Sunday, December 18, 2016

Phil Kniss: The unpromising promise

Advent 4: God’s restoration is at hand
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

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If you’ve been here the last few Sundays,
you might be picking up on some slight repetition
in our scriptures and sermons.
It’s not an accident.
We’re not lazy.
We don’t lack creativity,
just because we don’t invent something
entirely new every week.

This is Advent . . . the season we are called to repeatedly ponder—
ponder again, and ponder anew—
the very good news that a saving and healing God
came into and lived in a very broken world years ago,
and continues to come and live among us today,
in our very broken world,
and will come again.
It was good news then.
It is good news now.
And it is news that bears repeating, a lot.
Because it is easy to forget.
So each Sunday we take this same bit of good news—
Emmanuel, God with us—
and hold it up to a slightly different light,
gaze at it from a slightly different angle.

Today, I invite us to look at this news
with a small but healthy dose of skepticism.
Yes, I invite you to be a skeptic.
To ask some probing questions.
Or rather, one particular question,
“How good is this news, really?”
Is this the news we actually want and need?
Is it enough of a promise,
to get us through dark times?

Immanuel. God with us.
When it all boils down,
does that promise turn out to feel a bit . . . un-promising?
a little inauspicious?
a tad underwhelming?

How do you suppose the promise felt to the first recipient of it?
And I’m not talking about Mary and Joseph,
when the angel delivered that message to them,
telling them Mary would bear a son,
who would be named Jesus,
who would be called Immanuel.

I’m talking about King Ahaz, over 700 years earlier,
one of the more wicked and corrupt kings of Judah.
He was the first one to hear this promise of Immanuel.

Here was the situation facing Ahaz,
King Ahaz and the nation of Judah
were on the verge of being annihilated,
by their own Hebrew brothers to the north—Israel,
who allied with Syria.
Together the armies of Israel and Syria marched on Jerusalem,
and set siege against it,
ready to beat down the city gates.
Ahaz was overpowered, to say the least . . . and terrified.
A few verses earlier in Isaiah, it says,
“the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people
shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

So God sent the prophet Isaiah to visit Ahaz,
to encourage him to trust God,
and not seek help from other nations.
Isaiah said, “Ask for a sign from God.”
Ahaz refused to ask.
Isaiah said, “Okay, the Lord will give you a sign anyway.
A young woman is pregnant, and will give birth to a son,
and will name him Immanuel.”

That’s the promise to Ahaz. A pregnant woman in their community.
Two vast armies, swords in hand, were outside the gates.
One could assume defeat, in a matter of days.
Ahaz and the people of Judah would be crushed.
And the prophet’s sign of hope,
is that some nine months down the road,
a baby would be born, named Immanuel,
as a reminder of God’s presence.
And in time, the child would grow up,
and by the time he reached a stage in life
where he had moral judgement,
the age of accountability, say 12-18 years,
by that time, Isaiah said,
“The kings outside your gates will be no more.
They will have lost their land and kingdoms.”
Oh, but don’t worry.
For right now, there is this pregnant woman in the city.
So be of good cheer.

As signs from God go, doesn’t that seem a little unremarkable?
God gave Noah a rainbow.
And Moses a talking burning bush.
And Elijah, fire from heaven that burned up water.
And Hezekiah, a sun that moved backward in the sky.

King Ahaz is right now in need of divine intervention.
He needs a miracle.
He needs God to step in and rescue, and save.

What he needs is not what he gets.
He gets a child named “Emmanuel”—
a symbolic gift only.
The name is to remind the people of something,
because the word “Emmanuel” means something.

It does not mean,
“Hold on tight, I’m coming in now.
I’ll get you out of your mess.”
No. Immanuel means, “I am with you . . . so trust me.”

Well, as the story unfolded, Jerusalem did not fall,
thanks, no doubt, to its strong walls and gates.
The armies eventually pulled back.
But King Ahaz ignored Isaiah and the promise of Emmanuel.
He went off and sold his soul to the king of Assyria,
became a weak puppet king, under the Assyrian Empire,
gave up on the worship of Yahweh,
sacrificed his own children as burnt offerings
to the Assyrian gods,
did all sorts of unspeakable things,
and died at age 36.

So to review,
at one of the lowest moments of the kingdom of Judah,
God gave a rather unpromising promise.
God did not promise rescue.
God did not promise immediate defeat of their enemy.
God promised to be present with them in their predicament.
And that wasn’t enough for Ahaz.
He went off to secure peace on his terms.

The whole situation, and the prophesy,
was repeated, in essence, 700 years later.
Again the Jews were in bondage,
being brutally oppressed,
burdened by a crushing sense of hopelessness.

This time it was Caesar and the Roman Empire.
But the same, underwhelming and unpromising promise was given.
It was Isaiah’s message to Ahaz . . . updated, version 2.
“A young pregnant woman will give birth to a baby,
named Emmanuel,
to remind you of God’s presence.”

The oppressed people in Jesus’ day
were looking for a rescuer.
They were looking for a rebel king to take charge . . . now.
They were looking for someone to overpower and unseat
the brutal Kings Herod and Caesar.
They asked for a savior, and got one.
But not the kind of savior they wanted,
and, shall we say, needed.

