A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Decades ago, when my children were small and we were visiting with their grandparents in Wales, we went to the Royal Welsh Show. Browsing some of the artisan stands, one of my children found a small, twisted silver bracelet. It cost six pounds. They turned and asked for their pocket money, “So that I can buy it for you.” To say that I was conflicted is an understatement. I didn’t want my child spending all their holiday pocket money on me. But how could I refuse the generosity of innocence, and the purity of the gift? From what was I protecting them, if I refused to let them buy it? I’m still conflicted, but I also still have the bracelet.
You can hear the exasperation in Isaiah’s voice: Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?
God wants to offer you a sign. God has asked you to choose your sign. God is waiting to signal to you that God is with you, in the language that you choose, so that you may know how faithful, how merciful, how good God is. And you, Ahaz, you of little faith, do not want to put God to the test.
I know, I know we hear that phrase elsewhere in positive terms. But God wants us to know that She so loves the world as to send her Son to be born of a woman, to grow and to come to grief, to die and to defeat even death, because God wants us to see how much God loves us.
And what does Ahaz say? No thank you? And what do we say? That’s a little rich for my blood?
After all, if we do believe that God will give to us the sign of God’s grace, of God’s favour, whether it be as high as heaven or as deep as the grave, why do we still deny that there is enough food for the multitudes, enough forgiveness for the fallen, enough love to count the hairs on the heads of every sparrow, every child of God?
Ahaz rejected God’s sign and chose for himself instead kings whom he considered powerful to protect him; in doing so he put himself and his people at the mercy of a foreign empire, instead of trusting in the mercy of God. He allowed his fear of his neighbours to overshadow the righteous fear of God, and faith in God’s providence. His false humility before the prophet was really a cover for his pride and his fear.
It takes humility to accept a gift, especially from one such as God, whom we can never repay, whom we can never love back as much as God loves us. It takes a generous spirit to accept the self-giving, forgiving, undeserved love of the Other.
Look at Joseph. He did not refuse the gift that God had brought to his door, to his house, to his home, although no doubt there were those who thought his first instinct was correct, to turn away from all of this excess, or worse: to counter love with condemnation. But Joseph was old enough to know how to refuse evil and choose good; and he chose to accept that God was with him, closer than his own flesh and blood.
And what if Joseph had said no? What if he had sent Mary away into the hill country to give birth anonymously and secretly; what if he had never known the love, the unconditional and unsurpassed love of Jesus, the infant, the child, the man, the Messiah? Can you imagine missing out on all of that?
Christmas is no time to refuse a gift. I know, I know we’re not there yet; but if Advent is a time of preparation, how will we prepare ourselves to receive, to accept, to be graciously open to the magnificence, the expansiveness, the sheer excess of God’s love?
One of the difficulties I had in accepting the gift from my child was in knowing that I don’t deserve it. I am just not that good. And yet the beauty of living in relationship is the opportunity time and again for repentance, for reparations, for reconciliation, and of being loved anyway.
And we do not get to choose whether or not God loves us. Whether we feel worthy or wormy, God loves us, and we cannot make it otherwise.
Perhaps we are right to be a little cautious. Joseph’s whole life plan certainly changed on a dime in that dream, when he decided before he even awoke to accept the Christ child into his life. But what would he have missed, if he had said, no.
In the Collect that we pray this morning, we ask God to “purify our conscience … by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”
Joseph was a carpenter, an artisan. He was probably pretty well set up, but he wasn’t aristocracy. He wasn’t lord of the manor. Yet God thought him good enough to raise God’s son as his own.
If we accept the gift that God is offering us, if we accept Jesus, then we have to live as those who are beloved, who have everything that we need, and joy to share with the world; no more excuses to live in fear or meanness. If we accept the gift of God’s love in Christ, that grace will transform us. If we accept the gift that God is giving us, if we truly and humbly accept the gift of the incarnation, of Jesus, of Emmanuel, God with us, then we will transform our hearts into mansions with many chambers, overflowing with grace and hospitality.
God wants to give us a sign, whether it be as humble as a picnic of fish and bread or as elevated as bread and fine wine. God wants to give us a sign of God’s abundant love.
God loves us. God wants to give us a sign. God wants to give us Godself. That is what is on offer here. Nothing less. It may be life-changing, but isn’t that the point?
And so we approach toward Bethlehem, in great joy, but on bended knee; in awe and tenderness; surrounded by angels, as tremulous as shepherds, as humbled as infants, and as welcome as kings.