This is a version of the sermon preached on December 22, 2019 at BBUMC. It’s the Fourth Lord’s Day of Advent, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. It draws from worship resources for the Advent series, “Are We There Yet?“
Today’s sermon explores the following scripture passages: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25.
Each week during Advent this year, we’ve talked about the Christian life as a journey between God’s past coming in Jesus and God’s future coming when Jesus makes all things new. We express our longing for God’s not-yet kingdom to fully break into our now, by pleading, “Are we there yet?” and singing, “O come, o come, Emmanuel!” And in response to this yearning for a world-made-right, we’ve concluded that God calls us to intentionally choose to live with peace, hope, and joy. In doing so, we experience God’s presence in our lives, bringing God’s not-yet kingdom to life, little by little, in us.
As I’ve been thinking about these messages throughout the season, I’ve been nagged by this response in my spirit: “Yes, fine. We’ll live into peace, hope, and joy, and that will help us experience God. But, all this demands or requires that we really do, actually, trust God to make good on God’s promises of a new creation uniting heaven and earth.” As I’ve pondered this in prayer, I’ve sensed God posing a question back at me, much like this scene in Disney’s movie Aladdin.
(You could also view this one, if you’re feeling nostalgic):
As we live with “Are we there yet” yearning for God’s full presence in our lives, much of how we choose to live depends on how we answer God asking, essentially, “Do you trust me?” which we can see in both King Ahaz of Judah and Joseph, Mary’s future husband.
We meet King Ahaz in Isaiah 7, as noted in your bulletins so that you can read them now or later. Ahaz and the people of Judah are shaking in fear like trees shake under heavy winds, because their former ally, Israel, has joined forces with Aram (modern-day Syria) to attack Jerusalem. God sends Isaiah to encourage Ahaz, twice. The second time, God tells Ahaz essentially,
I’ve got your back. Do you trust me? Ask me for a sign and I’ll give it to you to prove it.
Now, when God specifically comes to you through a prophet and says, “Go ahead, ask me for a sign,” what do you do?
Well, if you’re Ahaz, you say,
Nope. I don’t need a sign. I won’t put you, God, to the test.
Apparently, Ahaz chooses to trust in his own righteousness, as well as his power and ability, and doesn’t feel the need to trust God. In response, God, through Isaiah, gives Ahaz a sign anyway, saying,
“The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned” (Is 7:14-16).
And, within Ahaz’s lifetime, which Isaiah’s first readers would have known, Aram and Israel are overthrown by Assyria – crisis averted. God was trustworthy, even if, when the going got rough, Ahaz couldn’t see it and trusted in his own might and vision.
Now, let’s see how Joseph responds to God’s vision when life takes an unexpected turn for him. Joseph was engaged to Mary, and likely he’d dreamed of starting a family with her. But when he discovered that she was pregnant – by the Holy Spirit, and not by him – he decided to cut his losses and walk away, but quietly, so as not to humiliate her, because, Matthew tells us, he was a “righteous man” (Mt 1:29).
Ahaz and Joseph both thought they knew what to do, and that scripture was on their side: Ahaz didn’t want to test God (Deut 6:16), and Joseph didn’t want to humiliate Mary, because he was righteous. However, for Ahaz, faithfully living into scripture meant seeing that, if God specifically says you can ask for a sign, then testing God is acceptable. Likewise, Joseph’s ideas of righteousness were a little off.
Here’s what I mean. Matthew says Joseph is righteous, which means he obeys the letter of the Law. This is why he doesn’t want to disgrace Mary. But, these things don’t jive. Obedience to the Law, righteousness, demanded public disgrace, for Mary. According to Deuteronomy 22, when a man’s future wife becomes pregnant by someone else, righteousness means taking both parties out to the gates of the city and stoning them to death (Deut 22:22-25). (To follow this trail for a moment, it’s fascinating to see that Jesus’s earthly father is, before Jesus’s birth, struggling with the tension between rigid obedience to the Law and faithful, grace-filled covenant with God. Later, we’ll see Jesus address this tension whenever Jesus says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”) Still, the bigger point today is that Joseph had decided to trust in his own wisdom and end things with Mary.
But, as Joseph was thinking about this – apparently as he was going to sleep – God sent an angel to reassure Joseph in a dream-vision:
“Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21).
“Joseph did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife” (v. 24).
God reassures Joseph so that he can choose a journey of trust. While Ahaz couldn’t come to trust God, Joseph chose to follow God in trust.
While our challenges aren’t the same those of Ahaz or Joseph, God’s insistent question, “Do you trust me?” certainly comes up in our lives. When things on the news, or in our own lives, seem so far from God’s promised future, does it sometimes get hard to trust God’s promise of “someday, someday”? When our “are we there yet?” cries seem to go unanswered in the face of our very real struggles, is it hard to trust in God’s not-yet kingdom’s coming on earth as in heaven, which we pray each week? When things don’t go as we expected, or as we believe God expected, what, really, does trusting God look like?
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the mid-20th Century is quoted as saying,
“We should live in such a way that our lives wouldn’t make much sense if the gospel were not true.”
Since I first heard this statement, it’s been a challenge that embodies for me what it means to choose a journey of trust in Jesus. Trusting Jesus means living in ways that make no sense unless Jesus really is God in flesh, inaugurating God’s not-yet kingdom on earth in real time. Trusting Jesus means letting Jesus’s life and words become incarnate in us, so that others can see Jesus in us. Trusting Jesus means making everyday choices that align with who we know him to be, and what his coming kingdom looks like.
For example, if we believe Jesus reveals God’s kingdom as characterized by feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcasts, or responding to rejection with grace, then trusting Jesus looks like doing these things, like Jesus did. We might disagree about how we do these things, and God might call some of us to focus on one or two of them intensely. But, trusting Jesus means letting him shape our lives to become more like his. And when do, God’s presence is seen by others through us, just as God’s presence was born as a result of Joseph’s act of trust.
The movement that has become the United Methodist Church began as a movement of people seeking to align their lives with the life of Jesus in acts of trust. We’re called “Methodists” because they had methods, or practices for how to align their lives with Jesus, to live in trust of him. They met together weekly in small groups to worship, pray, read scripture, and serve others. They sought to live by three rules: avoid evil, do good, and cultivate a spiritual love for God. Eventually, people saw what they were doing, and their lives only made sense in light of Jesus, whose lead they were following. God emboldened them to choose a journey of trust, aligning their lives with Jesus, so that others could see Jesus’s not-yet kingdom being born in them.
Today, God’s question is, indeed, like Aladdin’s question, “Do you trust me?” We can either answer like Ahaz, and like Joseph intended, saying, “No thanks. I’ve got this. I’ll trust my own wisdom and resources.” Or, we can, today, make a commitment anew to choose a journey of trust shaped by intentional discipleship. Jasmine responded by stepping out onto a magic carpet, but it was really into a journey into the unknown. Can we step out similarly, into the unknown of following Jesus, so that others will see Jesus reflected in us? We choose a journey of trust when we commit to growing in our knowledge and love of Jesus through scripture reading, prayer, worship, and small group gatherings. We choose a journey of trust when we commit to growing like Jesus through our service with others. God emboldens us to choose a journey of trust, so that others will see Jesus and his now and not-yet kingdom alive in us. May it be so.