Hear the Sermon Preached
Advent Directions 4:
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Advent/A • December 18, 2016
Jacquelyn and I are both historians, which means we see things and remember stuff no one else cares about. Jacquelyn wrote an award-winning paper on Britain during World War One. When Downton Abbey portrayed the beginning of that war as a time of somber foreboding, she went nuts: she knew that was wrong and she told everyone who would listen. Now maybe you’re an historian too but maybe you’re not. What’s important in the present often recedes in the past: I’m pretty certain that 2,800 years from now, no one will be talking about Donald Trump. That’s how long ago King Ahaz ruled. And I’m guessing somewhere someone is wondering, “I thought this was Christmas Sunday, why are we hearing about some old king?”
Ahaz and Faith
Ahaz is a descendant of King David, a much larger figure. The kingdom David ruled has been split in half; Israel, the northern half, has gotten together with some other small nations and they’re threatening to make war on Judah, the southern kingdom Ahaz rules. If you thought the confusing, violent world of the Mideast was a recent phenomenon, surprise: it’s been this way for 2,800 years. Ahaz is scared and the Lord is trying to give him some confidence, some faith. Have you ever had those moments, moments when you felt like everything was piling up, that difficulties and barriers and threats were falling too fast, like someone trying to shovel a walk in a snowstorm?
In the midst of this storm of threats, Isaiah brings a message from the Lord: do not fear [Isaiah 7:4]. But Ahaz does fear. Ahaz is looking around at his own troops, his own resources, and they aren’t nearly enough. So Isaiah comes again, trying to get him to look up instead of around. “Ask a sign of the Lord,” he says. But Ahaz, ah, Ahaz: he covers his fear with piety and refuses to ask, refuses to believe, refuses to rely on God’s providence. We’ve all heard the prophetic question, often quoted in sermons: “Who is on the Lord’s side?” The challenge Ahaz faces is opposite: “Is God on my side?” Ahaz doesn’t believe it, really. He’s like a hiker in the woods looking at an old rickety wooden bridge and thinking, “No thanks, I’m not going to try that.”
How God Works
How to respond to such smallness of faith, such blindness? Some people argue, some people push, some people demand but God has this other, amazing answer: a baby.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman[e] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.[Isaiah 7:14f]
A young woman with child, a baby, a son named Immanuel.
Who is this child? ‘Immanuel’ means “God with us”. God is sending a sign, the same sign God has sent over and over: a child who reminds us that in the winding way of the future, God is going to be present. And that God is present now. Ahaz doesn’t see that; Ahaz doesn’t feel that. Perhaps we don’t, certainly there are moments when God feels absent. Thomas Merton, one of the great spirits of the last century, said about this feeling,
“God, Who is everywhere, never leaves us. Yet He seems sometimes to be present, sometimes to be absent. If we do not know Him well, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when He is absent than when He is present.” Thomas Merton, “No Man is an island”
We might miss God; no one can miss hearing a child. They cry; they demand attention. They teach us to put someone before ourselves, they teach us to laugh in a whole new way. They teach us about faith in the future.
We act like we know the future but do we really? Many of you know Ken Winston, who has been coming to church here for a while now. Ken’s off this year to India, for a wedding. He’s been through a tough time and he’s spoken about it publicly here. Recently he wrote to me something that inspired me. I asked and got his permission to share it with you. Ken said,
This will, of course, be a very special Christmas for me, especially when I think of my frame of mind last year around the same time. I was off from work last Christmas. Not knowing if I would ever spend Christmas in a church again I tried to find a church that was open – any church – that had an evening service. After checking online I went to one in downtown Albany, but it was closed. I guess it must have been an old notice online. I drove around that winter evening trying to find a church to attend. I tried four, but they were all closed. So, I went back home alone, and to work the next day.
This Christmas will be so different, surrounded by family and friends and a wedding to attend to. When I think of it all, I am overwhelmed with gratitude especially to so many people that uplifted me and they didn’t even know it at the time, and probably not even today. Chief among them were all of you at First Congregational, who will always have a special place in my heart.
God’s Sign, Joseph’s Faith
God is giving a sign: and the sign challenges our faith in the future. Can you believe God’s love is working now? This is the failure of Ahaz. He knows the stories of how God worked a long time ago. He goes to the temple, he attends the services. But he can’t bring himself to believe God is working in his present, through him. He doesn’t trust God now: he doesn’t believe God can make a new future.
Look at the story of Joseph and compare it with Ahaz. Joseph is a young toolmaker who fell in love with a girl. Do you remember that? Do you remember how you couldn’t take your eyes off her, how he just seemed the center of the universe? Joseph is engaged to Mary. Maybe he’s family isn’t entirely pleased, maybe his mom thinks he could have done better. But they’re ready to accept her. Then she tells Joseph something fearful: she’s pregnant. Can you imagine the fear in Mary when she goes to Joseph, when he laughs and pulls her close for a kiss and she has to push him back and tell him? Can you see the confused, wondering look in his eyes as she tries to explain what the angel had said to her? She’s going to bear a child, a child of the Holy Spirit and his name is going to be Yeshua, in English: Jesus. It means “Deliverer”.
Mary leaves; Joseph has a decision: what to do? He’s a good man, a righteous man. Today righteous often means someone who is rule oriented and judgmental but here it means something like, “has a good heart”. So he decides to do what is kind: he obviously can’t marry her. He’s not going to make a big deal about it; he’ll do it quietly. But obviously, the wedding is off. Decision made, he goes to sleep. And while he sleeps he has a dream; an angel comes to him and says, “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Do you remember what God said to Ahaz?—Don’t be afraid. Isn’t it striking how God says the same thing over and over? “Do not be afraid.” Here’s the difference: Ahaz, a king who has benefitted his whole life from God’s providence is very much afraid, afraid of losing his palace, his lifestyle, his life itself. But Joseph gets up and bets his life on a dream: he believes the angel. He marries Mary. He brings up Jesus.
O Come Emmanuel!
Every year at Advent, Christians sing the ancient carol, “O come, O come Emmanuel.” It’s a song that originated about 1,400 years ago. Think of it: see it, 1,400 years of Christians saying, come to us God, come Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us”. We still sing it today. It is the ultimate pull of every human heart, to feel the presence of God’s love. We have a very fine purpose statement for our congregation but honestly?—here’s our real purpose: to keep believing, keep singing, keep demonstrating God’s presence; to keep opening the doors, so people like Ken, people like you, people like me, can come in and find a place where indeed, Emmanuel, God with us, is present, alive and working, loving, welcoming. We sing it in hope; we act on it when we, like Joseph, live from the dream of its fulfillment. We fulfill it when we treat every person we meet as a child, for it is precisely in the lives of children of God, whether they are infants or elders, whether they are young or old, male or female, that God is with us, today, tomorrow, forever.