This morning we turn a page in our reading from the Old Testament to the New Testament so I want to set the stage for you. (Much of this little intro comes verbatim from this book, which I love and would heartily recommend if you want an interesting and helpful way to frame the Scriptures.) We have spent the fall in the Old Testament, journeying with the ancient people of God through creation and crisis, their calling of "blessed to be a blessing," their cycles of following that calling then drifting and rebelling. We know that many of God's people from the southern kingdom of Judah were exiled to Babylon. After about 70 years some of them came home, but not all of them. "And even though they were back in their homeland, they were't free. So in their mind, the sense of exile never really ended. They were always under the domination of some Mediterranean superpower: the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. And this becomes formative in their ethos. Nobody likes wants to be oppressed or dominated, especially when you believe yourselves to be God's chosen people and you're being dominated by idol-worshippers. So in the centuries before Christ, an intense anticipation and expectation builds up in God's people. A deliverer is coming, the word is Messiah, someone like Moses and David and the prophets all wrapped up into one. And when he comes, he's going to kick out the oppressors and lead the people of God to glorious victory. But here's the problem: 500 years after the Exile and still no messiah. On several occasions, heroic groups of Jewish militants stage rebellions hoping that God will give them victory, maybe even believing that the messiah will emerge among them and give them miraculous success. But no miracles come, and many of their greatest heroes are slaughtered. And as the time drags on and on and on, the people become more and more desperate and more anxious for a messiah." (Brian McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In, 117-18)
"Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading from Matthew 1:18-25
This is the origin of Jesus the Messiah: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This week's theme is love. Our Advent season of preparing for the arrival of Jesus has led us here. The final phase of maturity in our spiritual discipline of waiting. Hope: the bold declaration that suffering does not get the last word; God's work of restoration is on the way. Peace: the assurance that we are not missing out: we are exactly in the place where God can use us. Joy: our embodied response to recognizing grace in every situation. And this morning, LOVE. The word doesn't show up in our reading, but the concept is there. So I want to point out to you a few important things in the text and then I want us to think together about love and power.
First, let's notice the names and titles for Jesus in this text and what they mean. The first one is Messiah. A better translation of verse 18 is, "This is the origin of Jesus Messiah." The word that gets translated as "origin" or "birth" is the word "genesis." As all superhero fans know, an "origin story" is not about the moment when a hero gets born; it's about where she comes from and who she's connected to and how she fits in the world. The word Messiah tells us that Jesus is the one the Jews were waiting for. He fits perfectly into the history of his people. He is the deliverer. But we know, and Matthew's original audience knew, that Jesus wasn't going to be the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting.
Next is the name Jesus itself. It's a derivative of the Old Testament name Joshua, which means the Lord saves. And not just any lord, not just divinity in general. Yahweh saves. Yahweh, whose name means "I AM." The God who is what theologian Paul Tillich calls, "the Ground of Being." This God saves. Jesus will not save militarily like Joshua did in the Old Testament. This Joshua will save his people from their sins. Now we can't hear that phrase without also hearing a whole ton of assumptions about what it means to "save his people from their sins." Please note that Matthew does not elaborate, which is an invitation to us to keep an open mind. The word "save" means to rescue, or heal, or deliver. The mission of this miraculous child is to deliver his people from the bondage they are in and heal his people of what ails them. I think we'll have to read a little further to see exactly what those things are.
Finally, Emmanuel, which means, "God with us." This is the most revolutionary point right here. This long-awaited Messiah who has come to rescue, deliver, and heal, this one is actually God and is actually with us. And here's where we pick up with love and power.
The Jewish people at the time Jesus was born lived in the very worst experience of empire. For 500 years they had been taxed for the benefit of foreign societies, conscripted into foreign armies, and practiced their religion in a manner approved by foreign kings. Because empire thrives on control. Empire controls some people by taking away their power and it controls other people by giving them power. In empire, power and control are synonymous. In fact, the only reason you would bother to have power is so you can control everything and everyone around you.
Friends, whatever you may believe about the American government, the spirit of empire is alive and well and colonizing our souls to this very day. And it is warping our idea of God. We have bought into empire's mindset that the greatest power is the ability to control things, and that if you are able to control things then you have the responsibility to control things. Might makes right, and might IS right. That is how empire thinks, and it's how we think, unless we are very deliberate. We want power so that we can control our situations. Speaking of superheroes, "With great power comes great responsibility." If you CAN do it, then you MUST do it. Now that sounds OK and even sort of noble, until we realize that's essentially the same philosophy as "might makes right." That's empire.
Here's the problem: as Christians we affirm that love is the most powerful force in the universe and love doesn't work that way. Love is absolutely not controlling at all. In fact, I think we would all agree that love is pretty much the opposite of control. One of the hardest things to do is let the people we love make their own choices and live their own lives. Control is outside of love's nature.
So this raises the question: What kind of power does love have if it's not control? And if God is love, what kind of power does God have? See theologically we have a problem if we say that God is all-powerful, which means that God has the ability to control everything, which means God is to blame for what a hot mess the world is in. You see the problem?
This is why the gospel and the Kingdom of God are so hard for us to understand. Because empire's idea of power has colonized us so that we don't understand the true power of love and the true power of God. Love is not powerful in the way we think of power. Allow me to illustrate: How many of you now or in the past have loved someone with an addiction, or a mental illness, or a terminal disease? Could you love that person enough to change their situation? Could the force of your love alone do it? No. You can't love someone enough to get them clean and sober. You can't love someone out of their depression. And you can't love someone enough to heal their cancer or their Alzheimers or their undiagnosed disease. And God is love.
Here is where many people say, "Then what good is God?" Which according to our Scriptures is the same as saying, "What good is love?" You see how the power of empire colonizes us? It makes us believe that if God is not controlling things then God is of no use to us. And that is simply not true, because God is love and love is still after all the most powerful force in the universe, just not in the way we were expecting.
The fullest expression of God's love, the best demonstration of God's power is a baby and a cross. Not a half-God baby who could smash the planet in his little tiny baby fist, but a miraculous beautiful weak astonishingly loved human baby. The weakest type of human. Immanuel: God with us.
The power of love is not in its control, but in its staying power. God with us. Love with us. The God who is love rescues us by accompanying us. This is the most radical and most powerful thing that love is actually able to do. Love cannot force; that's outside its nature. But love can hang on. In the addiction, and the depression, and the cancer, love says, "I will not leave you. I will not say that your suffering doesn't matter. I won't abandon you so that I can spare myself the pain of watching you suffer."
The most powerful thing that love can do is to take you by the hand and go straight into that hell with you, even though it doesn't have to. The most powerful thing that love can do is to not save itself. The most powerful thing that love can do is to never, ever, ever give up hope. Which leads us in a circle right back to the beginning of Advent. Hope: the bold declaration that God's restoration is a sure thing. Peace: the assurance that we are already whole. Joy: our embodied response to recognizing grace in every situation. And Love: the power to never give up hope, no matter what. Immanuel: Love is with us. Amen.