December 30, 2001
Fourth Sunday of Advent

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23
John 1: 1-18
  [Episcopal]

The underlined texts will take you to a sermon
on the gospel text and a sermon on the Episcopal Gospel Text.


Being There
Isaiah 63:7-9

What was your greatest experience over the last week? Out of all the things that make up a holiday season - what is it that means the most?

Is it shopping for gifts? Or getting things to the post office in the seasonal rush? Perhaps you enjoy all the cooking and house cleaning most of all.

Getting the house ready for company is not the favorite activity at our house! I am married to someone who won't let us into the living room a week before company arrives and only grudgingly acknowledges that we really do have to use our bathroom the day before company comes.

No - these are not the things that most of us love about holiday times. It is the people in our lives that bring the real joy of the season. Some of us were able to spend time with family we have not seen for a while. Many of us traveled to see parents, or grandparents, or children. Others simply had the enjoyment of stepping out of our hectic schedules and hurried lives and spending a day or two at home.

I saw a touching story on television where two brothers and a sister had been separated and adopted by separate families had found each other and were together this Christmas for the first time since they were young children.

Cards and letters from family and friends are nice. Telephone calls at special times of celebration mean a lot. But there is nothing like being present with the people we love.

I come from a family that has always been widely scattered all over the country and occasionally around the world. We have not spent a lot of time together over the years simply because of geographic distances. But there was a Christmas season a few years ago when it was important for all of us to be together. "Being there," was of paramount importance to all of us. My father had been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and this would more than likely be his last Christmas on this earth.

Other trips were cancelled, plans were changed and schedules were rearranged. Nothing was as important as being together. It had been over twenty years since we had been together for my father's favorite holiday. When we arrived at his home in Toronto, Ontario, the first thing that caught the eye was the obligatory huge fresh cut - (artificial trees not allowed) - pine tree with its immeasurable number of twinkling lights.

Over a period of three days we were transported back to the days of our childhood when life was simple and dad held us together secure and unafraid of anything life might bring our way. It was a little slice of time that is encased in our hearts... the greatest Christmas gift any of us have ever received. And as we suspected, this was indeed the last time all of us would be together with dad at Christmas.

Undoubtedly all of us have memories of wonderful moments and precious times when our values and priorities were crystal clear and the joy of life was supremely evident. Those times without a doubt always have to do with the most significant people in our lives and being there is the key.

***

As we gather on this first Sunday after Christmas, there remains something of the spirit of the season in our hearts. It is a kind of transition Sunday.  The holidays will soon be past, children will be back in school and we will return to our normal routines.

There is something strange about the celebration of Christmas in the world and the celebration of the incarnation of Christ in the Church. For the world, something is coming to an end. If you do not pick this up any other way, just give the department stores a few days and you will see the commercial Easter products on the shelves!

For Christians however, it has all just begun! The birth of Jesus was not the end at all. We are at the beginning of the church year. Christian folk are called to take the good news of Christmas into the remainder of the year.

And just what is that message?

Amazingly the words of the prophet in our reading this morning, though written hundreds of years before Christ was born, go to the heart of the wonderful good news of Christmas. Not only is Christmas not over, the message of the prophet for today is a re-affirming of the message of incarnation we spoke of a week ago.

"...he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them... [Is. 63:8b-9]

Do you see how powerful this basic biblical truth is? God did not simply send a card or make a phone call or use some other remote means of reaching out to us. As it is with us - so it is with God. "Being there" is everything!  God did not send a representative or an angel to bring comfort to our times of trial and distress. In Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, the words of the prophet are fulfilled beyond even the prophet's imagining or ability to comprehend. It is "his presence" that saves us.

There are some basic truths about the spiritual life and some essential encouragement that is imbedded in the brief passage from Isaiah we read today.

v.7 We grow as we "recount" or go over in our minds all the gracious "deeds of the Lord" that have been done for us. Especially when times are tough - as they were in Israel during Isaiah's ministry - it is important to bring ourselves back to all the blessings of God that we have known.

v.8-9 "He became their savior" - God has come to us and it is the presence of God that saves us. The love of God comes to us in a very visible and almost vulnerable way. The child who was born in Bethlehem had to be quickly taken out of danger because there were those who were after his life from the very beginning. Yet God comes - for you - and for me in the persons of this "at risk" child.

v.9 God does more than save us - Isaiah said, "He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old."  The spiritual life is not simply about something that took place way back then - but is a promise of continuing mercy and love. God not only saves us, but carriers us along, "all the days" of our life.

***

It is the sense of God's being there for us that lies behind the spirit of comfort and sense of joy that pervades our Christmas celebrations when we gather for worship. It is difficult to articulate sometimes, but the gentle spirit and uplifting sounds of worship during the Christmas season is rooted in the same thing that makes our individual family gatherings special at holiday times.

It is God's commitment to being there that binds us together and creates the fabric of Christian family we can experience but not quite explain.

