Waiting for Immanuel Rev. Lucy Waechter Webb, Given on Sunday, December 8, 2013.
Most of you know by now that I’m expecting a child. And I have to say right off the bat, that I promise right now not to include pregnancy stories in every sermon for the next 9 months. I do have one story today. And it’s not even the about what you might think. It’s Advent right, so it’s like the perfect time to talk about expecting and babies and pregnant ladies.
However, the story is actually about how I have time and again in the last few months continued to walk away from grace. Let me explain.
I attend yoga regularly, and so I’ve continued to practice as I’ve been pregnant. It’s one of the best forms of exercise you can do while pregnant, actually. However, it doesn’t mean that you can just always practice as you have before. Even from the very beginning, there are changes you are supposed to make in your practice to keep the baby safe, and to protect your own body. Well, this just hasn’t been acceptable to me. Of course I can practice as before, I don’t have a belly yet, so there’s no reason I can’t lay on it. Early on you’re not supposed to twist a lot, but I couldn’t help but think about all the times we do this unconsciously. It’s fine. These yogis are just overreacting. That was until I got hurt. I actually injured myself doing a strength training workout, but I ignored my back and went to yoga anyway, and sure enough it seized up by the end. I was embarrassed and crying in the middle of this peaceful quiet class. So I realized, Ok, there’s something to this, I need to be a little more gentle.
But as long as it feels ok, I can keep going. So this week I was in a yoga class, doing my gentle thing, and felt great. Then at the end, I lay on my back for the final pose, called the corpse pose (for a reason!) At this point in the class I am always scanning my face, trying to let loose every piece of tension that I carry most in my neck, cheek bones, squinty eyes, and jaw. I’m comfortably settled in beginning to scan my face and let go, and the instructor walks up and says “I’d really rather see you propped up on a pillow, it will become one of your favorite poses, I promise.” Uh huh, right. I oblige, I don’t want to interrupt others, and lay back on the pillow, and by now my face looks more this. Tight. Contorted. Stubborn. I can lay on my *** back! It feels fine! Surely I’m flexible enough for that lady.
And then I realize. I’ve done it again. I turned away from grace someone is offering me. There is no expectation about being an A student, being the most flexible, being the strongest in yoga. Really the only expectation is that you’ll listen to your body and take care of it and learn from it. Not only did I turn away from her grace, but from offering myself grace in the moment for my changing yoga practice. Grace for my body which is still strong, but in different ways. Regardless of whether laying on your back is safe, there is someone extending openness, grace about what and what I might need. And I was unwilling to receive that.
And why did I do it? It is in the name of virtue. In the name of good things. In the name of pushing myself to the limits, of finding strength, of total release, it’s maybe even in the name of equalizing myself with others. And the only outcome was Tension. Frustration. A lack of kindness not only toward myself, but now also toward that bossy yoga teacher.
It is a small example, but a very real one, of how we can walk away from grace that is presented before us.
Our scripture today is the story of someone who walks away from grace.
It’s one of those stories that has a lot of history and detail from other places in scripture that may not be evident in a first reading, so let’s look at it again together.
The scripture starts in the middle of a section of Isaiah where there is a threat again the southern part of Israel, called Judah. King Ahaz is in charge, and he is worried about a potential siege of the city of Jerusalem. The story says God instructs Ahaz to ask for a sign. Ask, and you shall receive!
And Ahaz walks away. He says, no thank you. “I will not ask, I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Then Isaiah, the local prophet steps in – he’s a bit sarcastic! So you’re not only going to tire out your people, King Ahaz, but you’re going to tire out God with this nonsense too? The Lord is going to give you a sign anyway dude.
The prophet actually treats Ahaz’s protest as a simple refusal to trust in God. And his response is that there will be a sign anyway. Even though you will not ask for it, even though you seem to fail to trust in God. God’s grace abounds and will be offered anyway.
And the sign? The sign is a child. It’s name: Immanuel. The sign is that God is with you. The word in Hebrew means God with us. You are afraid about what is ahead, and God is with us. The sign itself, challenges your mistrust about God being present in the midst of your fear.
