a modern icon of St. Joseph holding Jesus; both figures have brown skin, gold haloes, and peaceful expressions.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year W) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |18 December 2022 | 1 Samuel 1:19-28 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Titus 3:4-7 | Matthew 1:18-25

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who is with us in hearing and speaking and naming and incarnation.

Good morning, friends. Today is our last Sunday of Advent, of preparing for Christ’s birth together. And for now it’s our last Sunday of hearing scripture with the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary. Our readings these four weeks have explored Advent as a season of Annunciation, these birth stories. That means it’s been a season of conversations with God. Hagar, and Mary, and Abraham, Samson’s mother, Elizabeth, and today Hannah and Joseph, talk with God or God’s messengers about coming births.

So today we’ll look at how God meets these saints and sages in holy conversation, in hearing and speaking and naming, and how we might meet God there too.

Today we hear part of the story of Hannah. Like Sarah and Elizabeth, Hannah is a woman who did not think she could have children. She and her husband faithfully worship at the temple every year, and there she prays to God for a child. When she’s praying intensely, her lips are moving even though she isn’t speaking aloud; the priest at the temple thinks that she’s drunk and calls her out. Hannah defends herself and shares her prayer, and the priest blesses her.

And as today’s story tells us, Hannah has a child the next year. Samuel, who will become a prophet; someone who helps God’s people hear God’s voice for their times, someone who facilitates this conversation between God and human beings. Hannah names her child Samuel because it means “God hears,” and God has heard her prayer.

This naming of Samuel echoes the first conversation with God we read this Advent—when Hagar meets God in the desert, and she’s the first person in scripture to give God a name. Hagar names God “The One Who Sees.”

Hagar names God for the way that God sees her praying. And Hannah names her son Samuel for the way God hears her praying. These names are part of the holy conversation between God people that’s still going on; they’re a form of prayer; they’re a kind of testimony to God’s presence with us. Naming and being named are part of how people in the Bible learned how to be present to God and welcome God’s presence among them.

Dr. Gafney’s lectionary gets at the importance of naming in scripture; she uses many names for God. In the Hebrew text of the Bible, there is a Name for God that’s written but not spoken. When reading aloud or translating into another language, we substitute another word. Our Jewish siblings sometimes say “HaShem,” (which means “The Name”) for this. English translations often use “Lord” in small capitals. And there’s also a movement in translation that when this holy Name appears, we can use a descriptive name for God in place of what can’t be spoken.

This is what Dr. Gafney does. The ways she names God are rooted in the stories of God in scripture, the ways God has been present with God’s people. She invites us to use these names in prayer and worship and see where they might take us. Here are some of the names for God we’ve seen so far in Advent:

Inscrutable God

Wellspring of Life

Ever-Living God

Faithful One

Living God

Worthy One

She Who Speaks Life

Holy One of Old

Generous One

Ageless One

God Who Hears

Creator of All

Gracious One

Fount of Justice

Since Hagar, God’s people have given God many names. It’s part of how we pray. It’s part of how we take our part in the conversation God is having with this world.

And in today’s Gospel, God claims the name Jesus, which means “God saves” and the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In our final divine conversation for this season, God’s messenger visits Joseph to announce Jesus’ birth. The angel tells Joseph that Mary hasn’t betrayed his trust, that her pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit. And Joseph is called to care for Mary and name the child Jesus.

As many readers have pointed out, Joseph does not say anything back to the angel in this story. The end of the scene says Joseph “does as the angel of the Lord commanded him,” but he we don’t get to hear what he thinks about it the way we do with most of the other people we’ve seen in dialogue with God or angels this season.

Maybe Joseph’s part of the conversation just wasn’t written down, or maybe Joseph was too busy listening to be talking in this moment. The only place it’s even implied Joseph speaks is to name the child Jesus, as the angel has told him to do.

When God becomes human and takes on a human name, Joseph gets to be part of the naming. Joseph gets to be part of that same legacy of naming God that goes back to Hagar, but in a new way. Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, and it means “God is help” or “God is salvation.”

