Sermon for Advent 4

Matthew 1:18-25

” 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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. 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 fulfil 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.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (+). Amen.

So…are you ready for Christmas?

Our tree is up; the decorations are hung; our Christmas cards are sent; nearly all my shopping is done; I’ve not started wrapping anything, but there’s still time!

The preparations are nearly complete. The stage is set. And yet, it feels like something is missing. Do you feel that too?

We are coming to the end of the church season of Advent: that season of the church’s year when we think about waiting. Waiting for something missing.

Across the four Sundays in Advent our focus has been on four different groups of people: the ancient Patriarchs on the first Sunday, the prophets on the second Sunday, John the Baptist on the third Sunday, and now finally on this fourth Sunday the Blessed Virgin Mary.

All of these groups of people had been waiting for something. But what? Or who?

When we heard about the prophets, it was certainly clear they were waiting for someone very important. But perhaps not so clear exactly who that person would be. The prophecies we hear in Advent concern a figure who would emerge among the ancient Jewish people to be their saviour. The figure we call the Messiah; God’s Anointed One. But who exactly was this person; when would they come; how would they come; how would they save the Jewish people? The ancient Jewish people waited, and waited, and waited some more for this person to appear.

By the time we get to Mary, things are starting to come into focus a little more. Mary is waiting for something. She is waiting for something quite specific. We know what that is – Mary was as the biblical passages put it “found to be with child”: she was going to have a baby.

And, so what? So good for Mary, but what had this baby got to do with all these other people we’d been hearing about, the prophets, John the Baptist?

Well, we are told that both Mary and her fiance Joseph were told that this baby who would be born was not going to be like other babies. St Luke’s gospel tells us about Mary hearing this news; and the passage of St Matthew’s gospel we heard this morning tells us about Joseph learning of this.

But who exactly was this baby going to be?

Today’s gospel tells us that the baby would be Emmanuel, which means “God with us”.

Karl Barth, arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, describes this idea of Emmanuel: “God with us” as the very centre of the Christian message. Quite a bold claim. People ask that question, don’t they: “What’s in a name?” In the case of Emmanuel, quite a lot!

Karl Barth’s writings on this are very extensive indeed, but I have three brief observations to bring from them.

The first observation is that “Emmanuel: God with us” is not simply a statement of fact, but a report of something that has happened. “Emmanuel: God with us” is not just the way things are. “Emmanuel: God with us” is something God has chosen to do, which of course is to walk among us as Jesus Christ.

Barth makes the point that in Jesus Christ God has invaded our history. Our own history is shared with God’s history. God does not want to be God without us, but rather God creates us to share His own life with us.

The coming of Jesus is not an accident, then. God has not left things to chance, but has chosen to act in Jesus Christ by entering our world.

The second observation is that this act of God to be “Emmanuel: God with us” is a saving act. I think we all recognise that we as humans are not perfect, far from it. In Jesus we are shown humanity perfected, and this perfected life also becomes available to us. God’s work in Jesus is a saving act as it will perfect humanity. In Jesus God shows us our destiny and destination, which is to be in union with God.

This is not in the sense that we actually become God, but more in the sense of how St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Our relationship with God changes fundamentally because of “Emmanuel: God with us”.

The third observation is that the idea of “Emmanuel: God with us” contains within it the idea of “Us with God”. God has chosen to stand in unity with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. This act of unity enables us to stand alongside God, and to call Jesus our brother and our friend. We are able to say that we are God’s people; and God is our God.

Of course, these sorts of theological reflections came long after the birth of Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the wider meaning of who Jesus was and is, but at the time it probably wouldn’t have bothered Mary! This was her baby and she would love Him no matter what. I suspect that feeling of love was mixed with a certain amount of anxiety and fear of the unknown too. Perhaps not so different from our feelings about God sometimes: love, but a certain amount of anxiety too. To be in a relationship with God means to be changed in some way, and that can be quite frightening.

As we have waited through the four Sundays of Advent, our focus has narrowed down on the one we’ve all been waiting for. The Patriarchs first pointed to the God who wants to know us. The prophets who called the people of Israel back into relationship with God told us the one we were waiting for would be the saviour of His people. Then John who baptised Him said that the time is now, the one you were waiting for is here now. And finally Mary – who said yes to God, who carried God’s son inside her, gave birth to him, fed and nurtured him.
The final narrowing of focus comes next weekend. On Christmas Day we try to put aside the worries and busyness of this time of year. On that day, our eyes finally turn to Jesus, the baby in the manger. The one in whom God became Emmanuel: God with us.

The one we’ve all been waiting for.

I’d like to finish with a poem by the author Ann Lewin called Christmas Rush

Ready for Christmas?
You’re joking!
With all
I’ve got to do,
I’ll be lucky if
I’m ready by
This time next year.

Stir-up Sunday
Found me without even
The ingredients,
Let alone the time to
Stir them . . .

The cards –
I was going to write
More than ‘Hope all is well’
This year
But I haven’t . . .

Shopping’s a nightmare,
With all those people
Intent on spending
Christmas . . .

Working out who’s
Visiting who, and
Who’ll be offended
If we don’t . . .
The tree, the decorations,
Enough food for the cat,
Not to mention us,
I’ll never be ready.

But I’m certainly ready for
Christmas – that moment when
The world seems hushed
In silent expectation,
The light in the stable
Draws us from chaos
To the stillness of
God at the centre,
And love is born.

I’m longing for that.