The fourth Sunday of Advent is usually dedicated to ‘Love’ and sometime the theme is ‘The Presence of God’. The two are intertwined in our Old and New Testament lectionary readings today.
There are many ‘P’ words – like perseverance, prophecy and perfection there but there are two others – one said explicitly and the other implied.
Love is patient, it is written, but throughout we also hear that love is always present, that love is always listening, responding to the beloved.
Think about these words near the end of the passage in verse 12 – then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall fully know, even as I am fully known.’
God is present to us because God loves us.
So let’s examine patience and presence in these two passages.
The great example of God’s patience is seen in the fact that he keeps working with his people – from Adam to Malachi through prophets and kings – they, as we, all let God down and fall short – it is why there is so much trauma evidenced in the history of Israel and Judah and why we are so ‘tiresome’ [verse 13] before the Lord. Signs of love have been given by God over and over – burning bushes, seas opening, successful exoduses, rainbows, manna in the desert, spiritual gifts of healing, wisdom, prophecy, leadership to many individuals, streams in the desert and angel messengers. Yet God does not say ‘Enough!’ and God doesn’t bring it all to an end.
Once again God offers a sign – a sign but this time God will give fully of God’s self. But more patience is needed also for Isaiah’s generation. It would be 700 years before the people of Israel would see the fulfilment of God’s promise.
Even then, not everyone would immediately recognise it. In Advent we also need to learn patience [for Advent is about the waiting as much as it is about the coming]. As we say at the beginning of each service – ‘Are we there yet” – No, and even at Christmas we will still have a sense of the ‘now and not yet’.
Although he is yet to be born, in the Isaiah reading, read this morning around the world, the Christ-child received a name – Emmanuel – God with us.
This is an important name, it is a fundamental name – a name that summarises the Good News of the gospel – God with us.
In the book of Exodus, God turns up to Moses in the burning bush incident – God calls his name ‘Yahweh’ which can mean – I will be what I will be’ but it is more usually translated ‘I am who I am’ or more simply ‘I am’ – mysterious, powerful, wonderful and totally incomprehensible.
Then in both Isaiah and in Matthew God reveals a name to his people, which is totally and radically new – Emmanuel – the Spirit of God – active in the world as never before. God, who is love, is also God the one present for us.
‘I am’ in the Old Testament – ‘God with you’ in the new. If we split ‘I am’ – to the beginning and the end and place God with you in the messy middle that is human life we get ‘I with you Am’. It is the essence of God’s presence with us proclaimed in Matthew’s gospel.
Now we know God has been with God’s people from the very beginning.
God has spoken this promise to the likes of Abraham, Moses, David and others even before Isaiah.
God’s presence is woven throughout the Old Testament, but never has God proclaimed it in such a loving, intimate and incarnate way of being ‘God with us’.
Unnoticed by many because of the nativity’s humble backdrop it did not go unnoticed by the powers that be at the time.
We know enough of the story and the history to be afraid for this child.
We know about the iron hand of the Roman rulers, the jealousies of the religious officials and King Herod who was soon to force the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph to flee as refugees to Egypt, as he executed his violent paranoia upon the innocent children and babies of Bethlehem and the surrounding communities.
Yet this child would be born into a world sickly spinning through space, that was full of power politics – a world of the like of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the high priest, and Herod the genocidal maniac.
But why would God ‘come’ to Joseph in a dream and come to us as a frail vulnerable baby?
What kind of comfort is this for the hungry or isolated child in the Sudan or on Manus or Christmas Island?
What kind of security is this for the fearful child in Syria, Afghanistan or Arnhem land?
What kind of healing is this for the hurting girl of Iran and the boy hurt by an abusive church?
No matter where they live, children are the first to starve the first to fall from hurt, the first to suffer in the crossfire of terror.
This world is no place for a child, especially this child born in Bethlehem.
That’s the point I suppose – Imagine our surprise when we reach out to grasp the hand of God only to be grasped back by the hand of a child.
Let us be patient in this last week of Advent. He is coming. His presence is again forming anew if you grasp hold of this child called Emmanual ‘I with you am’.