The four weeks leading up to Christmas Day comprise the liturgical season of Advent which, for Christians, is a time of waiting–we wait and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our world. We look back and and celebrate Jesus’ coming as a little baby, and we also look forward and prepare ourselves for his glorious return when all of creation will be restored to its original state of wholeness and righteousness. This morning is the fourth is a 6-part sermon series called “Hope Is On the Way,” during which we will consider how the past and future colliding in the present gives us hope for today. Psalm 33:20 is our theme Scripture: “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.” Today’s theme is trusting even when we don’t understand.
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
After WWII my mother and father-in-law emigrated from England and settled in Ann Arbor, where my father-in-law took a post as a professor at the University of Michigan Dental School. While my father-in-law eventually became an American citizen, my mother-in-law’s heart was always back in her beloved England. Through the years she made it known that she wanted to be buried in the churchyard of her home church in Wilmslow, Cheshire, England. And so, in keeping with her mother’s wishes, after her passing in 1995, she made her final trip home on British Airways, and was buried in the family plot in the churchyard.
That next spring Caroline and I flew to England to attend to some unfinished business with the funeral director, and to visit her uncle whom she’d never met. In honor of her mum, we flew British Airways, and it happened to be on a 747. And as we stood at the terminal window gazing at this gigantic jet airplane waiting to board, we both marveled at the fact that such a huge piece of metal could actually get off the ground. And if the truth be known, even though I knew in my head it could fly, there was still a part of me that was in disbelief. Yes, I understand there’s this thing called ‘lift’ which makes flying possible. But beyond a very basic understanding of this principle, it’s beyond me how a plane that large can get off the ground and fly. I guess it’s a good thing that a plane’s ability to fly doesn’t depend upon my ability to understand how it works! The same thing could be said about my car. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how a combustible engine works, but that doesn’t keep it from working. When I had my heart cath and they put a stent in one of my arteries, they were able to perform that task despite the fact that I hadn’t the slightest clue how they would do it. In these three situations – getting on a plane, driving my car, and letting a surgeon work on me – I have trust that they’re going to work even though I don’t really understand it all works.
Last week was our week to serve at the Share the Warmth shelter, and many of you helped with that by making meals or spending the night. Many of you might recall that for many years the Share the Warmth shelter was held in the old Salvation Army church building. As much as they appreciated the use of that space, everyone knew that they really needed their own building. Specifically, they needed more space. There was one major obstacle: funding. Purchasing a building costs money. And renovating a building into a shelter costs money. But Helen Hendricks, the Director, wasn’t deterred. Regardless of whether or not she knew where the funding would come from, she plowed ahead. And even after finding a place – the old Moose Lodge on W. Maumee St., near Blessings and More – she moved ahead with plans to renovate it and have it up and running by this November, when they’d open their doors for the season. She trusted that everything would be provided somehow even though she couldn’t tell you exactly how it would happen.
When our daughter, Rachel, announced to us during her junior year in high school that she wanted to go to film school for college, Caroline and I kind of looked at each other in sheer bewilderment. For us, this desire on her part came out of left field, as they say. We were puzzled about where this idea came from, as she’d never indicated or shown any signs that she was interested in film. Even though we didn’t understand what was behind this seemingly new idea of hers, we had to trust that she knew what she was doing—even if we ourselves didn’t.
Caroline and I have been enjoying a TV show called Call the Midwife. There’s a scene towards the end of season 3 where one of the young midwife’s announces that she’s seriously considering becoming a nun (and would continue working as a midwife as such). Her two colleges are completely caught off guard, and become a little upset. “Why would she go and do this?” one of them asks out loud. They couldn’t understand their friend’s heart and call because they themselves didn’t share that same heart and call. And yet they knew they had to trust that she knew what she was doing was the right thing for her.
Think about the situation in which Joseph and Mary found themselves. Here’s how Matthew puts it: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together [in marriage], she was found to be pregnant” (1.18). She was found to be pregnant? To my ears, that sounds bit dubious. Let’s put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes for just a moment. You’re going about your business, and all is going well and as planned when out of the blue your fiancé informs you that she’s pregnant. And you know for a fact that it’s not your doing. Clearly, your fiancé has been with someone else. It has all the makings of a scandal, for sure. Now, to add insult to injury, she vehemently denies having been with anyone. But you know as well as anybody that that has to be a lie, because nobody just “finds herself” pregnant.
