The Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A

For December 18, 2016

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A brand new book by Delmer Chilton, with John Fairless, The Gospel According to Aunt Mildred: Stories of Family and Faith  has already hit the shelf ( to purchase the paperback, click here)  Kindle version is also available!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I don’t know when the idea of “regifting” became common, but I do know when I first heard it – an episode of Seinfeld.  Elaine called her dentist a “regifter” because he gave Jerry a label-maker that Elaine had given him the year before.  I think some discreet regifting can be a good thing.  Often someone, out of the goodness of their heart, gives you something you can’t possibly use or appreciate with the full devotion it so richly deserves so – out of the fullness of your heart, you carefully find an opportunity to re-wrap it, re-label it, and re-gift it to someone who will surely use and appreciate it more than you ever will.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I thought of regifting and repurposing when I read our scripture lessons for today.  We have similar, but not identical, versions of a promise, a sign, of a young child being born.  Matthew has taken an old, old story from Isaiah and has repurposed it for a new situation. And for us, the really important thing to think about is not the fact that the stories concerning the promise of the gift of Immanuel, “God with us,” are so similar.  The important thing to consider is that the responses of the people who received the gift were so different. One person was given the gift and rejected it; the other accepted the gift of Emmanuel and it changed his life.

In Isaiah, we read the story of Ahaz, king of Judah.  This is a time when the people of Israel have split into two competing kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  The Northern Kingdom has made a political alliance with the king of Damascus and has become a political threat to Ahaz and the Southern Kingdom.  He is fretting about what he should do.  He has been in negotiations with the much larger kingdom of Assyria for protection.  Isaiah warns him that this is not a good idea.  He sternly advises Ahaz to keep the faith, to trust God’s promises. Ahaz remains noncommittal.  The Lord, speaking through the prophet, persists, “Ask for a sign.  I’ll give you a sign, something to assure you that I mean it.”  But Ahaz demurs.  His words, “I will not put the Lord to the test,” sound pious, but they are not. He has already decided to trust a powerful king with armies he can see rather than rely of the promise of a God he cannot see.

Isaiah looks around the throne room and points at a pregnant woman, “Look, that young woman, that “almah,” will soon have a child.  I tell you – before that child is weaned this crisis will have passed. It will all be over without any help from Assyria. Trust me and trust God.  We have not been abandoned by the Holy One. Be patient, God will provide.”  But Ahaz rejects the promise, the sign, the gift of Immanuel, God with us.

Fast forward 800 years or so.  We all know the story.  Mary is supposed to be come Joseph’s wife.  She too is a young woman, an “almah.”  They are betrothed, but not yet married.  Such a betrothal was more than our modern concept of being “engaged,” the only way to end a betrothal was by divorce. Mary turns up pregnant. I’m sure Mary tried to explain about her visit from the angel Gabriel, but Joseph wasn’t buying it – and who would.  He was, as the Bible says, a “righteous man,” so he was trying to find a way to extricate both him and Mary from the situation with as little shame and embarrassment as possible.  And then he had a dream.

In his dream, an angel of the Lord comes to him and tells him to not be afraid.  I prefer the more declarative and directive language of the King James Version, “Fear not to take Mary as your wife.”

Then the angel cites the story from Isaiah. The promise of a child named Emmanuel “God with us,” is regifted, repackaged, repurposed –  for a new time, a new place, a new people.

And Joseph believes the promise of the angel – not only in his head, but also in his heart – as is shown by his actions.  When he awoke, “he did as the angel of the Lord commanded; he took her as his wife.” And the rest, as they say, is history. Joseph raise Jesus as his own son.

Two men received the promise of Immanuel, God with us.  One rejected it, the other received it. Two men were invited to alter the direction of their lives.  One didn’t, the other did. Two men had an opportunity to trust God with the future.  One turned away to self and the worldly powers, the other turned to God with hope and faith. One man changed nothing, the other helped God change the world.

This Christmas, we too are presented with the promise, the sign, the gift, that is Immanuel, “God with us.” Are we like Ahaz, or are we like Joseph? How will we respond?

Amen and amen.

3 thoughts on “The Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A

  1. The Tanakh interprets Isaiah 7:13 as follows: “Listen, House of David,” Isaiah retorted, “is it not enough for you to treat men as helpless that you also treat my God as helpless?”

    Thought that might add some further verification of your understanding of this Sunday’s Isaiah text.

  2. Pingback: Expect Immanuel | Forsythe Church of Christ

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