Fourth Sunday of Advent Sermon

December 18, 2022
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Advent has always been understood as a season of waiting. And there’s something poignant for us (at least for us in the northern hemisphere) that Advent takes place in December. That dark month. That cold and dormant month. The climate pulls us inside, to huddle beneath blankets and beside fires. And we wait.

  • We wait for Christmas and the reminder each year, that God has come to us in Christ.
  • We wait for the return of Christ and the completion of his work of redemption for this world.
  • And, perhaps most significantly – but vaguely – we wait for Christ to be made more manifest in our lives and in our We want our belief in his first coming and our hope in his coming again, to grow in us in such a way that we are transformed – that we are (to some degree) made to resemble his character and purpose, that the promise of “God with us” would translate into who we are becoming.

And I’ve been thinking lately, that one of the strongest parallels in our lives to this sense of waiting for Christ, is what it’s like for us when we’re waiting for a baby to be born. As anyone who’s been pregnant can assure you, that baby is already there. Even before you can begin to feel it, it is already doing things you can feel in your body. Everything is changing to do everything your body can to ensure the wellbeing, and the priority, of that new life.

For the parents, and especially the mother, a relationship is already forming with that child, and all the more so as the months go by. You haven’t yet held them in your arms, but you are holding them in your womb – and your heart. A very real love and bond is being forged. And although it’s different for spouses and grandparents and siblings, a relationship with that child is beginning for them as well – an eager anticipation rooted in the reality of that child’s already existence – this waiting for the advent of a life already begun.

As it is with Christ in us.

We haven’t seen him face-to-face, or been able to hold him. We are waiting – but with a kind of anticipation that he already is. God has already come to this world in Christ, has already been incarnate as one of us. And we already have a relationship that has begun with him – a relationship of love. We are as mother for him, inasmuch as he resides in us, in the wombs of our being. And he is as mother for us, inasmuch as we reside in him, in his womb that is protecting and nurturing and growing each of us. And so our anticipation of what is to come, surely will be a form of “new birth,” when we will behold each other, face-to-face, now freed of shame or fear or confusion.

I remember holding Henry in my arms when he only an hour or two old – our faces right up next to each other. And we beheld each other with an unflinching gaze, unlike any I’d ever known. No shame. No awkwardness. But absolute permission for us both to be fully present to the other.

And so may it be in our birth yet to come, between us and Christ.

Which means these days, of this life, are as an ongoing gestation. We are being formed – by our circumstances, by our faith, by our choices – into Christlikeness.

And paradoxically, for those who are parents, it is their years-long experience of parenting that often becomes the most significant context of their ongoing formation as children of God. Parenting, itself, becomes as Christ’s womb for us. Because the conditions and requirements of parenting absolutely align with the values and priorities of the Kingdom of God.

Now let me clearly say, there are some who – for many reasons – never become parents. And for them, God and the invitation to godliness, is just as intimate and just as available. For there is no place in our experience where God is not. But because the phenomena of parenting is so wide-spread and so elemental to our species and every species, it must be of notable significance in God’s intention for us as image bearers of God.

At its heart, being a parent, especially when the children are little, requires you to lay your life down. Day after day, (hour after hour when they’re infants,) the needs of the most vulnerable must become your priority. There is no option when they cry – when they need comforting, changing, feeding – but to choose, again, their urgencies over your own desires. Now sometimes, there’s nothing you’d rather be doing anyways. It’s love! But other times, it’s the last thing you want to do. And every time it requires of you again: lay down your life.

In most decisions of faith, “laying our lives down” is optional. Will we sign up to be a Sunday School teacher? Maybe, maybe not. Will we take a more modest vacation to give more money to Harbor Hope? Maybe, maybe not. But the commitment to parenting, once begun, is non-negotiable. And over time, it changes you. Not only have you prioritized someone else’s good, day-after-day, you’ve done so for love! The worthiness of their existence is now melded into your own. Who you are now forever includes the other. And so you’ve become less singular, less self-centered, less insistent on having your own way.

And in our gospel reading today, it is the costliness of this commitment – that once entered must be seen through to the end – that we see so remarkably in Joseph.

He didn’t have to go through with it. When he discovered his fiancé was pregnant with a child not his own, his impulse was to walk away. Understandably. He was an upright man, after all. It was his uprightness that made him not want to go through with it, not to be associated with some illegitimate pregnancy. And it was his uprightness that made him change his mind and commit himself to Mary and the child she carried.

But even if, in changing his mind, he was being faithful to what he believed God was calling him, surely he knew nobody else would share that faith! Joseph was laying down his life, choosing the stigma of what people would believe about him: either he’d gotten Mary pregnant or he was marrying a compromised woman (by their cultural standards). Either way, there was no “win” in this situation, other than faith and sacrifice.

And it’s the substance of that commitment I see in Joseph’s face in the artwork included in your insert. (His face is shadowed, I know, and the painting is terribly pious and European and not at all reflective of the Holy Family’s ethnic reality as middle easterners. That’s a given.) But it’s Joseph expression that interests me here. He’s not looking at the baby. His gaze is elsewhere – beyond the baby and into the future, and all that this commitment will require of him.

Some things he could anticipate: the social stigma, the normal requirements of parenthood. Other things were beyond his ken: Herod’s attempt to kill the baby, fleeing as refugees to Egypt, and all the day-to-day realities he’d experience as a parent.

We don’t know what those were. But just like us, every day, he and Mary had to choose again: this child is now the center. This child’s needs now come first. So do what you must to make that work, and in so doing, your own soul will be formed.

The columnist Michael Gerson observed as his son was moving off to college, “Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough.” [1]

For when our lives become reoriented around the welfare of another, it never ends.

“18 years is a window that closed too quickly,” Gerson added. “But, my son, those days have been the greatest wonder and privilege of my life. And there will always be a room for you.”

Ultimately, that room is not a space in your home, but in your heart. For so it is with God, in whose image we are being formed. As God is one, so we are made for oneness with God and with one another. It is a union that never ends.

And like, with God, the shadow side of this union, is the deep ache we feel when those we love are suffering. I see it often as a priest, when the adult children of parishioners are making choices their parents can no longer correct, with consequences they cannot resolve. When this happens, you ache from love. You ache at your powerlessness. You ache with the private fear that somehow, you are at fault, that something you did or didn’t do led to this path you cannot restructure.

And so at Advent, your yearning and waiting is now most poignant for their wellbeing, for their salvation.

But, as painful as that may be, the very existence of the pain reveals that your formation into Christlikeness began long ago. For the pain is a love already forged; the pain is a union long established; the pain is a Christlikeness, willing to sacrifice whatever you could if it would set them free.

And yet, as much as our souls may have cleaved to theirs, in this life, we still know a separateness. Love cannot insist on its own way. Our dreams for them must be held in quietness, while in humility, we permit them the dignity to walk the path of their choosing, gathering wisdom of their own.

And so in Advent, we wait.

Like the praying figure in the fourth window of our niche, we wait with God, to perceive God’s voice whispered in the darkness, “My child, my child … I am … with you.”

[1] Michael Gerson, “ Saying goodbye to my child, the youngster”