Joseph P. Mathews
19 December 2010
Advent 4, A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Troy, AL
In the name of the God who was and is and is to come. Amen.
What’s going on?! Did you hear that reading?! “She had borne a son and he named him Jesus.” The baby Jesus is here already, but the vestments and hangings are blue. The bulletin inserts still say Advent on them. What’s going on? Our Roman sisters and brothers don’t get verse twenty-five. Their reading stops with Joseph taking Mary as his wife.
While yes, the baby Jesus is here in this reading, it’s clearly not the point of it. It’s one verse. At the very end. We’re not smoking the place up and wearing white and decking the aisle with poinsettias until Friday. The lessons today aren’t about celebrating Jesus’s birth itself, although they do, like most scripture passages, point to Jesus. The Jesus the point to, though, isn’t the baby Jesus in the manger. Remember, it’s still Advent, and we’ll celebrate the birth in a few days. The readings today, rather, are about God being with us. God who came among us and is with us in Spirit and Church until Christ comes in final glory. And that’s why these texts are good Advent texts.
What does it matter that Christ came among us and that God is with us? Well, we have to actually mean that God is with us, and that God came among us and will return before we can really get at god being with us. If our approach to Christ’s coming is, as a Facebook friend of mine said this week, “Christmas is just one step before Easter. The meanings of both go hand in hand. Without the birth of Jesus first, there would have been no one to die for our sins. It was all part of God's plan,” I think we’re missing what’s going on. That’s not God with us. That’s God the Son here to die to make God the Father happy, and then leave us.
As much as I love some eschatological hope, “in the fullness of time put all things in subjection under your Christ,” that’s not really God with us, either. Advent prepares us for Christ’s coming in glory when all manner of things shall be well, but the texts today want us to know that God is here with us now. Saying that we have to wait until the end of time for everything to be better, and only banking on that ignores the promise in Isaiah and what the angel tells Joseph. God is with us, and pushing God’s being with us to the end of time diminishes how we encounter God here and now.
So how do we encounter God? What does God with us mean as God is with us here and now? Look around at one another. Look around this space, look into one another’s eyes. Even turn around. At St. Paul’s Chapel, where I am doing my field education, we use An Order for Eucharist for our Sunday services, and the invitation to share the peace starts with, “Christ is among us making peace.” We, the Church, are Christ’s mystical body here on earth. United in our baptisms to Christ, we are charged with doing the work of Christ.
And we encounter Christ week by week when we ask that he be present to us in a sacred meal, in sharing bread and wine, his body and blood. But as a sacramental faith, our knowing God with us is not limited to gathering together in Church for the eucharist; I don’t think it was a mistake that Jesus did his ministry -- and told his followers to continue doing theirs -- using water, food, and drink, things that are necessary for life. Knowing Christ in the breaking of the bread is not limited to the ritual meal of the Eucharist. While other times we may not commune on his body and blood, I have certainly known Christ’s presence, through many, many meals at the Wesley or cups of coffee at Village Coffee.
When I went home with my friend Melissa during my junior year of college, she took me to a water fall near her house, and I took a lot of pictures. Water came over the side of a hill and fell thirty or more feet? I’m horrible with gauging distances. The water came over, and filled into a pool that it had made. The water splashed and overflowed as the stream continued. But it got the area around it wet as well. And as I looked at that living water, flowing with abundance, unable to be bound by earth I thought, “This is baptismal! This is like God’s grace: not limited, not bound, and alive with us today!”
We gather week by week to proclaim the Good News and to join one another in the Eucharist. But we do something else when we gather each week, too. We collectively join Christ’s priestly acts of prayer as his body. When we pray together we do our work: we pray for the church and the world, and in our assembling Christ makes his prayer to the Father. And in our assembling we make a community of people that cares for one another in faith. Not simply a social club, but a group of people gathered together with the purpose of living and seeing and sharing salvation.
And a way we make community is by sharing with one another personally the concerns that we have. We share the meal together, but we also share our lives. Last spring by the end of the term there were others at chapel praying out loud for the men of the Pike County jail. This fall when I prayed for reconciliation among members of my family I had at least five people come to me to offer comfort because I’d been praying for those members of my family since last year, though with a very different goal. Sharing personal concerns with God and the community allows barriers to be lowered and the community to care for its own.
Our passage today talks about Mary’s being found with child from the Holy Spirit. That had to have been a hard spot for Mary, and it definitely was for Joseph, but they both had faith. But we don’t always have faith. A few years ago I volunteered at a weekend Bible thing at a local church. And it was miserable. On the first night I found myself saying “Do I really believe this? I’m telling these kids this stuff, and I’m not sure right now if I believe Mary was a virgin.” I resolved that crisis, but apparently it’s a common one; when discussing what we doubt -- particularly when we’re exhausted, stressed, and sad -- a friend of mine agreed that his downward spiral crises of faith usually start at the Virgin Birth. But communities can give you faith when you just don’t have it anymore or lose it for a season. The Virgin Birth is what we believe.
When we gather as Christ’s mystical body the church -- God with us -- we profess together what we believe. And the church believes from century to century regardless of my belief from day to day. It believes in spite of me. It believes for me. It believes until I can. Christ is among as we pray for the world, and Christ is among us as we care for our neighbors. Christ is with us we come to know our neighbors and as we come to be truly known to them. God is with us in bread and wine and water at Church, and in dinner at Crowe’s or walking along the beach. God is with us here and now until Christ comes in final victory.
O come, o come Emmanuel. Amen.