Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 22, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:
Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25

By Bruce G. Epperly

Does God communicate with humankind? During the Christmas season, films, television movie, and popular culture speak of signs from God. The incarnation is the ultimate sign from God – Immanuel – “God with us” is God in flesh; fully alive and fully revelatory of God’s vision of history. Can God reveal Godself in the life of a baby, a working class family, and immigrants fleeing for their lives? The Advent-Christmas season asks us to look deeper into reality and perhaps discover the holiness of ordinary moments.

The prophet Isaiah reflects on the nature of divine human-communication. God wants to communicate with the people, providing them with images of hope for the future, but King Ahaz is reticent. Perhaps, he is worried that the divine message will not come to pass and the people will be disappointed. Still, God persists. God wants to alert the people to an age of transformation. God promises that a unique child shall be born and this young child will be called Immanuel, “God with us.”

By now, the congregation will have surely sung, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as part of its Advent faith formation. Immanuel is the expected one, not just for the Jewish people in a time of national crisis, but for Christians as well. Our history as Christians embraces the divine message to Isaiah. While there may not be a one-to-one correspondence between Isaiah’s young child and Jesus of Nazareth, the expectation of a national and world savior energized the Jewish imagination and became essential to the Christian story of salvation. God’s aim at Shalom moves through history and bursts forth, according Christian experience, in Bethlehem and in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Isaiah invites us to ponder God’s presence in our world. As John’s Gospel asserts (John 1:1-15), divine creativity is present everywhere, giving life to all creation. God is also present in unique ways in the cosmic and human journeys. God’s revelations are variable and can burst forth in superlative ways to transform the world. This is matter of divine initiative and human response. The global incarnation of God – the world lives by the incarnation of God, as Whitehead asserts – is also profoundly intimate, personal, and concrete. Accordingly, Bethlehem can be a focal point of incarnation, without succumbing to images of supernatural intervention that rob Jesus of his humanity and connection with our flesh and blood lives.

Reading Isaiah invites us to ponder God’s “signs” in our time and place. Are there divine visitations in our world? Does God present us with synchronous encounters as part of our personal or corporate histories? Can these moment by moment divine possibilities become signs of God’s presence and guidance in our lives?

The Psalmist prays for divine restoration. The Psalmist’s God is intensely personal. The Psalmist believes that God can be angry and withdraw God’s providential care. God’s anger can be reflected in catastrophic events and national turmoil. Yet, the Psalmist begs for divine compassion. All will be healed when God’s face shines upon the people once more. Like Isaiah, this passage also points to signs of divine presence and absence. God’s presence and activity is ambiguous from the human viewpoint: God can hurt as well as heal in response to our loyalty and fidelity. The Psalmist is clear that God punishes, but he hopes that the people have learned their lesson and God will return in love and affirmation once more.

If you read the Psalm of the day, you should mention it in the course of your sermon. Today, televangelists and other religious leaders connect the nation’s well-being with acts of God. Often they identify divine punishment with behaviors they personally abhor. They see a connection with the acceptance of homosexuality and hurricanes and earthquakes. While we may choose appropriately to challenge such statements, we need to be prepared to describe how God is present in the world and the relationship between human action and divine response, not to mention God’s initiatives in history. Popular theology sees God as controlling nature and human history. Tragedy and success reflect either 1) God’s eternal will or 2) divine rewards or punishment for our actions.

Process theology’s relational approach to causation suggests the interplay of divine initiative and human responses. Do our behaviors condition God’s presence in the world? Can our fidelity enhance God’s realm in the world? Do our thoughts and actions open or close the door to God’s revelation in our lives?

In the Romans reading, Paul connects God’s call in his life to the expansion of God’s grace to embrace the non-Jewish world. Paul perceives that he has been divinely chosen to be an apostle to the Gentiles: God has a unique vision for his life, given his life-history and gifts. Paul’s unique vocation opens the door to sharing the good news of salvation with the Gentile world. The particular revelation of God to the Jewish people has now become universal, addressing each nation in its own context. While the good news of salvation focuses on the grace of God in Christ, it may be perceived in different ways. New possibilities for divine salvation are emerging as a result of God’s embrace of the Gentile nations.

The Gospel narrative focuses on Joseph’s role in the birth of Jesus. Joseph has a dream and on that dream, the survival of Mary and her little child depend. The reticent, yet moral, Joseph receives a sign, mediated through a revelatory dream. God speaks through both the conscious and unconscious minds, sharing wisdom to those who pay attention. In paying attention to God’s messages, Joseph becomes part of the story of our salvation.

The issue of the Gospel reading is not sexuality or even the doctrine of the virgin birth, but God’s communication with Joseph and God’s unique presence in Jesus. Divine personality requires variability: God can chose in the dynamic call and response of life to be more present – or differently present – in one place or person in contrast to others. This is not a violation of the laws of nature, but a revelation of God’s intimate relationship with creation.

Advent-Christmas season awakens us to the many forms of God’s communication with humankind. There are epiphanies in everyday moments as well as dramatic events. Revelation is variable, emerging from the intricate and lively call and response of God and the world. During Advent and Christmas, our calling is to wake up to God’s call and invite our congregants to anticipate that God is moving in their lives, providing signs of transforming not just at Christmas and every day of the year.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. on Cape Cod. He is the author of thirty books, including his most recent books, Adventurous Advent: Days of Awe and Wonder and Letters to my Grandson: Gaining Wisdom from a Fresh Perspective. He may be contacted for conversation and engagements at