Sermon for Dec. 23, 2018 -- Expect to Trust


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 12-23-2018 Pardeeville

(Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-24)


          It has been quite an Advent season, hasn’t it?  The book of Isaiah has been our guide over the last three weeks.  But in this short time, we have seen God’s prophet disregard the likeliness of a military attack on his country and look forward to something better.  Even amid these adverse conditions, Isaiah imagined a time when the instruments that destroy life would become the instruments that sustain life.  He was convinced that God would bring this about.  We have heard the prophecy of a great king and we understand that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.  And last week, in case you missed it, Isaiah spoke of a time of transformation both in nature and in his society.  The wilderness will change from a barren, lonely and scary place into a place of great beauty, a place of safety, and the path the chosen people will travel in order to return from exile.  Throughout our brief journey into the book of Isaiah, we have seen that a prophet must first deliver God’s judgment…not a pleasant thing to do.  But, more importantly, a prophet tells his people that God’s judgment is never the final answer.  Good news for them.  Good news for us too.  God’s promise of salvation is what lasts.

          I can’t believe we have made it this far into Advent! We’ve learned about the situation that the chosen people were facing during Isaiah’s time, the impending battles, the devastation of their country that was about to take place and all the rest.  And the fourth week in Advent this year is only two days long.  Good thing we added a week of Pradvent!  Even with all we have discovered so far, there’s one character in the book of Isaiah we haven’t met yet…the current king.  Let me introduce you to King Ahaz.  First of all, he was not the greatest king the chosen people ever had.  Far from it.  He began his reign at the tender age of twenty, inheriting the political troubles of his immediate predecessor.  He was king but he was ruled by fear…constantly worried that other countries were going to attack and conquer Israel.  King Ahaz was approached by the leaders of several other nations and asked to form an alliance, each country promising to supply mutual aid if any of the countries were attacked.  He thought his plan would protect Israel.  Then the prophet Isaiah shows up and lets King Ahaz have it.  “You haven’t shown any faith in God!  Rely on God, not on political agreements.” Isaiah tells him.  Alas, King Ahaz chose a different course of action. 

          In today’s Isaiah passage, through the prophet, God asks King Ahaz to request a sign.  It can literally be anything.  Ahaz declines, saying that he will not put the Lord to the test.  What he is really saying though is that he refuses to trust God.  Isaiah replies, “No problem.  If you won’t ask God for a sign, God will furnish one anyway.”  And he launches into the words we heard this morning.  “The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son and she will name him Immanuel.”  These words were spoken over 700 years before the birth of Christ.  Do they prophesy the birth of Jesus Christ or do they instead speak of a future leader of Israel who will serve the people much better than the present king has?  The answer, of course, is “yes” but even in the short term, this child will need time to grow up.  King Ahaz needs to be faithful in the meantime but he is unable to do so.  Isaiah’s prophecy was intended, like so many other things he said, to bring hope to his people.  We hear these words during Advent, thousands of years later, and we immediately associate them with the birth of the Messiah.  And rightly so…because of a single word.  That word is “Immanuel”…the Hebrew word which means “God is with us”. 

          We like to use the birth story in the Gospel according to Luke on Christmas Eve.  I think a lot of churches do.  It’s the story with the shepherds and the angels, the manger and no room at the inn, “Glory to God in the highest” and everyone coming to pay homage to the Christ child.  It’s the feel good rendition of how Jesus was born.  We don’t hear much about Joseph in Luke’s Gospel with the exception that he went from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor commanded everyone to go to their hometown.  This morning we heard Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth.  Matthew’s gives us much more insight into what people were feeling at the time, especially Joseph.

          I’m sure that Joseph had seen other couples become betrothed and then married.  The way things worked back then, the groom and the bride would be betrothed for a period of a year.  During this time, in which they were for all intents and purposes already married, they lived separately.  But, during this time, Joseph (and probably everyone else in Nazareth) noticed that Mary was beginning to look different.  There must have been talk around town about Mary being unfaithful.  Now Joseph had a decision to make.  The law said that a man had to divorce someone who had been unfaithful.  Had Joseph done that, Mary would have suffered the punishment for such an offense.  She would have been stoned to death.  We heard this morning that Joseph did not want to publically divorce Mary.  He would do it quietly.  I’ll bet Joseph really struggled with his decision.  There was much about this situation that made him more than a little uncomfortable.

