NRSV ISAIAH 7:10-17
10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah – the king of Assyria.”
NRSV MATTHEW 1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Well, it’s almost here. Christmas. Just the day after the day after tomorrow. For today, we have the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the last of four Sundays in which we are denied Christmas songs in the act of preparation.
Yeah, right, like we can really do that.
For me as a child, Christmas came long before Dec. 25th. It came whenever my Mom broke out her cherished Bing Crosby album and put it on the green Victrola, with the arm moving the needle onto the vinyl and sending us into holiday bliss. The first side was okay for me – “Silent Night,” “White Christmas,” and all that. But it was when she turned the album over that I went into high gear. First “Jingle Bells,” and then for me at that time, the song of all songs of the season: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I bounced all over the place while Bing and his entourage sang that song. If I did that today I would either hurt something or somebody would lock me away. When you are five years old, you can get away with a lot of stuff.
But not everything. Oh, no. That song told us all about that:
“He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness’ sake!”
Oh, yes: the great manipulative tool for parents, the weapon to keep the kids at bay – if you don’t eat this, if you don’t clean up your room, if you don’t start behaving, you’re not getting anything from Santa!
It’s a line that we carry on with us well into adulthood. If we are good boys and girls, good things will happen to us. Or so we have been told, or so we have believed. I mean, who wants to be a bad boy or a bad girl? Some might, I guess. But churches aren’t usually filled with sociopaths. We want to do the right thing; we want to be good people.
The problem comes when life doesn’t cooperate. We try to be good people, we watch our boundaries and maintain our honesty. And bad stuff still happens. The job promotion doesn’t come. The report on our health is not what we wanted to hear. Our bodies don’t do what we have heretofore taken for granted. Our kids don’t return our calls. Our dreams get dashed. Our hopes diminish.
We wonder why Santa doesn’t bring good things when we are good. Or God. Sometimes it can be hard to tell one from the other. We think God will reward us for our good behavior, and punish us when we are bad. Like the only thing God has to think about is what we are doing. Which is pretty much the danger of thinking that if we are good, good things will come to us. It wraps everything around me. It’s all about me, all about how I am behaving, all about what a good boy or girl I am. And then bad stuff happens and we wonder what happened to the universal sense of justice that we think life is based on.
It’s good to be good, except that it carries a burden. It wraps your world around you and what you are doing, instead of looking outside yourself to see what is going on with other people. More importantly, especially during Advent, it keeps you from seeing what God is doing. God doesn’t come on our goodness. God comes when God wants to come, and God gives when God wants to give, and what God wants to give. It’s not dependent on us, on whether or not we have been good for goodness’ sake. We are not that powerful. In fact, sometimes our goodness can mess us up; we can’t see what God is doing, we can’t hear what God is saying, because we are too wrapped up in ourselves.
I’m not advocating for anyone to be intentionally bad. Don’t go out and drive like crazy through town and then tell the nice police officer who stops you, ‘Oh, my minister said I can be bad!’ You do not have permission from this pulpit to be a jerk. Besides, that’s just another exercise in self-centered narcissism.
But the reality is that life is funny, As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “It’s amazing how close God is when we have lost our way.” We don’t try to be bad, but trying to be good all the time can be a load. And it can keep us from being in touch with the Divine Flow of love that especially wants to embrace us in these days of preparing and waiting.
That kind of thing is going on these texts that we hear almost every Advent/Christmas season. But a lot of times we are duking it out with each other over whether or not Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus; on whether or not Isaiah in his original writings meant “young woman” or “virgin,” on why Matthew wrote “virgin” (it’s the Septuagint – the Greek Old Testament translation). All of this skirts what is really going on here – two good Jewish boys who were so intent on being good boys that they almost missed what God was up to in their lives, and in the lives of everyone ever since.
The text out of Isaiah is not so much about foretelling when the Messiah will come – sorry, Matthew – but about a definite political situation. Little bitty Judah was surrounded by neighboring nations that wanted to pull them into their rebellion against Assyria. In the midst of a political power struggle, Isaiah goes to King Ahaz and invites him to ask for a sign from God. Like a good boy, Ahaz remembers the words from Deuteronomy, “Thou shalt not test the Lord thy God.” Words that Jesus himself will remind the devil of during one of his temptations.
