Deacon Cornell’s Homily

Readings:    Isaiah 7:10-14
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24
Date: December 17-18, 2022, Fourth Sunday of Advent, Cycle A

One of my all time favorite bumber stickers says, "Question Authority: Ask me anything!" In a humorous way, this bumper sticker succinctly illustrates the theme of today's readings: obedience. It also suggests that a healthy view of obedience has this tension between submitting our will to an authority and the innate desire to know the truth. Obedience is definitely on the endangered species list in our society. People are just not comfortable with the idea. I suspect that is because in many people's minds obedience is the polar opposite of what has become the most sacred concept in our culture: personal freedom, by which they mean: I should be able to do whatever I want or feel as long as it doesn't directly hurt someone else.How can you possibly be free if you have to obey someone? In the past few months, I have seen this discomfort come up in a wide range of topics: from raising children to marriage preparation to the topic of vocations.

Today's readings give us a range of experience with obedience, from the disobedience of King Ahaz, through the quiet obedience of Joseph, to the exuberant obedience of Paul, to the most wonderful and saving obedience of Jesus. Without knowing the background of that first reading, you might easily miss that Ahaz is stubbornly refusing to obey God. King Ahaz ruled the southern kingdom of Judah from about 735 BC until about 715 BC. The kingdom of Judah included the city of Jerusalem. At the time of our story, the northern kingdom of Israel and neighboring Aram (Syria today), were being attacked by the Assyrians. They had asked King Ahaz to join with them against the Assyrians. When he refused, they joined their forces and attacked him out of spite. Isaiah has warned Ahaz that he needs to rely on the Lord's protection rather than the military might of the Assyrians. When Ahaz says he will not ask God for a sign that this is the right thing to do, it sounds so humble of Ahaz. But the real reason he won't ask is that he doesn't want to have a sign. He has already made his choice of who to obey - his own gut feeling rather than God. Isaiah's response, as far as he knows, has nothing to do with Mary and Jesus. The son he is most likely referring to is Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, who will follow him as king, preserving the Davidic line, which to the people of Judah of the time, was the most visible sign that God was with them. At the time of this story, Hezekiah's mother was still a young, unmarried woman. If you read the next two lines, this becomes clear as Isaiah says that before this boy learns to distinguish the bad from the good the two nations of Aram and Israel will have vanished. Ahaz's disobedience (which reflects the whole nation's disobedience) leads to his destruction.

Contrast that with the obedience of Joseph. It is hard for us in our culture to understand the pressure on Joseph to divorce Mary when he finds out she is pregnant. Despite this overwhelming cultural pressure to denounce Mary and to throw her out, Joseph is obedient to God's will and so brings glory and grace to himself and to all of us. He accepts the sign that God gives him.

Despite Paul's reference to himself as a slave of Christ Jesus, obedience is not slavish submission. As I have said many times before, obedience as a word and a concept has its roots in the word and concept of hearing, hearing the truth. We need to be obedient for our own good in those situations where we don't know the whole truth so we can't make the right decision ourselves. One situation that illustrates this principle is that of a child and parent. Very often a parent has to make decisions that a child has to obey because the child, not only does not know enough of the truth to make the right decision, but the child cannot know enough of the truth to decide for his or her own good. Yet I hear so many stories of parents feeling badly if their child does not understand a decision. This is not only true of young children. A report released more than 20 years ago by McLean Hospital in Belmont, reported that functional MRI scans of 10-18 year old healthy adolescents showed that their brains do not yet function in a way that allows them to temper "gut" or emotion based reactions with reasoning. It is only later in development that the brain can perform in a way that leads to correct decision making. So children and adolescents need to obey someone who not only has a fuller understanding of truth but also has more of that capacity to make correct decisions.

An other relationship that illustrates the need for obedience is that of humans and God. As humans, we are incapable of knowing the truth as God does. So we always need to obey God, most importantly when we think we know better. Even Jesus had to be obedient to the Father because in his human form he could not fully grasp the truth. In all my years of personal experience, in all the stories I have ever heard, obedience to God leads to happiness; disobedience to God leads to pain and suffering. Look into your own experience and see if that isn't true. Why I don't learn this lesson is beyond my comprehension. So here we are, in the midst of a war, financial chaos, the implosion of politics, the whirlwind stress of Christmas in America. Is God still willing to give us a sign? Are we ready to accept this sign or, like Ahaz, will we weary God and those around us?

My prayer for all of us is we get a most wonderful gift this Christmas, a gift that will bring us peace and joy and hope. God has given us a sign: the virgin has given birth to a boy and we call him Emmanuel. All we need to do is to obey; obey this God who is truly Emmanuel: God who is with us, and maybe even more importantly, God who is for us.

homily index