Today in the Spirit: Advent 4A

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We all know that sense of heightened desire that accompanies the arrival of a big day, like a wedding day or the first day of a new job. A moment of transition is at hand, and like a child waiting for, well, Christmas, we feel more intensely the combined force of not yet possessing the hoped for gift and the anticipated abounding joy of at last holding that gift in our hands. It is this bi-directional desire that the church seeks to capture in its messaging for Advent 4. In the Collect we will pray “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us” because we are: 1) “sorely hindered” by sin; and 2) yearning for “bountiful grace.” In the Gospel reading on Advent 4, we transition to the Annunciation of the birth (this year the one by the angel to Joseph as told in Matthew), that which is foretold in the OT reading from Isaiah 7 and lauded by Paul in Romans 1. Psalm 24 urges the whole people of God to lift up your head…that the king of glory may come in. The time is so close now–he’s coming. 

The Collect

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen

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Behold the Virgin Shall Conceive (Isaiah 7:10-17)

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (10-14).

By assigning this OT reading, the church affirms for the Sunday worshiper the truth of what Matthew declares in the Gospel reading (Matthew 1:23), that the news to Joseph by the angel about Mary’s child is a fulfillment of prophecy. It is hard to glean much more from the Isaiah passage itself without further information. Devotionally, however, we reap the benefit of hearing side by side the responses to divine commands by King Ahaz (who does not do what it right in the eyes of YHWH, 2 Chronicles 28:2) on one hand and by Joseph the righteous carpenter on the other. Joseph will hear and obey; Ahaz will not. Perhaps most importantly we conclude the purposes of the One God prosper in any case. The apostle Paul writes to Timothy: [Though I am chained like a criminal], God’s word is not chained (2 Timothy 2:10). The grace of God overwhelms any power of people to restrict. Cooperation is sought for but not required in the end. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. What that means in Ahaz’ day is unclear, but we know, as Matthew make clear, what the sign means to believers in Jesus. God has come and makes his dwelling with us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Today, in the Spirit, we stand on the word prophesied in Isaiah and fulfilled by the testimony of Matthew: Immanuel”God is with us”. Hallelujah!

O Ancient Doors (Psalm 24)

Lift up your heads, O gates!
    And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
    The LORD, strong and mighty,
    the LORD, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates!
    And lift them up, O ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
    The LORD of hosts,
    he is the King of glory! (8-10).

Meditation on the word ancient (the Hebrew word also means everlasting) offers a way forward to finding devotional application in the psalm. Commentators tell us this song might have been composed by or for David (note the title) for the ceremonial procession of the ark of the covenant, the symbol of the Lord’s presence, into Jerusalem–into the tent David himself makes (2 Sam. 6:12ff) or the temple Solomon later builds (1 Kgs. 8:1ff). But for David’s generation these doors are hardly ancient. What is as old as creation are the gates established by God so that humanity should not have access to the tree of life following the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3). Who stands at these doors? Who is this King of glory? In your mind’s eye picture the Son of God coming into the earth and by his saving ministry commanding those most impenetrable gates to be thrust aside. Today, by the Spirit, we join the crowd crying out in the psalm: Yes, be lifted up, O ancient doors,    that the King of glory may come in–and all of us just behind.    

Called to Belong to Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1-7)

…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (5-7).

Or, more literally, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ (NASB). Here again in Paul, let us not forget you is plural: the Romans Christians (plural) are among all the nations (plural) set apart to be united to Christ. With this in mind, our first instinct reading this passage must not be to look in the mirror and say “I am called,” but to look around the church meeting and say “we are called.” Furthermore, the plural reading must not) diminish in the least the sense of awe and privilege Paul is seeking to convey in his greeting. We are the called of Jesus Christ. This is election pure and simple. Yes, there are vexing questions that come from the notion of “election:” “Wait, isn’t it the case that everyone is  called and we are just those who responded?…What about everyone else?” Paul’s message carries with it no apology: “You, saints, are by God’s love selected to be swept up into the saving ministry of Christ, and to heed my words as Christ’s apostle. Now listen to what I tell you (for fifteen more chapters).” Today, Holy Spirit, in this Advent season, reading the apostle Paul’s greeting to the Romans, we thank you for loving us, for including us among the chosen of Christ, and now we sit up attentively to hear what comes next. 

But As He Considered These Things (Matthew 1:18-25)

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (20-21).

For such a critically important piece of the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven as the birth of Jesus Christ, we may wonder about the timing of God here. The angel appears to Joseph not before Mary was found to be with child, not before he was forced to begin considering what to do, but after. We might think: “Isn’t it a little risky to come at Joseph that way, perhaps even a little cruel? Maybe a visitation early on with both parties present might have been more prudent?” We may wonder along these lines–or, rather, trust that Almighty God knows how to accomplish his plans and how to secure our cooperation along the way. He knows to keep Abraham from slaying his son after the knife is in his hand and not before; he knows to throw Saul off his horse before he reaches Damascus and not after. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways…As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return to it..so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire (Isaiah 55:10-11). Today, in the Spirit, I choose to let go of speculations about God’s treatment of Joseph then, and of me and my loved ones now; and I will trust your higher wisdom.       

Today in the Spirit

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Published on

December 12, 2022

Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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