Adjusting to the New Reality? (A Sermon for Advent)

We live in a world where we are able to make changes, making all kinds of adjustments to all kinds of things to suit us. It might be changing homes, a job, career, the furniture, cars, or the tv channel. Sometimes, however, we must adjust to the way things are. There are things we cannot change or adjust, but rather we must adjust to. The pandemic has been one of those things for most of us. For some it is a medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one. There is nothing we could have done.

Which is God? Is God a notion we get to make adjustments to according to our desire and perceived benefit? Or is God a reality we must adjust to?

Keeping that question in mind, let’s go back to the first Christmas. Let’s see if everyone adjusted.

Herod

Herod did not adjust. Upon hearing from the magi that there was one “born king of the Jews,” he wanted this baby destroyed, worried that people might come consider this child to be the true king. Herod knew that he was king of the Jews only because the bigger power of Rome said he could be. He had no right to that title otherwise. Herod was paranoid of losing power.

Does concern for power keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

The Religious Leaders.

The religious leaders were able to tell Herod that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, just down the road from where they were, in Jerusalem. So why didn’t they go? If anyone should have taken an interest in the possibility that the messiah had been born, it is the religious leaders. But they didn’t go. Why not? We can just imagine their conversations around the water cooler: “What do you make of those magi?” “You mean those foreigners who have nothing to do with us, with our God, and our messiah?” “Yeah, the messiah will rescue us from foreigners, right!?” “Aren’t they astrologers? They don’t know our Scriptures!” “How could these guys possibly know anything about anything? What could we possibly learn from them?!” “Nothing!”

And so the religious leaders of the day missed the biggest event in the history of religion, in fact the history of the world.

Does pride in what we think we know about God keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Joseph and Mary

For Mary and Joseph, a pregnancy was a reality that they had to adjust to. Mary’s baby bump was no mere figment of her imagination. She really was pregnant, and the baby really was not Joseph’s.

There would have been a great temptation to not adjust. In fact Joseph at first did not and could not. He required the visit of an angel to change his mind. Why? The whole thing would have seemed crazy, and to Joseph, Mary would have seemed crazy.

Perhaps we sometimes imagine that young women like Mary were hoping to be the one to experience a virgin conception in fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14 (NIV)

In the original languages, the word virgin can also be translated young woman which is how some translations have rendered it. Perhaps more importantly, when you read through the full prophecy of Isaiah chapter seven, we find that it is a prophecy that would have been fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. The sign wasn’t that a virgin would conceive, but that what God said would happen back then would happen before a newborn child could discern between right and wrong, that is, in a few years. Therefore no one in Joseph and Mary’s day were expecting a virgin conception, including Joseph and Mary. To the Christian looking back it all makes sense, as does Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14, but to Joseph and Mary, this pregnancy would have been unexpected, crazy, and terrifying!

Joseph was clued in by an angel. Would anyone else have had that help?

Does worry about what people think of us keep us from adjusting to the reality of God?

Where do we find ourselves in the Christmas story?

Are we like Mary and Joseph who were able to adjust to the new reality of this baby named Jesus?

Whatever people may think of us, the reality of this baby points us to the reality of the opportunity for reconciliation with God, the reality of the better way of Jesus in the way of love, and the reality of a better future. This baby points to the reality of God’s love. The idea of the Creator of the universe coming to us in a strangely-conceived-baby-laid-in-a-manger might seem crazy at first glance, but can we, like Mary and Joseph, let God be God, and let Him love us?

Or are we like Herod and the religious leaders?

If we were to attempt to adjust God to make God better, to change God so that God would be a better God for us, it can’t be done. If we think it can, then perhaps we have a faulty notion of God. The God who is, the God who has revealed in Jesus that the divine is for us and not against us, is a reality we cannot change, but a reality worth adjusting to, and worth celebrating.

This is Not the Way Things Are Supposed To Be. Welcome to Advent! (Thinking Through Isaiah 40)

Surely this is not the way things are supposed to be! Do you find yourself saying that a lot these days? You might say it about the pandemic or global conflicts. You might say it about your life, and the challenges you face. You might say it about big life-threatening things, or the little details. I said it when I went to print something in black and white and my printer told me I couldn’t because it didn’t have enough yellow ink. Surely this is not the way things are supposed to be!

Perhaps you can relate. God’s old covenant people in the Old Testament could relate, particularly in the moment spoken of in Isaiah 40:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.

Isaiah 40:1 (NIV)

God’s people needed comfort at that moment. The city was in ruins, people were exiled to Babylon, the temple was destroyed, and according to the prophet Ezekiel, God had left the building (See Ezekiel chapters 10 and 11). Things were not as they should have been.

A message of comfort was needed.

