Sunday, December 22, 2019
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 7:10-16 The sign of Immanuel
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7 Paul’s greeting to the church at Rome
Matthew 1:18-25 A God near at hand
Title: God’s Love Makes Strange Bedfellows
According to William Shakespeare: “misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows.” A line spoken in The Tempest, when Trinculo – a court jester, made miserable by being shipwrecked on what he thinks is a deserted island, must sidle up to the islander Caliban who is lying there petrified because he thinks Trinculo is some sort of invading spirit. Underneath Caliban’s coat, Trinculo finds refuge from the shipwrecking storm. The frightened jester speaks this now popular idiom quite literally, but for us, we tend to use it more figuratively. Most often the word misery gets replaced by politics. For certainly history, the newspaper, and the most current media outlets continue to witness to the fact that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Plenty of examples fill our current events landscape. Harsh critics of an unlikely and unliked candidate, become his staunchest supporters when the majority of the party decides he’s their man. Opposing factions who disagree most of the time, sometimes find themselves on the same side of an issue and the now strange bed fellows can work to make something move forward. (I know, rare these days, but it does happen.) In a similar spirit to this adage, you have the other one – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Not because you like them, but you are strange bed fellows because of your shared hate.
For those who are trying to keep their mind out of the current chaos of politics these days, there is a movie reference for you. Strange Bedfellows is a Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida film in which a quick marriage, ends quickly in divorce, only to be needed again by Rock Hudson’s character for the sake of advancement in his career. How telling is that story line?
But current events, stage and screen aside, we have some strange bedfellows among us today. Especially in the reading from Isaiah. Without getting too bogged down in the political history of the time, let me give you a quick overview of what is going on that causes Isaiah to come to Ahaz with the offer from God for a sign. (This is going to sound like a recap from a season of Game of Thrones, but here we go.) Ahaz was the king of Judah – the southern of the two kingdoms of the Hebrew people. The northern kingdom – Israel, was continuing to be threatened by their northern neighbor Assyria – the super power of the day. So, Israel, joined with Syria in an alliance against Assyria. First set of strange bedfellows because normally, Israel and Syria hated each other. So little has changed in 3000 years. Now these two frenemies know they will be stronger against big, bad Assyria if they can just get Judah to join their alliance. However, King Ahaz, young and weak though he was, was not interested in joining them. (Smart move.) So, the two (Israel and Syria) declared war on the one (Judah) so as to dethrone King Ahaz and put a puppet king on the throne of Judah who would follow their orders. Ahaz was so frazzled by this, he started looking to any and every god that had ever been worshiped in that region of the world. He even offered his own son as a burned offering to one of those false gods. So, in the midst of his fear and dread, he is surveying the water supply that flows into Jerusalem to see how well the city can survive a siege. He is also considering allying with big, bad Assyria, hoping the Assyrians, led by the mighty Tigleth-pileser, (great name, right?) will protect them from these two smaller and weaker neighbors. (Strange bed fellows number two. Especially in God’s eyes.) You see God, through Isaiah, is trying to get Ahaz to understand that it is pointless and faithless to put his trust in an earthly alliance. “I’ll give you a sign.” God promises. “What will it take to assure you that I’ve got your back?” But for some reason, Ahaz does not take God up on this offer. “I don’t want to put God to the test.” Ahaz says. Test God, really? That’s what he is concerned with? As if worshiping other gods wasn’t testing God’s patience. As if sacrificing his own son to those other gods wasn’t putting God to the test. As if going to a godless superpower for help rather than trust in God wasn’t testing God. With God making a wide opened offer, Ahaz picks a fine time to decide to care about how he might be putting God to the test. However, God who is patient and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, gives the frightened king a sign even though the knee-knocking monarch doesn’t deserve it. Through Isaiah, God says, even now, there is a young woman who is with child. Ahaz’s line will continue. And that sign, the child, will be his son, the stronger king Hezekiah. And it is signs like that baby coming, that can assure the frightened king and anyone else of Emmanuel – God is with you. Strange bed fellows that this makes, God chooses to dwell with humanity. Chooses us not out of need, not out of fear, not out of anything except because of the amazing and compassionate love of God. In this is our confidence, in that is our strength, in that is our peace.
An epilogue – sure to Isaiah’s word (because it is God’s word that he was speaking) just as the prophet said, as for those two kings that Ahaz was dreading, their land was indeed deserted. The Assyrians conquered them, the ten tribes that made up Israel were dispersed, and they were never a nation again.
Baby Hezekiah was but a sign that God is with us even while wars rage, enemies threaten, and circumstances seem hopeless. Even in the face of doubts and running to other gods and misguided attempts at solutions. Though we may destroy the very thing that is our hope and our life to false gods, the true God of love continues to come to us again and again and again. Emmanuel, God with us.
Matthew connects with those ancient times and that ancient promise of presence, as he begins his witness to just how far God will go to be present with the work of God’s own hands, the creatures of God’s own creating. Strange bed fellow that we humans may be for the One who insists on dwelling with us, given God’s divinity and our humanity, given God’s perfection and our brokenness, given God’s wisdom and our foolishness, given God’s faithfulness and our faulting faith, given God’s unconditional love and our half-hearted intentions.
Ignoring how strange the pairing of God and Humanity may be, in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ, the babe born of the very human Mary and cared for by Joseph, God moves beyond a sign of presence, and is truly present, is dwelling with us, living along side, walking with, healing, crying with, forgiving, dying for, and rising for the sake of us.
So strange these bed fellows, so hard to imagine such gracious love, hard to believe the lengths our God will go. Mary and Joseph both had their own doubts and hesitations. And yet, they said yes. Perhaps it was more hope than faith that what seemed too good to be true, would be true.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (We heard its introduction as our second reading) the legacy of strange bed fellows continues as a diverse church, Jews and Gentiles joined together as the body of Christ, joined together for the sake of the world, joined together for the spreading of God’s kingdom. Joined together – as Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Galatians – no longer slave or free, no longer Jew or Greek, no longer male and female. We are one in Christ Jesus who is God with us – Emmanuel.
For Shakespeare through Trinculo, misery acquaints a man with strange bed fellows. We rejoice, because for God through Jesus Christ love acquaints all of us with the wondrously, glorious bed fellow of God’s self. Knowing that, hope is renewed and joy has come to the world, we can rest in heavenly peace, for the love of God is born anew, with us, for us, and in us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This love acquaints we who are dead with life, new life. Our prayers of O Come, O Come Emmanuel are answered. In the water of the font, in the meal at the table, in the word we proclaim, in the fellowship we share. Emmanuel, God is with us. So, Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to you.
The Rev. Mark Erson