Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Faith to See The Other World in This World

[This was shared tonight during midweek Advent worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Matthew 1:18-24
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “There is another world, the same as this one.” A Christian ethics professor, Stanley Hauerwas, quotes Rilke and says, “We simply must learn to see the world in which we live as the world that the Father created and redeemed through the Son.”

Often, you know, some Christians get caught up in a sort of other-worldliness, acting as though they're just skimming along this world's surface, too holy to be bothered with the things that mere mortals care about.

They're like the fellow whose boss grew so frustrated with his employee's constant preaching and failure to get his job done that the boss finally had to fire him. He was, the employer said, so heavenly-minded that he was no earthly good.

That happens to people who mistakenly see Christian faith as being all about the sweet by-and-by.

But the call of a Christian is not to bide our time with sweet talk until we die and go to heaven.

Our call is to follow Jesus Christ in the rough and tumble of the here and now, even when it's hard.

We’re called to understand that though this world has fallen into sin, it is still the world God created. And though, because of all that the condition of sin has unleashed—a penchant for personal sin, a susceptibility to illness, a victimization by death--this is still the world to which Jesus came on the first Christmas in order that its people might be saved from eternal separation from God. It’s this world into which Jesus sends us to love and serve others and to make disciples.

Through the eyes of Christian faith, you and I are called to see this world as one worthy of our making the very same sacrifice Jesus Christ made when He went to the cross. Right now, we're called to live in this world. Jesus calls us to see in every person on this planet someone He loves, someone for Whom He died and rose.

I thought about all of this last night when I once again considered Joseph, the man God chose to be the earthly father for God the Son, Jesus.

In some ways, God asked more of Joseph and of Joseph’s faith in God than God even asked of Mary, about whom we spoke two weeks ago. I’m not belittling what God asked of Mary at all, as you well know. Mary, the Bearer of God, risked all—reputation, marriage, and life itself—when she trustingly accepted the message from the angel and said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

But, as changes came over Mary’s body, as the baby in her womb began to move and then kick, and as she could know as nobody else could that the baby she bore wasn’t conceived in the usual way, she carried and lived with tangible proof of what she accepted. He body told her day in and day out that she really was carrying God-in-the-flesh within her.

Joseph though, had to believe without such knowing. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). In his acceptance of the message God delivered to him in a dream and of the assertions of Mary, Joseph confirmed his belief that there is another world: It's the same as this one, unfolding here and now, but happening at another level from what most people dare to see.

Through the eyes of faith, Joseph was able to see more deeply, more clearly, truer. His wife was pregnant, yes; but she hadn’t been unfaithful. She bore a child, yes; but not just any child.

Today, some will look at Jesus on the cross and see defeat. But we can see victory: God conquering the power of sin and death over our lives.

Some will look at sinners thriving and take it as confirmation that there is no God and that anything goes. But we can see the patience of God with sinners and the time God is giving those of us in the Church to fulfill our mission of sharing the possibility of forgiveness and new life through faith in Christ with others.

Some see death, tragedy, and fatal diseases and blame God or call God impotent. But even amid the ashes and tears of this world, we see that God is making a new world beyond tragedy and tears, a new world where all believers in Christ will one day live with God in, using Luther’s words from The Small Catechism, everlasting “righteous, innocence, and blessedness.”

My family and I attended a memorial service for an old family friend from our home church on Monday night. Bill died down in South Carolina, where he and his wife had made their home over the twenty-six years since his retirement. Pastor Phillips, once the pastor of our home church gave the message and reminded us that after losing a loved one, we may feel orphaned. But he also reminded us of the promise Jesus gave to His heavy-hearted disciples on the night before His arrest. Jesus said that He would soon be leaving them. But then Jesus promised, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you;. In a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me.” (John 14:18-19)

Joseph is a model of Christian faith because, by faith, he saw what others couldn't see and what few would have even been willing to see.

He saw the Child in Mary’s womb as the world’s God and Savior.

He saw God working in a world that was often unspeakably hard and unforgiving.

How did Joseph do that?

The Bible reveals no secret formula for having that kind of faith. Joseph’s faith was built just as ours must be built.

Joseph was able to trust in God because Joseph was willing to trust in God. God took that willingness and built a faith out of it.

Just as God builds redwoods from tiny seeds, God builds faith from the seeds of our willingness to follow, even though we only see God’s promises through a glass darkly.

By faith, Joseph came to know that God was not leaving him orphaned.

By faith, Joseph gained the assurance of things hoped for.

By faith, he could see what others couldn’t see.

May this Advent and Christmas season find us willing to trust God.

May God help us to see through the eyes of faith the new world that He is already creating through His Son right now in the midst of this world.

May we see in the Christ Child not just a pleasant story in the midst of a humdrum and difficult world, but the One Who turns this humdrum and difficult our world—and our lives—around for all eternity. Amen

[Painting above: Saint Joseph and the Christ Child by Michael D. O'Brien.]

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