Sunday, December 19, 2010

Faith and foolishness

Faith is one of those good "churchy" words we hear frequently – so frequently that perhaps we start to tune it out. The idea of "faith" is central to understanding the lessons we heard today, but all those good churchy words start to run together so that they all sort of mean something vaguely good. And then we miss the point. So what is Faith? To get there, I want to start with a related term: belief.

Belief is living as if something is true. Belief can be pretty mundane stuff. I believe Nativity is on 14 Mile Road; consequently, I'm not surprised to find it here, and that's where I go when I'm looking for it. Faith, on the other hand, is belief that persists even through doubt. Belief even in the absence of sensory confirmation. Belief despite a lack of proof, a lack of logical reason to believe. If you can see colors, it takes no great faith to believe that the banner hanging there is blue. But if I were to tell you that this sermon will last for about 12 minutes, so if you wanted go get a cup of coffee, and not miss the creed, you'd have to take it on faith. You haven't seen my prepared text. If you accept my word for it, that's faith. Still pretty minor, though. When the doubts get bigger and the consequences of being wrong get more important, the faith necessary to sustain a belief grows.

Let's take a look at the role of faith in the first lesson. Isaiah, a prophet, is speaking with Ahaz, King of Judah. Ahaz is descended from the great King David, and Matthew tells us that Ahaz is also a step-ancestor of Jesus. But every family has its bad eggs. Despite this pedigree, Ahaz was known as a bad king. We have a clue that the selection from Isaiah we heard started in the middle of the story, because the lesson begins "Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz." So perhaps we need some context to figure out what this is all about. A remarkable thing about the Jewish people from the time of the Passover up to the rule of Ahaz was that they were truly an independent people: they were neither subject to an emperor, nor did they rule over another conquered people. At the crossroads of a region of the world characterized by large empires ruling over vassal states, the survival of a people who were free, without taking freedom from others was something of a miracle.

Back in the Good Old Days, when David was king, the royal house of Jerusalem ruled a kingdom that included the Twelve Tribes of Israel. David’s grandson Rehoboam was an oppressive ruler, and the ten northern tribes rebelled and formed a separate kingdom known as Israel, leaving David’s descendents ruling Judah from Jerusalem. Relations between Israel and Judah were at a low point during the rule of Ahaz.

A new threat to the balance of power loomed to the east: the Assyrian Empire sought to place all of the known world under the rule of its emperor at Ninevah. The two kingdoms to the north of Judah, Israel and Syria, were afraid of the approaching empire. They formed an alliance against the Assyrians, and they wanted Ahaz and the Kingdom of Judah to join them in the fight. Ahaz, following the advice of the prophets in his court, refused to join in. So far, so good: Ahaz seems to be doing what God told him to do, not provoking trouble, and all is well. But then the folks to the north aren't so happy about his refusal to join them. They want to overthrow Ahaz as King of Judah and put someone on the throne who will join their alliance against the Assyrians. They lay siege to Jerusalem, with the intent of changing the leadership there. And at this point, Ahaz gets upset. It's one thing to have faith and avoid joining in a conflict a thousand miles away. When faith means ignoring an army camped on your doorstep and believing they aren't a threat, that's a lot harder. But that was the message our story tells us God sent to Ahaz: you're doing the right thing. This invading army can't really threaten you. Just wait, and they'll leave you alone.

Ahaz is wavering here. On the one hand, he wants to do what God told him. On the other hand, he wants to be prudent. A wise king takes care of his subjects. Sure, God said everything will be okay, but you have to be realistic. So Ahaz hatched a plan to send letters to the Emperor of Assyria asking to form an alliance with him to get rid of these armies trying to overthrow him. Yes, there would probably be strings attached, and the Assyrians would likely want tribute, or demand that the people of Judah worship the Assyrian gods, or other unpleasant matters, but the Assyrians were far away, and this threat was here now. A shrewd king like Ahaz might be able to play the various powers off of each other and keep his people safe. A risky plan, but less risky than doing nothing and waiting for his enemies to just decide to go home. Right?

