A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Through the written word and the spoken word, may we know your living Word, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
I’m about to hit the six-month mark of my ministry here at Grace. These first months have been full of unexpected experiences.
- I’ve danced to Cuban music in the parish hall.
- I’ve tried, and failed, to capture stray cats.
- I’ve repeatedly asked God to bless noses, ears, and tummies with the day school kids.
- And I’ve participated in a Brubeck Jazz Mass, of all things.
But if someone were to ask me which experience has shaped me the most so far, I could easily sum it up in one word: funerals.
Since July 1st, I have participated in seven funerals. And that’s not even counting the many I have missed.
This number says a lot about the scale of the grief that our community is holding right now. We have lost so many people this year.
And that loss is tangible: Each beloved person who has died leaves an empty seat. Things feel different without their singing and their laughter ringing through the building.
I imagine that many of us are living in the tension between wanting to “get back to normal” and knowing that we can never really go back to how things were before. Because grief changes us.
And I am far more sensitive to this now, because I have become a student of funerals.
Here are some things I have observed about funerals…
First, funerals create a space for authenticity. Unlike most other public events, at a funeral, no one expects you to act like you’re doing fine. There’s no point pretending.
Second, the liturgy does a lot of the legwork so that we can simply be. It anticipates that each of us responds to loss in highly personal ways. But it also creates sacred space for us to be together in our grief. The funeral service carries us through the tides of sadness, memory, and joy – we are allowed to feel it all, together.
And the biggest lesson of all, funerals are a reminder that simply being there makes a difference.
In fact, in my particular role, I’m learning that the only way to do a funeral is to be with the people at a funeral.
By being with, I mean to focus on what it means, not just to be present, but to have presence: Pay attention. Ask people what they need. Listen to stories. Speak with reverence. Protect sacred spaces. Acknowledge the value of feeling it all.
Above all, open your heart as wide as possible.
As I reflected on today’s scriptures, I realized that my time at funerals has helped me to feel, in my gut, that it really does make a difference that Jesus is called “Immanuel,” God with us.
Isaiah prophecies that a child will be born to save the people of Judah. He will be called Immanuel. The prophecy claims that this holy child will witness the defeat of the violent and exploitative rulers of the day.
Of course, as we know from our Matthew passage, this prophecy is directly linked to the Christian belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior of the world. When a messenger of God appears to Joseph, Matthew’s narrator argues that Jesus’ birth was the fulfillment of the prophet’s words:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel…”
Now, I should mention that Jewish interpretations of the Isaiah prophecy vary significantly from Christian ones, as might be expected.
Biblical scholars suggest that Isaiah was speaking of events that would happen within the lifetime of his listeners. This was an uncertain period when ancient Judah was threatened by Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
So, we see that the Gospel writers use Hebrew prophecy in unexpected, and even contested ways. I mention this only because I don’t want to suggest that everything in the Christmas story is straightforward.
But if we believe, as I do, that the Gospel writers were speaking to the real experience of early Christian witnesses, then it’s important for us to figure out why these prophecies and stories about Jesus were so important that they needed to be written down.
Jesus’ story is linked to ancient prophecy because there is something happening here that speaks powerfully of who God is…
For early Christ followers and for us today, everything hinges on the promise that we worship a God whose central quality is “being with us.”
I mean, this is what Christmas is about: the incarnation! God came to earth in human form because it mattered for God to show up. It mattered for the Creator of the universe to be in solidarity with our full humanity: with our laughter and our weeping, our joy and our pain.
And it matters that he can feel that bodily ache of loss and grief, in just the same way we do. Because God became flesh in the person of Jesus, he identifies with the full spectrum of our experiences, and remains with us when everything feels too hard to bear.
And when you think about it, so much of Jesus’ doing on earth was mostly being with people. On hillsides, in boats, and at dinner tables – even on the cross – he pays attention, asks people what they need, listens to even the smallest voices, protects the vulnerable, and models unconditional love.
To the disappointment of many, he didn’t show up in the way anyone expected – people thought he was going to start a bloody revolution that would signal the end of the world.
But Jesus’ revolution – this being with revolution – was even more significant than a war. Jesus was killed for claiming that the love of an incarnate God could change everything. In his life, death, and resurrection, he opened his heart so wide that the world, with all of its grief and suffering, could be cradled inside!
Christ, Immanuel, flings out his arms and tells us that all human experience is and will be permeated by the presence and love of God. All things will be redeemed. All suffering will have its ultimate end in the comforting arms of God.
As followers of Jesus, Immanuel, our own work is straightforward:
It is being with: opening our hearts to others, and making room for Jesus to enter into the damaged and grieving caverns of our spirit.
It is being like Joseph, who decided to stay in the uncertainty and vulnerability of being with Mary and his divine stepson, Jesus, trusting that his presence mattered.
But, alas! I’m getting ahead of myself. After all, it’s still Advent, and we’re still waiting.
So I’ll share one last image.
A few years ago, while on a retreat, I prayed with an icon of a very pregnant Mary. Her rounded stomach contained a surprising scene. Instead of a child, she carried the Milky Way galaxy in her womb.
This abstract representation of the Christ-child reminded me that Christ has always been here, since the beginning of things. The baby we are waiting for already holds the whole world.
My hope for us today is that, in being with one another, holding Christ in our own hearts and bodies, we can make Immanuel fully known. Amen.