s004g98 Somerton Park 20/12/98 Advent 4

"Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly." (Matt 1:19).

The thing I want to get over today is just how exciting I think it is to have faith. It is exciting because while it seems we might be bound by rules and regulations, one thing is certain, God is not bound by rules and regulations. Both the Old Testament lesson and gospel story for today bear this out.

First the Old Testament lesson. Ahaz, king of Judah, was being besieged in the city of Jerusalem by the King of Israel. The forces of Israel were much stronger than the forces of Judah, and so all thought that Jerusalem would fall. But the Lord sends the prophet Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to worry - that despite appearances to the contrary, Jerusalem would not fall. One would have thought that Ahaz would have welcomed this news, but not him. In response to Ahaz's skepticism, God speaks to the King. The Bible is quite clear, it was God and not Isaiah. So Ahaz had even less excuse to doubt. God said to him: "Ask the Lord your God for a sign..." Now God's message was not one for Ahaz to do anything - all God wanted to do was to show him the certainty of the coming victory, but still Ahaz vacillates. "I will not put the Lord to the test."

Here Ahaz it seems was quite right. He realises that God is being a little bit naughty here. God is not supposed to invite men to put the Lord to the test, and Ahaz quotes the Bible to God. In Deuteronomy 6.16 it says "Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you tested him at Massah." But God has nothing whatsoever to do with this sort of religious scrupulosity. Fancy quoting the Bible to its author, when the Holy City itself was being besieged!! God's concern was for Ahaz and the people, whereas Ahaz was more concerned about being right. God's reply is swift: "Are you not satisfied with trying the patience of men without trying the patience of my God too?" All Ahaz was being called to do was to accept the word of comfort by God. So here God demonstrated that the Lord is not bound by rules and regulations, whether those rules and regulations were set down by men or by God.

The Gospel story again shows that God is not bound by rules and regulations. The angel of the Lord comes to Joseph while he is pondering what to do about his pregnant wife-to-be. He had decided to spare her publicity (this was the humanitarian thing to do) but the angel comes to change his mind. But if you were a Jew and knew what the law demanded, one would expect the angel to be at least consistent with what scripture (the Word of God) said. One of the translations gives the thoughts of Joseph as that he had decided "to divorce her informally". This is a lovely turn of phrase because if one looks at what he really should have done - to divorce her "formally" - he would have had to take Mary to the door of her father's house and publicly and ritually have her stoned to death by her fellow citizens and neighbours! This is what the law specified in Deuteronomy 22.20-21. But God has none of this - either the "humane" solution of Joseph or the "inhuman" scriptural regulations. God wanted Joseph to be Jesus' foster father, and that ought to bring some comfort to those who also have had foster parents. Joseph does as the angel says and takes Mary to his home, and in doing so makes his contribution to the salvation of the world.

Finally the Virgin Birth itself shows how God is bound by neither man's laws, God's own laws, or in fact even the natural law. Many people find this difficult to believe and I don't blame them. I find it impossible to explain, but I have personally no great problem with it. I find no reason to doubt that God could do this. That his conception and birth were different from all others doesn't make him less of a man to me - but perhaps the teaching does to some others and I am sure that God would understand this too. Jesus as a person revealed in the gospel stories seems totally remarkable to me without this added belief. The Jesus I have come to know is totally remarkable to me without this added belief. That his conception and birth should also be remarkable therefore is not remarkable to me at all.

To return to my point about the life of faith being exciting. It is exciting because God is not bound by rules, regulations or the natural law. When we think of how we are to act, firstly we might read the Bible. Yet if we were to simply to look at the rules and regulations there, we would be forever thinking of God as a score-keeper - keeping count of how many times or how seriously we transgressed, a bit like Ahaz. Naturally we wouldn't expect God to take note of how many times we avoided temptation or succeeded! Or we could be guided by our common humanity, not doing harm to others even when we might be justified, but again we would be looking at God still negatively, as a rather powerless being - a bit like Joseph. But with the Holy Spirit guiding our lives, positive grace comes to our lives to also transcend the rules and regulations, the desire to simply avoid conflict with others, and to enable us to reach out to others in love and let them be who they are ...