          That’s when God steps in and sends an angel to appear to Joseph in a dream.  And what’s the first thing that an angel tells a human being…even in a dream?  “Fear not!”  “Don’t be afraid!”  Yeah, right!  The angel told Joseph to go ahead with plans to marry his betrothed.  Said that her child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit.  The angel even told Joseph what the name of the child should be.  Matthew explains that this took place in order that the prophecy of Isaiah would be fulfilled.  What prophecy, you ask?  Why the one we heard this morning in our reading from the book of Isaiah!  Each Gospel writer had a different reason for writing and a different target audience.  Matthew wrote his gospel to Jews in order to show that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.  That’s why we see a lot of Old Testament passages in his Gospel.  That’s why we have the quote from Isaiah in the passage we heard this morning.  Matthew quotes something that the Jewish community would be very familiar with in order to tell folks that Jesus is the promised Messiah. 

          Both of these passages, the one from Isaiah and Matthew’s birth story, are about trusting God.  Isaiah asked King Ahaz to trust that God would act to protect the chosen people.  The king chose to take other measures and the whole country paid the price for it—military invasion, the destruction of the temple, and a time of exile in a foreign country for a lot of people.  Joseph was concerned and a little confused by his uncomfortable situation but, after the dream, he placed his complete trust in God.  Now that can be a very difficult thing to do.  Sometimes the faithful thing to do or the faithful way to act goes against social norms.  The first Christmas was far from flawless.  And I’ll bet if you told anyone today that the reason you were acting a certain way was because an angel appeared to you in a dream…well, people would think you were off your rocker!  The angel’s message to Joseph was this, “I know this is not what you expected but it’s going to be okay.  God is about to do something wonderful.” 

          It’s important to note that God did not appear to Joseph while he was wide awake or praying.  It was no elaborate production.  The clouds did not part; there was no burning bush.  Certainly Joseph had his questions about the matter but the dream answered all of those questions.  As Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem, they didn’t know all the places God would lead them.  All they knew was that something wonderful had been promised and that they had been asked to follow in faith.  In the same way, today’s passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament call us to listen for God’s urging and to follow.  We don’t know all the places our journey will take us either.  We must simply continue to follow and to trust in God, even when all the details are not clear.  And we must remind ourselves that things happen not in our time frame but in God’s time frame.

          We’ve been talking quite a bit about expectation during the season of Advent.  Expectation because someone is coming.  And we know who’s coming.  Everybody knows who’s coming!  But we have a unique opportunity to practice expectation here in Pardeeville…to wait expectantly for God to act in a different area.  Most of this year has been spent better understanding who we are as a community of faith and where we feel God calling us to serve.  These are things that every church should be doing from time to time.  Our reason for all this study is to better understand what type of person is best able to lead us as we answer God’s call.  We have come together as a community of faith to describe who we want our next pastor to be.  Our Session has been working hard to find that person.  During the season of Advent, as we sense the expectation of Jesus’ birth, here in Pardeeville, we are also expecting God to continue to guide us as we search for the right person and to inspire that right person to reach out to us.  In a way, that puts us in a similar situation to the chosen people during Isaiah’s time.  They believed that God would lead them home from exile someday.  Even though they didn’t know the exact time, they continued to believe and to expect that God would act.  They believed that God would be faithful to the promise.  Here in Pardeeville, God’s promise lies in the journey to find new pastoral leadership.  And, as we move toward that day, whenever it will be, we believe that God will be faithful because…that’s kind of who God is.  That’s the hope that we can draw from the prophet Isaiah during Advent and put to work throughout the year.  Believe in God.  Trust God.  Expect God to act.  It worked 2700 years ago.  It will still work today.  Thanks be to God!