Sermon, Advent 4, Dec. 18, 2022 -“God with ALL of us for the good of all of us”

Sermon, Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A 2022
Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

Fear is an awful thing. 

Fear can pounce, overwhelming us unexpectedly.  Fear can also be like a seed, planted in our minds, a seed that takes root and grows, and takes over our minds like one of those kudzu vines down south that grows out of control, covers everything in its  paths, and kills everything under it. 

We, too, must deal with the inevitable fears that come to us in this life, for if we do not, fear will take over and kill us. 

Dealing with fear can be next to impossible, though, for fear, once it takes root,  is so overwhelming. 

So here’s the good news in today’s gospel. 

God is with us, and God wants to help us deal with our fears.   Today’s lessons give us some examples. 

King Ahaz in today’s Old Testament reading is filled with fear. 

Ahaz is the king of a small nation, Judah.  His neighbors, Israel and Syria, are about to invade his nation to force him into an alliance with them so that he’ll have to join in their fight against Assyria, a powerful country that is threatening to  overwhelm all of the small nations around it. 

God knows that Ahaz is full of fear, and so God says, “Ask me for a sign.”   

God is telling Ahaz—”I am with you, Ahaz, and I will help you deal with your fear.” 

But Ahaz turns God down.  “No, I will not ask for a sign and put the Lord to the test,” he says. 

Then the prophet Isaiah says that even though Ahaz doesn’t want it, the Lord will give him a sign anyway. 

And the sign is that a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and will call him Immanuel, and that sign means “God with us.”    And before the baby grows up, the two nations that Ahaz is worried about will be deserted.  In other words, those two kings will be destroyed and Ahaz won’t have to fear them. 

But Ahaz chooses to ignore the sign from God and continues to let fear drive his decisions.  He turns to the king of Assyria for help, a bad plan, for in the end, Assyria brings Ahaz and Judah to ruin.  

If only Ahaz had only paid attention to God’s sign and acted accordingly! 

Then we come to Joseph in Matthew’s gospel.  Joseph has found out that Mary is pregnant.  And so Joseph is frightened.  He is caught in a great dilemma.  Break the law and take Mary as his wife anyway?  Let Mary go?  If he lets her go, her life will be in danger, for the penalty she might face for her pregnancy is death. 

What to do! 

Joseph decides to dismiss Mary quietly, hoping that she will not be exposed to public disgrace. 

But after he makes this mental resolve, God comes to Joseph in a dream.  The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid, because wouldn’t you be afraid if an angel showed up and started talking to you?

And then the angel gives Joseph a sign, the same one that Ahaz had received so long ago. 

A virgin will conceive and bear a son, whose name will be Emmanuel, God with us!

God with us. 

When we find ourselves full of fear, that’s the time to look for a sign from God, for God is with us in our fear, and we will get through the fear to the other side if we welcome God into the fear.      

But how do we receive signs from God when we are afraid? 

Prophets like Isaiah and angels like the one who appeared to Joseph in a dream seem to be in short supply these days, but we need not despair.  God still speaks to us in an infinite variety of ways, especially when we are full of fear, or facing an unexpected challenging situation.  God will speak to us in our fears and will sustain us as we deal with those fears. 

Some of you know Salli Hartman.  Her husband, Frank, died of ALS a few years ago.  Can you imagine the fear that Frank and Salli felt when the doctor told them that Frank had ALS?   What horrible news. 

So here’s what happened, and I’m sharing this with Salli’s permission.  As they both agonized over what was ahead, Salli received a sign from God, a curious and maybe unwanted at that moment sign, a sign about the future that would require trust in God and patience.   Within forty-eight hours of Frank’s diagnosis, Salli  felt a very clear call from God to become a deacon in the Episcopal Church.  But wait, she had to take care of Frank!  As time passed, though, Salli realized that this call to the diaconate was a sign that God would be with her through Frank’s illness and death, and that God had a plan for her and her life after Frank was gone.  That was a powerful sign!    Salli trusted in God and had patience with God’s timing.   Today, she is an ordained deacon and is serving at St Mary’s, over in Colonial Beach.   

Now here’s a literal sign from my own life.  Earlier this year, I had some tough decisions to make and just didn’t know how I’d manage to do what I felt God was asking me to do.  I was full of fear on many levels.

God provided signs about what I should do, and I won’t go into all of that because to tell you about how God’s grace has been in my life in so many ways this year would take hours.   But I want to share this one sign because it meant so much to me in the moment. 

One rainy cold night, I was driving and trying to deal with a series of alarming texts.   I pulled into a parking lot to answer the texts. And there, right in front of me in the window of the store where I had stopped was a hand painted wooden sign, and here’s what the sign said. 

“I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  Philippians 4:13. 

That handpainted wooden sign was a literal sign from God.   What reassurance I felt. 

The person who painted that sign and put it in the window could have had no idea that I would see the sign and know that God was speaking directly to me. 

God has given me strength this past year. 

And God will give you strength too, in your greatest fears. 

The signs you receive from God may be enigmatic, or the signs may be literal, but God will speak directly to you—and I won’t discount prophets and angels speaking to you, even in our profane times.   

So the next time you find yourself full of fear, expect a sign from God that God is with you.  God will sustain you.  God will give you strength and courage to deal with your fears.    

There’s one other thing that I hope you’ll remember from today’s readings.  God is with us in our fears and gives us signs not just for our own benefit, but for the greater benefit to those around us and to the rest of the world. 

If Ahaz had paid attention to God’s sign and had resolved to wait on God rather than Assyria, the nation of Judah may have been saved rather than destroyed. 

Joseph paid attention to the sign God sent him, and in so doing raised the boy who would turn out to be the Savior of the world.

In this season of preparation, we get to remember all over again that  God gives all of us the same sign that God gave to Ahaz and to Joseph so long ago. 

“Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call his name Immanuel.”

God with us.

God with ALL of us for the good of all of us. 

God’s signs to us, when we receive them, allow us to be part of God’s eternal work of creating beginnings from endings, bringing life out of death, and making all things new. 

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