o come, emmanuel

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

“God is with us.”

We prepare this final Sunday of Advent with the knowledge that God will be with us soon.

We do so, not through the faith of Mary, we do so not with another story of what is to come, but through an acceptance in faith by Joseph.

Joseph does not expect what is coming. Not that Mary much expected it either, but for Joseph, his faith has to be placed in both what Mary has told him and what is revealed to him in today’s gospel reading. 

For Mary, her complete giving of herself in faith to God, to be the vessel through which the Christ child would enter into this creation, is of a magnitude beyond what others have been asked before or will be asked again. She has to give her physical being over to the will of God and risk everything, including losing Joseph, losing her place in her community, to answer the call that has been given to her.

Joseph then does the reasonable thing when he learns about this unexpected pregnancy, he arranges in quiet for their engagement to go away, so that he will not be tied to this event, but also to protect Mary, at least as much as he can.

God intervenes again.

God calls Joseph to accept a call as well. To live into his faith and know that this is the time that the prophets have been pointing towards, to know that what is happening in this moment goes beyond whatever challenges may be presented to them in staying together to see it through this birth, to raise this child as their own, to know that Emmanuel is coming.

And, Joseph is called into all of this with the understanding that his role in this story is protecting Mary and making sure this child will be protected as well. Joseph does not play a large, or at least visible, part in this story once we push beyond the Christmas season, but it is in this beginning, this initial arrival of God being with us in the form of this child, that Joseph is tasked with a role, a call to fill, that is honored in his sainthood, that is honored in his presence on mantles and shelves all around the world in nativity sets.

Joseph lives into this call today because of the promise that has come from the prophets. Joseph lives into this call today because God shows him that growing in Mary is the one whom the prophets spoke of when they said, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

We are called today to know that Emmanuel is coming to be with us as well, here and now.

Throughout the season of Advent, we have used the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel” as our gospel processional. This hymn speaks to our journey through the season of Advent as we prepare and make straight the paths. This hymn illustrates to us the reality of what it truly means to name this one Emmanuel, to know that God is with us.

We sang today, “O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.”

I have been praying every day this particular season of Advent for that very reality to be made true.

It has been a struggle for me to fully embrace the coming joy of the Christ child, of God being with us, when we as a community have been forced to fight for our most vulnerable neighbors so they aren’t thrown into the county dump.

It has been a struggle to fully embrace the coming joy of the Christ child, of God being with us, when we as a community have had to implore our elected leadership to lead our community rather than bow under the pressure of a vocal minority (that only seems to exist on social media, which I think says something about the ills of social media as much as it does listening to the anger on it).

This is a vocal minority that believes our fellow brothers and sisters in creation do not deserve compassion, concern, care, to meet them where they are at today, believing instead that somehow someone without food, secure shelter, a place to use the bathroom that isn’t outdoors (a humiliating experience when it isn’t chosen), not to mention a place to bathe on a regular basis, can simply choose to get and secure a job that pays them enough to save first, last and security deposit, and then find an apartment that will rent to them with no recent rental history in a rental market that is ultra-competitive with ever-escalating prices and no new viable units being created for low-income folks.

I get angry when I see those comments.

But, then I get sad.

I get sad because my anger towards their ignorance doesn’t solve anything.

I get sad because this ignorance exists.

I get sad because we call out to Emmanuel to “bind in one the hearts of all mankind,” and yet, here we are.

Once I get over being sad though, I am encouraged.

I am encouraged by those who have taken the opportunity to learn who our homeless actually are, and have changed their opinions because their hearts have been changed. It’s hard not to when the people you meet at the severe weather shelter are predominantly older, many disabled either physically or mentally, who are so grateful for a bite to eat and a warm place to sleep.

I am also encouraged because I have faith. 

I have that faith that Joseph expresses today.

The faith that what God calls us to is where we are supposed to be.

The faith that when God calls us, we are given all we need to be successful in that role. Sometimes, we may play but a part in a larger whole. Sometimes, we may be called into something wholly unexpected and extremely demanding (I mean, planning to be a parent is hard enough, I can only imagine where Mary and Joseph are at today…). Wherever we are called though, we answer that call because of our faith, and because of the knowledge we have in our tradition that points us to the work that God has done, is doing, and will do in time still to come.

After we have sung our verse appointed for today, we finish (as we do each verse of this hymn), with the following refrain, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

“Rejoice! Rejoice!”

Our faith calls us to rejoice in the promise of Emmanuel.

Emmanuel has not yet arrived. We are patiently waiting for his arrival. We have prepared for his arrival. And so we sing “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Because Emmanuel is coming. Because we know in our faith that what God has promised through the prophets will be realized, and, cheating just a little ahead, we know in Christ those promises have been realized.

My hope for today and tomorrow, this liminal space we occupy still in preparation and anticipation, is that we live into the faith that Joseph demonstrates today.

My hope for today and tomorrow, is that the pending arrival of Emmanuel will begin to turn the hearts of those who would divide and harm.

My hope for today and tomorrow, is that preparing for Christmas is more than finishing shopping, making food, cleaning the house, and doing whatever last-minute items are on the checklist for Christmas celebrations, but rather that preparing for Christmas is an expression of the reality of our faith, the joy that we have in the coming of our Lord, the pure sense that in this baby child is the hope of our faith and the realization of what we are called to believe and how we are called to live into that belief.

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” we cry out today.

Emmanuel shall come, is coming, has come, and today we prepare for that coming once more and forever.


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