What are we waiting for?

SERMON Advent 4 Sunday 22 December 2018 

Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1. 18-25 

What are we waiting for?  

© Ann Edwards 

Advent is a time for watchful waiting, but do we know what we’re waiting for? 

To answer that, we’re going to explore the names for Jesus today, but before we  begin, can I plant a background thought in your minds? 

Let’s think about the Isaiah reading for just a moment, particularly the first few verses  – Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in  the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not  put the LORD to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not  enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?” 

Isaiah rebukes Ahaz for not asking God for a sign that all God was there when Judah  was being demolished on all sides by powerful enemies. Ahaz turned to Deuteronomy as a reason to not ask for that sign – I will not put God to the test – the  same law that Jesus invokes in the wilderness, so why is Ahaz so sharply criticised  by Isaiah? 

We’ll get to that, but before we do, let’s set the scene by exploring the two names for  the infant Christ offered in the Gospel. The first is Jesus – God Saves. The angel  declares 21 [Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save  his people from their sins 

This always raises for me the question… What is sin? Have you ever tried to  articulate what sin actually is?  

Most of my generation would struggle with this question. The term has lost its  meaning in society, and sin is seen as only the preserve of the religious. Sometimes  sin is envisaged as a checklist of our wrong doings, as though God was like Santa,  and is checking his list twice. Partly, this trivialisation is a reaction against the way  the accusation of sin has been a brutal tool used to control behaviour by invoking guilt and shame. Now, the sharp modern reaction is to see freedom not as being  released from sin, but from being released of the idea of sin or the limits of  judgement. But this hasn’t brought us joy or peace. 

But the idea of Sin is important, and Janice McRandal’s work on sin is illuminating  because she argues that allowing for the existence of sin allows us to know that God  is good and creation is good. And to be perfectly honest, sometimes, it can be hard  to see that.  

When we turn to the metaphors used in Scripture, we read about sin as being a  burden, a path we can choose to take. Or an account that is kept. A stain that needs  to be removed. All of which intuitively make sense. The one that haunts me as a  parent is the metaphor that sin is inherited. Our children can indeed inherit the  consequences and the patterns of our willful ignorance.  

One way to think of Sin is as the rejection of the goodness of God’s creation, that  results in the splintering of God’s people and world, seen for example in ableism,  racism, or sexism. These attitudes aren’t limited to people described as ableist, racist  or sexist – in reality, we all carry stereotypes and skewed beliefs that we need to  challenge. Only God sees creation in its entirety as it was created – as good. 

Others follow Foucault in connecting sin and power. When we think of human power,  it is violent. It is exclusive. It is selfish. It is othering. When we think of God’s “power” – it is love. It is creation. It is restoration. It is all embracing. The power of sin is the  opposite. 

A third way to think about sin embraces the first two – sin is that which separates us  from God. Sin is wilfully turning from God and attaching ourselves to something  desirable and lesser.1 Be it power, money, safety, fitting in, social status, or ideology  – being motivated by something other than God leads to sin. So how are we saved? 

Later this liturgical year, as we follow Matthew to the twenty first Sunday after  Pentecost, we’ll hear Jesus give us the great commandments. “‘Love the Lord your  God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as  yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”2 

At the risk of over simplifying a very complex concept, this seems to me to be a  pretty safe place to start thinking about sin. All the law, and all the prophets rest on  loving God and loving our neighbours.  

Being saved from sin isn’t so much in what we stop doing, it is in what we start doing. And if you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit, you’ll know it’s easier to start  something than to stop. Jesus tells us to put God first, and when we do that, we can  love our neighbours and ourselves. 

The second name for Jesus comes from our reading from Isaiah today. Immanuel – God with us. When we fail to love God, fail to love our neighbours, fail to look after  God’s creation, God comes to us anyway. Jesus entered in to our experience, not  with human power, wealth and status, but with the ultimate love and vulnerability as  an infant at the mercy of humankind. I remember arriving home with Matthew and  Michael, after a week in hospital. Garth and I put these tiny, precious, and absolutely  vulnerable creatures down in their capsules and looked at each other, hardly  believing what we were entrusted with. That’s how God entered our world. 

Jesus didn’t have a holy halo and magical bumpers to keep him from sin, nor did he  shoot sin down in flame like a superhero. In the contrary – Jesus lived amongst the  broken world and illuminated it.  

In the face of suffering, Jesus showed love. In the face of oppression, Jesus spoke  truth. Jesus put God before religion, loved and gathered the powerless and  disregarded, and inspired in their lives real reform and growth. Jesus faced those  who longed for God with love and led them in community. 

Today – God is still with us. But secular thinking pushes God to the margins, allows  God only in the unexplained hidden places. Society’s faith rests in the power of  human thinking. When we say that God doesn’t belong in the midst of science,  politics, ecological stewardship, or our families, we put Immanuel in the Sunday box.  When we go about our days as though there were no God, as though God didn’t  care about our daily lives, we are trapped in sin. We’re in a world that shapes us to understand our world without God, with God being an afterthought. But God is not in  a Sunday box, God is not limited to religious communities and seminaries. God is  with us in the entirety of our existence. 

Which brings us back to Isaiah and to the promise of Immanuel. Why was Isaiah so  sharp to Ahaz? In a time of extreme trial, it seems reasonable enough to speak to  Deuteronomy 6 and not put God to the test – this is the very source of Jesus’s first  and greatest commandment. But Ahaz was invited by God to ask for a sign, any  sign, as high as the heaven or as low as the depths, in the midst of catastrophe for  his people. And yet, despite a direct approach from God, Ahaz refuses. 

Ahaz put God in a box; Ahaz has resolved not to trust God and hides behind  scripture. Isaiah, like all good prophets, sees right through that in the power of God’s  Spirit.3 

God’s call to us is the same. We are personally invited to ask for that sign, the sign  that God is with us, that is the child, Immanuel. 

Are we brave enough to expose our lives and our deepest held convictions to God’s  gaze? To let Jesus be amongst the entire mess of our lives? To be transformed in  love? To trust that God is amongst us? 

This Advent, what are we waiting for? 

1 Kokoska

2 Matthew 22: 37-40

Henry, M. (1996). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson  Publishers. 

Lam, J. (2016). Patterns of Sin in the Hebrew Bible: Metaphor, Culture, and the Making of a Religious  Concept: Oxford University Press. https://www-oxfordscholarshipcom.ezproxy1.acu.edu.au/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199394647.001.0001/acprof 9780199394647. 

McFadyen, A. (2000). Bound to sin : Abuse, holocaust and the Christian doctrine of sin.  https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy1.acu.edu.au 

McRandal, J. (2015). Christian doctrine and the grammar of difference: A contribution to feminist  systematic theology. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy1.acu.edu.au 

Sonderegger, K. (2015). Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1. Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt12878k4 

Boda, M.J. (2016). Prophets. In K.L. Johnson & D. Lauber (Eds.). T&T Clark Companion to the  Doctrine of Sin (Bloomsbury Companions, pp. 27–44). London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.  http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy1.acu.edu.au/10.5040/9780567668028.ch-002

Leave a comment