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?
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