I preached this sermon on December 22, 2019, the fourth Sunday of Advent, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.
I have discovered in recent months that one of the great privileges of a life in ordained ministry is the invitation to be present with people in those deep, delicate moments when life’s urgent mysteries present themselves:
In the act of placing our Lord’s body, hidden in bread, into an outstretched hand;
In the silence between a question asked and an answer given during a vulnerable conversation;
In the prayers offered beside hospital beds or when gathered around tables for meetings and meals;
In the tears and the jokes, the handshakes and the hugs.
There is, for me, no greater joy than to see the infinite iterations of love that flow in and through this parish—in and through each of us who gather here.
And throughout this Advent, as I reflect on the many ways that love shows up here at Trinity, the word that keeps coming up in my mind is courage.
Now, courage is perhaps not a word that we might typically associate with the quiet, expectant season of Advent, but courage is something that I see demonstrated in the lives of every person seated here today. As we learn one another’s stories and better understand each others lives, we often find out how much courage is contained in the people around us, in ways we couldn’t have begun to imagine beforehand.
Courage is something of a misunderstood word. We tend to equate it with showy displays of bravery or strength, as if it is a quality reserved for the fearless and the bold. But the ancient root of the word courage, “cor” simply means “heart”—and so to be courageous is to be full of heart; to let whatever resides in our heart to overflow into our lives and into the world around us.
And that is what you and I do in our lives as disciples of Jesus—we seek the heart of Christ and cultivate our own hearts to mirror his. We engage in a thousand small, daily acts of courage—of heart-centered action. Most of these acts the world will never notice, but they are, in fact, the very things upon which the flourishing of the world depends. The quiet gestures of attentiveness that sustain our common life.
So if you do not tend to think of yourself as courageous, I have news for you: you are. By getting up each morning and doing the thing that you must do—to offer the care that you must offer, to send up the prayer that you must send, to grieve what you must grieve—you are full of heart. You are full of courage. And, as our texts this morning reveal, God is with you in all of it.
God with us. Emmanuel. This is the name we hear in Isaiah and in Matthew; and it is not just a name, it is a promise.
It is, in fact, the definitive promise of the entire Biblical narrative: that God is with God’s people, through everything. Through creation, through estrangement, through exile and restoration, through waiting, through weeping, through victory and vanquishment, through the thrill of love and the void of loneliness—God is with us. God is the one who gives us the courage—the hopeful, faithful heart— to face all of it, and God is the one who makes meaning out of all of it.
For King Ahaz, who was ruling over the kingdom of Judah in a time of political instability, the name and the promise of Emmanuel was the sign he didn’t ask for. For whatever reason, he refused the prophet Isaiah’s offer of an assurance from God. But God offered the sign anyway, in the form of a baby about to be born whose name-Emmanuel–literally bore the promise of God’s presence. And for the time being, anyway, the people of Judah were safe. God was with them.
Centuries later, as Matthew recorded the story of Christ’s birth, the moment that God appeared to us in human flesh, he drew on this ancient narrative of a baby carrying God’s eternal promise—God’s eternal “en-couragement,” if you will—and connected the name Emmanuel with the name of Jesus. So it is a name we sing out to this day, especially at this time of year, with fervent hope and gratitude, offering it as the answer to every question that this troubled word might offer.
O come, O Come, Emmanuel. O, Come, O Come, God, to be with us.
This is the heart of our faith: that even when it seems otherwise, we believe that God is with us. That God will always be with us. The prophecy of Isaiah has been and continues to be fulfilled, especially and ultimately through Christ.
God’s name and God’s promise of presence is written on our hearts, and that name and that promise gives us the strength to do what we must do, those everyday acts of courage. Those small, unglamorous, but vital offerings:
the feeding of a hungry mouth,
the wiping of a tear,
the holding of a trembling hand,
the speaking of truth to power.
In each of these, we find the presence of God. In their accumulation, we find the significance of our entire lives.
So yes, in Advent, we are reminded of the big, beautiful things: of God’s promises to us, and how the coming of Jesus Christ fulfills those promises for all time; how the birth of a child who we call Emmanuel will make the mountains sing and the stars dance in the night sky.
But we are also reminded, in Advent, of the humble things, the earthy things, the tender, powerful things that comprise our lives, that fill our periods of longing and waiting, and we are assured that these things are courageous enough, beautiful enough, just as they are. As the offerings of our hearts to God, as the demonstration of our courage, they tell the same story, they bear the same name: Emmanuel.
Because the God who will be with us as an infant in a bed of straw is also the God who is with us as we wait beside the hospital bed;
the God who is with us as a thundering voice from on high is also the God who is with us when we cry silent tears into our pillow at night;
the God who is with us as the sovereign of all creation is also with us as we stand in the lamplight of a familiar doorway, being welcomed home.
So no matter where you find yourself in this season, and in the seasons to come, take courage. God is with you, and within you, working through you. In your waiting, in your wondering. In your pain and in your joy. In every act of love that you give or receive.
In each of your names, I hear a whisper of his name, Emmanuel. In each of your faces, I see the face of Christ. What a gift we are given, to find God in one another. To be courageous for one another. To love one another.
This–simply this–is enough.
This–simply this–is everything there is.