Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon: "It's Time to Trust", Genesis 22:2-3, 9-14/Luke 1:26-35, 38/Matthew 26:36-44 (December 24, 2017)

12/24/17--Sixth in an Advent Series, "It's Time..."


A man of many years is trudging up a hill, back bent nearly in two with the effort. He’s never been the athletic type, but now, at well over 100 years of age, after a morning of splitting wood through his tears, he finds himself making a trek that he very much does not want to make. A quiet man, he learned long ago that asking questions rarely produces answers that he wants or understands, and yet he has so many. Why, after having to abandon his firstborn son, his Ishmael, should he have to lose his beloved Isaac too, son of his very heart? And by his own hand? He wipes the sweat from his brow. What could this possibly accomplish? What kind of God could ask such a thing? And what will he tell his wife, with whom he’s already been through so much?

As he listens to the shuffling footsteps against the mountain’s terrain—his slow and hesitant, Isaac’s lively and trusting—there’s one question that keeps echoing in his mind, louder than all the others: How? How can he hope to accomplish what’s been asked of him? How can he take his long-awaited and -yearned for child—whom he loved with a ferocity that frightened him at times, whose birth had brought more joy to his life than the man had experienced in the entire century preceding it, who was a promise from the very mouth of God—how can he tie him up like a wild animal, stab his heart with the same hand that had cradled him as a baby, and burn his youthful body as an offering? As one more tear escapes down his cheek, the man gazes at his son—whose only thought is the excitement of being on an adventure with his father, no doubt—and puts one foot in front of the other.

A young woman—barely a woman, really, more a young girl only just beginning to understand the world—blinks slowly. It’s a lot to take in. She’d just been getting used to the idea of being someone’s wife (Joseph seems like a good man, but she doesn’t know much about him at all). Now, suddenly, here she is, being confronted with the idea of being someone’s mother. All she wants is some time to be HERSELF, but it doesn’t look like she’s going to get that opportunity.

The girl shifts uncomfortably in her seat, realizing she’d been frozen in place since the angel had said, “You will bear a son…” She’s more confused than surprised, really. Other people had been telling her what to do her whole life, but she’d been so insignificant that it hadn’t really mattered up to that point. And yet standing before her is a messenger of God (whose brightness is giving her a headache, to be honest), telling her that because God has taken some kind of interest in her, she’s unexpectedly, impossibly going to be a mother. No, not just a mother—the mother of a holy king!

She closes her eyes, rubs her forehead, and subconsciously recoils from the angel. This is not the life that she’d planned. Not that it mattered, but it isn’t the life that she’d wanted, either. She can’t imagine any good outcome from her becoming a mother right now. It’s just inviting trouble, and she doesn’t need any more difficulty in her life. What will Joseph say? What could God be thinking? How can she do this without making a million mistakes? Why her? She turns back to the angel, his words echoing in her pounding head, drops to her knees—not in subjugation, but in recognition of the momentous thing she’s about to undertake—and she prepares to answer the angel.

Here we are at the end of Advent. After weeks of resting, listening, reflecting, learning, and choosing, we’ve arrived at the week where we’re finally told that it’s time to trust. At the tail end of a season that’s demanded so much from us, a request for trust might at first seem like a bit of a reprieve. After all, Christian culture tells us that trust is easy, that we should “let go and let God”. We’re told, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” so relax. Everything will be fine. All you have to do is TRUST.

And yet, we know—as Abraham and Mary knew—that trust in God can be a LOT more difficult and complicated than it seems. There is much in the world that can darken our minds and spirits; trusting God in the midst of the darkness can feel nearly impossible. And sometimes, it’s the things that God asks of us that make us feel like the darkness closing in. God’s Word is not always easy. These can be some of the hardest times—when it feels like God is leading us astray, into temptation or danger, trust can be a difficult thing to come by.

If I were just asking you to believe, that’d be a different story. Belief is comparatively easy. Abraham and Mary believed; no problem. They’d heard of and seen the things that God had done, and knew that it was indeed God who was calling them. But trust? That required a lot more of them. Belief is confidence in what is, here and now. Trust is confidence in what will be. And having confidence in the future—that great unknown—takes a lot more faith than mere belief does.