A middle aged couple visited our Christmas Eve service a few years ago and experienced something very close to what my family experienced during that last Christmas with my father. This experience however, was more related to the spiritual family. The couple had grown up in the church and married there years before. They had not been home for the holidays for many years and had returned this year because the husband's parents were getting along in years and the mother's health was not good - she was not critically ill, but nevertheless was failing. The wife's father had died and the mother was in good health.

All of them sat together during the Christmas Eve candlelight service, bathed in the soft glow of dim light and wrapped in the joyous sounds of young children's voices. During the traditional candle lighting and singing of the final hymn, Silent Night, the man we spoke of stood with his arm around his mother's shoulders and tears streaming down his cheeks.

When they left the church after worship, the amazing softening of the man's spirit was almost visible on his face. He stood for a moment shaking hands and said, "I can't explain it, but somehow this is the closest I have felt to God in years and it was like it was when I was a child sitting in this church on Christmas Eve."

Indeed!

It was not a messenger or angel that came to us in the gift of Christmas, but the very presence of God. We sometimes do not get the words quite right and we find ourselves a bit removed from our spiritual family roots from time to time --  but in the sights and sounds, smells and spirit of Christmas worship, the presence of God is discerned.  And there is nothing in the world and nothing in all of life that can replace being there.


Reflection on the Texts

The lectionary readings for this Sunday are among the more diverse for communions who normally follow the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common and Roman Catholic lectionaries use - Matthew 2:13-23 for the RCL and 2:13-15, 19-23 for the Roman Catholic. The Episcopal uses John 1:1-18 for today.

The Epistle is different for RCL: Heb. 2:10-18; Roman Catholic: Col. 3:12-21 and Episcopal: Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7

The O.T. lesson is RCL: Isaiah 63:7-9; Roman Catholic: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 and Episcopal Isaiah 61: 10 - 62:3

The Revised Common Lectionary readings (including the Psalm 148) are linked by the mention of angels in each passage. There are also some links among all the readings with the issue of family seen as the family of God or family of faith in Isaiah, Hebrews and John (1:9-13). See alternate sermon ideas below for suggestions along the line of family -- especially for communions which observe this family as The Holy Family.

The Holy Family and Our Family  
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 (Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 with Col.3:12-21 for Roman Catholic)

The role of Joseph as protector of the Holy Family is highlighted in the Matthew passage. Joseph is the one who receives guidance from the Lord and uses this guidance to protect and lead his family. The essential ingredient for Joseph is the fact that he is obedient to the guidance God gives. All of the messages in the world from angels of the Lord are pointless unless we actualize them with the energy of obedience.

Roman Catholic homileticians may bring in the passage from Sirach to show the role of the children in receiving the authority of the parents.  God blesses those who receive this authority.  (Not an autonomous or arbitrary authority, but one grounded in parents who are receiving guidance from and being obedient to God's direction for them.)

The Colossians passage contains the most wonderful ingredients for the functioning of any family. The last few verses, however will energize your listeners when you come to, "Wives, be subject to your husband..."   Yet, when you add, "And husbands love your wives and NEVER treat them harshly..."  Actually, there is no subjection of one person to another person anywhere in the N.T. unless there is first subjection to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

No matter how you treat this, we need to make it clear that in the family of faith and in our personal families it is the Lord who is head of the household. We can not translate the experience of Christian families to the experience of families at large in the world around us. Democracy, for instance, is great -- but the church is not a democracy -- even the Congregational church.  There is no genuine Christian Church that does not confess the Lordship/Headship of Jesus Christ.   This notion of "Lordship" or "Headship" doesn't fly in the secular world.

One of the most powerful messages in all of scripture when it comes to family living, is the fact that once Joseph's protective, guiding, saving role is completed, we do not hear from him again except for the very brief episode in Luke's gospel when Jesus was separated from Joseph and Mary when he was 12.

John 1:1-18  Episcopal Gospel

Just a brief suggestion here that those using the John gospel lesson might explore the issue of family / the Holy Family and center on John 1:9-13. These verses speak of God's family -- the family of faith which derives its identity from belief in the Son of God.  It is this family identity that gives shape to our identity as earthly families. There is a uniqueness  to a Christian family (earthly) that derives from the Christian family (spiritual).

This is an identity worth strengthening in a crumbling world.


Isaiah 63:7-9

From the start of chapter 60, the prophet has spoken of God's final plans for redemption and glory of Israel. Not only would God's plans for Israel be fulfilled, but through Israel the divine intent for all of creation would come about. Even "...the Gentiles shall come to thy light..."  The justice of God will come to all persons and there will be "...good news for the poor, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed..." [61:1ff] and justice will pervade the earth.

Yet, behind these chapters stands the painful fact that the Babylonians will come and devastate Judah. How then shall all these things be fulfilled? In the current text, the prophet recounts the mercy and steadfast love of God who has borne Israel through the toughest of times. Without seeing the actual fulfillment of the coming of Messiah and the incarnational fulfillment of the gospel - the prophets words of hope are rooted in faith which has only the goodness of God as its guarantee.


