December 18, 2022
Good morning. I want to start with a poem which I heard on a recent Poetry Unbound podcast, written by Naomi Shihab Nye. .. [the full text of this poem may be found at https://onbeing.org/programs/naomi-shihab-nye-i-feel-sorry-for-jesus/]
I Feel Sorry for Jesus
People won’t leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name…
but I’ll bet some days He regrets it….
….And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
of listening. You won’t hear me
mention this again
And, like the poem, I find standing here and trying to speak for or of Jesus daunting. Take what I say if it works. Leave it if it doesn’t. The warmth of the sun can still warm both our bodies in the bright light of God’s love for this earth, this world, you.
I thought that the last time I preached was before Jeffrey died, but that wasn’t the case. As part of my own spiritual practices, I choose to bring a word that I think I have heard about once a year. The last time I preached was in October 2021. So, a little bit more than a year, but pretty close.
In this the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we are coming closer to the actual birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us.
Immanuel, God with Us, is a powerful promise that has comforted and compelled many over the centuries.
As Dave Lloyd relayed in the children’s word last week, the prophet Isaiah was both speaking to the current time as well as a future time. In this passage from Isaiah, the King Ahaz is faced with political forces coming to him and wanting him to align with them and against Assyria. Isaiah asks Ahaz to trust God for the safety of his country and ask of God a sign to prove that God is faithful. Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign. It may sound like it was a good thing that he didn’t want to put God to such a test, but it demonstrates his unwillingness to trust God. Isaiah’s prophecy is that the political forces currently coming to him won’t exist in the future. Neither does the Assyrian empire.
Ahaz does not choose God being with him. He chose to align with Assyria and the Assyrian gods. His reign was only 16 years. Ahaz was resistant to God – he chose to worship the Assyrian gods, even building temples and altars to them. Yet, God is with Ahaz and with the Jewish people through it all.
God with us is a promise God makes. It is not dependent on our actions. It isn’t conditioned on our acceptance. God gives us freedom to choose our own way. God still can and will stand with us, be with us. Granted, if we are deliberately choosing something else it is a little hard to see.
I am not sure that I have ever deliberately gone against what I see and hear as God’s desire for my life. But, even if I have, God stays faithful. I do know that I am often not willing to name how I want God to be with me in the circumstances that I face. Yes, I wanted God to be with me in my grief, but I didn’t name the specifics. I am grateful that God often showed up at my door in ways I didn’t expect. Neighbors bringing food. Church friends being companions, inviting me to events that I would not choose for myself.
Immanuel, God with Us, may come in unexpected forms and mess.
Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus and the setting prior is minimal. Nothing about a stable or shepherds or angels. Just a dream to Joseph about what was going on with Mary and a connection to the prophecy of Isaiah that this child, this birth, is proof of God with us. Immanuel.
Being informed by science about how the general process of reproduction works, I am challenged by the whole Christ birth story – whether it includes the shepherds or not. I do believe, in general, that ANY birth presents the mystery of new life, and, by that, the miracle of God with us. God with us and in us and through us in creating this new chance. Creating newness in most any form seems like an incarnation, a God with us moment. Peter did not call it that last week, but his sermon pointed to numerous times and events where the newness of God was present.
When I take the time to reflect, I can see glimpses of God with us when my own creativity is at play – the making of a new style of oven mitt or bag, the creation of a good meal, the joy of playing whether with Ozy or with Dubh, our black cat. And, I can see God with us even in the quiet moments, the exhausted moments when life seems to have been pulled out of me, the grieving moments when I lament love gone from this earth. Grief is a sign of love having been. Love is God with Us.
But not only is Immanuel unexpected, it is messy. In Matthew, all this was unexpected and messy for Joseph. Mary is pregnant but not by him. He certainly knew about birds and bees and natural birth so was trying to make the best of messy situation. He has a different direction from a dream with angels telling him what to do. This is all messy and yet Joseph did choose to trust God in the direction given, even if it didn’t really make sense.
