Adventitious Arrival

This is the text of the message I preached to Range Road Uniting Church in Parawa on Sunday 18th December 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 1:18-25

If you were asked to summarise the Christian message in one word I wonder which word you would choose.  I actually think this to be an impossible task, or perhaps possible only in the moment.  If I was asked I’d probably say something like “right now the answer for me is: …” and then give that word. Does anyone wish to offer a word today?  One word that summaries Christianity or perhaps what being a Christian entails?  The word I have chosen for today, and indeed for most days, is this word:  Trust.

In today’s readings we are told two stories concerning three men from one family, and both of those stories involve trust. In the first story there is Ahaz who was King of Judah in the 740s and 730s BCE.  In the second story there is Joseph, a descendent of Ahaz but not a king; and there is also Jesus, the unborn son of Joseph’s betrothed Mary.  Joseph and Jesus’ story takes place in the last decade of the BCE, somewhere between 7 and 4 depending upon whom you ask. Technically Jesus is not a descendent of Joseph, not by biology anyway, however Jesus is part of Joseph’s family, and through Joseph Jesus is a member of Ahaz’s line.

Let’s start with Joseph.  Matthew tells us explicitly that Joseph is a righteous man and a good man.  Matthew tells us implicitly that Joseph is a worthy father even as he says that Joseph sought to divorce Mary because she was pregnant with another father’s child.  So let’s be clear; Joseph was not seeking an annulment because he considered Mary to be soiled goods and not worthy of his love and respect.  Far from it.  I believe that as a good and honourable man Joseph wished only to clear the way for the actual father of Mary’s unborn child to claim Mary as his own wife and the unborn child as his own.  Joseph had no wish to usurp another man’s right to fatherhood; this demonstrates to me how highly Joseph honours fatherhood and it indicates to me that ‘he will make a great dad some day, as soon as he meets the right girl’.  In addition to his desiring to act with honour Joseph also desired to act with haste and secrecy so as not to bring public shame upon Mary or her family.  As well as thinking of the child’s father Joseph did not want to bring dishonour to Mary’s father by a public display of rejection of Mary.  Joseph is a good man and he sets about doing the right thing in the best possible way.

This is where God steps in, and when the depth of Jospeh’s trust is revealed.  Joseph is told, and we read this directly from Matthew’s account, that the child is a boy and that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  This son in Mary’s womb has no father, there is no one for whom Joseph should step aside, and there is no shame from which Joseph must protect Mary and her family.  And just in case Joseph is in any doubt as to why God would have chosen him the angel makes it plain to him: Joseph is ‘Joseph, son of David’.  The child will be a blessed child who will fill a holy purpose in life; and so full of trust Joseph marries Mary and in the fullness of time he names the boy ‘Jesus’ as the angel had directed him to.

What an amazing story of trust this is, and more than that trust lived out in a man notable for his righteousness and generosity.

Sigh.  But our story contains a sour note, and it’s Matthew who gives it to us.  Matthew glosses the story of Joseph with an insight from the Greek text of Isaiah 7 making the story of Christmas fit this prophecy from seven centuries earlier, and connecting Joseph and his story of trust with Jospeh’s ancestor and that man’s story of mistrust.

Where Joseph is right acting, right thinking, trustful of God, and generous and loving toward others, Ahaz is dubious, devious and shadowy.  See how both men are addressed personally by God’s messenger.  Both men are informed of God’s promise to God’s people including the detail of how and when God intends to next act.  In both cases a newborn boy is a sign, a son is the physical manifestation of the promise made to the man.  “See this boy,” God says, “this boy is evidence that what I have promised is going to happen.”  And in both cases what is promised is salvation and the turning back of the tide of enemies.