A message of comfort was also appropriate:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2 (NIV)

God had said that if his people stuck with him, he would stick with them, but if they didn’t he wouldn’t. They didn’t and so he didn’t. Therefore the Babylonians invaded, the natural consequence of the sin of God’s people. However, comfort was now the appropriate message because God is good and faithful to all his promises. Now that the consequences of their sin had been rolled out, God would show his faithfulness to the covenant promises by returning his people to the promised land and also in his own return:

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

Isaiah 40:3 (NIV)

In those days of exile things were not the way they should be. But things were also not the way they would be! There was great hope for the future.

The exiles did return and they all lived happily ever after, right?

Actually, no. God’s people did indeed return, but they entered a season of their history we could call “Advent”. Yes, they had returned, and yes, there was great work done on rebuilding Jerusalem, the temple, and the nation. However, apart from one short season of self-rule, it was one foreign oppressor after another in charge. This was to be God’s people, not Caesar’s. Things were still not as they were supposed to be!

However, things were not the way they would be. There was hope; God is good, and in keeping his promises, will intervene. Therefore God’s people could look forward to the arrival of a messiah. The time between the return to Jerusalem and the birth of that Messiah was an era of Advent.

Jesus was born and everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Yes and no. There is a happily ever after, but we are not there yet. We can still say things are not as they should be.

I grew up with the song by U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Christian faith is expressed in this song, but so too is lament, that something is not right. Things are not the way they are supposed to be.

We are now in the season of Advent, but we are not just referring to the time set apart to recognise Advent in the church calendar. We live, not just in four weeks of Advent, but an entire era of Advent where we are aware that things are not as they should be, but also that things are not as they shall be.

In many of our churches we are not really sure how to observe Advent, as we often rush into the celebration of Christmas along with the rest of society. More importantly, however, what are we to do when our entire lives are spent in an era of Advent? Here are three things.

We lean into lament.

This is not the time to sugar coat the world’s problems behind a veneer of faith. Neither is it time to sugar coat our own problems as if they don’t exist. As long as there are things like poverty, oppression, injustice, racism, sexism, discrimination of many sorts, depression, disease, and the list goes on and on, then things are not as they should be. Let us say that and lean into lament. In fact leaning into lament will drive us to the second thing to do:

We lean into the better way of Jesus.

Upon the birth of John the Baptist, not long before the brith of Jesus, John’s dad, Zechariah had this to say of John, and Jesus:

…you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Luke 1:76-79 (NIV emphasis added)

Here is a wonderful allusion back to Isaiah 40, that indeed God was returning and ready to intervene in a significant way. This is a message of comfort. But in this message we also see a significant reason why things are still not as they are supposed to be: we humans, Christians and non-Christians alike, fail to walk in that path of peace that Jesus through his life, teaching, example, and way of the cross has guided our feet into. This is the time to lean into that better way of Jesus. This is the time to call for change, in ourselves, and in our world.

We want to be careful here, with our focus on lament and call for change, that we recognise the better way of Jesus is the way of love and not hatred. There can be a fine line between the two. How so? If you attended our church anniversary service, you would have heard my wife share how she came to a point three years ago of saying enough is enough. She chose to make certain changes that would be to the betterment of her physical, mental, and spiritual health. This seeking of better health is an expression of love; of self-love and love for others. However, sometimes the call for change can come from somewhere else. These lines from a Tenille Townes song are striking:

The voice that I don’t wanna hear, the hurtful words I say
The long list of things about myself I wanna change
The heavy cloud that won’t leave even after it rains
I try to be a hero ’til it brings me to my knees
Yeah, there’s a villain in me

From the song “Villain in Me” written by Alex Hope and Tenille Townes

Sometimes the call for change in ourselves can come, not from a place of love, but from a place of self-hatred. Sometimes the call for change in ourselves does not lead to self-love, but to even greater self-hatred. This is not the way things are supposed to be.

Likewise, the call for change in our world can come from a place of love, but it often comes from a place of hatred. Let us be careful, therefore, that our call for change, in ourselves and in others, comes from living out the better way of Jesus which is the better way of love.

Lean into the love and promise of God

The day is coming when things shall be as they should be. Even when our calls for change seem to fall on deaf ears, or our efforts at change seem to come to nothing, change is on the way. This is a season of Advent, but seasons change and the next one will arrive with the return of our Lord! There is reason for great hope!

In Conclusion

There is a Christmas carol that captures well the spirit of Advent, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day“:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on Earth, ” I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, good will to men

Things are not the way they should be. However,

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on Earth, good will to men

Things are not as they shall be!

While we observe Advent for four weeks, we actually live in Advent our entire lifetime. As we do so, we lean into lament, and we lean into hope, that God, who is good, will intervene in an incredible way some day. In the meantime we lean into the better way of Jesus.