As Trish Stefanick in the Inward/Outward from yesterday said (Bewilderment | Inward/Outward (inwardoutward.org)):
I think about my own life, all of our lives really– so much that cannot be fully understood and figured out, which we can’t control or orchestrate as we think best. And yet time and again, God enters in, in the form of mystery, grace, new awareness and insight, encouragement from an unlikely source, a bewildering gift.
God is always loving, and waiting for me to receive that love. The invitation is coded in the heart longings of each of us. God’s ever-unfolding story of love wants to be told in infinite ways through our everyday lives, relationships, and work.
Immanuel, God with Us, is a message of revolutionary consequence.
Paul was versed enough in the culture images and norms to know how to appropriate them and turn them on their head with this Immanuel, God with Us, good news. Other disciples and missionaries have done the same over the centuries. The fact that we celebrate the birth of Jesus at the end of December (or in early January) is a reflection on borrowing other spiritual practices.
As Christians believed Jesus as the light of the world. Other light celebrations were incorporated into the Christian tradition. Some examples:
The Norsemen of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word yule is thought to have come. At mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale. Cider anyone?
The ancient Romans also held a festival to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Saturnalia ran for seven days from the 17th of December. It was a time when the ordinary rules were turned upside down. Men dressed as women and masters dressed as servants. The festival also involved decorating houses with greenery, lighting candles, holding processions and giving presents.
The Winter Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year (21st December) and was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. The Druids (Celtic priests) would cut the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and give it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the winter fruit of the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.
Paul, and the evangelists who followed in his model, were good at appropriating or modifying the strange message about a Jewish messiah to be understood within their cultural setting. When the Roman gods would have been associated with making Augustus a near god and access to the benefits of religion required bribes and payoffs, Paul’s message of the gospel of this Jewish messiah for the poor and needy was revolutionary. Paul took the message of God with us – grace and peace – to non-Jews. His message was revolutionary in naming that God did not belong to Caesar, but to regular people. God does not belong to the privileged and powerful but to the poor and the powerless, whether Jew or Gentile.
So how do I see Immanuel, God with Us, with me, today
While I was working on writing this, the Inward/Outward Daily quote (Signs That God Is with Us – Dec. 14, 2022 | Inward/Outward (inwardoutward.org) ) landed in my inbox and my computer kindly messaged me in a corner saying: “Signs that God is With Us”. The coincidence seemed too unnatural to ignore.
“It is one thing to make a pilgrimage to the desert to find God. It is entirely another to be open to finding God where we are… Life is not an exercise in spiritual gymnastics. It is one long, unending attempt to put on the mind of God wherever we are, whatever happens to us on the way. We are not here to pray our way out of life’s challenges. We are here to grow through every one of them into spiritual adulthood. The shrines and special prayers and holy pilgrimages along the way are spiritual oases meant to build our strength for the rest of the way. They are not God; they are simply signs that the God who made us is with us. It is that relationship that counts far beyond any particular devotion.”–Joan Chittister, In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics
I admit that the fact that so many pieces of what I believed I should share today just came to me through my regular daily practices is a sign of God with me in the dailiness of life. I continue to value the daily journey and find comfort along the way through my reading, my listening, my interactions. I often listen to news podcasts with a sense of prayer – hearing the news as stories for where God is compelling me to some action or naming a place in the world that needs a revolution. And, I wake up each morning not knowing where the mess of my life will exactly lead on this day, this moment.
I invite you to journey with me in reflecting and naming Immanuel, God with Us, here today.
- Where is God present for you right now, right here, no matter how messy things are?
- How are you sharing the light of this mystery, this God with Us, to others who may also need to be comforted or compelled today?
- Have you been visited by an angel? Have you been an angel to others?
- What revolution are you being invited to join as a sign of God with us?
- Can you step into life unknowing yet trusting love? Can you share that with others?
Immanuel. God with Us. Amen.