and again, but God was still moved by compassion for His people. So He gives them hope. He gives them a sign that He still longs to save them.
This sign of hope is picked up by St. Matthew many centuries later… pointing to God’s plan, not just to rescue Judah from rival kingdoms, but to rescue the whole world from the powers of darkness and sin that seek to wipe it out. To rescue from all that prevents us from sharing in the full and blessed life of the Living God… and again, this sign comes into focus in the story of Joseph.
As we already know, Joseph felt betrayed by his beloved fiancé, Mary. But rather than call for her blood, he sought to dissolve their relationship quietly. Like Ahaz before him, Joseph’s future hopes seemed likely to collapse. But God had other plans, and so He sends an angelic messenger to Joseph in a dream, with a sign of hope he would never have asked for or imagined: Matthew 1:19-23,
“‘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.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,’
which means, ‘God is with us.’”
Just like in Isaiah’s day, God’s promise was an invitation to trust… an invitation for Joseph, and for you and I.
“Do not be afraid… God is with us.”
God reveals the truth to Joseph that Mary has not been unfaithful, and that the child she bore was to be the One promised long ago to save His people from their sins… rescuing them from all that they had done to betray God, their divine bridegroom. Despite all they had done, God still longed to have compassion on them… to bring them hope. To draw them near, and share His own blessed life with them forever. This child named Jesus would Himself be the sign of God’s love, not just for Judah, but for all the world, the sign that we do not need to live in fear… the sign that God is with us.
Joseph would have to believe in God’s message, despite the whispers of his neighbours, and doubts that would surely rise up in his own mind from time to time. But the promise remains: “Do not be afraid… God is with us.”
Joseph would look at this child and simply see a normal baby… no halo hung about His little head… and despite what the carols may say, this baby would cry, and fuss, and wake up at 2AM, like every other baby. All signs of His saving destiny would have to wait… and as it turns out, Joseph would not see it come to pass in his lifetime. But even so, Joseph was called to care for this child, to love Him… as God’s own great gift of love.
“Do not be afraid… God is with us.”
There sure seems to be a lot for us to be afraid of today… maybe not enemy armies, like some of our neighbours in Ukraine, and elsewhere around the world have to contend with. Maybe not the complete overturning of all of our hopes and plans, like Joseph… but we all have our own struggles. Our own reasons to fear.
So, what does it mean for us to trust that God is with us in our darkest moments? What does it mean for us to believe in His love for us… even when we don’t deserve it?
When we don’t have it all together? When we haven’t been everything we know we should be? To believe that even in our brokenness, and the deep brokenness of our world, the Living God has reached out in His holy and righteous compassion to set us free, to be with us forever through the gift of His Son?
This is after all the message, the sign that we have been given. As St. John puts it in his Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17).
Jesus Himself is God’s gift of love, sent to rescue the world and bring us His eternal life, drawing us into His love, even when we were far beyond deserving it. In Christ, God gives us a love which longs for reconciliation, not retribution… which strives to save, not to strike down… a love which is fully in line with the holy compassion of God that Jesus displayed on the cross, as He died giving His life in order to save His enemies.
God’s gift of love is for us, to save us from our sins… but it also sends us out into God’s world to share this same saving love, not only with people we like, or who are like us, our family and friends… the people it’s easy to love. No, God’s love sends us out to share His compassion and love even with those we would see as enemies.
Later on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus Himself will unpack what it means to love the way God loves: Matthew 5:43-48.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
God’s perfect love calls us to go far beyond our natural inclinations… loving those who are unlovely… those who have hurt and even betrayed us, seeking their good… because that is the kind of love He give to us in Jesus Christ His Son.
As Advent draws to a close, and the celebration of Christmas draws near, let us remember that the love that makes this season so sacred is the love that led Christ to the cross. The perfect love of God that goes far beyond our expectations, and natural capacities… a love that even dares to embrace those of us who don’t deserve it.
To share in this sacred love… to actually put it into practice in our daily lives, we too need to take to heart the message that God shared with Joseph all those years ago: “Do not be afraid… God-is-with-us.” We are not all on our own here. God’s saving love longs to be at work in us… setting us free to share His life-giving love, not just with each other, but with everyone.
So may the rescuing love of Jesus not only reach us in our brokenness and need today… but may God’s love reach out through us and embrace those in our lives we find the hardest to love. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 143.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School