Matthew 2:13-23

v.13 Some make a distinction between "an" angel of the Lord and "the" angel of the Lord. There is some legitimacy to this in that "The" angel of the Lord as in Exodus 3:2 is a manifestation of God, or theophany ("appearance or showing" of God).   "An" angel of the Lord as in the Matthew text is a messenger of God.   Yet, the linguistic analysis doesn't always hold true as in Acts 7:30-31 when Stephen refers to Moses experience at the burning bush and says, "...there appeared to him {Moses} in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush..."   The function of the angels in the Luke and Matthean birth accounts is that of messengers from God.

"escape to Egypt"  Travel to Egypt was a common occurrence for Jews.  According to Philo in about AD 40 there were close to a million Jews living in Egypt. In Gen. 46 Jacob and his family flee to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.  The trip was about 75 miles from Jerusalem to the border.

v.15 "This was to fulfill what had been spoken..."  This along with other Matthean fulfillment themes can only be properly understood in terms of the larger sense in which N.T. writers see Jesus as fulfilling the whole messianic expectation of Israel.  The actual text of Hosea 11:1 "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt" refers to the whole nation of Israel.  This is the sense used in the N.T. letter to the Hebrews when the whole sacrificial system is seen as coming to fulfillment in the sacrafice of Christ.  It will not work to attempt an precise parallel between Matthew's fulfillment affirmations and specific references to messiah in O.T. texts referred to.

v.16 D.A. Carson notes that most modern commentators discount the story of the slaughter of the innocents, believing Matthew made the story up to draw an analogy between Jesus and Moses or as an initial sign of God's iompending judgment on Israel for rejecting messiah.  Carson and Barclay reject this with the proposition that this act would be very much within the character of Herod.  The fact that the incident is not mentioned in non-Christian literature would not be exceptional in that Bethlehem was as  small town and the murder of what would have been about 12 children would not have drawn much attention in such violent times.

v.17 There is some support for Carson and Barclay (among others) in the construction of "thus was fulfilled".   The construction lacks the greek "ina" -- or "in order that... it might be fulfilled."  The action referred to as fulfillment is so horrible that the writer puts the fulfillment action in a passive mode instead of the more active -- "This happened so that it might be fulfilled..."  Inclusion of the story seems to argue more for its authenticity than the reverse.

v.19 Joseph's fourth dream and third mention of "an angel of the Lord"

v.22 A fifth and final dream in Joseph's protection of the Christ child.  There is an interesting parallel with the Joseph (son of Jacob / Israel) in the Genesis story.  Joseph is the one who protects and saves Israel.  It is his dreams that got him into Egypt.  In Genesis 50:20 Joseph tells his brothers that even though they intended harm for him -- "God intended it for good..."  The story of both Josephs gives an amazing account of the providence of God working through persons. One Joseph saved Israel and the other saved the One who would be for the salvation of Israel.

v.23 There is no such verse in the O.T.  Matthew's construction once again does not include the "ina" -- "in order that it might be fulfilled".  Several possibilities are suggested as Matthew's intent and most of them are tortured.   Carson suggests a more interesting concept.  As Nazareth was a "despised" place even to Galileans, so also messiah would be "despised of men." This is not fulfillment of a specific O.T. verse, but of an O.T. concept.


Hebrews 2:10-18

The author turns here to defend the idea that Jesus came to this earth and suffered. He was made "a little lower than the angels" - which would have been scandalous to the popular Jewish mind. Messiah came to conquer and bring glory to God's people through victory over the enemies of God.  A crucified Messiah would be a contradiction in terms.

Yet, the Jewish mind did seek the redemption of God that Messiah would bring. The writer here shows that the redemption God brings about is a perfect redemption because it is redemption rooted in suffering. In becoming human and in suffering, Jesus becomes a perfect redeemer. Because he knows the human condition and has suffered and made sacrifice - he is able to be the perfect high priest for sinners.

As one who has been tested, Jesus is able as our high priest to understand and help those who are being tested.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 148)

L:  Praise the Lord!
P: Praise the Lord all over heaven;
L: Praise God all over the earth!
P: Praise the Lord, all you angels!

L: Let every creature everywhere praise the Lord!
P: For the Lord our God has given us a Savior!
L: We have received the amazing gifts,
P: Of love and life and joy forevermore!  Amen!

Confession of Sin

Merciful God, in Christ you make all things new. We confess our sins before you and are truly sorry for all our shortcomings and offences. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Dear friends in Christ, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ free us from all our sins and may we be made new persons in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Almighty and everlasting God, we give thanks and praise to you, for you have poured out upon us the new light of your incarnate word. We pray that this new light will shine in our hearts and show through our lives that all persons may come to know the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We pour out our gratitude for all you have been for us and for all the promise of this Christmas season. May the gifts that have blessed our lives bring about such a renewal in hope and purpose in your church that the world will indeed know we are Christians by our love.

Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

You, O Lord, are the source of every good and wonderful blessing in our lives. In Jesus you have given us all you could possibly give. Teach us, gracious Lord, to give in a way that will bring glory to you and joy to the world.  Amen.

A Benediction

Go in the name of the Lord with thanksgiving in your heart. Share the gifts of love and joy with all you meet. Let the overflowing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ set your course and guide your steps until we meet again!   Amen!