Advent Readiness: Cultivating Faith in God’s Promises
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
Christmas is just five days away now. A small child hears that and it seems like an eternity. How many more sleeps? Others hear that and are trying to fight back that creeping sense of panic over all that needs yet to be done to be ready. The last thing you needed at church today was a reminder of how short the time. When I am asked about being ready for Christmas I think of the preparations for worship; about our three Christmas Eve worship services. Christmas panic for me sets in about mid-October. The truth is that Christmas will come whether I am ready for it or not.
1. In our worship today we will celebrate the coming of Christmas with the sacrament of Holy Communion. At the table we will confess the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We will hear the Apostle Paul’s word that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) And there is the rub. “Until he comes.” The church has been making this assertion of faith—Christ will come again”—for over two millennia. In the Apostle John’s Revelation the one identified as the Alpha and Omega declares, “See, I am coming soon.” (Revelation 22:12) So, how soon is soon, we wonder. The wait causes embarrassment for some. Some have abandoned believing; others reinterpret the meaning of coming as indicating a kind of spiritual presence, not the flesh and bones concrete assertion of the resurrected Jesus. (Recall that our resurrected Lord claimed “flesh and bones” existence. Luke 24:39)
Christmas has much to say to us about this waiting, and waiting, and more waiting. The young teenager named Mary has much to teach us about waiting on God. It is instructive for us to note that Mary knows something about our question. When will God fulfill his promises to Israel and act? And it wasn’t just Mary, it was all the people in this story—Elizabeth, Zachariah, and Mary’s betrothed Joseph. It was Simeon too who was at the temple the day Joseph and Mary brought Jesus for dedication; Luke says about him that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Anna the eight-four year old prophet was there as well: Luke tells us that she spoke about the child Jesus to those who, like her, “were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” They are all waiting; waiting for God to fulfill his promise.
How long have they been waiting? Listen to what Mary said in her song. “He (God) has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.” Two thousand years before the Angel Gabriel comes to visit Mary God said to Abraham, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In the course of Israel’s history God keeps his covenant to be their God; through prophet and King, God reveals more and more of his promise of One who will come to redeem—through whom all families of the earth can find blessing. We read today from the prophet Micah—a word uttered about 500 years before Mary is even born. “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
What is clear through a reading of Mary’s song (Magnificat) is a picture of a teenaged woman steeped in the promises of God. What she declares is that in the Angel’s message that she will bear a son, God is now acting decisively in history to fulfill all of God’s own promises. Mary speaks in Older Testament images of God setting all things to rights—the lifting of the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, an end of the injustice of the rich and powerful, Israel’s help finally arriving on the scene in a decisive way.
Every time we come to Christmas we celebrate this event; this decisive act of God in history to redeem; his coming among us as fulfilment of all his promises. This act of God’s fulfilling his promises has both “now” and “yet” components. It is now in that God is come among us in Jesus and there is a yet to come when at the consummation of all things justice will be done and seen to be done. What unites the “now” and “yet” is the one life Jesus Christ. In one sense Christmas is the down payment that points the day of completion (a weak analogy, admittedly because our Lord’s redemption is so much more.) We can keep on affirming “Christ will come again” because he has come.
Returning to again consider Mary. Before the Angle Gabriel visits her she knows this waiting we are talking about. In spite of living an impoverished life under Roman occupation she has not abandoned hope; she doesn’t waver because the world seems to mock her faith in God’s promise that a redeemer is coming to set all things to rights. She isn’t skeptical even though her people have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting yet still.
As we reflect on Christmas we learn something about time. The Psalmist declared, “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) We can’t help ourselves for we perceive time from our human experience. We want things set right, now! Like a child waiting for Christmas five days seems an eternity. Weighed down with unrelieved burdens in life time ticks by ever so slowly. The trouble and turmoil in our world filled with war—it seems that anytime would be a good time for this to end.
But we don’t see time as God does. Come again to the foot of the cross—for the cross casts its shadow over the manger. Crib and cross are united in the story of this one life, the babe of Bethlehem. It is clear, standing before the cross that we do not know what sin means to God. We can apprehend aspects of what it means, but to think that such suffering was for my sin? Plainly the depravity of my heart is far worse than I dare imagine. We would not write such a story about ourselves. In a similar way we cannot know what time means to God. For us it seems a long wait between Abraham and Jesus, between Jesus and now. There is mystery here. There is a “right moment” in which God acts and what appears a long time to us is God knowing the fullness of time—knowing when to send the angel Gabriel to a young virgin named Mary; knowing when to send the angles again at the coming of the Son of Man.
