Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday 23 December 2007 - When We Cannot Save Ourselves

This sermon is for the 4th Sunday of Advent. It's based on the following texts: Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 1:18-25



Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and this season of repentance and preparation for the birth of Christ is drawing to a close. This year is another year when Christmas day follows on quite quickly from the last Sunday in Advent and so, rather than 4 or even 6 days of final preparation, we plunge headlong from the last week of Advent into Christmas day without a lot of time to think.

The American theologian Walter Brueggemann had this to say about Advent: ‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’

In today’s Old and New Testament readings, we hear stories of two people who probably felt very much under siege. One, quite literally.

King Ahaz

The first person was King Ahaz of the Kingdom of Judah. The holy city of Jerusalem was part of the kingdom of Judah and Judah was threatened by her enemies: the Kingdom of Israel was one of these enemies and Syria was another.

The King was worried that his country would be attacked at any moment and he wanted to make an alliance with the kingdom of Assyria in order to strengthen his strategic position. But the prophet Isaiah comes to the king and tells him, basically, ‘Don’t worry, God will protect Jerusalem and, just so you can be sure this is the hand of God, ask for a sign and it will be granted to you.’

Ahaz declines to ask God for a sign and Isaiah tells him, then God will give you this sign anyway: a young woman is going to have a son and she will name him Immanuel – God with Us. Before this boy is about two years old, the age when children begin to have a sense of self, all of your enemies will have ceased to be of any threat.

Basically, Isaiah says to king Ahaz, don’t try to take the matter into your own hands, simply trust in the Lord and within the next two to three years, you will see that your kingdom has remained intact.

I don’t know if they had the saying then, but I imagine king Ahaz might very well have been thinking ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves’. In fact, this may very well have been why he declined to ask for a sign: because he wanted to take matters into his own hands. King Ahaz was not known for being the most pious of Judah’s kings – it was he who introduced the worship of the Baal into the kingdom. King Ahaz probably preferred to take matters into his own hands rather than to trust in God to save his kingdom. He didn’t seem to think that there was much use in trying to find God’s will in his situation; he wanted to save himself.

‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’

Joseph of Nazareth

And then, in this morning’s Gospel reading, we have Joseph. Matthew chooses to tell the story of Jesus’ identity and ancestry by having the angel announcing the conception of Jesus to Joseph rather than to Mary. And the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid.

I imagine that Joseph must have been quite afraid actually, and the passage gives us some indication of his dilemma. We are told that Joseph is a man who keeps the Jewish law – he is a ‘righteous’ man. And the law as set out in Deuteronomy is that a betrothed woman who becomes pregnant by another man is to be stoned at the city gate.

The passage also gives us strong evidence that Mary’s stoning would not be acceptable to Joseph, but we can be certain that the requirement to keep the law would have weighed heavily upon him. It was certainly a huge dilemma: the requirement of the law on one hand and the compassion of a good man on the other hand. Which option should Joseph choose? If ever there was a situation where a person could not save themselves, this must be a prime example.

And at the point when it appears that there is no way out of this predicament, an angel of God appears to him and presents him with an utterly preposterous story: That Mary has not been unfaithful and that the baby she is carrying is going to be both Saviour and God With Us – Jesus and Immanuel.

And somehow, by the time the angel leaves, Joseph is at peace and he is ready to stand by Mary as her husband. Joseph was ready. His heart was open and, unlike Ahaz, he was alert to be able to see God working in a new way.

‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’

Are we Ready?

So the question for this morning is: Are we ready? Are we ready for the saving one? Are we alert to God’s presence all around us? Do we understand that Immanuel, God with Us, is present in our lives even when we may be having trouble perceiving him?

The thing that I find slightly frustrating about the story of the annunciation to Joseph is that he apparently goes from a fairly intense wilderness experience to complete peace in God’s purposes in just eight short verses. If you take the story at a very literal level, Joseph lays down to bed one night wracked with emotional pain and, by dawn, he is at peace with the very difficult task that God has given him to do.

Most of the time, real life is not that way at all and, coming to a place of peace with the events of our lives is often extremely difficult and takes a lot more than just a few hours between dusk and dawn. When circumstances are difficult for us or for those we love, it can be hard to see God in it and don’t we sometimes wish that an angel would appear and say ‘Fear not’ and make all our anxieties go away?

But this story isn’t meant to be a novel and it’s not meant to spin out the situation so that readers enter into Joseph’s anxiety and struggle in real time. This story is meant to be a narrative about who God is and what his purposes are for humanity and for his creation.

God himself will enter into the world and so the child is to be named Immanuel, God with Us. Secondly, the child will be the saviour of his people and so he will be named Yesuha – Joshua or Jesus. The child’s ancestry will be both human and divine.

Matthew spends the first part of Chapter 1 outlining the genealogy of Joseph and Jesus: a genealogy meant to emphasise that God’s purposes for his creation are to be displayed in his covenant relationship with Israel. God’s character and identity are intrinsically bound up with the people of Israel, with human history, and with God’s physical creation. God’s promise to all of humanity is that God is here and his Spirit is with us.

The Good News of Advent

Walter Brueggemann said: ‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’ This is both a call to preparation and, it’s also a promise.

It is a very real part of the human faith experience that there are times when we find it difficult to perceive God’s presence at all, never mind perceiving him as being present all around us.

Like King Ahaz, we might be tempted to think that there is something that we can do to save ourselves, when in reality there is nothing we can do.

Like Joseph prior to the angel’s visit, we may sometimes find ourselves in a state of fear and anxiety.

The Gospel story this morning is not telling us to ‘snap out of it’ and help ourselves. The Gospel story this morning assures us that God has made a promise for Good with humanity and that God has kept his promise in the birth of his Son.

God is here with us. Immanuel, fully present in our humanity. Salvation is here in the birth of Jesus: Salvation from sin and guilt, Salvation from death and destruction, from poverty, sickness and hunger, from despair and hopelessness.

Whether or not we perceive God’s presence, whether or not we feel God’s presence, God’s promise is there and it has been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.


In a few minutes, we will come to the Lord’s Table where we remember that Jesus promised to be with us whenever we celebrate this sacrament in remembrance of him. As we remember, we use real, physical things – bread and wine – the common foods of our everyday life.

And we remember that the God of Moses brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and that, in Christ, his covenant with humanity has been fulfilled.

As we remember Jesus’ promise to be with us in the Lord’s supper, I pray that our hearts will also be ready to receive the love of God in Christ as he comes to us in the birth of the baby Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man. Amen

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