SJF • Advent 4a 2013 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To all God’s beloved... who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Over these weeks of Advent I’ve been preaching on the three of great virtues embodied in the season: love, hospitality and patience. Today, as Christmas is nearly in sight, I want to turn to look ahead to two of the Christmas presents towards which our Advent preparation points us. These two Christmas presents are summed up in Saint Paul’s greeting to the Christians in ancient Rome: “Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Grace and peace: what better things could we wish for! We live in the midst now of the winter of our discontent, in a time of terrorism and war, when all the premature Christmas carols in the shopping malls cannot drown out the somber voices droning on twenty-four hours a day on the cable news channels; when all the well-spiked holiday punch and egg nog cannot numb us to the sobering knowledge that war is still raging, and a generation is perishing in horror in that same Syria of which Isaiah spoke — a land tearing itself apart in a most uncivil war. We are hungry and thirsty for grace and peace, and long for God’s promises to be fulfilled, yet wherever we look, they speak of war.
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So too it was for King Ahaz to whom Isaiah prophesied; so too for the Roman Christians to whom Saint Paul wrote; so too for Joseph troubled in his mind that his wife-to-be was already pregnant — and not by him! Our present turmoils and troubles, foreign or domestic, are nothing new, my friends — the world has always longed for the promise of grace, the fulfillment of peace.
The good news is that this promise of God does not go unrealized. God does come through! God delivers those Christmas presents of grace and peace more efficiently than Santa and his elves, though the gifts of grace and peace often come to us in ways that we do not expect and sometimes don’t even recognize. So often the gifts of grace and peace come as a surprise — not as what we expected, but as what we most assuredly need.
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So let’s take a quick peek in the hall closet or under the bed to see what Christmas presents lay in store for us. First the gift of peace — man, do we need that, not only in the world but in the church! Yet this is the promised gift, the gift promised by God through Isaiah to that war-weary King Ahaz of Judah. You see, his ancient enemy, the Syrians of Damascus — that same Damascus that is going through so much trouble today — those Syrians have allied with the northern kingdom of Israel against his own land of Judah in the south. This is long after the split that came after the death of Solomon, when the empire that son of David built was torn in two in the kind of civil war that has plagued the Middle East ever since — and Israel in the north was partitioned from Judah in the south.
So God sends Isaiah to Ahaz and tells him to ask for a sign. When Ahaz is reluctant, Isaiah tells him that God will give him a sign anyway: and there follows that wonderful vision of a young woman whose child will soon be born and who will receive a wonderful name, who will be a sign of God’s deliverance. This was a vision so powerful that it would nourish hope in that land for hundreds of years — until an angel would remind a certain righteous Judean carpenter of the promise... But I’m getting ahead of myself; I’ll get to Joseph in a moment.
For now let’s stick with Ahaz, and Isaiah’s promise that peace is coming, and coming soon! How soon? A young woman is with child and will give birth — so we’re talking less than nine months. This child will bear the name Immanuel — God is with us — and by the time this child is weaned from nursing, able to eat the baby food of curds and honey, by the time he is old enough to know that he likes the curds and honey but doesn’t care for that evil broccoli — say, another year and half — the enemy lands of Syria and Israel will be devastated, their kings defeated!
Now this may seem like a round-about way of promising regime change, but this was the promise none-the-less. Regime change will come; Judah will be delivered, the enemy kings of Syria and Israel will be deposed. Peace will come! Now, it won’t be the best kind of peace — unfaithful Judah and its weak King Ahaz don’t quite deserve that! This will be the peace of occupation — as an invading army will come in from outside and destroy those kings of Israel and Syria — but at least it will be peace; it will remove the threat of destruction be set to one side and people will be able to get on with their lives — much as even today we might hope that the UN or some other force would go into Syria and take it over and stop the war. Occupation is not the best peace, but it is better than a terrible war. And so, even today, many would long for such a peace as a precious prize.
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And what of grace? Well, as we know from the great and well-loved hymn, what? Grace is amazing! That is part of what makes it grace, after all: it is not what we expect, but comes as a wonderful surprise, a gift we do not deserve but which it turns out is exactly what we most need.
This Christmas present of grace comes to us wrapped up in the story of Joseph and Mary. Now, if anybody needs gracious good news it’s poor Joseph. He discovers that his bride-to-be is already pregnant; but since he’s a good and righteous man, not hard-hearted, he’s unwilling to make the kind of fuss he perfectly well could, including, under the laws of those days, dragging Mary into the town square and putting her to public shame, and possibly even being stoned. Rather, he prepares to take the option ending the marriage quietly, putting her away with as little embarrassment as possible. That’s what he’s decided to do; he’s going to call it off — and then, amazing grace happens! The angel comes to him in a dream with exactly the same message delivered hundreds of years before to Ahaz — only this time the promise is not of earthly peace, but of heavenly grace, the full and perfect fulfillment of that ancient prophecy. You see, that prophecy had a double meaning: it wasn’t just a word to Ahaz; it was a word for Joseph, and a word to us. This child is not the result of infidelity on Mary’s part; rather this is the act of God the Holy Spirit, descending into the created reality over which the Holy Spirit moved at the beginning of all things, now to bring forth from the womb of a human mother a child who shall be the savior of the world — not just of a small Middle Eastern kingdom, but of the whole world.
This is the wonder of grace: instead of a prudent end to a scandalous episode in the life of a Judean carpenter — a sort of first century Downton Abbey — instead we overhear Joseph being told, and hear ourselves, of the earth-shattering and life-changing arrival of God himself in the person of a child to be born in Bethlehem. This is the grace to which we look, my brothers and sisters in Christ, a grace that is amazing and unexpected and yet exactly what we need.
So let us, in this last few days before Christmas, in the hustle and bustle and the last-minute shopping, remember what it is we are waiting for. Let us make use of all of those virtues of love and welcome and patience, as we look forward to the great gifts of grace and peace, the peace which passes understanding, and the grace that announces the presence of our Lord and Savior, Immanuel — God with us and all who believe. Let us prepare for the salvation of our souls and the redemption of our bodies, for the restoration of all that is broken and the lifting up of all that is fallen, so that our consciences, being purified and made ready to receive him, may at his coming be as mansions prepared to welcome him, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, even Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate.+