Christmas announces that God did not forget his promises and so we can trust will not forget. The reason is all of this is through the one life that is Jesus Christ. In Paul’s Ephesian letter he writes that in Christ is God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians 1:10)
2. In the sermons of Advent we have been exploring the theme of readiness; in essence answering the question of how we get ready. The first week we reflected on living life oriented to God’s plan; the second week we highlighted the practise of being attentive to God’s word; and today I am inviting you to consider living life cultivating faith in God’s promises.
When Mary arrives at the home of her cousin Elizabeth says of Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” The question I invite you to consider is this; what prepares Mary to be ready to believe that God was going to fulfill all those promises to Israel now, in this moment of her history, through a son that she will bear? Part of the answer is that she has lived cultivating faith in God’s promises. Her song reveals a profound awareness of what God has promised.
Remember that she is a teenager. Teenagers can believe and be agents of world change. It is likely that Mary was born into a devout family and was taught the promises of God early in life. But somewhere along the line this faith has to become hers; she has to own it; she has to confess in her own heart, “I believe.”
Faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. It needs to begin. Somewhere. Some come to faith suddenly (like an alarm clock), others wake to faith slowly like the slow awareness of morning light. If you haven’t begun Christmas is a good time to begin this faith journey with Christ. It can begin by prayer; “I believe Lord, help my unbelief. It can begin at the communion table. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, taught that the communion was a “converting ordinance.” Another way of saying that is faith can begin here at the table. We practice two sacraments. Baptism is one. You are baptized once because Jesus died once for all to deal with sin. The commonunion is the second sacrament. We take communion on an ongoing basis because Christ sustains us in faith. Taking the sacrament is an act of cultivating faith.
3. Faith is also cultivated in the fellowship of the faithful. When the Angel Gabriel said to Mary, “and now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a child;” when Mary hears that she knows that there is an implied command that she needs to go and see Elizabeth. Mary needs to be encouraged in her faith and God directs her to the company of one who also knows this same kind of faith. Our Lord said that where “two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst.” Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is just such an instance.
Faith is cultivated through the fellowship with other believers. This is not to say that we should shut ourselves away in a cloister and only have fellowship with believers. It is to say that this fellowship is crucial for cultivating faith. We need each other to help us believe. Mary needed the witness of Elizabeth assuring her that she wasn’t going crazy. God knew Mary needed this and the way was made for her in this crucial time. The church, the company of believers, is this place for us. Christmas happens in some measure because of the company of believers supporting one another.
4. Faith is, at bottom, a relationship. The question isn’t so much what gives Mary such faith but who. What Mary found in cultivating faith was a very real relationship with God. The opening lines of her song tell you as much. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
So is the world merely the theatre of competing political powers? Is our human existence only the latest iteration of the throwing of the evolutionary dice? Is life an endless cycle of living and dying? The gospel declares a great word of hope; that the world is the theatre of God’s action to redeem moving ever steadily toward a great day when all will be set right. This is the hope that Mary lives by; this is the hope Christmas declares.
Valerie and I have a good friend who has expended much of her life on behalf of the poor and disposed in our world. Kila Reimer is currently working with World Vision in Cambodia and in a recent newsletter related the story of a young woman name Rose. Kila wrote: “Rose is a good friend of mine, a woman with a long and complicated story of hardship and deprivation, and infectious, irrepressible optimism. I got to know her about 6 years ago when she came to work as for me a part-time house cleaner. … Somewhere along the line she’d become a Christian and was very active in church, she worked extremely hard and conscientiously, and Rose nurtured a dream to return to her village of origin and start a school for poor children.
After 3 years of house cleaning, and full-time English language study in the evenings, Rose moved on to work at a nearby church and orphanage as a translator and English teacher; then on to an international agency as a health educator; and next to run a small US-based organization supporting local pastors to run development projects. During this time, Rose took sole responsibility for raising her two younger (teenage) sisters because her parents were going to sell the girls in Thailand; and she added a 3-year old nephew to her family when his mother divorced and decided she could not afford to care for her small son. (Kila asked those who receive her newsletter to pray for Rose.)
Who gives Rose such hope to take on all this responsibility? The same one who inspires Mary to take on all the challenges that it means for her to bear a son. “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Elizabeth’s blessing wasn’t just for Mary; it is for Rose as well. In fact “blessed is anyone who believes that there will be a fulfilment of what has been spoken by the Lord. Merry Christmas.