Sunday, December 22, 2013

(Advent 4) The almost invisible sign

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 1:18-25

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Three different societies in three different eras . . .
    different culture, different geography, different millenia,
        three different worlds, actually,
        all looking for salvation,
        all looking for a sign
        that they would be saved from destruction.

One society I’m referring to
    lived over 700 years before Jesus walked this earth.
    The second was during the time of Jesus.
    The third was 2,000 years later. Ours.

All need a message of hope, and soon.
All long for a message of God’s saving power,
    of God’s imminent coming to intervene and set things right.

And they all get the very same, identical sign.
    A sign that . . . isn’t even much of a sign.
        It’s an almost invisible sign.
        A sign so subtle, so unimpressive, so underwhelming,
            that anyone would have to wonder,
            that . . . is a sign of hope? Really?

The sign is this: a child will be born.
    In due time, a young woman will give birth to a child,
        and will call his name, Emmanuel,
        meaning “God with us.”
    That’s it.

That’s the sign, revealed first to the prophet Isaiah,
    roughly seven centuries B.C.
    When Ahaz was king of Judah, the southern kingdom,
        they were about to be invaded by Israel—
            their own Hebrew brothers from the north—
        who had formed an alliance with Aram.
    Ahaz knew he was overpowered.
        Two nations lined up against one.
            It seemed like certain defeat.
        Ahaz was running out of options.
        He was running out of hope.
        Perhaps the prophet Isaiah would bring some good news.
        Maybe Isaiah would prophesy about some great army of God
            suddenly appearing and wiping out his enemies.

    Well, the prophet of God did have a word for King Ahaz, alright,
        a good word, no doubt,
        but certainly not the kind of word
            that a besieged king would be looking for.
        Isaiah said to Ahaz, “A young woman will conceive
            and bear a son,
            and will call his name Emmanuel . . . God with us.”
        Isaiah said, “Before this child reaches the age
            where he will know right from wrong,
            the kings who are threatening from the north
                will be gone from the land they are now occupying,
            and the child will be eating curds and honey.”

    That’s all Isaiah had to offer.  No promise of quick military victory.
        Just a sign. An almost invisible sign.
            That a helpless child would be born to a young woman.
            A child named “Emmanuel.”
            A child whose name would remind them of God’s presence.
            A child of hope. Distant, almost invisible hope.

Fast forward 700 years.
    In the same region, descendants of the same people,
        but the political situation, entirely different.
    In Isaiah’s day, King Ahaz and Judah survived
        that one assault by Israel and Aram,
        but their survival would not last.
    They would later fall to Babylon,
        then a whole succession of conquering Empires,
            Greek, Syrian, and eventually Roman.
        The Roman Empire turning out to be most
            brutal and powerful.
    So now, just before the birth of Jesus,
        the Jewish people are looking again for salvation.
    Some sign of hope that their suffering and occupation would end.
        That God would send a Messiah
            to deliver them from oppression.
        That they would once again
            have one of their own kings sitting on David’s throne,
            not a pagan Roman king who terrorized the people,
                and killed off anyone who threatened him,
                including his own family.
   
And once again,
    God comes through with a sign.
    An almost invisible sign,
        actually a repeat, an echo of the sign given through Isaiah.
    A young woman, a virgin, will conceive, and give birth to a son.
        The child will be named “Emmanuel,”
            meaning God with us.
    And we know the story of how that sign played itself out.
        That’s exactly what we celebrate this time of year.

    The child was born to an unknown, and disgraced young woman,
        from an out-of-way village,
        under shady circumstances, in a cave or barn.
    The good news of this sign was shared first with shepherds,
        the most marginalized working-class folks of the day.

    And it would be years before the child grew to adulthood,
        and began to live into his calling,
        which turned out not to be
            what anyone was hoping or expecting.
        He did not deliver them from Rome.
        Their oppression continued, and even worsened.

    But many people came to believe, and to hope,
        in this almost invisible sign
            grown into a man who embodied the love of God,
            who made the people truly believe
                that God had not forgotten them after all,
                that God was, in fact, with them in their suffering.
            Emmanuel!

Both in Isaiah’s day, and Jesus’ day,
    the sign was almost invisible,
    but it resonated with the people.
        It brought light to people wandering in darkness.
        It brought hope to people who had come to feel
            that God had utterly abandoned them.
        This almost invisible sign brought a new reality into view.
            They were not forgotten!
            They were not alone!
            God their Savior was still, and ever would be, with them.
_____________________

So here we are, the third of the three worlds I referred to earlier,
    in need of salvation.
    Here we are, like the kingdom of Judah in Isaiah’s day,
        like the Jews of Palestine in Jesus’ day,
        now just as mired in a broken and violent world,
            oppression and evil and injustice holding forth
            everywhere we look.
        Longing for, looking for, badly needing a sign of hope.

    And ours is the very same, almost invisible sign—
        One named “Emmanuel,”
            to remind us that God is with us.
        No mighty deliverance on the horizon,
            as far as we can see.
        No quick escape from suffering.
        No assurance that oppression will cease in our lifetime.
        No confidence that war and famine will end,
            that refugees will return home.
        Not even a promise that we will get relief
            from our personal pain and suffering.
        No guarantee that our grief will subside,
            that our illness will be cured,
            that our children will come back,
            that our marriage will be reconciled,
            that our abusers will be brought to justice,
            that our financial ruin will be reversed,
            that our loneliness will end.