I find it interesting and significant that Jesus was described as "Jesus of Nazareth". There is, I understand, no reference what-so-ever to a place called Nazareth outside of the New Testament. However clearly there was a strong tradition that Jesus came from northern Israel rather than from south in Bethlehem, and also that he was called a Nazarene. One possible reason for this might be that "Netzer" is Hebrew for "sprout" or "shoot".

However there were also the Nazirites - those who were specially consecrated to God and never cut their hair. The most famous OT Nazirite was Samson, who was the one who was tricked by Delilah and lost his strength when his hair was cut. It was he that slew the 1000 Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass. His conception was also miraculous, and he became quite a wild and woolly character, so much so that the Judeans came and bound him to hand him over to the Philistines, before he could cause more trouble. Shades of Jesus indeed! (The other Nazirite in the Old Testament was Samuel, a much more staid character. His birth was more akin to John the Baptist's, in that Hannah was old and barren, yet she was enabled to conceive a child in her old age, with her husband as father.) Samson however was the one conceived by the angel of the Lord, in parallel to the Blessed Virgin Mary so Samson and Jesus are therefore paralleled - both are festive people - full of life.

Ahaz rejected God's word of comfort. I wonder if we too find it difficult to believe that God is actually pleased with us, that God actually does like us and love us and care for us? Perhaps we feel that God might then ask too much of us, more than we might feel able to give? Do we actually believe that God likes us more because we spend so much time on our knees? or only doing the "right" thing? How sad this is!

I begin to wonder if much of our own various pictures of God are actually more akin to the realities of our own personalities - myself as much as anyone else's. In this sense we all, at least in part, choose the sort of God we worship. As I have been thinking recently, I wouldn't worship the God that Ahaz believed in - someone who is more concerned about us being righteous - and I wouldn't worship the God who likes those who spend lots of time in Church more than those who don't. Neither would I worship a wrathful God who sent Jesus to die on the cross to placate the divine anger.

If anyone else wants to worship these other sorts of God, then I have no doubt biblical justification can be found for doing so. Quoting Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek won't mean much to me. I will not say a word to dissuade anyone from believing in their own perception of God, because that is all that I do myself.

However if I'm not attracted to someone else's perception of God, I have no interest in berating myself for not doing so myself or threatening others with eternal damnation if they don't believe in particular terms. The God I believe in wants me to live an exciting life - when so often I've been content to avoid doing the wrong thing because I'm likely to be caught ...

As an aside, I rarely read other people's sermons on the `net, but that is not because I don't appreciate other people's perceptions. The difficulty I find is that I so frequently find wonderful insights in other people's words and they get used in my own sermons. One can have too much of a good thing - and my sermons get a succession of other people's insights. Please take from my words what you find valuable and discard (with gay abandon) that which you find irrelevant or untrue to your own experience.

I take much heart that God's words to Ahaz were simply ones of comfort and joy, and in fact, that is all God wants to get across to us too - whether we are staid or outrageous. I take great heart that the angel of the Lord encouraged Joseph to take Mary as she was and that despite appearances completely to the contrary, she was indeed the "handmaid of the Lord".

And I've just thought of another thing I take great heart about. I've suddenly realised that the Bible tells us that Elizabeth and Mary had a great conversation about the coming birth, and Simeon and Anna speak to Joseph and Mary in the Temple after the Birth. We are even privy to the thoughts of both Joseph and Mary - but we have no record of Mary and Joseph ever discussing these things together ... Perhaps they weren't the sort of couple who never needed to see a marriage guidance counsellor. Perhaps they weren't such a different couple after all and found communication difficult - despite all these wonderful experiences of God.

God takes us as we are and I don't have to convert or convince anyone of anything, and I find that very liberating and exciting, that I don't have to have Biblical justification for everything I do or don't do, that I can be myself ... for so can everyone else ...


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