The readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent are primarily a call to prepare for the coming of Christ: eschatologically (on the Last Day) and historically (the Incarnation). But they also serve to announce to us that God’s saving power—indeed, God’s own loving presence, God’s own self—is here with us already. We are waiting with hope for Christ to come, yes, but we have to keep in mind that we can call upon our God already now, for our Lord is with us always.
Last week, if you’ll recall, was Gaudete Sunday. Your priest was decked out in rose (not pink) and the congregation rejoiced (that’s what gaudete means) over the fact that we, in our season of Advent, have moved from our preliminary emphasis on the eschatological (we await the Last Day when God will renew the earth) and celebrate the fact that we, liturgically speaking, now re-await our God’s coming at Christmas.
The readings from scripture for today, however, do not immediately take us from this joyful awaiting of Gaudete Sunday to the joys of Jesus’ birth at Christmas—although, in years where Christmas follows immediately at the heels of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, it very nearly does. No, this year especially, where we have a full week of reflection upon the coming of Christmas and the coming of Christ on the 25th, the importance of remembering the Fourth Sunday for what it is (further preparation) and not what the secular world wants it to be (“CHRISTMAS IS HERE!” our culture is screaming at us from the beginning of December onward), is most fully expressed.
So what was last Sunday’s hopeful joy in the midst of the desert based upon? The memory of the fact that is proclaimed this Sunday: that Jesus Christ is “Emmanuel,” “God-with-us.” God is with us—that is the message of our Gospel reading today, that is the fact that we celebrate today at Mass, that we remember all week and each time we turn to God in prayer—the extraordinary claim that God is with us.
Let’s start with the reading from Isaiah. The context of the prophet Isaiah’s proclamations here is that Ahaz, the king of Judah, was being threatened by a powerful neighboring nation, the Assyrians. Judah’s neighbors, the kingdoms of Israel and Damascus, sought an alliance with Ahaz for mutual protection. Ahaz, however, made a deal with the Assyrians themselves. As a result, Damascus and Israel fell to the Assyrians, while Judah and Ahaz enjoyed relative peace. But Ahaz himself didn’t just cooperate with the foreign power; he went to the Assyrian king and pledged himself to him and his gods. He even installed an altar like the one used by the Assyrian king in the Temple. Isaiah urged Ahaz not to trust in the powerful Assyrians, but to trust in the Lord; to rely upon God, not upon fickle humans. So while Ahaz and Judah were safe from the Assyrians, it was at the cost of their political, cultural, and even religious allegiance: from the God who brought them out of Egypt to foreign powers and foreign gods.
Isaiah implores Ahaz to rely upon the Lord: to ask God for help. But Ahaz did not trust in God’s help or presence. So Isaiah points to a sign of God’s presence not for Ahaz to trust in, but for the people of God to trust in God as their protector and companion: that a virgin will bear a son and name him Emmanuel. As Christians, we read this Christologically: it refers to the coming of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. But Isaiah is also calling the people to recognize that God is already in their midst and is to be called upon in their present need. Reading Isaiah today, we might be struck by the fact that Emmanuel is not a future tense; Isaiah is not predicting that God “will-be-with-us.” God’s presence among us was not—is not—limited to the Incarnation. Now don’t get me wrong, the incarnation is certainly the turning point in human history from the Christian point of view: the moment in time where God was—and is—with us in a radically new way. But to focus too narrowly upon the incarnation is to ignore the fact that God is still with us today, in our present reality. How do we know this? Let’s turn to Paul.
Our reading from Paul is from the beginning of his letter to the Romans; it is his introduction of himself and it sets the tone for his letter. He begins by telling us who he is—his identity founded in his faith in Jesus Christ—whom he serves—and we get a short creedal statement about Jesus’s identity—and whom this letter is addressed to—the church in Rome who is “called to be holy.” What is this holiness the Romans are called to? Although we usually think of it as moral perfection, it is sometimes more helpful to understand holiness as close relationship with God. And this relationship is marked by a person’s aligning his or her will to God’s will, his or her constant communication with God, and, of course, his or her reliance upon God in times of need.
Now, as Isaiah said, God is already with us. “Name your child Emmanuel,” Joseph is told in our Gospel reading for today, “for he is the sign that God is with us.” “I believe in and rely upon Jesus Christ,” Paul explains, “who was born and preached and ministered and healed and suffered and died and rose and remains with us still.”
Yes, through the incarnation—God being made flesh, God dwelling among us, God taking up the totality of the human experience in the man Jesus of Nazareth—God is with us in a miraculous, wondrous new way. But God was still with humanity before. And God remained with the Christian community after Jesus’s ascension. Indeed, God is with us still today. “God is with us,” Matthew begins his Good News of Jesus Christ, and, he will be with us, Jesus assures his disciples at the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, until the end of days.
This is the enormous claim of Christmas, the impossible assertion of Christian faith: Our God so loved us that God became incarnate to be with us in our messy lives. This final Sunday of Advent, we’re asked to turn to the Lord even now because even now God is with us in our imperfection: seeking relationship, waiting to help us, asking to make us holy, steadfastly remaining with us both in the here and now and in the forever and ever. Emmanuel: Amen.