But this is a different context. Isaiah is giving Ahaz permission from God to test him, to make sure that he is lining himself up with God. Ahaz is evading God’s word so he can keep the political situation under his control. He won’t let go. He is too concerned with being a good boy.
So finally in exasperation Isaiah gives him a sign anyway – a young woman will give birth to a child. Before that child can decide between good and evil – about two years – the kingdoms that are threatening you will vanish. It is a sign that God is still involved in the political as well as the spiritual actions of people to bring about God’s purposes. It is shown not in fiery or dramatic images but in the simple act of naming a child: Immanuel. God with us. Isaiah is telling Ahaz to put his fears and dreads aside, and simply trust that God is with him.
Joseph, too, was a good boy. He was very devout, “righteous” as Matthew tells us. He knew the law and followed it. We have no idea of the conversation he had with Mary when she told him that she was pregnant. It undoubtedly left him feeling lost and betrayed. How could he possibly go through with the engagement when this woman he knew, loved and trusted was now carrying a child from who knows who? He must have felt his world was shattered, his dreams dissolved.
And yet he was a good man who didn’t want to put Mary up to public disgrace – and probably public death. Women in her condition were to be stoned to death, the law said to all good boys and girls. He wanted to keep her from that. So he made plans in his own mind to do the right thing, to let her go quietly. Landing her in an unknown place of single motherhood, probably having to get by through means that no good woman would have wanted. But it was the least of a lot of bad options. Some kind of goodness could be left intact.
But in the midst of all of that, with his dilemma seemingly resolved, Joseph is given a dream. How many times in Scripture does God come or send an angel – a messenger – in a dream because it is through dreams that God can finally get our attention. No efforts to be good. No striving to be perfect. No defense thrown up in the name of the law or anything else. God comes when the barriers are down and our obsessiveness with being good is neutralized. The angel of the Lord gives the message – “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…”
Don’t be afraid to do this, the angel says. Usually the words, “Do not fear,” are all there is. But here God is more specific: don’t be afraid to do this. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Don’t let the law and your desire to be good get in the way of being my instrument for presence and peace. Let it go. Don’t be afraid to do this.
God will send this child, God will be this child. The name will be Jesus, derived from the Hebrew term for “he saves.” God will send this child because God intends to save people, to save them from their brokenness. To save them from their shattered dreams. To save them from their obsessive desires to be good. To save them from those forces in this world and beyond this world that threaten to destroy us. God will do this, and but God elected to do this through Joseph, with his link to the royal line of David. God will do this not because of is or our goodness, but because of God’s deep, self-giving, self-emptying love. God wanted to be with us.
Think about that: That God decided to be human like you and me; to go through all the good times and the bad times that we do. To experience suffering, even death, and a ghastly one at that. To experience rejection and abandonment. To experience, and to give, love. God is Emmanuel, God with us, not because of our goodness; but because of God’s love that yearns to be present with us, and invites us to be present with God.
Our choir sang about that two weeks ago during our Lessons and Carols. They sang the wonderful contemporary anthem, “Angels Are Making Their Rounds.” They sang of people, of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist; of Joseph and his dream; of Mary, the Blessed One. In each of those, the angels make their rounds to tell them, “Fear not; the Lord is with you.” Every time I hear that, it touches me deeply. The Lord is with you. Not because you are good. Not because you are righteous. Not because you opened your Bible today. Not because you went to church today.
The Lord is with you. The Lord is with you and me and everyone else as we let go of our desires to earn our way into heaven, to prove our worth, to show that we are better than anyone else. The Lord is with us when we are open to God’s mysterious and awe-filled ways of connections with others, to bring good news to the poor – which means, in this case, everybody. The good news that God has taken on flesh and dwelt among us. That God is not off in the sky somewhere but present with us in every moment of life. That especially in our worst moments God is present, ready to teach us something, ready to help us grow through that experience, ready to transform us into people who live into Emmanuel.
Don’t be afraid to do this. Let Emmanuel happen. Let God lead you where God needs you to be. Amen.