Rev. Paula Norbert
Synopsis (read at the beginning of worship): In both the Gospel of Matthew and Isaiah, a messenger appears as a sign from God, heralding a new era. In each passage, we hear the words “do not be afraid” … offering a clue that the messenger–whether prophet or angel–was referencing something that induced fear in the listener. In this times, we have become abundantly aware that a new way of being, of relating and loving takes courage–and a willingness to set aside the present order of things so that a new and better day can be born.
Signs of God’s Love
Scripture: Isaiah 7: 1-14, Matthew 1: 1-25, selected verses
Today, love is our focus for this Advent Sunday. We often speak of Advent as a journey toward Christmas, a time to wake up, to pay attention, and a willingness to prepare the way, as John the Baptist says. Over the four weeks, we light the candles that remind us of the importance of the beautiful and life affirming values of hope, love, joy and peace in Christ’s message and in our own spiritual journeys. Let us pray, O Holy One, we are journeying in this very dark and difficult time and we need your light and love to show us the way. Open our hearts just a little wider to a new path of openness and of love. Amen.
This week, with “love” as our Advent focus, the two passages bring talk of “signs” of God’s presence, and of God’s love, but they also remind us of God’s challenge to us to get love right. Some may be a bit skeptical about saying that something was “a sign from God” but signs were very important to ancient peoples. It may be helpful to think of them as symbols–concrete things which point beyond themselves to some greater concept. The “sign” that comes up in the complex Isaiah passage–which comes at a time of impending war and the fear that accompanies that threat(“they shook as the trees of a forest shake”)–is a child. Children were often important signs in the Hebrew Scripture and in Isaiah, we see the child as the hope and promise of a future generation. As he says, this future is Immanuel, “God with us.”
Last week, we read from the Gospel of Mark, which I mentioned is the shortest of the four and speaks about the years of Jesus’ public ministry. We can imagine that it was meant for a crowd that would get bored easily. Today, we turn to the Gospel of Matthew, which was written later and for a Hebrew Bible-literate crowd. Matthew is careful to connect Jesus strongly to his Jewish heritage and history. Matthew’s “origin story” of Christianity begins with a long genealogy which includes a list of the generations that came before the birth of Jesus, including the mention of the exile which dates to the time of Isaiah. Matthew endeavors to connect the struggles of the past to the time of Jesus with the intention to also connects this amazing story to future generations who will come after Jesus as well. And so, as we listen once again to Matthew’s words, we become a part of the story, part of the hope he had to share that story with future generations. The writers of the Gospels were attempting to share the pivotal stories of Jesus’ life and ministry to pass on to future generations as a source of inspiration and hope. This child Jesus, of whom he writes, is the product of an historical lineup of generations and will be the sign that God is with us into future trials as well. We hear of Joseph’s radical act of love in a situation that gave him every reason to walk away. The messenger seems to be saying, “don’t be afraid to do the hard thing here… there’s a big payoff for humanity in it.”
Native Americans often remind us that the decisions we make today must take into consideration the generations who will come long after our time here. These readings are a reminder that the manner in which we care for our future is to love it as one would love a child, to nurture this symbolic child so that it will live into a better world to come. We have to have the courage and the conviction to love differently, love fully and live out of a love that nurtures the future of all creation and does not destroy it. Love carries a great responsibility with it, whether we are raising up the next generation or caring for our earth for the generations to come. I imagine we are indeed grateful for the legacy that has been entrusted to us, whether in our own personal lives or our faith or in the gift of this beautiful planet earth.
Last week, I referenced a documentary that spoke about the power of music shared together in the lives of people at the time of the Holocaust. Together, these prisoners in a concentration camp gathered to be lifted up by the sharing of music, of Verdi’s Requiem, despite their tragic circumstances. We know there is a special connection which often takes place when people engage in a shared purpose of music and art.
The documentary, Girls on the Wall, is another powerful story of a group of young women incarcerated in Illinois. It is a sad reminder of the thousands of young lives who even today are in danger of getting lost in the penal system. The film which does include strong language in the sharing of the stories of these girls, including their anger, as they speak of their violent pasts, also reveals some of the causes that have led them to this point in time. In spite of all they have been through, the film reveals their deep longing for love in spite of all of their defenses. Some choose to share some of their own personal journeys which too often were absent of love or care from those they knew. It’s a world that few of us have encountered, but it is sadly the world with which too many young people from difficult backgrounds are familiar.
In the documentary, this group is offered the opportunity to write and stage a musical based on their own lives. In the process, they are invited to reflect upon the crimes they have committed and offered ways to reclaim their own humanity.
One reviewer said this about the film: “There is remarkable power in telling your story…. The girls talk about the hard crimes they’ve committed. They tell stories of abuse and addiction. But mostly, they heal. This is the most remarkable part of the film: You become a witness to inner change, and that change is initiated by the act of storytelling… The Director, Ross, becomes a catalyst for change, by simply holding listening space for the speakers.” The Huffington Post
When we consider Jesus’ own humble beginnings, we are aware that his message too may have been lost if those whom he had sought to reach had dismissed him too easily. Not only do we have the gift of the stories about him, we also hear stories about how he too was able to listen to others and hear their suffering, their pain, their struggles, and their hopes. He listened to those others would not listen to. He offered great empathy to them and mirrored back to them their value and their dignity.
We might reflect upon what we miss out on when we judge others too quickly, or dismiss others before we hear their stories too soon? It takes a deeper commitment and love, an openness to the voice of another, to really spend the time to listen without judgement. Perhaps you have found yourself surprised by new learning when you took the time to listen to another. We never really know who may be important messengers in our own time, those seeking to remind us that “God is indeed with us” in human form unless we are open and don’t judge too soon. At the heart of the Christmas story is the story of a family from a humble background, a story of a King who is born in the lowliest of mangers, a family who is forced to flee their homeland and become immigrants in another land to save their child. I don’t think that it is at coincidence that God chose to be revealed to us in such a way, that God would be with us through this family, one without power or means. And so even in this story is a great challenge to us. Let us pause and consider: Who have been messengers of love to us in our lives at a time when we may most have needed to hear a word of love? Where are the signs, even in these times, that love is flourishing and that our God is indeed with us? Emmanuel, our God is with us. Can we feel that holy presence?