Monday, 11 December 2017

Can we trust God? A sermon for Advent

I preached again yesterday. It seems that no-one fell asleep (though perhaps I couldn’t tell; I use my reading glasses when preaching, which blur the congregation), so I thought I’d repost it here, as is increasingly my custom.

Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 1:5-20

Do you find it hard to trust God? I do. I suppose on some deep inner level, I absolutely trust God and know for sure that God is working for the good of this world. But I watch the news, I see family and friends going through the daily grind and struggling to make ends meet, I despair at my own inadequacies and sinfulness, and I can only admit: I find it hard to trust God. When will God change things for the better?

The prophet Habakkuk felt a little like this. You’ll remember that he had serious reservations about the way God planned to sort out destruction and violence in the land—by sending the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem! And destroy Jerusalem the Babylonians did! They swept in like a flood, plundered and destroyed the temple, and deported the elite, leaving the city and its remaining inhabitants in some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. This was Jerusalem’s 9/11 moment, and the moment they realised that God, whom they’d taken for granted for so long, had in fact deserted them. Habakkuk knew that this was going to happen: God had told him so—not that it made things any better. Normally, we’d want to put our trust in God for good things, not for bad. But God had promised Jerusalem would fall—and God’s promise was fulfilled.

Thirty, maybe forty years later, Jerusalem is still largely a ruin, its people getting on with life, the elite doing pretty much the same in Babylon itself. But now, in the midst of exile and displacement, a voice is heard, clear and crisp over the dissonance of Babylonian supremacy:

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Jerusalem, you’ve served your term and your debt is paid. So I, the Lord your God, am going to return! Get ready and prepare the way for me!’

What good news! God has promised to return to Jerusalem, along with all the pomp and ceremony that entails. But the people doubt:

‘Really? Do we have to? The last time you had anything to do with us—well, it didn’t end so well. You destroyed the city you claimed to have loved! So you’ll forgive us if we find it hard to trust you. We’re just like pawns, being moved around and played with as and when you see fit. Our lives are nothing but dying grass and fading flowers to you! So leave us alone. Let us get on with making the most of our lives while we still can.’

You can understand why the people are jaded; from their perspective, God hasn’t treated them particularly well in recent decades. So why should they trust God now? For one simple reason: ‘The word of our God will stand forever.’ God promised to send the Babylonians; and the Babylonians came, the Babylonians saw, and the Babylonians conquered. God had promised Jerusalem would fall—and Jerusalem fell. And now God promises to return to Jerusalem—why on earth shouldn’t that promise be fulfilled as well?

To cut a long story short, a story that spans a period of around four hundred years, let’s just say that God’s promises continued to be fulfilled. The Babylonians were conquered, the exiled people returned to Jerusalem, and the temple was rebuilt and eventually expanded. Things still weren’t fantastic for God’s people, but at least they were able to worship in accordance with the law of Moses at the temple in Jerusalem. And this is where we find ourselves now, with Zechariah the priest, offering incense as part of one of the daily sacrifices. It was a real privilege for him—priests were only rota’d to burn the incense once in a lifetime, and this was as close to the presence of God in the holy of holies as an ordinary priest could get. And so Zechariah was carrying out his duties diligently, stopping to pray, as was the custom, before he would leave the sanctuary along with the other priests.

‘The secret is to rinse thoroughly
before applying the conditioner.’
I needn’t dwell on the narrative details of today’s Gospel reading. You’ll recall, I’m sure, that the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, announces that he and his aging wife Elizabeth would have a son, John, who would lead God’s people to true repentance in preparation for the Lord’s arrival. It’s a good day for Zechariah—not only is he rota’d to offer incense, but he’s visited by one of God’s angels and promised a son as well! Not bad—but Zechariah’s response is sceptical, incredulous:

‘How will I know this will happen? I’m old, and so is my wife. Prove it—give me a sign!’

The presence of an angel isn’t enough, it seems! And so Zechariah is given a sign. It might seem a little excessive, but Zechariah is made mute and possibly deaf as well (the Greek can mean both) for daring to disbelieve God’s word through Gabriel. It is a fairly obvious sign for Zechariah that God’s word is true, that God can be trusted to bring about what God promises. And, the story continues, Elizabeth did get pregnant and, in due time, baby John was born.

Habakkuk, Isaiah, Zechariah the priest; trusting God, doubting God—what can we say about all this? Well, I started by saying I find it hard to trust God. It’s not that I don’t trust God—but I do find it hard. A large part of this is probably because I know the plans I have for me, plans to prosper and not harm me, and I find it difficult to accept that God would want anything else. But not trusting God in this way makes it very easy for me to treat God as a kind of talisman or good luck charm—God is hanging around my neck like a pendant, a magic lamp to rub when I want things done my way. The trouble is, that’s kind of how the people of Judah treated God, and we all know how that turned out! God calls us to prepare God’s way, not the other way around!

Let me repeat that: God calls us to prepare God’s way, not the other way around. This gives me hope; this is what gives me hope even when I find it hard to trust God, even when I find it hard to trust that God will come and sort out evil and injustice and violence and the rest. Our natural reaction, as fallen and sinful humans, I think is to resist God and to disbelieve what God says clearly enough:

‘The Babylonians are coming!’ [Nah!]

‘I am returning to Jerusalem!’ [Really?]

‘You are going to have a baby!’ [Hmm . . .]

Or even: ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.’

God is true to God’s word, and what God says will happen will happen. It’s hard to trust God when God makes such crazy-sounding promises, I know, but that’s beside the point: God calls us to prepare God’s way, not the other way around.

It’s worth bearing this in mind, I reckon. Just as God told the people through the prophet Isaiah that God is on the way back to Jerusalem, so we are being called to tell other people that God in Jesus Christ is on his way back. Even as we prepare for the Christmas season and celebrate Jesus’ birth with carols and gifts and chocolates and turkey, we, as the body of the risen Jesus, are preparing to welcome him back not only as King of kings and Lord of lords, but, in Isaiah’s words, as the shepherd who lovingly gathers us up in his arms and cares for us. We can trust God to do just this, because ‘the word of our God will stand forever’—and if God calls us to prepare the way for Jesus’ return, then we can trust that Jesus will return and transform all things by the Holy Spirit, and that all we do now to advance God’s kingdom will not be wasted even when it seems like the most pointless thing on earth.

So I admit it: I do find it hard to trust God. But I also believe God’s word is true, and God’s word gives me hope that whatever degree of trust I place in God is not meaningless. God promised to return to Jerusalem—and God returned. God promised Elizabeth and Zechariah a baby boy—and a baby boy was born. And God promises that Jesus will return soon—and I am convinced that Jesus will come again, this time not as a baby, but as our risen Lord, to put all things right once and for all. Come, Lord Jesus!

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