Friday, 24 December 2010

Advent 4

Isaiah 7: 10-16 & Matthew 1:18-end
Are you prepared for Christmas? Every year, I send cards and presents across the pond; and every year, I vow to send them before the international posting deadline. I keep making that vow to myself, but I can’t ever seem to fulfil it. Maybe, like me, you still have shopping to do as well. We probably could all improve in our forward planning. But we can be thankful that God is a forward planner! Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah reminds us that God began preparing for Christmas from a very early time. And that’s what led up to the wonderful miracle that happened in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

Matthew’s gospel emphasises the fact that Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. That’s why he refers back to Isaiah 7:14 – ‘therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’. But expectation of a virgin birth was never actually part of the Jewish vision of the Messiah-to-come. Matthew use this Isaiah text because it fit the actual facts that he needed to tell – in other words, Matthew’s story of the virgin birth was shaped by the true event itself. But the emphasis in both Isaiah & Matthew isn’t the virginal status of the mother; it’s about the importance of the name ‘Immanuel’.

The meaning of Immanuel and the meaning of Christmas are the same - one simple truth, four little words: God – is – with – us. The Holy God of Israel, wrapped up warm in humanity, crying real tears, in a real city, with real parents, who are trying their best to take it all in: God is with us. He’s on our planet – on our countryside – in our manger – Immanuel! ‘God is with us!’

From the birth of Christ, fast-forward 2000 years and those four words that changed history can now change us. In fact, those four words are the only words that can bring meaning to the deepest places of our hearts. The challenge for us is to recognise God’s presence in all situations and circumstances. We might doubt God’s love in times of grief, pain and trauma, but we will find comfort, healing and strength when we are able to experience that God is with us even in such times.

For the woman whose partner has left her and the children, who continually struggles to pick up the pieces: God is with you. For the elderly person who can no longer care for themselves, and must now rely on the care of others: God is with you. For the teenager struggling against peer pressure to fit in - tempted with alcohol and drugs: God is with you. For the person who is seeking truth, and looking hard at Jesus as a possibility: God is with you.

At Christmas, in the quiet moments, many of us revisit our own past, which for some might bring back wonderful memories, but that’s not always the case – it’s not always comfortable and cosy - for some it overflows with sadness. But Matthew’s Christmas gospel invites us to look at the wider perspective, that we are not alone. We never have been, and we never will be, because God in Christ stepped out of eternity, and into time. And God chose a cave in Bethlehem to communicate one simple abiding truth: God is with us. And those four words have the power and the beauty to change our every waking moment.

Matthew’s Christmas gospel asks us to take the past seriously, to recognize how the past shapes the present, and to honour what God has done for us through it. And in the present we can find not just a lonely moment, but an opportunity for faith and service and the possibility of new beginnings.

The Advent challenge for us, on our own & as a church, is to follow Christ in becoming Immanuel in our broken world. In simple acts of service, inclusion and grace, God’s love is made clear and present. In particular, an awareness of, and care for, those who have significant need is a tangible reflection of God’s care: Setting aside time to volunteer in a caring ministry, or welcoming lonely people into our celebrations – these actions offer healing and transformation to a world that sorely needs it.
Whatever actions we might choose to do, this is the key to experiencing Immanuel again this Advent and Christmas: to offer ourselves as ‘little Immanuels’ in practical ways in the world.

Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, as we make preparations to celebrate the birth of your Son Jesus, we thank you that you have planned our future from the beginning of time. We thank you for Mary’s willingness to say ‘yes’ as you called her to be the mother of our Lord, and that Joseph listened to the Angel and was not afraid. May we, too, be willing and unafraid to do your will. Most of all we thank you that you have not left us alone, you have given us Jesus Immanuel, God with us. Strengthen us, that others might see you in us; and humble us, that we would see you in them and in each other. And may we look to the future with hope, serving you and all your people with joy. Amen.

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