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Trust is a thing that is in very short supply today. We live in the age of fake fill-in-the-blank. Of course, it’s not only “fake” but we also have Deepfake apps – fake stills, fake video, fake voice. Political leaders tell us we can’t believe what we’re seeing or what we’re hearing. Personally speaking, many of us have trust issues. Understandably so of course. The reason we have trust issues very often is that things/people in whom we have trusted have been found lacking. Not living up to promises. Untrustworthy. Societally speaking the situation was a long time in the making. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” said Jack Weinberg at UC Berkeley in 1964. Don’t trust politicians said the generation that came home from school to see Watergate on their televisions. “Who put this thing together?” asked Tony Montana in a film at the beginning of the decade of excess. “Me, that’s who! Who do I trust? Me!” Don’t trust institutions. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t trust your call display even with all the spoofing going on.
I read an article at Huffington Post which described the results of a survey asking the question about the trustworthiness of professions. It was a survey based on a ranking from 1 to 7 where 7 was extremely trustworthy. Here are some results of the percentage of people who rated a particular profession as 6 or 7. The top profession was firefighters who came in at 75%. Medical professionals did very well with pharmacists at 70%, nurses at 69% and doctors at 65%. Veterinarians and At the bottom were telemarketers at 4%, car salespeople at 5%, and politicians at 6%. Church leaders came in at 24%.
Now, this might be somewhat higher if you asked people in a church. It might be somewhat higher if you know the church leader I suppose (mind you it might depend on the leader of course). You can make up your own minds about how trustworthy I am and I pray that I never betray your trust. How well we know someone affects our ability to trust of course. I’ve had strangers call me here asking me about my view on some theological topic or another. I’ve often said to them “Well I’ll tell you what I think but I’m not sure that’s it going to be very meaningful for you outside of knowing me or anything about me. I could be some lunatic or something!”
Don’t say anything! But 24%!
What do I have to tell you all about trusting today? Should you trust me because I’m wearing a suit and can elocute? Surely those are some of the worst reasons by which to judge someone. What does all this have to do with the Syro-Ephraimite War 8 centuries before Christ? What does all this have to do with Christ’s birth? It’s 3 days to Christmas after all and you may be sitting there saying to yourself “Why isn’t he talking about Christmas?!”
Don’t we all want to feel good and have a good Christmas? What would make this Christmas a special one?
Here’s a story. It’s about an ancient king who was very worried. He was part of a line of kings to whom God had made a promise. The promise was that their line
would last forever. A kingdom had been divided into two parts - north and south. This ancient king ruled the southern part, the much smaller part. He heard that the northern kingdom was coming to attack him. That they had allied themselves with another powerful kingdom. One day as the king (his name was Ahaz) was inspecting the defences around his city’s water supply a very wise man – a prophet named Isaiah – approached him and said: “Do not fear and do not let your heart be faint.” This won’t happen. This disaster will not happen. This situation shall not stand and it shall not come to pass. Stand firm in faith, because if you do not stand firm in faith you shall not stand at all.
This was the invitation to this ancient Hebrew king. This is the invitation to us this Christmas and every Christmas and every day. Trust God. The word translated faith here in Is 7:9 is the same root as from which we get our word “amen” which in Hebrew means truth or certainty. To stand firm in faith in God is not simply a matter of intellectual assent. It’s a matter of trust. Someone has described Isaiah’s concept (and not just Isaiah’s but the entire OT’s concept) of faith like this – “It is… a matter of quite practical reliance upon the assurance of God in a context of risk where one’s own resources are not adequate. It means to entrust one’s security and future to the attentiveness of Yahweh – to count God’s attentiveness as adequate and sure, thereby making panic, anxiety or foolishness unnecessary and inappropriate. It is to know one’s self safe in risk because of an Attending Other whose resources are mobilized and whose commitments are unfailing. It is to place one’s self into the reliable care of another.”
This king wanted to place himself into the reliable care of his own abilities and resources and alliances which he might make. God told him “Ask me for a sign – anything you like.”
Because we like signs, we humans. We would like some sort of proof often. If only there were some way to prove it, we say. Prove to me that you are worthy of my trust, we may say. A proof is a proof. What kind of proof? A proof is a proof. And when you have a good proof it’s because it’s proven, as a leader once said. This king wouldn’t even do that. He wasn’t interested in any sort of proving sign. “I’m not going to put the Lord to the test,” he says. This may sound good and pious and Biblical even but not when God is asking you to! The answer comes back from Isaiah the prophet. It’s not enough that you weary mortals, you’re going to weary God too?! And then comes this marvellous response. Listen to it:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
We don’t know who the prophet was talking about or who the baby was. It’s not really about who at that point though. It’s more about the promise.
God is with us. Trust this my friends. Trust in the promise of God.
This ancient King Ahaz did not. The question for us becomes “What are we going to do with the promise this Christmas? What are we going to do with this promise today?”
