Fourth Sunday in Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:-7, 17-19 NRSV)
Turn us again, O God of hosts; and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.
God is in control. If there is anything we learn from the Christmas story is that God is in control. He knows what He is doing, even if His ways seem strange to us. After all, what was He thinking sending Jesus to be born into the world as a baby, in a manger two thousand years ago? Under the best circumstances, the life expectancy of a child was not great and Jesus was not born under the best of circumstances. The dangers were many, including the evil intentions of the very people Jesus was born to save. Yet, it was God Himself that chose to send Jesus through Mary, into a manger and into the care of Joseph.
We might know that God is in control, but do we really live as if we believe it? Do we respond to the surprise of God's ways with trust or do we take matters into our own hands? Do we receive the incredible gifts of God or do we put them in the back of our closet, just in case our way doesn't work out? Trouble with that action is that we may not have a second chance to respond to God's grace.
Take Ahaz, for instant. Now, Ahaz was a king of Judah who was facing a difficult time. Israel and Syria had formed an alliance and were preparing to invade Israel and attack Judah. Ahaz feared the possibility despite the fact that God promised that they would fall by His hand. He went to Assyria to form an alliance to beat back his enemies. Alliances might seem like a good idea, but when it comes to God's people, God intends for them to trust Him. In today’s Old Testament passage, God spoke to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah. “Ask thee a sign of Jehovah thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.”
Ahaz responded, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt Jehovah.” On the surface, Ahaz’s response might seem like a good response. After all, the bible does tell us not to test God and Ahaz seems to want to do what is right. However, he still went to Assyria to make the alliance despite God’s promise for help. His seemingly righteous answer to Isaiah about not putting God to the test was more accurately a refusal to obey God. God commanded Ahaz to ask for a sign, but Ahaz masked his mistrust with a false humility.
But God did not give up. He promised a sign anyway. In Eugene Peterson's "The Message," God’s response is, “It’s bad enough that you make people tired with your pious, timid hypocrisies, but now you’re making God tired. So the Master is going to give you a sign anyway. Watch for this: A girl who is presently a virgin will get pregnant. She’ll bear a son and name him Immanuel (God-with-us).” Ahaz was facing war and God was prepared to save Judah from destruction, but Ahaz seized control and was defeated. His plan failed because he did not trust in God.
We see the promise of a Son repeated in the Gospel lesson for today. Matthew constantly uses Old Testament scripture to prove that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Now, of course the promise was originally given to the Jews in Isaiah's time and place, but as with the things of God, the first is often a type or foretaste of what is to come. We do not know exactly who might have fulfilled the promise in that day. Was it Hezekiah? Was it Isaiah's own son? What we do know is that the son born in that day did not, could not, complete the work. It would take God's own son to overcome the real enemy that God's people face.
In the Gospel, we meet another Jew: a man named Joseph. Joseph was betrothed to a young woman named Mary. She was found to be pregnant before they had lived together as husband and wife and she claimed the child was by the power of the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine hearing that story? Could he believe her? He was a righteous man, exactly why he was chosen by God to care for the baby. But Joseph didn't know or understand the reality of what was happening. He hadn't been called by God. He hadn't been given a message. How could he know that this is God's will?
Perhaps it seems like Joseph is unkind when he says he'll divorce Mary, but he really was a kind man. His reason for divorcing Mary was not selfish or cruel. He knew he was not the father of that child and in those days children were their immortality. He did not want to usurp the rights of the rightful father. And so, he chose to make the divorce a quiet one, to keep it out of the headlines, to give Mary the freedom and the ability to go to the child's father.
Before he could do so, though, he finally got a message. "Joseph, the child is from God. Marry her, care for the boy. Do not be concerned about the things of this world. Just believe." The angel of the Lord confirmed the story Mary told him. She was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and she was still his. Joseph obeyed immediately. He took Mary into his house and made her his wife, although they remained celibate until Jesus was born. The whole story sounds ridiculous, and it would have been quite easy for Joseph to take matters into his own hand. But when God spoke, Joseph obeyed.
Throughout the Old Testament, God did all He could to help His people live, work and love according to His good and perfect will. Sometimes they did what was right, worshipping Him and following His Law. Sometimes they wandered far away, worshipping other gods and doing what satisfied their desires. He sent judges. He sent kings. He sent prophets. The messages went unheard, the servants were rejected. The messengers were killed. God tried to solve the problem from a distance, but the problem of death and human bondage to sin was too great: to be faithful to his promises, He had to come and dwell amongst the people.
This is why Jesus is named Immanuel. The name means "God with us." God is with us. Have you thought about the implications of this? We often prefer to allow God to be a far off God, to be separate, to be out of touch. We want to be in control. We want to do what we think is right and follow our own ways. We are far more like Ahaz than we are Joseph. I don't know many people who would be so quick to follow a dream, to do something that goes against their very character. And yet, God knew that Joseph's righteousness was not a false humility or a self-righteous obedience to the Law. Joseph had a right relationship with God, a heart to do God's will and a Spirit that discerned that what he heard was true.
God did not choose to leave us to our own foibles. He chose to come and dwell among us. He sent Jesus, His Son, our Lord. It is for this Immanuel that we wait. It is for this Messiah that we watch. He will be all that God has promised, all rolled up in a tiny baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. This is perhaps the most incredible thing about our Christian faith: God came to be born of the most humble circumstances and live among us. He took the risk that His chosen helpers would do what He asked of them. What other god would become like his creation rather than demand the creation strive to be like it? He saw our heartache close-up. He experienced our temptations. He is Immanuel.
Did the psalmist know that God would come when he or she sang the prayer in today's passage? "…come to save us. Turn us again, O God; and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved." He describes this far away God, this God beyond our reach, but still cries out for His presence. Do we, like Ahaz, hold on to the image of the far away God, or do we cry for His presence among us?
The psalmist sings, "Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, Upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself. So shall we not go back from thee: Quicken thou us, and we will call upon thy name. Turn us again, O Jehovah God of hosts; Cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved." God is in control and we ask God to keep the control despite our attempts to take it from Him. Only then will we be saved. Our plans fail. Our attempts to make things right always goes wrong. God knows how to win all our victories and we'll be blessed when we obey His Word.
What the psalmist confesses as prophecy, Paul professes in faith in his greeting to the Romans. “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures, concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name's sake; among whom are ye also called to be Jesus Christ's.”
We continue to be like Ahaz, trying to solve our own problems, turning to allies instead of God. But God continues to offer us the opportunity to witness the sign He sent in promise. "A child will be born." If only we could remember that every day of the year, instead of just at Christmas. If only we could live consistently as the apostle God has called us to be. But that's why Jesus came: because we are not able. So, let us trust in God and dwell in those promises, living in the faith that God now dwells among us.
Advent is almost over, our wait is almost complete. It will soon be Christmas Day and we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. But Jesus came for more than a holiday. He came to call His people to lives of apostleship, lives of sharing the forgiveness, compassion and hope that comes from God through Christ Jesus. It might seem like the world is against us. It might seem like the world has rejected God and wants to destroy God’s message. It does, because the message of God is that He is greater than the world. The world wants to stop what God has done, is doing and will do. But God always has a greater purpose and now is the time for us to trust that He is in control. We are called to be like Joseph, responding to God’s word with faith. We should not be tempted to take the battle into our own hands, but instead learn what God would have us see in the circumstances that surround us. He took the risk for our sake. The only risk we take is to let go and believe that He has heard our cries and has come.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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