Sunday, December 18, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 7:10-16 The sign of Immanuel
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7 Paul’s greeting to the church at Rome
Matthew 1:18-25 A God near at hand
Sermon: The Unspoken Prayer of Hope
What do your prayers sound like when things aren’t going as planned? When there are surprises and snafus that have you up at night and wringing your hands throughout the day? What do you pray when that “best laid plans of mice and men” quote creates a nagging headache of anxiety where visions of success and happiness and peace used to be? What do you pray when all seems lost, disappointment is huge, and the proverbial drain is swallowing not only future plans, but even any hope for the future?
For some of us, these painful times are the very instants that we forget to pray or we avoid prayer. For others we know exactly what to pray for, we think we know what will fix things, what will get plans back on track and thus (we think) what will restore hope. But then we get frustrated when God doesn’t agree or act accordingly. And still for others we see the crumbling of dreams as just another example that God doesn’t love us, and so we think, why pray when we are forsaken in the first place?
King Ahaz is having one of those days, but God through the prophet Isaiah actually invites Ahaz to pray. He is told ask (aka pray for) anything you want.
Now safety and security were the king’s top priorities as the Northern kingdom Israel was joining in alliance with the kingdom of Aram. This unholy alliance had their sights set on defeating Ahaz’s southern kingdom of Judah and taking the great city of Jerusalem. But God being a jealous husband, never liked it when his people joined with others rather than trusting in God. “Don’t worry, Ahaz” God says, “let me give you a sign to help silence your fears.” (In Old Testament fashion it was typical for kings to ask for miraculous signs from prophets so as to prove the prophet’s connectedness with God.) But this time God was offering Ahaz a sign to assure the troubled king that God was with him. “Name it, Ahaz. Anything as deep as the deepest pits of hell, or as high as the highest heights of heaven; what will it be?”
With all the honey-dripping tongue of a politician, Ahaz feigns piety and goes the avoiding prayer route. “Oh, no God, I would never put you to the test.” All the while he is testing God daily by worshiping idols and seeking security through negotiating a treaty with the super power of the day: Assyria. Perhaps Ahaz is afraid to pray for a sign because if God makes good on his request, if God answers his prayer, Ahaz just might have to change his thinking, change his relationships, if God makes good on the requested sign, Ahaz might just have to start trusting in God, the one who is unseen, and forsake the idols and the allies that Ahaz can see. If he gets a sign from God, he just might have to live by faith.
With Ahaz’s refusal to pray for a sign that will convince him, and convict him; Isaiah, on God’s behalf, speaks the dreaded: “Therefore.” Now most of the time, “therefore” being spoken by a prophet means a threat of punishment will follow. You didn’t do this or you did do that, therefore, God is going to do blank (and the blank was filled in with something horrible). But this time, therefore, is followed by a promise. Since Ahaz couldn’t muster up a prayer for a sign that would communicate hope in the face of fear, God, in a display of love and mercy offers a sign – the promise of the birth of a baby. A birth being a wonderful sign of future hope. And the baby’s name will be a constant reminder to everyone of God’s presence – Immanuel; meaning: God with us. The king didn’t know what he wanted from God, because he was looking for salvation in all the wrong places. He didn’t know what to pray. But God answered the unspoken, unconceived prayer with exactly what the king needed – hope.
Perhaps it is a little easier for us to understand Joseph’s prayers as his world and future dreams came crashing down. We’ve never been kings or rulers, most of us will never have to worry about crafting foreign policy for a nation in our care. But Joseph is certainly much closer to us, to our experience. A simple laborer, who is just trying to scratch out a simple life. We can safely assume what his dream was: to marry a good, hometown woman, to have children, and to live a quiet life in a town unknown to most of the world. But then Mary, his fiancé, came to him with shocking news and suddenly everything must be reconsidered. She is pregnant and the child is not his. In their society she could be stoned for this. Think how devastated Joseph must have been. This is nightmare, not what he dreamed. Not what he planned. Perhaps he and Mary had grown up together. Perhaps he had been dreaming this wedding day for a long time. Did his heart break when he heard this most devastating news? Was he angry when he saw his future implode? Yet, he did not act out of his anger, instead, he planned to deal with the hurt and the loss quietly. But it was deep hurt and profound loss none the less. Where would he even start with prayers to the God who felt so far away in a moment like this?
Like in King Ahaz’s story, in the face of hopelessness God takes the initiative. An angel comes with that most characteristic of heavenly greetings – do not be afraid – and answers a prayer that Joseph could never have imagined. “This is not what you planned, Joseph, but it is a part of a far bigger plan. A plan to dispel fear in everyone that sees in this baby that God is truly with us, that gives hope to everyone that calls him Immanuel. A plan to save the world God so perfectly loves. A plan to reconcile all of creation to God.” Joseph hears the answer to his unspoken prayer and trusts. And hope is born.
Perhaps hope is something we don’t pray for. How can we? It takes hope to pray in the first place. Perhaps hope is the prayer that God prays for us, answers without our speaking it, plants the seed and births in us. Hope is there for us in Immanuel – God with us, and, thus, recognized when we speak the “yes” of Mary and Joseph to the promises and plans of God. Perhaps the prayer of hope is not an asking for, but rather a thanking for all that has been and looking with faith to all that will be.
The prayer of hope has been answered time and time again by God who frees slaves, brings home exiles, guides faithful kings, calls and empowers unworthy servants, renews creation. And who, in the ultimate hope-giving action, sent the Son, Jesus the Christ, to bring God’s kingdom and to teach of God’s reign, who healed and restored those who were suffering and feeling cut off, who lived and loved, and who finally was killed by a world afraid of such radical hope, only to restore hope forever in his glorious resurrection.
The unspoken prayer of hope is answered by God even in our midst: in the waters of the font that speak of our adoption, our forgiveness by grace, and our new life in Christ. Answered in Christ’s presence at the table in the bread and the wine. Answered in the reading, teaching and preaching of God’s word. Answered in the Spirit’s working through us and through the community of faith that we are. The prayer of hope is answered in the cross that always stands before us. And at his time of year, we look to the stable and see the prayer of hope (that could never in our wildest dreamings have been articulated) we see it answered with a birth –always a sign of hope – but this baby is our hope and our salvation, this baby is Immanuel – God with us. There lies our hope. – O come, let us worship him, let us follow him, let us rise with him. Come, let us thank our God who continues to birth hope in us for the world.
The Rev. Mark Erson, Pastor