What would make Christmas actually special, or are we to believe that beginning and ending your Christmas shopping at a particular tech retailer will be the thing that makes Christmas perfect if their claims are to be trusted - speaking of things not to trust. What would make Christmas 2019 truly wonderful for us?
Speaking of wonder here’s another story. A young man (probably) of around 20 or so (I’m taking some narrative license here) is making his way the best he can in a small town. He’s been making his way since he became an adult at 13 (there was no such thing as teenage-hood back then of course). He’s betrothed which pretty much means halfway to being married in his culture. He finds out that the young woman to whom he is betrothed is pregnant.
He knows it wasn’t him. What a mess.
This is where God’s promises meet us. In the midst of the mess that is often our lives. If you are a steely-eyed pragmatist here this morning then you should appreciate the way Matthew frames the Christmas story. No angels visitant here. Not a lot of sentiment like Luke. They both have their place of course. This is what Matthew is doing. No glowing night sky over Bethlehem for Matthew. No meetings between cousins and Holy Spirit inspired kicking and leaping in the womb from little John (soon to be the Baptist).
- Mess. Scandal in fact. What do I do now? This is a story for the realists. And we want to be real do we not? Here’s the thing. God’s promises meet us in the midst of our lives. Often times that means in the midst of broken relationships, of illness, of goodbyes, of death (and I would say “passing” but I’m really trying to appeal here to the steely-eyed pragmatists among us at this point and I really don’t feel the need to euphemize death), of failure, of disappointment (us disappointing or being disappointed), of letdowns, of…
If you’ve been around for any length of time you know what I’m talking about and I don’t want to belabour the point. Joseph must have agonized about what to do and he comes to the conclusion that he will divorce Mary privately because this is the thing to do that will honour God. He was a righteous man, we read. He could have put on a public divorce trial. He didn’t want to shame her unnecessarily. He wasn’t in it for what he could get for himself, keeping the dowry or what have you.
He decided that this was the best course of action for all involved. Until he had a dream. May we be people who dream.
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
The same fear not message. The same reminder about the promise made to the house of David of someone who would save us. The reminder from Matthew of the promise made through Isaiah. Here is the promise of God stepping into history in a whole new way. The choice now lies before Joseph. What is he going to do with this promise? Mary and the child are already caught up in God’s grand salvation plan. God’s plan through Christ to bring all things back to himself. To save. To restore. To heal. Joseph has received his invitation because people are involved in God’s grand salvation plan for the world. NT Wright in his commentary on Matthew puts it like this – “Whenever God does something new, he involves people, often unlikely people, frequently surprised and alarmed people. He asks them to trust him in a new way, to put aside their natural reactions, to listen humbly for a fresh word and to act on it without knowing exactly how it is going to work out.”
Does that resonate with anyone? This is the salvation plan that we’re invited to join, trusting in a loving God who does what he says he will do. Do you trust this God?
This is the wonder of Christmas my friends. The miracle birth is one thing, but it’s not even the most wonderful thing. Here is the wonderful thing – God with us. God grant that this causes us wonderment and praise and thanks and adoration whether we’re trusting God’s promise for the first time or whether we’ve spent a lifetime coming to ever more deeply trust God’s promise, or whether we once trusted God’s promise and now the promises of God are not something that seems to mean very much to us, or whether this is the first time in our life we’re even really considering such a thing. The question came from God long ago when God created new life from a couple from whom new life was not supposed to be able to come – “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” What do you do with that question?
This was the question for Joseph. To step out in trust. Here’s the thing. Nothing was dependent on Joseph any more than anything is dependent on us, lest we get caught up in the myth of our own self-importance. God’s salvation plan was in motion. God’s delivering plan, God’s stepping into human history to save was in motion already with Mary and the child she was carrying. God’s saving plan is in motion in the life and death and arising and rising and promised return of Christ and is it any wonder that the plan begins here with a baby and new life because that is the promise of God – new life, life of the ages, life eternal, not only for us but for all of God’s creation.
Unlike that ancient king, Joseph steps out in trust. “When Joseph awoke from sleep he did as the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus.”
There was something for Joseph to do. There is something for us to do. He named him Jesus. What are we going to do with this child? Name him Jesus. God saves. God rescues. God delivers. Name him Immanuel. God with us. The wonder of it all. The wonder of Christmas. Make this Christmas a special one. Accept the invitation to step out in faith and trust with God. If it’s for the first time you’ll find that God keeps promises. Try him. If it’s for the 173rd time, ask God to deepen your trust so that peace and hope and joy and love are yours not just at Christmas but year ‘round. Let us make an admission today that the things which would call for our trust have been found wanting. Let us say with another ancient king who faced a crisis, Lord we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. God with us. Saviour. Deliverer. Rescuer. Jesus. The name that is above every name. May it be true for us all that we so name this child this Christmas. Amen.