Here’s my sermon for the BCP services I led or contributed to at All Saints, Odiham on Sunday. The voice just about held out, and hopefully the 8am congregation weren’t too upset that I stopped the service briefly to check out the source of the noise of running water that some of us could hear… it turned out to be a radiator behind the high altar gurgling air, but then they have just have just had their heating overhauled massively!
Have you ever changed your mind?
Or had it changed for you?
That ‘still small voice’ might sometimes be of calm, but God has a habit changing our plans, and whilst it might be accompanied by a sense of peace that he’s in control, it won’t necessarily make life easier.
Believe me, I know what I’m talking about: 10 years ago, Peter (the LLM taking the Matins service I preached at) was my Old Testament tutor and I was in my first year studying to be a Reader! God you see had other ideas [point to clerical collar]… it just took me another five years to listen properly, give in to them and do as God wanted!!
Mary’s fiancé Joseph, bless him, didn’t have five years. God had to make the message clear and change Joseph’s mind; overnight.
Ahaz? Well God tried to make him listen through the prophet Isaiah, but with less success. The importance of Ahaz’s story is the battle between faith and unbelief, and whilst there would be a faithful remnant in Israel with whom God would dwell and become incarnate in Jesus, it would be no thanks to Ahaz.
As Christians, we would like to think, or perhaps we would like others to think, that we are aware enough of God being with us, that we can hear his promptings, and respond to them. We’d possibly prefer it if God hadn’t got some unforeseen and imminent parenting role in mind, though for some it would be a welcome miracle. But it’s not always easy either to listen, or believe that God is talking to us, especially when the circumstances or instructions seem impossibly bizarre or difficult.
Ahaz is threatened and afraid of an invading Assyrian army when we meet him in Isaiah 7. If he remains neutral he protects God’s people, if he doesn’t, he won’t. Indecision is worse still. After the failure of one encounter between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz, God is now metaphorically jumping up and down, waving his arms around and shouting, “pick me, pick me… ask me, I’ll show you what to do!”. But in the feigned piety of his unwillingness to test the Lord, Ahaz puts the lie to any sense of faith-filled readiness to be guided out of the situation by God. He’d rather seek mortals who will make his problem their own.
Joseph is likewise a troubled man, and has given much thought to how he should respond to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. She has obviously explained to him the story of Gabriel’s visit, for Joseph sees no question of any unfaithfulness. Instead he sees this work of the Holy Spirit as none of his concern, and has resolved out of kindness not to open Mary to inaccurate ridicule and disgrace but leave her quietly to her own and God’s, devices.
Yet, Jesus was to be Joseph’s concern, to be welcomed into Joseph’s lineage, life and home. This was not someone else’s problem, a buck to be passed, but it takes a direct message from God to get the point across to Joseph. God is making himself present in humanity in a similar way to that which he has throughout Israel’s history; by acting unexpectedly to make tangible his powerful love and grace. The name Emmanuel, does not denote a quiet and unassuming presence, and thus, just for starters, God requires both Mary AND Joseph to have their lives turned upside down!
We are not Ahaz, or Joseph. But we do have battles of our own, or encounter unexpected situations among our families and friends. We do have to make difficult decisions about what we should do, whether that be to respond to a call to ministry [smile], or about the ongoing care of a loved one, or anything else. We do look at the decisions made by organisations in which we have an interest, and sometimes think we know better. We do forget to listen for God, not realising that he is leaping up and down trying to attract our attention, or speaking to us in our dreams, trying to show us the way forward.
In Joseph’s dream the angel says the child that Joseph will have joint responsibility for raising is to have a further, more common name than the overtly explanatory Emmanuel ‘God with us’. Jesus is a shortened form of the Hebrew name Joshua, common in that era because the Jews were hoping for a national liberator. But this Jesus was not being born to liberate Israel from the oppression of others, but from their own unfaithfulness to God, their ability to limit his power in their own lives. “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” Joseph is told. For as we will be reminded in the coming days from Isaiah 53:5 he will be pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. Theirs, and ours.
If we want to find our way out of a tricky situation, or find our thoughts invaded by an unwelcome army of concerns, how often do we seek other people who we can persuade to agree with us, buy us time, or get us out of trouble? Or how much do we rely on our own judgement of what we are capable of coping with, and leave others to go it alone with the difficult situations they find themselves in? Perhaps it’s not about changing other people’s minds… but about changing ours?
Our sins, those that Jesus came to save us from, are often not the obvious crimes which we might well associate with the Ten Commandments and think ourselves well distanced from, but perhaps more closely linked to an inability to listen to God, who in Jesus the sin bearer is also the guide actively seeking to show us our way forward. Ours, not anyone else’s.
If we believe in the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ, we have to believe in his sovereign power to speak to us. If we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Emmanuel is still with us seeking to liberate us from our sin, it may be necessary to change OUR minds, OUR thoughts on the best way forward, OUR plans, so that they are in line with GOD’s mind, GOD’s way forward, and GOD’s plans.