Advent 4 December 19, 2010

Isaiah 7:10-16                                                                      

Romans 1:1-7                                                                      

Matthew 1:18-25

Some book I read once on preaching advised that you should always look for the thing in the readings that made you most uncomfortable, or seemed most puzzling, and preach on that: the good news in the bad news, I think the author called it. Today’s readings seemed like a pretty good candidate for that. They all deal in one way or another with obedience.

In the reading from Isaiah, the Lord speaks to King Ahaz, one of the bad kings of Judah. Ask a sign of me, the Lord says; ask for a sign about what is about to befall your kingdom, and what you should do about it. But Ahaz refuses to ask. He’d rather go it alone. Disobedience.

In the reading from Romans, we hear St. Paul saying that his apostleship, the grace he’s received from Christ, was given to him so that he might “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” He writes, in other words, so that you and I might be brought to obedience. So, again, that word.

And Matthew’s lovely gospel account, so familiar to us at this Christmas season, when stripped of its tinsel is all about obedience. Joseph is engaged to Mary (the scholars tell us they were probably young teenagers, because that’s when people got married in those days). He discovers that she’s pregnant, and not by him because they haven’t been “living together.” Joseph is a good guy, so he’s not going to make a fuss about this, but he’s not going to go ahead and marry the girl either; he’s going to “dismiss her quietly” so as to spare her public disgrace (which in those days could have involved stoning her to death). 

But enter an angel from God, who tells Joseph that something bigger than him is at work in all this. Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit and her child will be the Son of God. Joseph, then, is to carry through with the marriage plans and name the child Jesus, meaning God saves. And this is what Joseph does: obedience. It’s one of those lovely pairings with the Old Testament reading: Ahaz’s disobedience and Joseph’s obedience. In the first case, the fall of a kingdom; in the other, the birth of a kingdom. God’s great design worked out inexorably down the centuries. And obedience is the key.

Obedience gets a poor reception in our culture today. If we had one of those church signs where you post the title of the sermon, and I posted “Obedience,” I probably wouldn’t even have had to show up and turn on the lights this morning. No one would have come to be lectured on obedience; especially not in this “Christmas season.” As the Encyclopedia of Theology says, “For modern man with his belief in autonomy, obedience largely appears to be merely a necessary evil, not a virtue.” That is, we realize that a certain level of obedience is essential, for our children for instance. But we’d like to see it reduced to the minimum, because our ideal is the maximum possible self-realization. “Live free or die.”

The Encyclopedia of Theology had some helpful light to shed on the topic of obedience, however. It turns out the word for obedience, in both Semitic and Indo-European languages, derives from the word “to hear.” And this is, of course, what all three readings this morning are about. Ahaz refuses to open himself to hear or receive a sign from God – though God sends one anyway, the famous “virgin shall conceive and bear a child” sign that gets picked up centuries later with Mary. Paul preaches and writes so that the Gentiles, the people outside God’s covenant, may hear and be brought to salvation. And Joseph listens to the angel. So obedience is first of all about hearing – about what we listen and attend to.

That’s an important beginning, because there’s nothing coercive in that understanding of obedience. Last summer a couple of us were closing up here at the end of a Sunday morning when a young man who lived just down the road came in. He and his wife had just moved in and they had a new baby. He wondered if we “did baptisms.” They weren’t interested in becoming members or attending church, he explained, but they wanted to give their child a chance to choose a faith for himself when he grew up. Such a familiar story: that desire for maximum self-autonomy. But, of course, how are we to choose when we have not heard? As the great theologian Paul Tillich used to say, you have to “stand under” in order to understand.

And that, I think, is where the other side of obedience comes in. There is indeed a necessary element of discipline, of self-sacrifice, involved in obedience. As we say so often here, to be a Christian these days – and I think to be a true Christian always – is to swim against the tide, to be countercultural. I can tell which children at Holy Cross are likely to end up being active Christians (and is there really any other kind?). It’s the ones whose parents get them to church week in, week out. If they come, they hear. If they hear – if they “stand under” – then they really can make a choice for themselves when they’re grown up.

In the streets and malls around us at this season, on television, the music on the radio – there is plenty of “Christmas.” But it’s all sentimental, if you stop to think about it. “Sentimental” means trying to capture the feeling without requiring any act of the will, any change of lifestyle. That is the message our children, and we adults, “stand under” in the world around us.

But as our observance of Advent draws to a close, we hear this morning a deeper message. The actors in the sacred Christmas drama— the Virgin, St. Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men – they’re actors in a drama about obedience. And at its heart is Jesus, obedient in his birth into human life, obedient in his life of prophetic ministry, obedient in his death on the Cross. Obedient to God. So let us, too, draw near in faithful obedience, and stand under him who is our Lord and Savior.

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