Here we are at the 4th Sunday of Advent, anticipating the first great Holy Day in our new liturgical year. The year itself marks our life in relationship to God, the life into which we were sealed in Baptism. The lessons for today are full of wonderful things to say -- not so much about the birthday-to-come or the birthday boy -- but about how to live the holy life into which we have been sealed.
Let's start with the Psalm. What do we learn here? "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein." A lesson for the new life: it belongs to God, the whole kit and caboodle -- the heavens the earth, the land the sea, the water and the air, the animals and the folks: us. We are in a life surrounded by God. Next, how do we live this well and completely, able to enjoy it -- not only the life itself, but the God who lives it with us? How do we ascend the hill of the Lord to see and appreciate our life and enjoy it? How do we stand in the Lord's holy place, present with God, holy with God?
Answer: we are to have clean hands and a pure heart. What on earth does that mean? The psalmist goes on to explain. It means that we have not "pledged ourselves to falsehood or sworn by what is a fraud". In simple terms, this means we are willing to face the truth about ourselves, our life, our relationships, our God. It means we are willing to be stripped of the deceit we perpetrate, the lies we tell, the rationalizations of behavior we propound, the fantasies we try to live in, the sorrows we try to avoid. It means we are willing to face life, face God, face the truth about ourselves, face the nature of our relationships. In short, it means we are willing to be open, vulnerable, capable of change, capable of transformation into the holy person we are meant to be. It doesn't mean we have to be eager or courageous or smart; it simply means we have to allow transformation as an option, however small. That's what we have to do if we want to get going on this new life: allow the option for change.
Lesson number three from the psalm: how do we do that? Answer: "Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the king of glory shall come in. Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of glory." The psalmist is exuberantly clear: we lift up the gates of our heart, we open the everlasting doors to our inmost selves, and the King of Glory will come in. Note that the doors are everlasting: as long as we live we will be able to open them or shut them. They are ours to do that with. But OPEN THEM the psalmist sings in crescendo, and the King of glory will come in. Who is that King of glory? The King of Glory is God. So there we have the magnificent lesson from the psalm: We are God's own; to enjoy the holiness of this we must be open to having our lives transformed; to allow the transformation we open the doors of our hearts and let God in. This is how we ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in God's holy place in our new life.
Moving to Isaiah, what do we learn? A very interesting -- and unexpected -- lesson. God tells Ahaz the king of Judah -- who is in a jam with the armies of two countries out to get him -- to ask for a sign of the Lord, any sign he wants. Ahaz says no, he's not going to put God to the test. This is very significant. Tradition has it that God is not to be put to the test. This is mentioned on and off all the way through the Old Testament and the New -- Jesus even quotes this scripture in his wilderness argument with the devil. But what we see here is God saying to Ahaz: "Go ahead, break the tradition; go ahead and ask," and Ahaz saying, "No, I'm not going to do it." What a lesson about so many things! It's about listening to God and responding. Ahaz hears what God says, but decides to respond not to God but to TRADITIONS ABOUT GOD -- what he thinks he knows about God. How we get faced with that choice sometimes, and how often we capitulate like Ahaz! But this lesson celebrating our new life in God says: Don't do that. Listen and respond to what God says, even if it is different from what tradition advocates. If we do that, if we take that risk, honor that openness the psalmist talks about and open our hearts and listen to God, we might hear commands from God that are very different from tradition and from the customs of our culture.
This is such an important feature of our new life -- to listen to God and to respond as God would have us respond irrespective of anything else. It's so important that we hear strong stories about it twice this Sunday. Let's skip over the Romans passage for a while and go to the Gospel. Just as God spoke to Ahaz and asked him to do something opposite from tradition, here God speaks to Joseph and asks him to break with tradition. God says, "Go ahead and marry Mary even though she's pregnant." But Joseph doesn't respond as Ahaz did -- just the opposite. Joseph doesn't say, "No, I'm not going to do that; I'm going to follow the traditions of my religion and my culture." If he had, there'd have been no Christmas story! No, Joseph says, "Okay, fine;" and goes ahead to do what God wants, despite how crazy it seems to him. He hears God, as does Ahaz, but he responds completely differently. He responds to God, specifically to what God asks. Ahaz responds to tradition about God, what he thinks God should ask. A big clue for the new life: hearing God is just the beginning. Then you must respond to what you hear even when it contradicts everything you've heard before. To respond to tradition and not to God ultimately results in destruction, desertion and desolation, as the Isaiah oracle prophesies. To respond to God despite tradition results in the new birth of God -- within us, within our lives, within the society in which we live. Good lesson: good Isaiah, good Matthew.
Okay, let's move along to St. Paul and the introduction of his letter to the Romans. Typical Paul, trying to say everything there is to say all at once, all in one sentence (this whole lesson is only one sentence), all in the first paragraph of his letter to these people he's on his way to visit. He doesn't do too badly -- if you can make it all the way through the sentence and hope to goodness he goes into some detail later on (which we know he does both in this letter and in others).
Anyway, let's see what he has to say for our new life in God. Cutting and pasting a bit, you end up with something like this: Jesus has brought us this new life. Jesus is the Messiah of scripture, he has a traceable human lineage and is declared Son of God by the Holy Spirit. Through grace -- which is God's transforming love in this new life -- we are brought into relationship with God. By listening to and responding to God in the new life, we display faith, and we are obedient about its observation. By being open to God's transforming love, and by allowing transformation to take place in our heart, we find that we mature and enjoy life on God's holy hill and in God's holy place -- in the presence of all that matters. And we find that others are attracted to this life and want it also, so we share our experience of it as apostles have since the beginning.
The four lessons we have had for this Sunday are a synopsis of the life in Christ. All belongs to God. We may live with God and enjoy the completed life in God's presence. For the fullness of this life we have to open our hearts -- or let God open them -- so that we may grow and be transformed, so that we can come into our holiness. The person we relate to as we learn to live is God; living with God develops in us disciplines that increase our enjoyment of the holy life in Christ; with joy this life will send us out and be attractive to others.
This is it. This is the life God has prepared for us. Who is this God of Glory? Grand to be sure, for none other than a grand God could orchestrate such a life of majesty and joy. But who else is this God? Isaiah and Matthew tell us: This God is Immanuel, God-with-us -- a God so close to us we are included in the very name: God-with-us.
There is not one step in this new life that we have to take alone. God is with us every step of the way, every moment we live, every place we find ourselves. As we learn to face the truths about ourselves, our lives and our relationships, we do not do this alone, we do it hand-in-hand with Immanuel, God-with- us. Immanuel is there to open our hearts when we are afraid, to soothe us when we are in pain, to hold us when we are oppressed, to heal us when we are hurt and to forgive us when we sin. As we learn to listen and respond to God, Immanuel is with us, our courage, our friend, our teacher and our guide. As we ascend the hill of the Lord, the footprints beside our own are Immanuel's; and as we stand in the Lord's holy place and look up, we see none other than our Immanuel, our life's companion, seated on the throne of glory, smiling at us. Amen.