Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sermon on the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin

Date: August 15, 2010
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 7:10-15; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 1:46-55

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in you sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Someone asked me this week what success looked like.  We had a good, long conversation about it.  For as long and good as it was, it was still far too short.  I confess that I brought the question into my office with me as I started preparing this sermon.  What does success look like?  What does it mean to be successful?  There are, of course, a lot of different answers to that question, all of which depend on a person’s situation and perspective.  But, in today’s readings, as we celebrate and remember St. Mary the Virgin, I think we have the beginnings of a Christian answer to the question.

[Page 1]  From our Old Testament reading, we have the example of King Ahaz of Judah.  A king is successful, right?  As you remember, after the reign of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided into Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  The Northern Kingdom was called Israel.  The Southern Kingdom, which included Jerusalem, was called Judah.  King Ahaz was the king of Judah.

And, Ahaz was in big trouble.  The book of Isaiah describes an alliance between the king of the Northern Kingdom Israel and king of neighboring Aram.  They plotted together to besiege Jerusalem and take it.  Ahaz had already withstood one onslaught from these two, and he and the Southern Kingdom were worn down.  God chose to send Isaiah to Ahaz to comfort him by telling him that Jerusalem would not fall.  And, on top of this, God in his mercy offered to confirm this promise with a miraculous sign.  God, through the prophet Isaiah, commands Ahaz to ask for one.  It could be anything – as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.

But, Ahaz refuses.  “I will not ask,” he says, “and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  This echoes the sentence Jesus spoke during his temptation in the wilderness, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Lk. 4.12).  Both of these sentences recall Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”  The point of the injunction is that Israel should not put God’s mercy to the test by doing evil; instead, Israel should obey God’s commands.  Ahaz twists the injunction to protect himself from obeying the command of God. God commanded him to ask for a sign.  Ahaz uses God’s Word to deny God’s Word.  Isaiah sees through the false piety to the unbelief that lies at its core.  He rebukes and shames Ahaz:  “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?!?”

Ahaz did not believe that God could do what he said.  We know this because when God offers a sign as a confirmation of a promise, it is impossible to separate them from one another.  The sign and the promise go together.  To reject one is to reject the other.  When Ahaz refuses God’s gracious offer of a sign, Ahaz shows himself a fool and a coward, a very unsuccessful man, a man filled with unbelief.

And because Ahaz refused God’s sign, God rescinded his offer.  Ahaz had the opportunity to see God’s promise confirmed in his lifetime.  Instead, he hears the promise of Immanuel, God with us, the true king, Jesus Christ himself, who would be born of a virgin.  In God’s sight, unbelief is failure.

[Page 2]  We shouldn’t be too hard on Ahaz, because we, too, are filled with unbelief.  We are all failures.  And we can know this because we are all like Ahaz.  Just like him, we use God’s Word to shield ourselves from God’s Word.  We put up false barriers to the call of God on our lives.  Very seldom, though, do we have the opportunity to hear from an Isaiah who can call the whole game into question.

It seems like Ahaz uses God’s Word to refuse God’s Word because he is scared to risk.  We know this fear.  We, too, are scared that something might not go the way we have planned it.  We are scared to risk new situations in which we might be exposed to defeat.  We, often, are scared of what it would mean to enter into a Christian life that meant challenge and growth.  We have a low tolerance for the risk of faith.

And, just like Ahaz, this is all rooted in our deep down distrust of God and God’s ministers.  Ahaz does not ask for a sign because of the risk involved.  The risk in asking for a sign, the gamble of it, is trusting that Isaiah, standing right in front of him, actually does have a message from God.  It is trusting that God himself will deliver on the promise made by this man.

And, we do the same.  I have done it my whole life.  I sit and I listen to a sermon, and I hold part of myself back.  I wonder, will God actually speak to me here?  Can I trust God to speak through that person in the pulpit, that one that might be wearing a collar but is just as messed up as me?  Or, I hear an invitation from the steps of the choir to join a group or step out in service.  I wonder, is this the voice of God?  Can I trust that God is calling me here?  How do I know that God will deliver on the promise of his ministers?  We are all in the same boat as Ahaz.  We do not ask of God because we are scared to risk being wrong.  We are scared to risk being wrong because we do not trust God’s ministers.  And, we do not trust that God is capable of speaking through His ministers because we do not trust God himself.