But in this season of good tidings of great joy, there’s good news! The advantage of trust is that, as difficult as it can be at times, exercising it doesn’t require perfect, 100% buy-in. As so many biblical stories show us, trust doesn’t depend on blind acceptance. Trust doesn’t necessarily mean liking the plan. I imagined what Abraham might have been thinking in Genesis 22 because I refuse to believe that he didn’t have intense, painful feelings about what God had asked him to do. Trust doesn’t mean not questioning the plan. Mary was perplexed by what was happening to her, and she had questions that needed answering before she was ready to commit. And, perhaps most importantly, trust doesn’t mean not being afraid. Following God’s call can be a truly fearsome thing, requiring risks that only the foolish would undertake without apprehension. Often, to truly trust God is to embrace fear.

The truth is, trust doesn’t require perfect compliance, just a willingness to be on board. A willingness to take that step, to say yes, in the face of questions and doubt and fear. A willingness to believe that God’s goodness and love are truly never-ending and will not abandon us. A willingness to say, “Here I am,” and answer the call, even when we’d rather hide. A willingness to follow even when we aren’t sure that we’ll get to see the end of the path, or that the end of the path will be what we want. Trust is HARD, because it requires a willingness to sacrifice the self without promise of safety or reward.

Trust is a lot for God to ask of us. But dear ones, the Good News of this very season is that we aren’t serving a God who has no idea what they’re asking. Immanuel, God enfleshed, the divine incarnation, means that God understands. God doesn’t take lightly the sacrifice that trust entails, because God has lived it, too:

A man in the prime of his life sinks to his knees in grief and fear. A part of him has always known that this is inevitable, that his whole life has been leading up to the events that are about to transpire, but that doesn’t stop his heart from pounding dangerously in his chest or his hands from shaking uncontrollably as he clasps them together in desperation. He knows his friends are nearby, and his faith is strong, but he feels more alone than he’s ever felt in his entire life. As difficult as his life has been, especially over the last three years, he’s not ready for it to end. He doesn’t want to feel his body beaten and tortured as a result of a dear friend’s betrayal. He doesn’t want to die. The urge to run away is powerful, but he fights it, swallowing the lump in his throat as he swallows his survival instincts.

With his eyes shut tightly against the present moment, he forces himself to recall the stories that his mother used to tell him as a child. The story of his ancient ancestor who was willing to trust God and sacrifice his own beloved son for some unknown divine purpose. The story of his own mother’s visitation from an angel, which disrupted her life forever as she made the choice to trust God’s plan. That was both the worst and the best day of her life, she had told him. The worst, because from that moment on, she knew that nothing would ever be easy for her again, and because she, too, knew that this day would come, the day that she would lose him. The best, because she knew that God would do incredible things through her. And because it was the day she found out that he would be entrusted to her to raise and to love forever. So she said yes.

The man opens his eyes. Seeing his friends sleeping, unperturbed, in the distance, he sighs and takes a deep breath. Then another. Hands still shaking, he bows his head and begins to pray a fervent prayer…

We can imagine what these biblical men and woman may have been thinking and feeling when asked to trust God, because we’ve been there, too. We can imagine the pain, the conflict, the fear, the confusion, and the grief that they endure as the price of their trust. And God can imagine this cost for us, too. That’s the gift of a relationship with an incarnate God. God doesn’t ask anything of us that God isn’t willing to do, or that God doesn’t understand, or that God won’t accompany us for. Trust is a difficult path to walk, but it’s not one we walk alone.

I’m not going stand here and tell you that it’s time to trust because it’s easy. It’s not. And I’m not going tell you that it’s time to trust because it always feels good. It definitely doesn’t. I’m going to tell you that it’s time to trust because I believe that it’s worth it. And when it’s difficult to trust God, we trust each other. We lean on the ones whose trust is strong when our own is shaky. We remember the stories that we tell one another, year in and year out, recounting God’s goodness from the beginning of time right up through this very moment, and let them give us strength. And then we take that leap of faith. After all, as Ernest Hemmingway once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

So trust God, and see what happens, knowing that centuries of human faith and millennia of God’s love will walk alongside you. Trust God, knowing that God trusts YOU enough to entrust you with God’s kingdom. Trust God, knowing that it’s neither safe nor easy, but that it’s right and good and worthwhile. If a man could trust enough to offer up his son…if a God could trust enough to offer up his life…if a woman could trust enough to offer herself as mother to the savior of humankind…then it’s time for us to take our turn. Hear the words of this Presbyterian confession, and may it bring you comfort even as you take whatever impossible leap God calls you to take: “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”[1]

Brothers and sisters, it’s time to trust. Amen.

[1] A Brief Statement of Faith (Book of Confessions), 10.1

No comments:

Post a Comment