St John’s, CentraliaSt John’s, Centralia—Matthew 1:18-25, Isaiah 7:10-17, Romans 1:1-7
This is the fourth and final Sunday of the Advent season. Christmas is three days away. For 22 days, now, we’ve been keeping a lid on our own exuberance—but, as always, we’ve been doing a lousy job of it. Advent just doesn’t “work” very well, I’m beginning to think. It leaks. Christmas keeps banging on the door, saying, “Hey, let me in!” Advent bars the door, saying, “No, you’re early!” But Christmas is relentless, and Advent grows weaker and weaker with every extra candle we light on the wreath. This doesn’t mean Advent is a failure, or that we who try to keep it are failures. Letting Christmas leak in—even while protesting loudly—is part of Advent’s vocation. It’s like John the Baptist giving way to Jesus. Advent must decrease, and Christmas must increase.
So now we’re on the verge of lifting the lid, of removing the bar from the door. We are about to joyfully welcome of the birth of our Savior and Lord. All during Advent, the theme of the liturgy has been one of hope. We have been invited to ponder the hope that is ours because of what God is doing. God is active. God is on the move. God is redeeming and restoring and reconciling. God is getting ready to put everything back the way it should be, to prepare a great feast on his holy mountain, to banish suffering and injustice and violence, and to wipe away every tear from every eye. And the linchpin in this whole scheme is that God should take for himself a human mother and a human body and a human life, that the Word should become flesh and live among us, as Jesus, our Emmanuel, God with us.
So we have hope, but it’s sometimes an anxious hope. It’s often a hope tinged with fear. What’s our part in all of this? Is there anything a human being might do, or not do, that would gum up the works? We don’t trust ourselves. If something can be screwed up, some human being, somewhere, is willing, able, and ready to do the job. Our inner pessimist comes out, and we see the glass as definitely half-empty, not half-full. We remember well-intentioned platitudes like “God has no hands but ours.” We remember—some of us quite literally—President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, nearly 59 ago, wherein he admonished the American people that “God’s work must truly be our own.” We are conditioned by these sayings, and they lead us to assume that God somehow “depends” on human activity for the accomplishment of his redemptive purpose, as if we all could, if we wanted to, throw a monkey wrench into the plan of salvation and hold the redemption of the world hostage to our petty whims. We remember another saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” We look around us—we look in a mirror!—and we see an awful lot of weak links.
This is enough to bring a lot of people down. It’s tempting to turn inward, to hunker down and just try to take care of ourselves and those we love and let all those weak links fend for themselves. Maybe God will see my attempts at faithfulness and righteousness, and at least save me, if not very many others. Maybe I, at least, and a few lucky others, will get to experience some of that redemption and reconciliation and sit down at that heavenly banquet table. Maybe my tears, at least, will get wiped away. We can probably all name people who have adopted this attitude. But it’s not a very appealing place to be, and it’s certainly not the received faith of the Church.
Others look at all the weak links, and say to themselves, “Well, if he’s not going to pull his weight, then I’ll have to carry my load plus his.” Rather than being motivated to withdraw from the world, people with this point of view immerse themselves in the world. They get involved with the world up to their eyeballs. This leads to an attitude known as the Social Gospel, which became very popular about 150 years ago. The Social Gospel takes very literally the idea that “God has no hands but ours” and “God’s work must truly be our own.” If there’s any injustice or wickedness in society, Christians are supposed to be in the forefront of trying to change things, including using the processes of secular politics. To the extent that the Church is successful in bringing about social change—lower rates of poverty or racial discrimination or street crime or teenage pregnancy or abortion or whatever one’s pet cause might be—to the extent that the Church is successful in bringing about social change, then she is faithful to her mission. God’s work must truly be our own.
That main problem with the Social Gospel is that it doesn’t work. Things aren’t just getting better and better all the time. We are not building heaven on earth. We are not ushering in the Kingdom of God. If anything, the conditions the Social Gospel seeks to address are getting worse, not better. The twentieth century was the most violent on record. It produced Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin and Idi Amin and Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden. If God has no hands but ours, then we’re in a world of hurt, because we’re really messing it up. At this rate, God’s big plans for redemption and reconciliation have no future at all. They are dead before they’re born. We are effectively preventing the salvation of the world.
Today’s liturgy, however—the liturgy of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Advent on the verge of completely collapsing and letting Christmas come rushing in—today’s liturgy reminds us that the power of God to save—the validity and effectiveness of God’s plan for the redemption of the world—God’s power completely transcends any human response. God’s power is completely independent of any human knowledge, any human appreciation, any human worthiness. God wants our cooperation, but He doesn’t need our help. God’s purposes will be accomplished, no matter what we do.
In the seventh chapter of Isaiah, the Lord carries on a curious dialogue with a king of Judah called Ahaz. Ahaz is consumed with anxiety over a couple of neighboring kings who are threatening his national security. The Lord is trying to reassure Ahaz that everything’s going to be OK. He says, “Ahaz, what will it take to convince you? Ask me for any kind of sign you want. What will it take?” Ahaz decides to be coy—“Oh, no, no, no. No sign will be necessary. I wouldn’t dream of putting the Lord to the test.” So the Lord says, “It’s really no big deal. But if you won’t ask me for a sign, I’ll give you one anyway.” And the sign he gives is one that must have seemed quite unremarkable and ordinary at the time—a woman’s going to have a baby, and in less time than it takes that baby to figure out the difference between right and wrong, God will have accomplished his purpose of delivering Ahaz from his enemies. God’s purposes will be accomplished, no matter what we do.
But from the time of the New Testament onward, Christians have read much more into this brief prophecy: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” From the eyes of Christian faith, this prophecy is about much more than an obscure king of Judah in the seventh century B.C. being rescued from two of his petty enemies. It’s about God accomplishing His purpose of saving, not just the kingdom of Judah, but the entire created order. It’s about Emmanuel—God with us.
For Ahaz, the birth of Emmanuel was about God doing what God’s going to do with or without Ahaz’s cooperation. For us, the birth of Jesus—whom we know to be Emmanuel in a deeply concrete, not merely figurative, sense—the birth of Jesus is about God effecting His rescue operation of humankind, with or without our help. And what more appropriate sign of this profound truth could there be than the conception of Jesus in the womb of his mother without the agency of a human father? Yes, it strains our credulity, and we have no explanation for it that satisfies the demands of modern science. (And if we think it’s hard for us to swallow, try putting yourself in Joseph’s position!) Yet, if we can manage to take off our skeptic’s hat, and put on the hat of a poet—or the heart of a child, for that matter—it makes perfect sense. There could be no more potent sign that God is going to do what God is going to do. Our cooperation is nice—the fact that Joseph and Mary cooperated with the strange demands that were placed on them made everything go much more smoothly—but our help is not necessary. God has hands other than ours. And if we don’t manage to make His work truly our own, the work will still get done.
This is wonderfully liberating news—is it not?—especially in this time of year when we feel such a weight of responsibility—responsibility to do things right: buy the right gifts, prepare the right food, attend the right parties, create the right experience for our children or grandchildren. It’s so easy to let ourselves get sucked into patterns of behaving and thinking that reinforce the notion that human will, or mere human negligence, can thwart God—that the whole plan of salvation depends on all of us banding together to “help” God accomplish His work. It doesn’t. What a relief! Now we can enjoy Christmas! Amen.