The sign breaks into your life whether you ask for it or not, it doesn’t even require you to say the sinner’s prayer to reel it in; grace is present with or without you! It is why we baptize infants, because grace is already there. The question is: how will you respond? Will you walk away again after the sign has been presented?
There are a few reasons I’ve heard this week about why people tend to walk away from grace. And actually, I think both are a possibility for Ahaz in the story.
The first is in the name of righteousness.
Ahaz says, “I will not put the Lord to the test.” It is in the name of piety, in the name of righteousness even that he will not test his God. In the name of good things, right? He is attempting to be strong, flexible, (sounds like me trying to be good at yoga while pregnant).
But Isaiah sees these as smoke screens, he thinks the King just doesn’t trust God. Perhaps he is even afraid of whether or not God will come through, whether anything will happen if he asks.
Maybe he is afraid of what the sign will be, and is not sure that he wants it.
Or perhaps he thinks he doesn’t deserve a sign. This is the other reason I heard people say why they’ve walked away from grace. On a first reading of the scripture today, you might not think this is why Ahaz walked away. But other places of scripture say more about who he was as a king.
Without knowing those other references in scripture, You might assume he is a great guy – he has every reason to expect a faithful sign from God. Perhaps even deserving of God’s grace. The Hebrew scriptures in Chronicles and Kings speak to King Ahaz’ character. In Chronicles, his “time in office” is described as “he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestor David, but walked in the ways of kings of Israel, and even made sacrifices and cast images for [the other Gods].” He even sent his own son to “pass through the fire” (a phrase meaning send as a burnt offering) as a sacrifice to another God, named Molech, a worship that was practiced by another group just outside the city of Jerusalem.
So maybe he walked away because he had some remorse, guilt, maybe he didn’t believe he deserved a sign.
Regardless of why we walked away, he was clearly not listed as a favorite king in the history of the Hebrew people. He’s not an exalted figure in the bible.
And yet he received a sign. He too, received the free gift of grace. God broke in, and the promise of Immanuel, the promise that God is with us, was given even when he refused to ask for it.
The beauty of the story is that grace is ever-present. God’s promise to be with us isn’t contingent upon us. And yet we walk away. And when we do we are far more harmful to ourselves and to others. Because the way we receive grace, I believe, influences how we offer it as well.
So as we wait together in this Advent season, how do you still wait for grace?
What are the things in your life where you carry the most shame? The places where you don’t think grace can find you. We each have different life stories and histories, but already know what those places are for you.
How can you recognize that the shame is pointing toward the reality that in fact we need to receive grace, not just once, but again and again and again. So how can we stop punishing ourselves, see our resistance to grace, and learn to open ourselves to it?
Where are the deepest places in your heart where grace has still not found its way in?
We wait for the promise of grace and love that Jesus embodied because there are places we have not yet received it. We wait for it because the process of salvation is not a one-time event, but it is about leaning into grace again and again and again. And the promise is that it is already before us. The sign is here before we even ask.
This is the tension of Advent. It is the season where we celebrate the light that has already broken into our lives, the grace we already know, and we wait with anticipation, and we prepare ourselves, to receive the light again. Because we need it again and again and again.
So as you wait for the joy that comes with whatever your Christmas traditions may be, the lights, cookies, families, carols. As you wait with anticipation , may you also prepare.
Prepare your eyes, your ears, your heart to be open to the signs of grace in your life. And when they are in front of you, when those gifts are in front of you, how will you receive them?
May this Christmas season, this promise of a God that is with us, may the celebration of the gift of light, be an opening for you. How can this season be a time where we recognize those places where we have been waiting for the promise of grace to be true even for the things we didn’t think it could be true for. How do you open the places of your heart for light to enter, and for grace to find its home even there.
Be patient with yourself, and honest enough to let grace in and not walk away.
While we wait God is present with us. The signs that God grants abound before us. May Ahaz remind us to look for them, to walk toward them, and to maybe even ask for them.