Fourth Sunday of Advent, (Year A), December 22, 2013

 

A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (7:10-16)

 

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 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. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 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.”

 

 

Psalm (80:1-7, 16-18)

 

1   Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *

     shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

2  In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *

    stir up your strength and come to help us.

3  Restore us, O God of hosts; *

    show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

4  O Lord God of hosts, *

    how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?

5  You have fed them with the bread of tears; *

    you have given them bowls of tears to drink.

6   You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *

     and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

7   Restore us, O God of hosts; *

      show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

16  Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *

      the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

17  And so will we never turn away from you; *

      give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

18  Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *

      show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

 

 

 

A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (1:1-7)

 

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to 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 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.” 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.

 

 

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TODAY’S HOMILY

by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer

 

Ahaz, the king of Judah, clearly needed a savior.  The northern kingdom, the kingdom of Israel, had formed an alliance with the Syrians, and they were threatening Judah from the north.  When Ahaz sent his army to stop their advance, neighboring Edom suddenly attacked Judah from the south.  And the Philistines, living in the land along the Mediterranean shore, began conducting raids from the west.  Ahaz was surrounded.  He had nowhere to turn.

 

The prophet Isaiah confronted him with a call to trust in God’s protection in this current crisis.  Then, looking toward the long term, he offered him God’s promise: a promise that a “young woman,” probably one of Ahaz’ wives, was pregnant and would bear a son who would grow up to be a leader who would deliver Judah from her enemies for years to come.  He would, in effect, be a living sign of God’s presence with God’s people: “Immanuel,” “God with us.”  He would be the savior that Ahaz and the nation needed.

 

Some eight centuries later, a writer known as “Matthew” would tell the story of a man in whom God seemed to be uniquely present among the people, a true “Emmanuel’ for all times.  According to Matthew’s account of that man’s birth, God had destined him to be known by the name “Jesus,” a form of the biblical name “Joshua” or “Jehoshua”: a name that means “Yahweh saves,” because, as his story insists, “he will save his people from their sins.”

 

Here, at the end of Advent and during the coming Christmas season, we celebrate our assertion that “Christ the Savior is born.”  In good, Christian tradition, we affirm that God in Jesus has come to save us.  But behind and prior to that declaration, there is an unasked question or pair of questions.  Ahaz and the nation of Judah clearly needed saving from those who were attacking them.  But we need to stop and ask, “Do we need saving?” and, if so, “saved from what?”

 

In the past, a common approach to answering those questions would be to point to the idea of being saved from our sins, from those ways that we rebel against God, so that, when we die, we can go to heaven.  For some people, that explanation still works.

 

But in more recent years, other people of faith have returned to a more biblical view of our relationship with God, focusing on its implications for this life and on living in accordance with the teachings of God for the sake of this world, not some other.  Seen within that framework, we need to ask that question again.  What sort of saving do we need in our lives here and now?  And where does Jesus, in his life and teaching, open up to us that salvation?

 

We don’t usually see ourselves as needing to be saved.  We don’t usually see ourselves as trapped, like Ahaz, looking for someone to set us free.  We are already free – or are we?  Maybe, and maybe not.

 

There are plenty of people today who are, for example, locked into old prejudices about certain groups of people: prejudices based on nationality, race, sexual orientation, and so on.  Their attitudes and their fears about “those other people” keep them trapped within the circle of people who seem to be pretty much like them.  And they prevent them from being able to welcome and be enriched by those who have other backgrounds and perspectives and experiences.  They are captives of their own prejudices.

 

There are also people who are victims of their own supposed success in life.  They have good, solid, high-paying professions.  Some of them are able to integrate their work into the rest of their life: life with family, friends, and the wider community.  But others see their work primarily as a burden, as drudgery, consuming all the time and energy they have.  They no longer enjoy what they do.  It’s not how they want to spend their lives.  So they think at times about getting out, about making a change — but they are being paid so well, and they just can’t bring themselves to give up that high income for the sake of a better, happier life.  They, too, are held captive.

 

There are others whose lives are constricted by the memory of old arguments and conflicts with family and former friends and who are unable to forgive: unable to lay the past aside and move on.  In doing so, they allow themselves to remain trapped by events that may have taken place years before.  They make themselves prisoners of their past.  They build invisible, but very real, prison walls.  They also are captives.

 

There are many different ways that people all around us, maybe including us,  are not nearly as free as we like to think we are, many ways that we find ourselves trapped, many ways that we find ourselves needing to be set free, many ways that we need a savior.  And Jesus, whose birth we are about to celebrate, still comes to save us.  He comes to set us free from all that holds us captive, to enable us to open ourselves up to the rich diversity of the human family, to choose those ways of life that bring us genuine happiness and fulfillment, to forgive others as God has forgiven us.   And, in doing so, Jesus the Savior offers to us the opportunity to enjoy the true freedom of the children of God.

 

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