We have heard many times before that the name Emmanuel means ‘God with us’; indeed we sang to this effect only a short while ago.  But more than a random name for a son the message from the Angel of the Lord is that God is to be trusted.  In other words in this moment of turmoil it is safe to rely on God because God is with us.  God is with us in that God is present, and God is with us in that God is on our side.  In the case of Ahaz to say that ‘God is with us’ is the same thing as to say that God is not with ‘them’.  But where Joseph thought first of what was best for the child and for the woman he loved, and then acted to obey God’s command in the assurance of God’s promise, Ahaz thinks only of what is best for himself.  Both men know it is God speaking, both hear the promise, both understand the sign of Immanuel, but Ahaz chooses to ignore God and go his own way.  Ahaz has chosen not to trust God.

So let’s take a look at what is actually going on in Ahaz’s story.  The background to this episode is that Ahaz as king of Judah is facing military danger from the combined powers of the kingdom of Israel, (the ten northern tribes centred on Samaria) and the Syrians centred on Damascus.  Ahaz decides to form a military alliance with the local superpower, Assyria (Babylon), as a means of defending himself and his kingdom.  Enter Isaiah who brings the word of God that God’s aid is imminent and trustworthy.  You don’t need to form alliances with dangerous people, says God, Judah is safe because God will protect it.  Leave Assyria be, let the nations fight it out amongst themselves and don’t get involved on either side.  Damascus and Samaria won’t trouble you, you don’t need Babylonian help.  God actually says straight to Ahaz ‘trust in the LORD, and ask me for a sign and I’ll prove it’s me’.  Ahaz, amazingly, says no.  This might look pious but in actually fact what Ahaz is saying is “I have chosen to ally myself with the Babylonians, I don’t want to hear anything other than that even if it comes from God’s own mouth.”

What. An. Idiot.

God answers that a sign is forthcoming anyway, and the sign is that a woman who is currently pregnant will give birth to a child.  The child will be a son.  The son will be named Immanuel because his birth is a sign that God’s answer is at hand.  By the time Immanuel is old enough to, and here’s where the Bible gets polite, ‘choose right from wrong’, Israel and Syria will be flat.  In actual fact what God is alluding to is the time when the baby starts saying ‘no’ and spitting out food he doesn’t like.  Those of you who have had babies will know how long it takes for a little one to learn “no” and to spit out yuck.  That’s how soon God will have acted and the enemies of God’s people will have been removed as a threat.  ‘Trust me,’ says God, ‘look at the woman who is already showing.’  Immanuel is an obvious, blatant, unavoidable sign of hope and of God’s favour, but Ahaz chooses not to accept the sign because he wants to do things his own way.  So God effectively says in Isaiah 7:17, which immediately follows this reading, that if Ahaz wants to go it alone then God will allow it, but the outcome will not be the one Ahaz had planned for.  When you have “God with us” with you it is best to step back and allow God to do what God came for.  History tells us that soon after this the Babylonians did indeed come to Jerusalem, but they didn’t come as allies, and Judah was almost conquered.

In each of Psalm 80:3, 80:7, 80:19 we read the same words: Restore us [LORD], let your face shine [on us], that we might be saved.  Israel has been messing with the wrong crowd, as was seen in the story of Ahaz, and now they’ve been overrun and smashed.  This is the very thing that God told Ahaz that Judah would be protected from if the king would trust God.  As it was the Assyrians did get all nasty and threatening, but unlike in Samaria where they toppled the king and conquered Israel, God protected Jerusalem (under King Hezekiah) and Judah was not overcome.  The promise of Immanuel was fulfilled in Jerusalem, even if Ahaz treated God’s own message with arrogant disregard.  God could be trusted, Judah was saved, but Ahaz’s life and experience were much less enjoyable than Joseph’s life.

Today we hear the message, and we are offered the same choice.  “Trust me”, says God.  “Immanuel is all the proof you need that I will come through for you as I have promised before.”  Ahaz ended his life a beaten-up wreck and it was his son Hezekiah who ultimately saw God’s deliverance.  We don’t know how Jospeh’s life ended, but we know he saw Jesus born and was present for all of Jesus’ childhood.  Joseph probably didn’t see Jesus die, and thereby bring the salvation to the nations that God promised through that angelic visit to Joseph’s Bethlehem home, but I have no doubt that Joseph had not doubt that God would come through.

