*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Dec. 18, 2010
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Psalm 80:1-7, 16–18
We are in the final week of Advent. Christmas Day, of course, is next Saturday. Advent is the time of year leading up to Christmas when we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into the world to accomplish our salvation. We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in his first advent and we anticipate the return of Christ the King in his second advent.
This season highlights the revelation of God in Jesus to redeem all of creation and to reconcile God’s people to himself. We are being redeemed by God right now, and we look forward to the final consummation of our redemption. We remarked a few weeks ago that the Scripture readings for Advent reflect this emphasis on the second advent, including themes of accountability for faithfulness at his coming, judgment on sin, and the hope of eternal life. It’s a time of reflection and consideration of our lives before God.
In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that he is present in the world today, and that he will come again in power. With all of that in mind, we need to ask ourselves, “how should we be living? What in the world are we supposed to be doing?”
We are a group of people committed to blessing Springfield, called to embody God’s love, presence, and power to one another and to this city. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Well, how does that look? What shape should that sort of life together as a community take?
These are the questions that we are going to need to face in the coming weeks and months. By God’s grace, we have come through a time of wilderness wandering, looking for a home. Now we’re here. We’re settled. Now what? What should we be doing?
Transitioning to our passages for tonight, we ought to be asking ourselves, what shape does the obedience of faith take among us? In Romans 1, Paul mentions that his entire mission was to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations. God’s aim is to reconcile all the nations to himself, and we are a gathering tonight that testifies to the fruit of Paul’s ministry. Paul took the gospel message outside of Israel to the nations, and that we have become obedient to the faith is one of the results of that.
But how should the obedience of faith look among us? We can’t be satisfied with the status quo. We have discovered that our lives are vibrant and exciting when we truly put ourselves in the risky place of doing something that stretches us for gospel purposes. We don’t want to fall into a rut here in this new place. We’ll be starting those conversations in January, so please be thinking about that question – what does the obedience of faith look like for us? In these Advent passages, what wisdom can we glean for considering our lives as those who belong to one another and to Jesus?
I want to suggest to you (that sounds so formal!) that these texts point to what genuine obedience looks like. And I say this on the basis of the contrast between Ahaz in the first text and Joseph in the Matthew passage. The connection between these two passages is very obvious, of course, because we have the prophecy in Isaiah and the announcement of the virgin birth to Joseph in Matthew. While there’s much there to talk about, I want to point out the contrast between Ahaz’s response to a word from God and Joseph’s response to a far more challenging word from God.
This contrast highlights one of the major themes of the Advent season – preparation, readiness, willingness to do what God says to do, repentance, obedience to the life-giving word of God, even if that word comes to us and radically challenges our assumptions.
First, let’s look at Ahaz. In Isaiah 7, the prophet is sent to the king. Now, time for a Bible quiz—is Ahaz a good king or bad king? Ahaz was one of the bad kings in Judah. He turned away from the Lord and did not honor God the way he should have done.
Isaiah is sent to Ahaz to deliver to him a word from the Lord. It was pretty normal for a prophet to deliver a message from God and then to announce that a sign was about to be given to confirm that the message truly was from God. The Lord tells Ahaz to ask for a sign. Ahaz responds by saying, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”
Bravo, Ahaz! That’s almost the same thing that Jesus says when he’s tempted in the wilderness, isn’t it!? Sounds very pious, very godly. Well done, Ahaz, you’ve responded rightly. Or has he? What does Isaiah say in response? You are trying the patience of God! He told you to ask for a sign, so do it! And since you won’t, here’s the one you’ll be given. That’s the context for the announcement that a young maiden will conceive and give birth to a son.
What we see in Ahaz is a person who is well-practiced at pious talk with no real commitment to seriously listening to God and doing what he says. Frankly, Ahaz is right that no one should put God to the test, but this is not the right situation to use talk like that. Ahaz wouldn’t be putting God to the test by simply responding to what God had commanded, but he uses this kind of talk to hide an unrepentant heart—to hide the fact that he’s not actually willing to adjust his life to bring it into conformity with what God has commanded.
It’s easy for us to do the same thing. It’s easy for us to make excuses for not participating in our community life the way we ought to. It’s natural to make excuses for not giving ourselves to one another the way we should be doing. If Advent is an opportunity to consider how to make adjustments in our lives to participate more fruitfully in Jesus’ own joy among this community, then we need to be suspicious of our immediate reactions to being challenged. We need to sift through our talk and make sure that we aren’t masking unrepentant hearts.
Joseph provides an opposite example in the Matthew text. Joseph is a young man, probably something like 15 or 17 years old. He’s been told since he was old enough to remember that he was going to be married to Mary, probably a neighbor. They have been betrothed and are heading toward marriage. All of a sudden she turns up pregnant. That can only mean one thing. Mary has had relations with some other young man. Joseph doesn’t know what to do. He must have been humiliated, frustrated, confused, hurt. But he’s an honorable person, which is incredible when you consider how young he was. He wants to quietly do the right thing in order to make sure that Mary doesn’t endure awful shame in their community.
While thinking through all of this, Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream. He is told that Mary is pregnant by God himself, and that the child to be born is the long-awaited savior who will redeem Israel from their sins. This is outrageous news! He’s probably having a hard time believing it. It was, after all, a dream – maybe he’s just losing his mind out of jealousy for Mary and whoever she’s messing around with. But look at the passage – how does Joseph respond? What does he say? What does he do?
No pious talk that masks an unwillingness to respond to God; no excuses; nothing at all. Joseph just does it. He wakes up, changes his plans, and does what he does in response to what God had said. He gets the outrageous news that Mary is pregnant by God himself—that doesn’t happen every day—and that this child will be the Messiah. In the face of all that, Joseph does not ask questions but just does the next thing he’s told to do.
What a great example of simple obedience—a single-hearted response to God that does what is asked in response to the path of life being pointed out.
This is the sort of community we need to be. We may need to make some adjustments in our lives. We may need to say “no” to other things that distract us in order to make room in our lives for being Midtown the way we need to. We may need to shut down certain things we do and begin other things. Who knows? We don’t know exactly what we’ll look like down the road, but we need to be willing to talk with each other, think creatively, pray, listen to one another, pray some more, and be ready to be a repentant community so that we truly enjoy the presence and power of God among us.
A good place to start may be to pray our psalm for this evening. I’m going to close by praying it, so when I finish, make it the prayer of Midtown by saying a hearty “amen” at the end.Hear us, Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh. Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved. How long, LORD God Almighty, will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful. You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us. Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved. Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish. Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.
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“It is hard to believe, not because it is hard to understand, but because it is hard to obey.” –Soren Kierkegaard