But you love her, and truly don’t want her to suffer the shame that could easily come her way. And of course, you want to avoid bringing shame upon yourself. So you make plans to break off the engagement on the QT, and deal with it away from the public’s eye.
But then one night you have the strangest dream in which an angel informs you that Mary’s telling the truth, that she wasn’t with anyone sexually. And that she’s just as surprised as you are, because the baby within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And that you should follow through with the marriage. And, by the way, you’re going to have a son, and you’ll name him Jesus (which means “the LORD saves”).
How easy do you suppose it was for Joseph to understand all of this? I can only imagine that he had 1001 questions for which there were no answers. And yet, somehow he had to move forward in trust. Somehow he had to trust even though he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand how she could become pregnant by a spiritual being. And for that matter, neither do I! He didn’t understand how it would play out with family and friends. Would they believe them or shun them in disbelief? And I highly doubt he understood the significance of the name he was told to give him. And yet, he was told to move forward in trust.
Trusting when you don’t understand. That ranks right up there with things that are really hard to do. But isn’t this exactly what it means to have faith, and to live by faith? Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as ‘confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.’ To live by faith is to be confident that what you hope will be the case may in fact someday come to pass. There’s no guarantee of it, no way to know ahead of time if and when it’ll come to pass. Just an indescribable confidence that it will.
Living by faith is not an easy thing to do. It’s easy to trust in things we can see, and prove, and know, and test. It’s one thing to trust that my car will start when I turn the key, or that a plane will lift off the ground when it goes fast enough, but it’s altogether a different thing to trust that our Scriptures are true when it tells us that Jesus was conceived not by a man but by the Spirit of God. How can that be? There’s no way to prove it, and certainly no way to re-create it, like scientists other scientist’s experiments by recreating them themselves in the laboratory.
Throughout this Advent we’ve been talking about how Christ is going to return to earth someday? Beyond the fact that the Bible supports this idea, can we prove it? No, we can’t. But by faith we can be confident that it’ll happen – despite the fact that we have no way to understand how it will take place. And we certainly have no understanding of what the world will be like after that happens, but we can nevertheless trust that it’ll be wonderful and beautiful beyond our wildest imaginations. Thy Kingdom come…on earth is our corporate prayer every week!
There’s a Bible verse that can help us trust when we don’t necessarily understand. In Isaiah 55.9 God says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” That fact is, we don’t have to understand how God will fulfill all his promises in order to trust him. His ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Listen to and hear God’s promise to us: Even if we don’t understand how this will happen, he nevertheless tells us, As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11). That’s his promise, and we don’t have to fully understand how he fulfills it in order to believe it.
We can apply this same thinking to the revitalization of our congregation. Do we have to know and fully understand ahead of time how God’s going to bring it about? No, but we can move forward trusting that he’s true to his word to do so! Through the prophet Jeremiah God tells us: I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (29:11). God is even now working his plan for you, and me, and us – plans which include giving us hope for each of our personal futures, as well as our future together as a church.
Last spring Rachel graduated from Huntington University with a degree in Film Production. She spent her final term taking classes and working at two internships in Hollywood. While out there she networked and made important connections, and got a good introduction to the film industry. She collaborated with other students who share her passions on a really funny pilot for web-TV show. During her four years in film school she gained first-hand experience in directing, producing, set design, audio production, video production, and even a little bit of camera work. She’s had two films entered into festivals, and she’s received awards for her work. She’s done everything she can to prepare herself for a career in film. But the truth is, no one, including herself, has any idea about what lies ahead. She has her eyes on L.A., but she also has other ideas, too. At this point, all we can go on is God’s promise that he has a plan for her, and that it’s a plan to prosper her, and give her a future. But that plan may end up looking a lot different from what any of us – including her – are thinking at the moment. And so all we can do is entrust her future into God’s perfect care.
That’s all any of us can do. We entrust ourselves and each of our futures into God’s perfect care, even though we have no idea what that future entails. This is the path Joseph ultimately chose. And it’s the path which lies before us. The name of this path is trusting God when we don’t understand. And following this path leads to us into a bright, hope-filled future.