So what about you.  Where is God asking you for trust?  What has God asked you to do, or perhaps asked you not to do, in the assurance that God has your situation in hand and that God will deliver in the fullness of time?  At a very dark time in my life I happened to be browsing through a Christian bookshop.  Perhaps I was hoping that my being in the presence of Christian books and the little old lady from a local church behind the counter might provide some sort of comfort.  Anyway that’s where I was when I happened to pick up a small bookmark.  It said on the bookmark, “Patience: is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do what we are told”.  Amusingly what I had been told by God was to sit with folded hands and to “just sit” while God orchestrated my salvation, but the message stuck.

The promise of God with us.  God.  With.  Us.  That promise is that it is safe to do as we are told, whatever it is God has told us, because that is the only way in which the one who will save God’s people has access to us so as to save us.  So I urge you to pay attention to the adventitious arrival of the Christ child Immanuel, the living sign of God, that your salvation is at hand and that God is on the very cusp of breaking through on your behalf.

Trust.  Obey.  Live.


Advantageous Overview

This is the text of the message I preached at Delamere Uniting Church on Sunday 11th December 2016, the third Sunday in Advent in Year A.

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return…” (Clap four times).  As it was two weeks ago on the first day of Advent so today we are reminded of the Jewish people progressing up to Jerusalem in celebration.  Two weeks ago we heard Psalm 122  and learned about the songs of ascent and the pilgrims going up to a festival at the temple, but today’s reading is from the prophets, not the psalms, and this journey carries a deeper meaning.  This is the story of the returning exiles, the members of a second exodus going up to Jerusalem after their time of imprisonment in Mesopotamia.  Look at how God is apparently being selective here: in Isaiah 35:8 it reads that the redeemed shall return, but the unclean won’t even be allowed to begin the journey. This is a consecrated road of return from exile to the land of promise; the road itself is safe from both lions and losers.  We’ll hear more about that later, but for now let’s jump back a few verses and look at Isaiah 35:5-7 in the light of our gospel story.

In Matthew 11:5 Jesus addresses the doubts of John the Baptiser as a prophet and speaks of his own ministry as the fulfilment of John’s prophecy, and of Isaiah 35:5-7.  “Tell John”, says Jesus, “what is happening before your own eyes”.  We must remember that John in gaol at this stage, the involuntary guest of the local Herod, so he’s not able to see what the disciples of John, still at large, can see.  The very signs prophesied by Isaiah as the marks of the road of return are evident in the ministry of Jesus.  The blind, lame, leprous, deaf, dead, and poor are restored to fullness.  This is all the sign you need.  Note that Jesus doesn’t actually answer John’s question with a yes or a no, Jesus never says “I am he” or “I am not he”; what Jesus actually says is “look at the evidence and draw the obvious conclusion”.  There is blessing for those who recognise the obvious truth demonstrated in the real world by observable proof.  Use your senses, and be sensible.

In Matthew 11:10 it reads that Jesus proclaims John the Baptiser as the greater than the greatest prophet.  I suggest that Jesus said this because John had the sole privilege of pointing out the Messiah in person.  Where all other Jewish prophets had spoken of the one to come as an historical figure in the future, John was able to say “there is one coming, and that’s him over there, the one with the beard and the Galilean accent”.  Yet Jesus goes on to say, and Matthew records this in 11:11, that even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.  So, John is greater than any of the prophets and the patriarchs, not just greater than Isaiah and Elijah but greater than Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well, but he’s a nobody compared to the most insignificant Christian who has ever lived.  How is that possible?  Jesus says that each of you is greater in prophetic strength than even John the Baptiser, can you believe it?

Well it’s true, and it’s true because we each have the privilege of the lived experience of Jesus.  John pointed to a man on the riverside, and then met him in the act of baptism.  But then Jesus departed for his own ministry in Galilee and John was nicked by the old bill and taken off to Chateaux Herod.  Unlike John, but like John’s disciples who carried his questions to Jesus, we have the evidence of Jesus the healer, the preacher, and the exorcist living amongst us.  I can testify to Jesus because of things I have seen, and you can do the same.  This is the advantage we have in this Advent season, the lived experience of being where Jesus is ministering to us, to others, and to others through us.  (And to us through others of course.)  John the Baptiser didn’t get to see any of that, neither did Moses, and even the disciples of John only got to see it when Jesus was physically present with them.

