I’m sick of Christmas already. I’m tired of the Christmas decorations and holiday sales that have been up since early November. I’m sick of the War on Christmas and the debate over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” and promised boycotts of stores that use “Happy Holidays” in their publicity. I’m sick of the consumerism, the conspicuous consumption, the culture wars. I’m sick and tired of all of it. There’s a debate whether the abbreviation Xmas is taking the “Christ” out of Christmas. There’s apparently a debate whether “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is pro or anti bullying! I thought it couldn’t get any worse but then FoxNews’ Megyn Kelly announced to the world that Santa Claus and Jesus Christ were both white. My twitter feed exploded with the righteous indignation of progressives everywhere; and my head exploded. The cacophony and shrillness is deafening; outrage has overwhelmed our yearly remembrance of Christ’s birth. At least Phil Robertson of the Duck Dynasty didn’t weigh in on the War on Christmas, but what he did say was enough to spark more indignation and outrage.
Sometimes it all dissolves into silly parody. The holiday display at the Wisconsin State Capitol this year included a poster of the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” right next to a poster proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Grace member Brian Anderson posted photos of it on his facebook timeline. In fact, that’s pretty much what it all is, silliness. But let’s be honest with ourselves. With all of this noise coming at us, and with everything going on in our lives, it’s difficult to step back, step out, listen to the stories, and to listen for God. But that’s just what we need to do, more so now then ever, but it’s likely that it’s more difficult now than it’s ever been.
Our processional hymn, the familiar and ancient “O come, o come, Emmanuel” expresses our longing for Christ’s coming. It uses imagery that draws from today’s scripture readings as well as from other readings we’ve heard this season of Advent from Isaiah. In fact, the hymn is suffused with longing, the church’s longing, our longing for the coming of Jesus Christ, the coming of God’s reign, the coming of peace, and justice. It is fitting that today, on this last Sunday of Advent, we express our longing in these familiar words and this familiar tune and join with Christians across the world and across the centuries, as we look again in hope and expectation, waiting the fulfillment of those hopes in Bethlehem.
This season of Advent, my sermons have focused on the texts from Isaiah. This focus wasn’t planned but having reflected on Isaiah twice already, it seems appropriate to turn to Isaiah again today. The reason we heard this particular text is obvious. Matthew quotes it in his version of the story of Jesus’ birth. What may not be obvious is what is going on with the text in its original setting. The reference to King Ahaz helps us date this particular episode rather precisely. It’s around 735 bce, as I mentioned before, during a time when Assyria was threatening Syria and the Mediterranean kingdoms. In response to that threat, the northern Kingdom of Israel and Syria had banded together to resist Assyria and had sought Judah and Jerusalem’s participation in their effort. After waffling, King Ahaz had thrown in with Assyria, promising fealty and sending tribute in the form of gold and silver stripped from the altar to Assyria. This angered Syria and Israel and they decided to attack Jerusalem. It’s in the middle of this, with invasion from Israel and Syria threatening, that our passage takes place.
From what was read, it seems like King Ahaz is expressing a perfectly reasonable, and a perfectly pious sentiment (one with considerable warrant in the Hebrew Bible): “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test; don’t demand a sign or miracle.” In fact, we are entering a conversation that has been ongoing. Yahweh, Ahaz, and Isaiah have been talking for several verses. Isaiah has been promising that Yahweh will deliver Judah and Jerusalem from this immediate threat of Syria and Isaiah. Isaiah calls the two nations, “two smoldering stumps” and predicts that Israel will not exist in another generation. So he brings these words of hope to Ahaz, but Ahaz has put his hope elsewhere in his own efforts to negotiate with Assyria. In other words, he refuses to trust God. And so, Isaiah promises a sign, not just in the future, but a sign that can be seen in the present: Look, a young woman has conceived and is bearing a son, and his name will be “God with us.” Ahaz can’t or won’t see that sign of God’s presence in the world. He puts his trust in his own efforts and in a treaty with Assyria.
Contrast Ahaz with Joseph. At a cursory reading, it might seem that Ahaz is the one faithful to God, Joseph the waffler. As we heard, Ahaz makes an outward show of piety. It might seem that Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary was evidence of his lack of faith. In fact, he’s following the Torah exactly. They’re more than “engaged” in the modern sense. The contract has been written and signed, all that remains is the consummation. So the law says that if the wife has committed adultery, her husband must divorce her. Matthew labels Joseph a “righteous” man. He’s a good Jew, follows the law.
He’s waiting, wondering, worried. What should he do? He has no choice, but then a sign from God comes. An angel comes, giving him the message that Mary will give birth to a son, to Emanuel: God with us. Joseph hears the word of promise, believes, and acts on that word. Emanuel, God with us, is coming into the world.
We are coming to the end of the season of Advent. We are waiting expectantly for Christmas. We’re making last minute plans; making all of the preparations for the day. Some of us are still planning on traveling or looking forward still to friends or family coming in for the day. We are excited, anxious, full of hope.
What was Joseph thinking and feeling in those days after he had discovered Mary’s news and struggled with what to do. What was he waiting for? What was he worried about? What was going through his mind? And when the angel came and told him, what then? Was he relieved? Was he worried that he would be disobeying Jewish law, that he might become a laughingstock among his friends and neighbors? Matthew tells us that he did what the angel said; that he took Mary into his home, made her his wife, and waited for the birth of his son, the birth of the sign, the birth of God With Us.
These last days, as we look forward to Christmas, as we make our preparations, and indeed, throughout the year, one challenge for us is to look for and see signs of God’s presence among us, signs of God with us. We can look for those signs in a hospital room, in a homeless shelter, in a food pantry, in our office, or school, or wherever we may go. For God is with us, in this world, breaking into our lives with grace and hope, breaking into our world with love. God is with us.
Come, O Come, Emmanuel!