Sermons That Work

Warnings, Admonitions, Promises, and Pleadings, Advent 4 (C) – 1997

December 21, 1997


In this lovely time of the year, we are reminded that what will happen on Christmas Day, what did happen 2,000 years ago, was foretold for centuries. Not foretold in a way that means looking into the future, but foretold in the way of preparation. We cannot look at the Christmas story without realizing that Advent means preparation.

In the Old Testament passage, in the passages the writer of Hebrews has in mind when he quotes the Psalm, we get a stunning progression of warnings, admonitions, promises, even pleadings from God through God’s prophets.

“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
Psalm 40:6-8

And from I Samuel: “Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed, better than the fat of ram…”

All of them — Micah, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the writer of Psalms 40 and 50, the writer of I Samuel — they all talk about God’s rejection of burnt sacrifices, bull’s blood, even incense, when these are not accompanied by obedience. Read the passages for yourselves and you will see the marvelous pattern of admonition and preparation.

In our age, obedience has become an almost anathema word. We think, erroneously, that it doesn’t fit in well with our individualism, with women’s liberation, with children’s rights, with human rights, and with civil rights, commendable as all these rights are in the scheme of things. We have not done very well with any of these freedoms. We have demonstrated our lack of understanding God’s role in our lives, we have succumbed to the sin of pride and we have thrown away much that is good, specifically obedience of God. The problem may also lie in the understanding of the word obedience, which in English has the connotation of subservience and submission. In the Hebrew and in the Greek, the basic meaning of the word for obedience is “to listen to,” “to hear.” Listen again to the words of the Psalmist quoted by the writer of Hebrews: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” The etymology of word obedience in English, though long forgotten, also comes from the Latin “to hear,” to listen to. When you listen and hear and do as the Lord commands, then and only then sacrifices are welcome to God. Otherwise, they are abominations. Again and again the prophets remind the Israelites of this need for listening, for heeding, for obedience. And the chosen people of God refuse to listen. They find it much easier to perform the rituals, to prepare the animals for sacrifice while forgetting that God asks only for obedience to God’s will; they offer the burnt sacrifice and they think that absolves them.

Before we rush to blame the Israelites of old, let us see how much of our life, even our worship, consists of performing rituals while going about our merry way without obedience to God’s will. Take a moment of silence to think on this.

In these passages we see the progression of the story. God asks God’s people to listen, to obey, and they refuse. He keeps sending his prophets to warn them about the inevitable death that results from not listening, and they again refuse. Later Jesus will put this repeated refusal in his poignant parable of the wicked tenants. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves. ‘This is the heir, come, let us kill him and get the inheritance.'”

God still sends us the Son out of great love for us. And the rejection of that love continues. But in the New Testament passage, we are met with the acceptance of God’s love, which is done in perfect obedience. Mary, the young innocent girl who “knew no man,” is visited by the angel of God and she hears and accepts. The Son of God, humbling himself lower than the angels, is growing within her. She goes to visit Elizabeth, her cousin, to avoid the looks and gossip of her neighbors. Elizabeth, also, has heard and accepted. By all that is natural, she should not be carrying a child. She is too old. But her husband too, incredulous at first, has heard the voice of the angel, and has obeyed. Elizabeth accepts all this. She too knows the meaning of obedience.

The two women, the young and the middle aged, meet and something wondrous happens. Elizabeth is six months pregnant. She sees her younger cousin, and the child in her own womb leaps for joy. The Greek word connotes a thrill that goes through the body. The child danced in her womb. Elizabeth tells Mary, “and blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” The fulfillment happened because she obeyed.

The two women break out into a song of praise and joy that takes into account what happens to those who obey and those who disobey the Lord. Echoing the poem of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, Mary sings. “His mercy is for those who fear him, from generation to generation.” For the word “fear,” understand “obedience.” And the contrast: he has scattered the proud in the thought of their hearts. Pride is the sin of not obeying God.

Which brings us to Jesus himself.

What made Jesus different from all the other human beings is his total obedience to the will of the Father. It starts very early. When he is 12 and Mary with Joseph lose him and then find him in the temple, he tells them simply: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? ” They do not understand. Even so he obeys them. His time has not yet come. “He went down with them and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them,” Luke tells us. If you follow his earthly life, on every occasion you will hear him talk about doing the will of his Father. This is the meaning of total obedience. The obedience which led him to his death.

Jesus knows, from the very beginning it seems, what the will of the Father is, and he obeys, even if it means terrible rejection and suffering for him. We are often troubled about knowing what the will of God is for us in our lives. We can say, Jesus obeyed because he knew what the will of God was. It was easy for him, because he knew.

But see how he searches the Scriptures. Throughout his earthly ministry he refers again and again to the prophets. In his very first sermon, he quotes from Isaiah. Even on the cross, he quotes one of the psalms. He found strength and revelation in Scripture. The other constant in his life was this refrain. “Once when he was praying alone…” “He was praying in a certain place…,” “Then he withdrew from them, knelt down and prayed.” The references to the times he withdrew and prayed are many. That is how he knew the will of the Father. Through prayer, through continuous communion.

If we too desire to practice that total communion, study and prayer, we would discern the will of the Father more readily.

During this season we have been preparing ourselves. We have been reminded by the prophets of God’s demands upon our lives; we have been warned about the futility of saving ourselves through our own efforts; and we have heard the announcement about the great love that would break forth in the Incarnation of God as the Suffering Servant.

And now we are ready to welcome the child. We must become as children to do so. We must become like John in the womb who danced for joy when his mother approached the mother of our Lord. We must become humble like the shepherds, open like the two women who meet and magnify the Lord. We must forget our pride and obey the One whose great love was poured upon the world to redeem us.

Amen.

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