Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The highest obedience is faith (trust). . .

Sermon for Advent IV, preached on Sunday, December 18, 2011.

    Unless you are radically different from me, you probably think that rules are made for others.  But our problem is not with rules – it is with the fact that rules expect obedience.  And obedience is like a four letter word to us.  Nobody wants to obey.  Today we hear about the obedience of a King to the Word of the Lord and the obedience of a Virgin to the Angel of the Lord.  What we find is that obedience is not about rules or demands.  Obedience is about faith.   Obedience comes only from faith, faith comes only from God’s gracious action.  Obedience is the fruit of faith, the natural outgrowth of the heart that trusts in the Word and will of the Lord.
    David’s righteousness was not his obedience but his trust.  Mary’s righteousness was not her obedience but her trust.  As St. Paul says to the Romans, this is faith or trust credited as righteousness and from this bud flowers obedience.  If we have trouble with obedience to the Lord and His Word, it is not a rules issue but a faith problem.  Where we resist the Word and will of God, it is because we do not trust the Lord or His good and gracious will.
    David wanted to do something for God.  He figured the Lord deserved it.  He thought that he could figure out what God wanted. But God surprised him.  Only God can make obedience possible and for this to happen God must reveal His will to us.  Think how it went down.  David had it in his head to build a fitting house for God as if God were some how lacking because He had no permanent dwelling place.  After all, David had a nice house and he wanted to something nice for God.  But God stops David's plans right in their tracks.  Wait one minute, David. Faith does not presume, it trusts.  This sort of blows all that talk of “what would Jesus do,” doesn’t it.  We do not presume to know the mind of God; we know the mind of God because God has disclosed Himself to us.  This is what the Lord reminds David.
    I sought you out, David, says the Lord.  I knew you before you knew Me, says the Lord.  I had plans for you before you ever dreams of building Me a house.  God recounted His history as a gracious and merciful God.  Grace always makes obedience possible and God recalls to David the history of His gracious acts.  Obedience begins not with what we think God wants, but with what God has done for us, what God has made known to us. God continues to remind David how He has walked with him, how He has carried him through everything, and how He has delivered him from every enemy and trouble. 
    The Lord reminds David that not only was his past accomplished by God's grace, but God in His grace provides David a future, too.  The Lord will give to David an eternal throne.  No enemies will triumph over him and nothing can steal away the throne from which the son of David will rule for all eternity.  This whole thing started out with the desire of David to do something for God and it ended up with God recounting the history of His promises and what He had done and will do for David.  The grace of God makes obedience possible.
    An angel came to a virgin named Mary.  Mary might have wondered what God would ask her to do but the very greeting of the angel told Mary this was not about what God was asking from her, but what God would do for her, in her, and through her.  Before God asks for obedience, God delivers grace.  So this whole conversation began with grace. Mary has found favor with God.  His grace is with her.  The Lord is with her.  Mary was not being asked to bear some terrible burden because God demanded it but she was being set apart for the privilege of grace.  She was to bear His own Son who would be given for the life of the world.
    Mary probably expected to live out her mortal life in complete anonymity.  Instead God told her of the great and heavenly purpose of her life.  God would show forth His grace to the world by delivering from her very womb His very Son in human flesh and blood.  Through the fruit of her womb, the whole world would know redemption, forgiveness, and eternal life.  Grace always precedes obedience.  Before God asks Mary for obedience, God delivers to her grace.
    Mary understood this.  She did not worry about the what – only about the how.  She responds not by lamenting what God is asking of her, but rehearsing her own limitations.  She was a virgin.  How can this be?  But, of course, with God all things are possible.  Grace tears down every barrier and makes all things of God’s gracious will possible.  With these words God puts her fears at ease; established on the foundation of His grace, she is able to respond with the voice of faith - “Let it be to me as you have said.”  Grace comes first and from that grace, faith is born, and this trust leads to obedience – in fact, this faith is the highest obedience of all.
    To both David and Mary, God spoke to them of His grace and from this grace, obedience was born – the obedience of faith. "Do you believe Me?  If you believe Me, walk with Me..."
    We forget this all the time.  We treat the call to obedience with the same enthusiasm as a traveling salesman ringing our door bell.  What do you want from me now, God? But obedience never begins with what God wants from us.  Obedience always begins with what God has done for us.  Obedience flows from faith, faith is both the fruit of God’s grace at work in us and the highest act of obedience we can give Him.
    What do you want, now God?  I give You Sunday mornings!  I put my tithes and offerings in the plate!  I pray!  What do you want now, God?  We always seem to assume that God is working all the time to try and get something from us or to get us to do something we do not want to do.  But the very things God wants from us, He provides for us by grace.  “Trust in Me,” He bids us.  “Walk with Me.”  Grace begets faith and faith begets obedience... that is the pattern of God.  He does not ask you to figure out the impossible or impress Him with your creativity or ingenuity.  God gives you the very tools to do what He asks of you.  What He seeks from You is what He sought from David and from the Blessed Virgin – to trust in Him and walk with Him in the obedience of faith.
    We make it all a joke when we paint God’s will and purpose as some secret we must figure out in order to impress Him or receive His approval.  His approval is what it is all about – the gracious favor towards us sinners that we neither deserve nor dare ask.  This is His gift to us.  With that gift, comes the Spirit that we might believe in His favor, trust in His Word and will, and walk in His ways.  As once God spoke to David the promise kept in the womb of Mary, so do we come to this last stop of Advent on our way to the manger, remembering what God in His grace has done, and praying that we may receive His gift with faith and trust in Him so that we may walk in His ways.... for now... and for eternity...  Amen.


Paul said...

Amen! Disciples, like Mary, the first disciple in the New Covenant, are made by receiving gifts:) Thanks for the gifts you share with us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Rev. Peters, for a wonderful, uplifting, faith-nourishing sermon.

I thought long and hard about how to begin the next sentence, because I did not want it to appear that I wrote the previous one as a formality, just to be able to get to what really bothered me. So here it is: I don’t think there is anything wrong with the talk of “what would Jesus do.” Because we have the gift of faith, St. Paul tells us we can know what Jesus would do, 1 Corinthians 2: 14 “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. 16 ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” It is clear that St. Paul is not talking about some “special spirituality”; he includes all believers in “those who are spiritual.” The problem is with those who misrepresent our Lord, wanting to take advantage of the authority of His name to get support for their own views.

An example: In June of 1989 I travelled to Moscow with a devout colleague in the company I was working for. He was a member of the Disciples of Christ. We had a lot of time on the plane to talk about our faith. As many people know, at the time, there were “hard currency stores” (Berezkas) in the Soviet Union, which were accessible only to foreigners. Russians were not allowed in. I mentioned to my friend, “Jesus would not go into a hard currency store.” He became incensed. He had gone to these stores, as had I. But he thought that doing something Jesus would not do made him a hopeless sinner. What I am saying is that it is good to know what Jesus would do, so that we can know how far our righteousness is from His. We must know what Jesus would do, but that does not mean we will always do it. The Gospel is indeed precious only to those who understand how hopeless they would be unless God Himself rescued them. That is what Jesus did do.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart