Advent 4A Sermon (2010)

4th Sunday of Advent
Texts: Matthew 1:18-25;
Isaiah 7:10-16

WELCOMING HOME THE SPIRIT

Ellen loves decorating, and the Christmas holidays are especially nice around our house. Preparations began weeks ago when she and the boys went out to cut a fresh tree (while I was working on a different sermon). They came home with a beautiful pine that has held up well. I began writing this sermon in our living and dining room area, surrounded by reminders of the coming holiday. Our tree is decorated with white and blue lights, and the more fragile of our ornaments (the more eclectic collection of ornaments goes on the kid-friendly tree in the family room). The living room mantle is also adorned with those same white and blue lights interwoven with greens, candles, elegant Christmas ribbon and shimmering snowflakes . . . likewise, white and blue lights, greens and candles surround beautifully crafted nativity figures on our dining room hutch. It’s a very welcoming space to gather over the holidays.

Some of us may be past our best days of entertaining guests for the holidays, but we are fortunate to be welcomed by family and friends. Whatever the case, preparing to welcome guests is a big part of the meaning of the Christmas holidays.

Immanuel. God with us. The even deeper meaning of the Christmas holidays is once again making preparations to welcome God’s Spirit into our lives. Through the baby Jesus and his growing into the sacrifice of the cross and the new life of Easter, God has found another way of becoming present in our lives through God’s Spirit. That’s amazing Good News! Not only did God in Jesus give his very life to take away our sins – if that’s not amazing enough – but through those events God also found a new way to live in us, to make a home in us, so that we can live new lives!

But what does it mean – how does God live in us and through us? St. Paul tries to make it easy for us to understand by listing the fruits of the Spirit. He tells us that God’s Spirit drives out things like hatred, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, and drunkenness; and replaces them with things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

In their Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all use stories to tell of God making a new home among us. Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth shows us the Spirit’s role right from the beginning. The Spirit came onto the scene in a scandalous way: Mary is single, pregnant, and her fiancée Joseph knows he’s not the father. It’s hard for us to even begin to fathom what havoc this could have wreaked on a young couple in a small village 2000 years ago – especially today, when MTV’s reality show “Teen Moms” was a top new series when it launched last December!

Did you know that by law Joseph had the right to challenge their engagement publically? He could have made a spectacle and brought terrible shame upon Mary. But Joseph’s heart knew a law fulfilled in love, not accusation and shame, and so he made room for God’s Spirit to enter into his life more fully. Not only did he not publically shame Mary, but he welcomed her and her child into his life. He invited God’s Spirit to enter his life in a powerful way.

Let’s take a minute to imagine how Joseph might have shared his story of faith with Jesus when he was a teenager – maybe as they worked side-by-side in the carpentry shop. Did Joseph tell Jesus the story of his birth in a way that accounts for the Spirit entering into all their lives in the way of love? When our judgments of right and wrong are tempted to take over, do we learn a different way through God’s Spirit?

“Remember, Jesus, whatever we’re making, along with it we’re always making a home for Spirit. (1) Your mother thinks a home for Spirit is like an empty cup. But I favor a spacious room with a large window for sun — and a door that is hard to find.

“The best way to begin is to clear a space, and the best way to clear a space is to stop the mind from judging. That takes prayer time. Whenever things seem simple and obvious and the mind is feasting on its certainty and outrage, go slowly. There is more than you think; only it hasn’t appeared yet. Judgment closes possibilities.

“Also, when you do not judge, you often avoid disgracing another. The law is our measure. It is a tool of judgment, but someone always wields it. Do not use the law as a hammer to hit or a saw to cut. Our tools are to fashion a table, not to brutalize the wood. The law is a tool to fashion a people of love, but it can break people and lose its sense of purpose. The law always fears life will get out of control. So it wants to make examples of people who break it. It feeds and grows strong on transgression. It smacks its lips over scandal. But scandal is not the same as real offense. Scandal can be the irruption of God’s love that our feeble minds have yet to understand. So find a way to honor the law and honor the person who, in our limited understanding, has broken the law. This is not easy.

“It requires making law work for love. Love is the sun; law its furthest and often weakest ray. If you hold onto love, you will see how the law can reflect it. If you lose love, law will not substitute for it. The law without love will only be something you use to promote yourself and punish others. When you love the person through the law, you shape the law to the reality that is always more than you know. This gives life a chance to breathe and people a chance to change. And the deepest change will not be in other people, but in yourself. Love takes the beam out of your own eye. It does not focus on the splinters in the eyes of others.

“Once something happened to me, and I was tempted to judge and punish. But I held back and waited, and a deeper door opened — the door that is hard to find. I was led into a room of sun, a home for Spirit. Your mother and you were there — and a presence of light who talked to my fear. It was a dream, but it was not sleep. The dream awakened me. It took the beam out of my eye. I saw that making a home for Spirit is an endless adventure — like you growing up, my son.

“We carpenters say, ‘measure twice, cut once.’ So see everything twice, Jesus. See it once with the physical eye and then see it again with the eye of the heart. At first glance, you often see an uneven and unusable piece of wood. You may be about to throw it away. But do not be fooled by surface appearances. Look deeper. On second glance, you may see a lovely arm of a chair hidden in its unaccustomed shape. When you see the loveliness, Jesus, embrace it. Take it into your home. Do not hesitate and do not ask questions. Argue with everything, Jesus, but be obedient to love.”

The boy listened. And so should we. What are we doing this Advent to welcome in God’s Spirit, Immanuel, God with us?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, December 19, 2010

1. The following conversation between Joseph and Jesus is from John Shea, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Preachers and Teachers: On Earth As It Is In Heaven: Year A, pp. 47-48.

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