Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Thursday 19th March 2020 (Joseph of Nazareth)
2 Samuel 7.4–16; Psalm 89.26–36; Romans 4.13–18; Matthew 1.18–end
At times like this, when many are falling sick and the church has even suspended public services so we can no longer worship in the same space, people can wonder where God is. We’re told God is faithful, and that God keeps his promises. But what does that mean at a time like this?
Both our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading are about promises, and God’s faithfulness to those promises. The reading from the second book of Samuel records God’s promise to David, given through the prophet Nathan, that through David’s descendants his throne will be established for ever. The psalm expresses this promise in the terms of a ‘covenant’ between God and David:
My covenant will I not break
nor alter what has gone out of my lips.
Once for all have I sworn by my holiness
that I will not prove false to David.
By the time this psalm was written, though, the promise looked quite fragile: Jerusalem had been attacked, the king had been taken prisoner, and the leaders of the people were in exile in Babylon. Was God still keeping faith with Israel?
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome recalls God’s promise to Abraham that he would make of him a great nation, and that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel (Genesis 12). The part of Genesis Paul is referring to was also written while Israel was in exile: Israel was not a great nation, and many of them weren’t living in their land. Again, would God keep faith with Israel?
The way these writers dealt with God’s apparent lack of faithfulness was by reminding themselves of the promises they believed he’d made in the past. Looking back on those promises, they reassured themselves that God would be faithful.
After centuries passed without the promises being fulfilled, however, some Jews began to wonder if God was being faithful to them in a different way. The Jews who became Christians were particularly creative.
We heard about God’s promise to David, and its apparent nullification by the exile. A stable kingship was never re-established after the exile, but Christians came to see Jesus as the fulfilment of this promise. Jesus was understood to be a descendant of King David through Joseph (never mind the virgin birth), and since through the resurrection he is a universal king, alive for ever, God’s promise is fulfilled in him.
Similarly, the Jews never regained control over their land for very long after the return from exile, almost always being ruled by some other power. But the Jewish Christian writer Paul reinterpreted the promise to Abraham, expanding it from a narrow focus on the land to refer instead to the Christian hope of a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and fullness of life in God’s new creation. And he says that it is offered to everyone who has faith, not only to those who keep the Jewish law. Once again, God’s promise is fulfilled in Jesus.
So what about the present time? What do people mean when they wonder about God’s faithfulness at a time like this? Do they imagine, perhaps, that God has promised that he will protect us from evil, keep us safe and healthy, and guard us from any distress? Did he promise that?
Yes, there are parts of the Old Testament where God promises to his people that, if they keep his commandments, then he will make them prosper. That’s why the crucifixion of Jesus was such a scandal. Here was a righteous man, a man everyone thought was favoured by God, but God allowed him to be arrested, mistreated, and crucified. And this carried on with his followers – for the first few generations, almost all were marginalized, and some were martyred. What had happened to God’s faithfulness? How were Christians to understand it?
Cue another creative reinterpretation. Christians realized that God’s faithfulness didn’t mean that everything would always be all right. Instead it meant, in the words of the angel to Joseph in our gospel reading, that ‘God is with us’. This is how God shows his faithfulness to us. He was ‘with us’ in Jesus, going through all the dreadful stuff we go through, and he is with us now.
God is with us now in his availability for prayer: we can call on our heavenly Father at any time of day or night, and he will listen. God is with us now in the worship of the church: although we’re not all together in the same building, when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name (in body or spirit), he is there among them. And God is with us now in our hearts and in our acts of kindness for one another: his Spirit comforts us, strengthens us, and helps us to love.
God may not be faithful in the way we want God to be faithful, but he is faithfully with us. Let’s hold onto that in the months ahead.