Matthew also gives us another name for the child to be born—the name Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This name is taken from a story back in Isaiah when the timing of a child’s birth symbolized God’s presence with God’s people in a difficult time. It takes on new meaning in Matthew’s gospel as a name for God incarnate, God in the flesh, God walking with us as a human being. 

In her commentary on this gospel, Gafney points out that annunciation stories are common in the ancient world—heroes and demigods are often born to unlikely mothers and heralded by prophecy. But for the child to be “God with us,” Emmanuel, “the fullness of God in the frailty of flesh,” for God to be a human being with us—that’s something new.

The incarnation is the mystery of God becoming radically with us; God claims the name Immanuel for Godself in this moment, and God grows in a woman’s body and is born as a human infant and is named by his parents and learns to speak a human language. It is a continuation of the divine conversations we heard with Hagar and Hannah, with everyone who ever answered God’s call or cried out to God in prayer or dared to give God a new name.

Dr. Gafney says: “God’s saving work did not begin with Jesus; we see it borne witness to throughout the scriptures as Hannah sings of it in her time and in the days to come as would Mary, echoing [Hannah’s] song. Jesus is the continuation and embodiment of that salvation, himself an annunciation, of good news.”

And friends, this is the good news for which we prepare in Advent. This is the love that saves us. This is the holy mystery we welcome. This is the divine conversation in which we speak and listen and name and are named.

And this divine conversation can look a lot of different ways and still be faithful and good. Hagar in the desert demands to be seen and lays out her troubles before God. Hannah answers back when a priest tries to shame her for how she’s praying to God. Abraham and Sarah both laugh, and their child is named for their laughter.

Mary says yes to God’s call. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and strengthens her friend with joy and wisdom. Hannah and Mary both sing songs of praise for God’s revolutionary love. And Joseph hears what the angel says and doesn’t speak at all, but he acts to answer the call.

God is with all of these people, and all of these people are with God. All of these conversations are honest and faithful. All of these conversations are holy moments of presence where God and God’s people are in relationship. Some of these moments end up as lovely Christmas card art, and some are too messy for that, but they are all part of the holy conversation. They are all beautiful.

Some of us have a reflex to evaluate and rank things unnecessarily. (It’s me, I do.) And so we might want to figure out which conversations with God are the best kind, or judge how we should talk to God and how we shouldn’t. But scripture doesn’t do that in the stories we’ve just read. It turns out that the correct way to have a conversation with God is to have a conversation with God, and we grow as we go.

Joseph’s silent obedience is faithful. Hagar’s bold naming is faithful. Arguing can be faithful. Songs of praise can be faithful. Complaining can be faithful, and so can peaceful acceptance. There is no single template for how we relate God’s call or how we pray to God.

Conversations with God will look different for different people; they’ll look different for the same people in different seasons of life. The point is that we listen for God’s voice, and we speak to God honestly, and we practice a life of being present and active and fully ourselves in God’s continual conversation with our world.

And the real point is that God is with us. No matter how quiet or loud or distracted or wise we might or might not be, God chooses to be present with us. If we have had an Advent season of contemplation and reading scripture and lighting candles, God is with us. If we have had a season of rushing around taking care of a thousand things, God is with us. God is with us anywhere in between—Immanuel is God’s name.

And if our prayers this season have deepened into fathomless wells of silence from which we draw pure peace, God is with us. If the only prayer we can manage is “Oh God help,” God is with us too. God sees us, and God hears us.

So friends, let us take our part in the holy conversation that we have followed through scripture—whatever shape it takes for us as we come to the end of this Advent season. Let us listen for God’s voice among us and offer to God whatever words or silence or names or cries or laughter we might have in us today.

And in that holy conversation, in the mystery of God with us in speaking and hearing and naming, let us prepare our hearts and minds and bodies to welcome the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery Mary’s holy child born among us, Emmanuel, God with us.

Amen.   

Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon of St. Joseph. Latimore reflects: “St. Joseph has shown us that even the quietest ordinary acts can be signs of hope in the world.”
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