This is all we get—a word, a name, Emmanuel,
    a reminder that God is with us in our suffering.

So what do you think?
    Is this a gift worth all the hoopla?
    Is there real hope and salvation in this?

Yes, I believe there is.
    I am deeply moved by a God who—
        rather than manipulating the world
        and forcing us all into obedient submission to God’s will,
        would choose, out of a pure love,
            to join us in the middle of our mess,
            to be with us in it,
            to experience it all first-hand,
            and sacrifice all, in order to redeem it.

It seems to me that “God-with-us”
    is as good as it gets in this life.
        And I don’t mean that in a “I-guess-we’ll-have-to-make-do”
            kind of way.
        I mean it’s really good. And amazing. And hopeful.

    No, Emmanuel—“God-with-us”—does not mean an end to evil.
    It doesn’t mean we will be rescued from the bad things that happen.
    It doesn’t mean we can expect our circumstances will always
        change for the better.
    It means, instead, that God has chosen—and continues to choose—
        to enter into our circumstances with us,
            and in time, to redeem those circumstances.
        God present with us. God in-carnate . . . in flesh.
            The ultimate gift.
        God chose not to look on us from afar.
            But to join us.
            To enter into the darkness with us.

What a wonder!
What love!
    God’s action to come be with us, was an act of supreme love.
    God’s deepest love for humanity
        was contained, as it were, in that child in the manger.
    But it wasn’t just a “feel-good,” sentimental kind of love.

    Forget the images etched in our minds,
        a smiling infant nestled in hay,
            starlight streaming in,
            halos hovering over his head,
                and the head of his parents,
            soft wooly lambs looking on,
            white doves in the rafters.
    Well, okay, if we see those images as what they are—
        cultural icons of an ancient holiday tradition,
        that encourage us to share joy and good will
            (and good gifts and good food) with others,
            then, sure, let’s hold on to those images.
        I’m no Scrooge about it.
        I love being sentimental at Christmas.

    But in the church, in worship, when we are thinking theologically,
        forget all that.
        There is nothing sentimental at all
            about a baby born in the barn out back of an inn,
            no matter what our carols and cards and traditions
                seem to imply.

    God’s love was a purposeful love,
        that came to us in dangerous times.
        It was love with a mission.
        It was love that confronted evil.
        It was love that brought healing to the broken
            and salvation to the lost.

    Through this child Jesus,
        God intended to enter into human suffering,
            and love the world into wholeness.

This sign of hope when it was given, was an infant.
    Complete, yet incomplete.
        Nathan and Melodie’s new baby, Grant Christian May,
            is two days old.
        Their baby is fully, completely, human.
            The entire genetic code is all there.
        But yet, he’s hardly begun.
    Hope, like an infant, grows.
        It takes time.
        It takes effort.
        Sometimes . . . often . . . accompanied by some pain.

The world we live in today is full of fear.
    It is looking for answers and solutions now.
    But rather than immediate answers,
        and quick fixes,
        into this world of fear comes One saying,
    “Fear not, a child is born.”
        This is a sign for you.
        God is with you. Emmanuel.
_____________________

I know that nearly all of us here this morning, myself included,
    can think of areas in our own lives,
        or in the lives of our loved ones,
        or in the larger world we inhabit,
    where we long for a sign that God is with us in our suffering.
        That we are not forgotten.
        That God is present, Emmanuel,
            is with us in our mess and brokenness,
            and is at work in some way, known or unknown to us,
                to redeem and heal and save.

    We need a sign, as real and physical and tangible
        as a newborn child.

    One very physical and tangible sign of God’s presence and blessing
        that was practiced in the Bible,
        and in the church ever since,
            is the sign of anointing with oil.
        There is anointing for healing, for blessing, for commissioning,
            for assurance that God is with us,
            and will accompany us as we walk toward
                whatever challenge we face.

So this morning, we invite any of you
    to receive this almost invisible sign that God is with you,
        that you are not forgotten in your suffering,
            or in the suffering of others,
    and to receive a brief word of prayer with the anointing.

I invite the other pastors, Barbara and Ross, and Elder Bonnie Stutzman,
    to please come to the front and prepare to serve in this way.
So the three of them, as well as myself in a few moments,
    will be available to anoint you, for yourself,
        or on behalf of others you are burdened for—
            loved ones, or even situations in the larger world.
    And we will pray for healing, for reconciliation,
        for a strong sense that God is present,
            in the midst of the suffering,
            and desires deeply to heal, redeem, and restore.

Turn in your bulletins to the litany of response.
    This is simply the words of Psalm 80.
    You will sing the response,
        “Restore us, O God. Let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
    I invite any one to begin coming up right now,
        while we are singing and reading this Psalm.
    After the psalm, we will continue with the song on the insert,
        “There were angels hov’ring round.”
So come now, receive the sign that God is with us. Emmanuel.
    And let us sing, “Restore us, O God.”
 

—Phil Kniss, December 22, 2013



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