Thinking back over my childhood,
I can well remember some gifts that were . . . well, disappointing.
There’s nothing quite like expecting a new set of Matchbox cars,
and getting a new pair of underwear . . .
hand-made, no less . . .
by one’s mother trying out a new sewing skill!
My mother listens to all my sermons online after they get posted,
so let me just add, “Love ya, Mom! I’m not bitter . . . anymore.”

And I’m sure you know what I’m saying.
At one time or another, either you,
or some brutally honest child,
opened a gift, and blurted out, “Is this all I get?”

Surely, that was the reaction of King Ahaz to Isaiah.
It would have been the reaction of the oppressed Jews in Palestine,
when Joseph and Mary told them of the angel’s messages,
“Is this all we get?”
A helpless, vulnerable baby with an uncertain future?
You call this a gift of hope?

That is the skeptical question that I lay before us this morning.
It’s a question that surely comes to all our minds,
from time to time,
when we face a season of suffering,
or some terribly trying circumstance.
When the core promise is not rescue, but presence,
it’s only natural, it’s not heresy to be honest,
and ask of God, “Is this all we get?”
Is this what we need to embrace, and call it hope?

Now, I’m tempted to stop my sermon right there,
and let us all wrestle with that question in our own way,
for days to come . . .

I will have a little more to say, but let’s take a temporary stop,
and turn to HWB 172, the sermon response hymn.
172, “O Come, O come, Emmanuel,”
a beloved hymn of Advent and Christmas,
pleading for Emmanuel to come,
for God’s promised presence to be made known,
made manifest.

I love this hymn, especially with the uplifting refrain of “Rejoice!”
But before I finish my sermon,
let’s sing the first four verses only,
and eliminate the refrain completely.
Let’s feel the angst of this prayer.
Let’s sing the verses through, in a plaintive unison voice,
and hold out the final note on each verse.
There’s no time signature,
so we can sing a note as long as it needs to be sung.
So take the last note of each verse,
at the end of the third line,
and hold as long as I indicate.
As it resonates, reflect on what we’re praying for, in song.
And we’ll stop at the end of verse four.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny;From depths of hell thy people save, and give them vict’ry o’er the grave. 
O come, thou Day-spring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. 
O come, thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home;Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.

Without knowing . . .
what darkness you are battling right now,
or what deep suffering leads you to beg for relief,
or what injustice prompts you to cry out for God’s intervention . . .
without diminishing any of the darkness we face,
I want to say I do have hope,
not in spite of
this seemingly underwhelming promise of presence,
but because of it.

I am deeply moved when I contemplate a God who—
rather than manipulate the world
and force us all, like puppets, into obedient submission—
would choose, out of pure love,
to join us in the middle of our mess,
to be with us in it,
to even take on that darkness with us,
to feel its weight,
to experience its gravity,
and sacrifice all, in order to redeem it.

Maybe “God-with-us” isn’t so un-promising after all.
Maybe there’s more to it, than saying,
“That’s as good as it gets in this life.”
Maybe . . . it’s what we really need, for fullness of life.
Maybe rescue is not the path to life we think it is.
Avoiding suffering may not take us where we need to go.

No, Emmanuel—“God-with-us”—does not mean an end to evil.
It does not mean we will be rescued from bad things that happen.
It does not mean we can always expect our circumstances
to change for the better.
But it does mean that God chooses incarnation.
God chose, God chooses, and God will keep choosing
to enter into our circumstances with us,
and then act to redeem those circumstances.
Emmanuel is God present with us.
God in-carnate . . . in flesh.

It’s an astonishing gift.
God chooses not to look on us from afar.
But to join us.
To enter into the darkness with us.
It may not bring immediate relief.
But it is a marvelous thing to ponder.
It is a spiritual wonder.
It is an overwhelming expression
of the love of the Creator for the created.

God’s action to come be with us,
was an act of supreme love.
God’s deepest love for humanity
was embodied in that child in the manger.

Forget all the hokey seasonal nostalgia
of manger and stable and animals and starlit scenes of tranquility.
God wasn’t trying to create a mystical “feel-good” kind of love.
God wasn’t creating warm fuzzies that night in Bethlehem.

God’s love was a purposeful love.
It was love with a mission.
It was love that was bound to confront the evil of this world.
It was love that would bring healing to the broken
and salvation to the lost.
Through this child Jesus,
God intended to love the world into wholeness.
That’s more powerful than any weapon
we might be tempted to pick up
to confront the enemy on our enemy’s terms.
That’s more effective in bringing about God’s dream of shalom
than any wish-dream we might harbor,
to be rescued from our suffering
and lifted up and away into some imaginary utopia.

Life is hard.
Life is unpredictable.
Life is host to a lot of pain.
Life is sometimes horribly unjust.
But God is with us in it.
And even now, we are living under the rule of the
Kingdom of our God, and of his Christ,
and he shall reign forever and ever.
(but we have to wait till next Sunday to sing those lines).
Under God’s rule,
love and peace, with justice, will overcome.

That may not be the promise that we, in our natural human impatience,
are wishing for.
But it’s the promise we need.
And it’s the promise we have received from God.

It’s worth rejoicing over, even as we name our unfulfilled longing.

So let’s sing the rest of “O come, O come, Emmanuel,”
verses 5 and 6,
in full voice, with the refrain, with the organ!

—Phil Kniss, December 18, 2016

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