By the Rev. Angela Zimmann*
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
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December 18, 2022
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. -Isaiah 7:14
Whenever December 25th falls on a Sunday, then December 18th becomes the de facto last Sunday before people disappear into their family enclaves and traditions around the holiday. Rostered leaders have an opportunity to place the holiday in perspective with this week’s lessons! As stewards, we are called to reflect on the signs that God places before us, savoring them as the gifts they truly are.
So many of our traditions evoke nostalgia for a better time, so much so that some of us (not just the children), have an almost bittersweet response to the moment all the presents are unwrapped and the dinner plates are cleared. We search for meaning in these occasions, but only God can fulfill this inner yearning for peace of mind and purpose of life — God gives us a sign in Immanuel, God-with-us, the only gift that outlasts everything that a broken humanity can hurl at it. All other gifts become fodder for trash heaps. The Word of God will last forever.
Isaiah 7:10-16: King Ahaz is worried about the future of his nation. He feels threatened by forces beyond his borders, beyond his control. He feels powerless. Many of us can relate at this time of year—the holidays summon existential questions about who we are, what we are doing for our loved ones, and how we can best live God’s purpose for our lives. We know that stewardship begins with our relationships—to our God and each other. Everyone wants peace, happiness, and contentment for the people they love. When the wolf is at the door for any number of reasons, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the task of caring for our loved ones and answering God’s call for us. God, who sees all, is weary of our worrying, so a sign is given to Ahaz (and us). A son will be born—a leader of the people—and the threats that seem insurmountable will fade away in the face of this promise.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19: The psalmist calls upon the Lord to restore the nation because things are bleak. The people have strayed from their true calling to be in right relationship with their creator, and as a result, they are salting their bread with tears of regret, weeping enough to produce “bowls of tears.” Restoration is the byword of this plea. Many congregations are captive to a form of restorative nostalgia, longing for the days when the children flooded the Sunday school rooms and the pews were full every week. But restoration, in the truest sense of the word, is not quantitative by measure. In God’s economy, the numbers are not as important as the quality of the relationships that we share with our neighbors. Restoration is not about filling the pews, but providing purpose of mind for those who seek higher meaning in life.
Romans 1:1-7: This salutation from Paul to the church in Rome is the opening of his theological magnum opus. Scholars believe that Paul was writing to people whom he had yet to meet, and as such he is setting the stage for an explanation of who he is as an evangelist and his views on the world in which they find themselves. It is important for Paul to share with his reading audience that first and foremost he is an apostle of Jesus Christ who was the fulfillment of signs given through the prophets over the millennia preceding their moment in the early church. In belonging to the risen Christ, the people of God in Rome are “called to be saints,” which is another way of saying stewards of the mysteries of God.
Matthew 1:18-25: Joseph is facing a family crisis. Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant. In his time and culture this could lead to her being called out a publicly executed, especially if he himself were to call for it as a means of maintaining his honor in a society that was blind to the divine presence in their midst. We are led to believe that though his heart is broken, Joseph will not seek revenge against this seeming betrayal of fidelity. Rather, he will “dismiss her quietly.” Every family has that chapter that no one talks about—this will be Joseph’s entry into that particular genre. God has other plans. What normal human beings would understand to be shameful — even punishable — God intends to share with the world for thousands of years to come as a sign of God’s everlasting covenant with creation. God models faithful stewardship by planting a seed of hope in the midst of a community living under occupation from the Romans. This seed of hope belongs to us as well as we struggle under the occupation of our fears and anxiety. The child born to Mary is a sign that God is with us in the midst of the pain and fear. The author of Matthew is keen on connecting the narrative of Jesus with the prophecies of old, and this reading is no exception, which is why this gospel reading is paired with the Isaiah passage.
Many congregations will use this Sunday as an opportunity for a children’s Christmas pageant. It could be a challenge for some, but perhaps a pageant that combines the gospel text from Matthew with the more familiar narrative from Luke 2 could provide a wonderful opportunity to remind those gathered that the purpose of Christ’s infancy narrative is more about God’s promises to God’s people than all the stuff that distracts us from this holy time of year.
Many liturgists prefer that Christmas hymns not be sung until Christmas Eve, but the very timing of this Sunday begs for us to bend the rules (Remember, people are more important than policy!) and sing those songs that will warm the heart and remind us in these short and hectic days to keep the main thing the main thing. We are, after all, not only stewards of God’s mysteries, but also of God’s promises. So sing the Christmas carols that will bring hope and comfort to the people you are called to serve. May these songs strengthen the relationships we seek to foster in our faith communities!
With Children and Youth
With kids under age 12 or so, all bets are off. Children are focused on presents under the tree, not the gift in the manger. We can gently remind them that the reason the gifts are under the tree is that they, too, are signs of God’s love shown to them through the people who took the time and effort to find these treasures and place them in the home. We can also gently remind children that we, too, are called to create gifts for the world around us, especially for those neighbors who are not as privileged as ourselves.
With pre-teens and teens, this is an opportunity to remind them that their value as God’s children is not determined by the number of gifts or affirmations on social media, but rather through an intimate relationship with the very God who created the stars that we sing about in our carols. They are the products of stars—literal stardust. We, too, embody the promises of God by virtue of our very existence. It’s all too easy to be skeptical and cynical in this world. God calls us to have hope, and moreover, to move beyond the day-to-day adolescent dramas into a more eternal understanding of our place in this world and life together (Something many adults need to hear as well!).
In Our Homes
Encourage people to take the time to reflect on the important things. God gives us signs of divine compassion every single day if we only take a moment to notice them. For many, the traditional Advent wreath in the home is a way of marking time, of slowing down to think about the things that are eternal. The final days running up to Christmas are hectic and often stressful. Advent calls us back into a right relationship with God—a child is born for us, to be with us, to comfort and encourage us. Christ is a sign that we are not alone, and that hope and love will suffice in the needs of the day.
The Rev. Angela Zimmann, PhD, CRFE, a pastor in the ELCA, serves as Vice President for Institutional Advancement for Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pa.
Here are previous reflections from Advent 4A
2019 – An Advent course Correction
2016 – Audacious announcements and pregnant possibilities
2013 – Change of plans