We are eyewitnesses to the Reign of God, the places and the times when the lived experience of the Kingdom of God really is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.  No-one who lived before the first century CE ever saw that, and some places on Earth still haven’t.

It seems clear that John had his doubts.  Perhaps the very fact that he was in prison made him question whether Jesus was who John thought he was.  After all if you’ve just heralded the messiah and all that that means in Jewish history you might be asking yourself, and the aforementioned messiah, why the righteous are in gaol and the Romans are in Jerusalem.  Perhaps he didn’t have doubts so much as he felt out of the loop: as we have said John hadn’t been present for any of Jesus’ ministry so news of the eyewitnesses was enough for him.  Either way John’s questions gave Jesus the opportunity to give some great answers.  “Look at the evidence in light of the prophets” says Jesus, “I’m doing the things that Isaiah said would be done”.  Seeing is believing, Jesus knows this, and Jesus suggests that it is actually okay to doubt.  Jesus doesn’t castigate John for his questions; he simply points John towards the evidence, and praises John’s faith and obedience behind John’s back.

Doubt is not unbelief; doubt it is various locations along the road to deepening belief.  In today’s epistle James points to the example of the prophets who spoke the truth of God with patience, speaking out confidently what they were very unlikely to see fulfilled.  In the time of John the Baptiser Jesus’ work was underway but it was yet to be completed, so Jesus’ message to John was to not lose heart.  As a prophet John had foreseen the end and he had foretold that which was coming, but Jesus reminded him that the end was not there yet and the coming is still coming.  It is still coming, you were right and you can have faith in God, but be patient.

This message is good for us too, isn’t it?  For all that we have seen in this broken world so desperate for more of the sovereignty of God to roll across it with healing and unity we have also seen where God’s sovereignty has been rolled out already.  We have seen miracles, we have heard the good news, and the signs of truth and relentless advance are there (here) before us.  We too can be patient for what we want to see, based in the confidence of what we have seen.

So what of the unclean who aren’t allowed a look in?  Remember them from page one and Isaiah 35:8A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it.  But it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.  My goodness, that sounds a little harsh and dismissive, doesn’t it?  Elitist? In closing I offer you two responses.

First thing of two.  Isaiah is saying that the road is free of predators.  It’s not that only the religious in-crowd get to use the road but that it is safe from the deliberately evil muggers and murderers.  Remember, this is a road through the wilderness, so you need to be on guard for bushrangers and Bedouin.  Just as in Isaiah 35:9 where it reads there are no lions or ravenous beasts so it reads in Isaiah 35:8 the road is safe from ravenous men.

Second thing of two.  Isaiah is saying that this road passes through what once was desert, but is not any more.  In Isaiah 35:1 the wilderness is glad and the desert is in full bloom. In Isaiah 35:5-7 we read of the miracles accompanying the travellers on this road, miracles seen in the ministry life of Jesus.  There are no unclean upon this road because everyone who walks this road is made clean by walking it.  If the dead can be raised and the blind made to see anything ritually or morally inappropriate carried by a pilgrim cannot last long on that road.

The road we walk, the road of miracles and the road of the coming king, is the redeeming road of the Lord.  We know it is because we see the acts of healing and restoration taking place all around us, where the once-leprous are stopping to touch the blossoming of the desert itself and the once-lame and once-dead are dancing alongside us on the road.  Advent means that the promises we have heard, just like the once-deaf have heard, and the promises we have begun to see unfold, just like the once-blind have seen, fill us with hope for the more which is to come.

Our job, as ever, is to follow the example of the disciples of John at the instruction of Jesus.  “Go, and tell what you have seen”, and we can tell because we have seen.  This is why John who is the greatest of all who have been born on earth is also the least of us.  We have the privilege of telling what we have seen.

So, what’s stopping you?  Go.  Tell.