This is the message I gave at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church on 20 December 1998 for the 4th Sunday in Advent (A). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.
Some years ago I bought a book entitled “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?” (“What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?”, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe) It is an interesting outline of the impact Christ’s birth had on this planet and on our society. Of the various areas that the authors identified, there were two that were especially interesting to me.
Were it not for Christ and the development of Christianity, the university system that we are familiar with today would probably not exist. Education at all levels flourished because of the need by the common people to be literate so that they could read and understand the Bible. The development of Sunday School is a singularly significant outcome of the early Methodist church. With children as young as 11 or 12 working 60-hour work weeks along side their parents and other adults in the factories and mines of industrial England, Sunday was the only day that they could get any schooling. John Wesley started the first Sunday School so that these children could get some education and to show them that God had not forgotten about them.
And lest we not forget, the first universities in this country were founded to prepare individuals to be preachers. And John Wesley continually encouraged preachers to be literate so that they could study and further understand the Gospels.
Another area where Christ’s presence on earth was felt was in the area of science. It stands to reason that as we become more educated, we become capable of asking more questions. The central point to any research is to answer a specific question but we have to realize that 1) not all questions are answerable within the framework of science and 2) for every question that we do answer, we are likely to discover two more questions. And while science and technology may offer many solutions, they can also create additional problems.
In Genesis 11: 1 – 9 is the story of the Tower of Babel.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As mean moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” The used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language that have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the Lord scattered them from there over all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Here the people of the world at that time sought to build a tower that would reach to the heaves; in essence, making them equal to God. The commentary for verse 6 said that if the whole human race remained united and successful in this proud attempt to take its destiny into its own hands, the earthly kingdom of man would replace the heavenly Kingdom of God.
If we begin to think that the solution to all our problems comes from a faith in ourselves, then we will quickly find ourselves failing. For a world seen through a primarily empirical viewpoint is a life devoid of spirituality. And in this world, we quickly find ourselves like Ahaz in the OT reading for today.
Ahaz was too busy to listen to God that day feeling that problems such as a threat to invasion should be taken care of by more practical means. To merely trust in God, as Isaiah suggested, was naive. Ahaz was not the first king of Israel who felt that protection for the kingdom of Israel lie in the material world. And every king that felt this inevitably lost the battles he was preparing for. As the prophecy of Isaiah suggests, the battle that Ahaz was preparing for would also be lost.
Ahaz choose not to listen to God. But it is proof of the grace of God that He continued to try and communicate with this errant king. Many times we are like Ahaz, choosing to following our own paths and ignoring the presence or signs of God’s presence in our life.
God is not real to most of us because of the conditions of our consciousness. He is closer to our minds every moment than our own thoughts. He is nearer to our hearts than our own feelings. He is more intimate with our wills than our most vigorous decisions. If we are not aware of him, it is not because he is not with us. It is, in part, because our consciousness is so under the sway of other interests that it cannot turn to him with the loving attention which might soon discern him.
Did you ever encounter, on the street, a friend whose physical eyes looked at you without seeing you? You walked right into him before the alien look on his face changed into one of recognition. Then he confessed that he had been so absorbed in thought about some other matters that had not been aware of you, until your intentional collision with him. You were there, yet he did not see you. Though actually in your presence, he was nevertheless as unconscious of you as if you did not exist.
That is a persistent failure of the unemancipated consciousness. It can be so preoccupied by lesser realities that it does not sense the presence of the divine Reality surrounding and sustaining it. Something has to happen to end that absorption in other affairs, so that it can turn its attention to God.
Sometimes events will do it. One encounters God in a crisis that, as we say, “brings one to one’s senses.” Death, disaster, sickness, the collapse of friendship, are like the collision on the street. They shatter the tyranny of an idea or a dream, and release consciousness for the awareness of something greater than the idea or the dream – God himself.
It would be a very poor sort of life that was aware of people only when it collided with them, or was brought up standing by some decisive act of theirs. And it is a tragic life that becomes conscious of God only in those events that shatter its habitual thoughts and dreams and compels it to recognize his presence and activity.
What makes life splendid is the constant awareness of God. What transforms the spirit into his likeness is intimate fellowship with him. We are saved – from pettiness and earthiness and selfishness and sin – by conscious communion with his greatness and love and holiness. (From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day)
Such a collision of thoughts occurred when Saul went to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus. But meeting Jesus on that road not only softened Saul’s heart and opened it to the Word, it changed his life and Saul became Paul, not the persecutor of Christians but rather the first missionary to spread the Gospel. As Saul, he was lot like those he wrote to in Romans.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God –the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
The people of the world had heard the prophets, they knew that God was going to keep his promise to send a sign, a young child who would be named Immanuel. But though the people had heard the word, they did not know what it meant because they had strayed from God and would not listen.
Joseph could have easily divorced Mary, either through public humiliation and stoning as was the law of the time. This was the case in John 8 when the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus for judgement, though the Pharisees changed the meaning of the law in Deuteronomy to meet their own needs. But Joseph chose not to do that because he was a righteous man. And because he was a righteous man, he heard and understood the words of the Holy Spirit who told him why his betrothed wife was pregnant.
God made us a promise. This week we celebrate that promise. But what if our mind and heart are not open to the message of that promise? By being open to the Holy Spirit, both Joseph and Mary were able to understand all that was to take place at this time so many years ago. No longer should we ask what would have happened if Jesus had not been born, for that is a discussion for the philosophers. What if Jesus is trying to talk you today? In this time of celebration and reflection, are you prepared to hear his voice?