If Ahaz is not an example of a successful person, then neither are we.  We fail in all the ways he did.  We live lives of failure.

[Page 3]  Now, it would be tempting to simply juxtapose Ahaz and St. Mary the Virgin, wouldn’t it?  On the one hand, we have someone who doesn’t believe and so fails God.  On the other hand, we have someone who does believe and so succeeds.  But, it is not that simple, because, as our New Testament passages remind us, God chose Mary first.  When God finds Mary, she is as full of unbelief as any other person, but God’s choice and his call empowers her to the life of faith.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,” Mary sings, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”  These great things are for Mary rooted in God’s help of his servant Israel, and all this is “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus not because she had any special virtues.  God chose Mary because of his promise to Abraham.  God chose Mary to save the world.

And God chose Mary at a specific time and a specific place.  Galatians says that “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…”  God waited to fulfill his promise until the time was right, until everything had been prepared for the birth of His Son.  And part of that perfect timing was Mary.  God chose Mary to bear his Word in her body, to bring him to birth, and to raise him as her son.  Why?  Galatians continues “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”  In adoption, God sent the Spirit of his Son into the hearts of the first believers in such a way that they were no longer slaves to sin, but children to God, and if children, then royal heirs together with Christ.

And, when the angel comes to Mary to announce this great plan, Mary trusts his word.  Not only does she trust, she risks her whole life on the fact that the angel is telling her the truth, that the God of Israel will stay true to His Word.  She risks by asking that God’s Word be fulfilled in her: “I am the bondservant of the Lord, be it done to me according to your Word.”  Mary believes God’s promise, and in her lowly faith, she shows herself to be God’s adopted child, no longer a slave, but an heir, a royal woman, a woman whose success is not found in riches or honor, but in her simple faith.

 [Page 4]  May we too find our success in simple faith, because simple faith is the sign of the royal children of God.  In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of St. Mary the Virgin, to be our salvation.  Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he redeemed a people for God, a kingdom of priests to serve our God.  It is Jesus’ Spirit, the Holy Spirit, living in us that teaches us to call God “Father,” and to live lives of holy freedom.  Because, brothers and sisters, we are no longer slaves to sin.  The power of sin that taught us to distrust God and to refuse the risk of faith was defeated once for all on the cross.  We are no longer slaves, but children of God.  And if we are children of God, then we are also heirs with Christ.  We are not just God’s children, we are God’s royal children.  Like God chose Mary, God has chosen us to serve him in newness of life.

What does success looks like on a day-to-day basis?  It looks like Mary, on her knees before God, believing and obeying God’s Word.  The world around us thinks success is measured in the things we do or have.  But, it is not that way for us.  Success for us is measured in the royal freedom to allow God to work through us.  Success is saying “Yes” to God.  Success is living lives of faith and obedience.  The real question is not, “Am I successful?”  The real question is, “Am I always ready to hear God’s call?”

A couple of years before Monique and I arrived in Nashville, The parish we would attend there went through a nasty split in which the clergy and much of the lay leadership left to form another church.  This left many of the basic programs devastated, including the nursery ministry.  But, there was one woman who stepped out in faith and risky obedience.  In response to God’s call to meet this need, she started calling people on the telephone.  She asked each one if they could help on Sunday mornings, even if only once a month or once every six weeks.  Time and time again, she heard back, “I’m sorry.  I just don’t feel called to that ministry.”  “I’m sorry.  I just don’t feel called to that ministry.”  Call after call, the frustration mounted.  She called one more person, and asked if they would be willing to serve the nursery, and the person said, “I’m sorry.   I just don’t feel called to that ministry.”  She responded, exasperated, “You don’t get it!  This is the call!”

God has chosen us to live, and is calling us into, royal lives of faith and obedience.  May we be like St. Mary the Virgin, who heard and trusted the voice of God.  May we respond to God’s call, and run headlong into the risk of faith.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment