Fourth Sunday of Advent
October 29, 2019 by Rev. Dr. Neal Presa
December 22: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Many years ago, when my wife and I went to the OB-GYN to see how our first child was developing in utero, we also sought out to find out the gender. We learned at that particular doctor’s appointment that we were having a boy. We were thrilled he was healthy, and we were thrilled whether he was to be a boy or a girl. It was just exciting to know. We decided to keep the secret for a few days before telling any family or friends because we wanted to just sit with it, to think about how we would decorate his room, to settle on several names with the final name when he would be born, and to consider all the many things our little boy would do.
With this piece of information, we were stewards of a special secret known only by us, my wife’s doctor, and the Lord. Of course, of greater import was that we were entrusted with the gift of life – we were stewards of a sacred gift that God blessed us with, and 18 months later, we would again be stewards of another baby boy.
Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1 are messages of being stewards of a sign – a name, a person.
Both texts affirm that the sign – a baby – was confirmation of God’s promised presence, the Lord’s active accompaniment with Israel. The difference between the texts was that each approaches that affirmative promise from two angles.
The Isaiah 7 text sees that the imminent birth of a baby will indicate that the Lord is at hand; unfortunately, the Lord’s presence would be made known by the invading Assyrian armies into Jerusalem. Because King Ahaz refused to ask the Lord for a sign, Isaiah was given the task of receiving the sign, of being entrusted with that sign, and, sure enough, the baby that was born in Isaiah 8, named Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:3), became a signal of the Assyrian invasion, the Lord’s presence at hand. The larger context of this sign of the baby was that the presence of a king in the line of David on the throne meant, the continual birth of kings in that line was indicative of the Lord’s enduring presence, just as the presence of the physical Temple signified the Lord’s enduring presence and power. Such sacred oracles of the Lord required trust, in sharing the meaning of that oracle and in many respects.
By the time we get to the New Testament, the Matthean community saw in Isaiah’s prophecy the fulness of that baby sign in the person of Jesus; he is Immanuel, God-with-us. This means, for centuries, the oral tradition of the Israelite people stewarded that baby sign, enduring through generations of upheaval, holding on to the promise of the Lord. The Gospel writers, chronicling Jesus’s life and ministry after the resurrection, understood the sacred trust that the Lord placed upon the Church to tell of the good news of the baby sign, Jesus of Nazareth as the Immanuel, God-with-us. Matthew 1 was a story of vulnerability, young parents Mary and Joseph, without an OB-GYN (just the convicting word and appearance of an angel), being entrusted with an enormous, bewildering responsibility. It’s a stewardship of the sacred sign, the sacred Name, the sacred Son, Immanuel, God-with-us.
Whereas Isaiah 7 asserted and affirmed God’s present presence through the baby sign indicating the imminent Assyrian invasion, Matthew 1 affirmed the birth of Jesus as God’s present presence in the midst of Roman imperial occupation and powerful religious and economic forces that were leaving vulnerable young parents like Mary and Joseph feeling even more vulnerable. The baby sign of Jesus of Nazareth approaches the micro- and macro- fears and uncertainties with the sure certainty of God’s abiding presence.
When we consider the stewardship of our time, talent, treasure, prayer, and relationships, our giving is done to carry out the sacred task of proclaiming and living out the sacred oracle we have been received from our forbearers in the faith: to tell all the world that the Lord is near, God-with-us is with the world. That’s what we do when we exercise stewardship: we are carrying out a sacred calling of trust for every generation is entrusted to receive the ancient oracle of the baby sign and then to proclaim it; it is in the receiving and sharing of that sacred sign of Immanuel that God-with-us is made real and alive in the hearts and lives of others.