December 18: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Sunday, December 18, 2022 was preached as a response to Matthew 1.18-26 based on the manuscript below.

Joseph, an upright man who follows the law,
learns that Mary, to whom he is committed,
married, engaged, betrothed,
but not yet consummated
is pregnant.
Following the law,
Joseph doesn’t have the option to forgive her.
He has to have the relationship’s commitments annulled.
He’s going to do this privately,
so that Mary isn’t a subject of scorn or put to death,
and so that her parents can figure something out.
This quietude of dismissal or divorce
is Joseph following the spirit of the law
more than the letter.
Justice is tempered by mercy,
but his love of God is more than his love of her
so he has to end things.

An angel appears to Joseph in a dream
and tells him to hold on.
“The child conceived in her
is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son,
and you are to name him Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus, or Yeshua from Yehoshua
is word play on salvation and saving.
That’s the role Jesus will have
for his people and all people.
In our passage from Matthew today,
Matthew is setting up
the central theme of his gospel.
He opens a bookend that closes at the end of the gospel,
when Jesus says,
“I am with you always,
to the end of the age.”
While the child’s name will be Jesus,
his title and role will be Emmanuel:
God with us.

Matthew is not interested today
in offering proof of Jesus’ divinity.
We’ll get that from John on Christmas Day
and the First Sunday after Christmas.
Matthew today is telling us
proclaiming to his church and to ours
that in Jesus,
God is with us.
While Jesus’ conception is a miracle,
fulfillment of the prophecy we heard in Isaiah
this is more about Jesus being a part of God’s plan of salvation
than a necessity because he is divine.
Anna Case Winters writes,
“[The miraculous conception]
echoes the extraordinary conceptions
of central figures in the history of Israel
such as Isaac and Samuel,
who were born to women thought to be barren…
Their extraordinary conceptions
were taken to be signs that God
had a special purpose for them
in God’s saving work.
God is involved
and the unsuspecting
are expecting.”[1]

For context, Anna Case Winters tells us,
“This Gospel was written in a time
when there was conflict and division
in the community of faith;
when some were insiders
and others were outsiders;
when political and religious leaders
were co-opted, mistrusted, and discredited;
when the great majority of the common people
were without power; and
[a time] when cultures clashed.”[2]
Sound familiar?
Populism has risen on the left and the right
because experts aren’t trusted
and have made enough gaffes –
even when trying to do the right thing! –
for people to generally question them.

This week one of the podcasts I listen to
played clips from a YouTube channel
to analyze them.
They were so intense
that they needed content warnings
for homophobia and transphobia.
Other than my teeth being on edge,
at the end I thought about the Esurance commercial
from over a decade ago.
It’s the one where someone
has posted photos to her wall –
with tape and talks about saving time and money.
When her friend who appears younger
says she saves even more time and money,
the first, older woman looks at her and says,
“I unfriend you.”
This prompts the younger one to say
“That’s not how it works!
That’s not how any of this works!”
It’s a clash of cultures.

In a few minutes
we’re going to dedicate the pledges
for our stewardship of treasure
in 2023.
You’ll learn more at the Annual Meeting,
January 29,
but we’re facing a very significant deficit.
With it and attendance,
even as we’re healthier generally
it’s discouraging.
Or it can be,
especially if you or I or the Bishop’s Committee
think it’s up to us ourselves to fix.
Perhaps we’re considering
a divorce from this body,
even quietly,
because we’re not sure it’s going to last.

But then an angel shows up
and says,
“The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son,
and you are to name him Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins.”
Then Matthew adds commentary,
“All this took place to fulfill
what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,’
which means, ‘God is with us.’”
God is with us.
Matthew opens his book with that today
and closes it with Jesus saying
that he’ll be with us always,
even to the end of the age.

As Advent comes to an end
we’re preparing for the Christ child.
We hear Matthew’s utilitarian birth narrative
on the Sunday before Christmas this year!
As Advent comes to an end
we’re continuing to prepare the way of the Lord.
As we dedicate pledges
and the calendar year comes to a close
while we watch and wait for God’s reign
to fully manifest
we look forward with anticipation,
longing for what might be
here at St. Hilda St. Patrick
and in our community, state, and nation.

As the calendar year comes to a close,
I keep coming back
to something Bishop Greg Brewer said in October,
“Rebuilding is easier
when you know that you are not actually rebuilding
but building a new and different church.…
Work with those who are there
and pray into a new future.”
We just sang,
“Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.”
Love the Lord is on the way,
and God is with us. Amen.

[1]  Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible) (p. 39). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. 
[2]  Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible) (p. 6). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. 

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