The Fourth Sunday of Advent –(December 18, 2016)

November 18, 2016 | by Bruce Epperly

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

This week we consider what it means to affirm “God is with us.” Does this mean that God is truly embodied in our world? Does it require us to adhere to supernatural images of the incarnation? If God is with us, how might this shape our personal, congregational, and political lives?

Christians have traditionally connected the words of Isaiah 7 with the coming of Christ. In recent years, most liberal and progressive biblical scholars have questioned literal understandings of this connection, especially as it relates to the virgin birth. They assert that Isaiah had no idea that the Messiah would be born in Nazareth or named Jesus. Moreover, the young woman is simply a young woman who gives birth to a wondrous child, but there is no hint of a supernatural virgin birth in the prophet’s vision. Conservatives have doubled down on traditional interpretations, asserting that apart from clear biblical prophecy of Jesus as the Christ and a literal understanding of the virgin birth, there is nothing special about Jesus or his message.

While we cannot fully intuit the mind of the prophet or the mind of the God for whom he believes he speaks, we may choose, as I do, to thread the theological and biblical needle. On the one hand, it seems clear that Isaiah didn’t directly predict the birth of Jesus of Nazareth during the reign of Caesar Augustus. On the other, Isaiah had in mind someone like Jesus of Nazareth, a unique prophetic and saving figure, who would be “Immanuel” or “God with us.” The biblical prophets imagined world history stretching into the indefinite future and hoped for a Messiah, who would transform the nation and the world. When Christians look backward to Isaiah and call this image of the Messiah Christ incarnate in our world, they are assuming the possibility that there is a continuity between prophetic visions and the birth and message of Jesus. This is an assumption that I share: I believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, could only have come out of the Jewish prophetic tradition and thus reflects the hopes and dreams of prophets such as Isaiah. This does not invalidate the wisdom of Judaism but recognizes the kinship of the hopes of Jews and Christians alike. Jesus is for Christians the Messiah, the Christ, born and raised in the Jewish tradition and embodying the spirit of Immanuel. As Christians we can affirm, without supersessionism, that the One who inspired the prophet Isaiah also inspired and energized the historical trajectory that led to the birth and ministry of Jesus, and beyond.

Isaiah points us toward incarnation. In a recent lecture, insightful religious writer Diana Butler Bass noted that in Christian circles far more sermons are spent on the cross and resurrection than the incarnation. I appreciate Bass’s insight here. However, I believe that for process theologians, incarnation is central. Jesus is not an anomaly in history, but reflects God’s incarnational presence not only in the broad sweep of history but in each moment of our lives. A living God is embedded in our lives and a living God can be “more present” in some places than others in the interplay of divine call and human response. In process theology, the word is always made flesh and dwelling among us in the most intimate details of our lives and the broad contours of world history. The one we call Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, uniquely experienced and embodied God’s vision of Shalom and incarnated, accordingly, God’s life-transforming power. Continuous with us and our world, Jesus still embodies what the Celts described as “thin place,” a person or place that reflects divine wisdom, energy, and presence in a superlative way. God’s vision takes form in the life of Jesus, even though Jesus was also Mary and Joseph’s child.

What does it mean to say that “God is with us?” At the very least, this is an affirmation that within the meandering messiness of life, God can be found and wherever we are, God is present. God is with us, it is often we who have strayed from a sense of God’s incarnation vision and care.

Psalm 80 is a plea for divine presence. For whatever reason, God appears to be absent and, left to their own devices, the people are lost, wandering aimlessly like sheep without a shepherd. Is this divine absence the result of the God’s departure or the people’s lack of attentiveness and pursuit of false values? Is God angry or is the divine anger a symptom of their inability to sense the nearness of God and their placing limits on what God can do in their lives by their values and behavior? This Psalm sees life as a call and response, and suggests that God’s call is conditioned by our responses. We can limit God’s impact when we turn away from God and shift our focus away from God’s vision for us. Still, there is hope – when we pray for restoration and new light, our lives begin to heal and we find enough illumination to take the next steps personally and institutionally.

Paul’s salutation to the Christians in Rome roots Christ’s life in the history of the Jewish people. Jesus took flesh – that is, he became human and is fully human – in the line of David. He has David’s DNA and we share many of the same genetic markers with the Savior. Although the resurrection is beyond our comprehension, we can still affirm solidarity between Jesus and humankind. We are related. Regardless of our ethnicity, we belong to Christ. God is with us and in us, as intimate as our DNA.

Joseph takes center stage in today’s Gospel reading. Although he is not apparently the biological father of Jesus, according to Matthew, he embraces the role of Jesus’ earthly parent. Joseph wants to do the right thing, and can only find his way, when God gives him a dream. God is with us in this little child. But, can God also be with us in dreams and other paranormal experiences. The incarnation is more than flesh and blood. It is earthy, but in Christ and in God’s way with humanity, earth and heaven, flesh and spirit, body and mind, are joined as reflections and embodiments of God’s care.

Joseph’s dream – a paranormal experience, later repeated among the magi – is concrete. Divine revelation is always contextual and never abstract. It may come through the spirit or the unconscious but it also always touches the flesh.

This week we affirm God is with us. Divine presence emerges within the chaotic days of the Christmas season; in the birth and growth of our children; in difficult personal and institutional decisions; and in fears over the direction our nation is taking. We are never alone, or forgotten, Immanuel, God is with us.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Centerville, MA.( and member of the doctoral faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of forty books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed;and A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care. He may be contacted for conversation, speaking engagements and retreats at