It isn't easy to live as if a whole bunch of people with sharp swords who have camped out around your city aren't really a threat to you. To have faith that everything will be okay in this context is tough stuff. And that is where our story begins: God offers Ahaz some help with the hard part. God offers Ahaz a sign. What is role of signs and prophesies in the faith process? If the signs were proof that the words spoken by a prophet are true, there would be no need for faith. But signs and prophesies aren't proof; they're reassurances. They don't replace faith; they help it along. Like an unnamed person in Mark's Gospel said, asking Jesus for help, "Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief." They make it easier to live as if something you might doubt is actually true.

God tells Ahaz he can have a sign as big as he wants. And then Ahaz says he wants nothing to do with it. No sign for me, thanks. Why not? Because he has a rational, prudent course of action already planned. A sign might tempt him to trust faith and do nothing about the threat. A sign from God lead him to act in the foolishness of faith and not with the prudence of practicality. Faith leads people to do irrational, ridiculous, foolish things.

Isaiah responds by getting upset with Ahaz, and telling him that he’s getting a sign, whether he wants one or not. Isaiah then gives a sign that forecasts the future. Prophets, whether religious like Isaiah or secular like stock analysts, are folks who claim to have some sort of direct line to Wisdom or the Divine. They frequently predict the future, but predicting the future isn’t the primary function of a prophet; prescribing present behavior is far more important. Prophets predict the future to help build credibility: “Listen to me because I’m someone with insight into how the world works.” If the prophet really understands the workings of the world, or is bearing news from a higher power that does, then it follows that the prophet can make potentially falsifiable claims that turn out to be true. On the basis of this track record, people need a smaller leap of faith in order to believe the words of a prophet – to live as though they are true. If a prophet or prophetic tradition has a record of making true claims in the past, it becomes easier to believe new claims.

So Isaiah makes his claim: It’s okay to ignore the threat from the northern Kingdom because they’ll go away soon. Look at that young woman over there. She’s pregnant. The child she will give birth to will eat curds and honey before he comes of age. Curds and honey aren’t siege food. Curds require pastures, and honey requires bee hives and fields of flowers surrounding your city, not besieging armies. If the unborn child will grow up in a land of milk and honey, he’ll grow up in a land where the current war is just a memory. Isaiah is making a claim here, risking his reputation. He’s saying that King Ahaz doesn’t need to make any alliances to end this conflict; it will take care of itself, and he just needs to ride it out.

Ahaz was no fool. He refused to follow Isaiah’s counsel. He did the prudent thing. He invited in the Assyrians. They demanded tribute, and they demanded that the people of Judah worship their gods. Ahaz, in realistic prudence, insisted on doing something when the voice of faith called him to patience. And an era of foreign entanglement emerged from which the Kingdom of Judah never really recovered. What Isaiah called Ahaz to do in faith was foolishly naïve. It also happened to be right. And as a post-script, the child born to the young woman in the royal court indeed ate honey and curds before coming of age: the northern kingdom of Israel was soon destroyed and the siege ended.

Fast forward seven hundred years: another case of a messenger calling someone to live as though something foolish were true. Joseph is engaged to marry a young woman, but, as our Gospel lesson today delicately puts it, “before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” Joseph was a righteous man – the King James Version called him “just.” He clearly wished Mary no ill. His plan was to quietly end their relationship. No fuss, no vengeance, no repercussions, but what else would be a reasonable response? His fiancée was pregnant with a baby that wasn’t his. Now we think of prudence as good, and we think of righteousness as good, and they are. But faith called Joseph to respond beyond what was righteous, beyond what was prudent. Faith in the angel’s message called Joseph to believe – to live as if the baby his fiancée carried was the child of God. Outside the realm of normal experience? Certainly. To believe the angel’s message took great faith – this was no small commitment to raise as his own a child biologically unrelated to him. Unlike his ancestor Ahaz, Joseph responded in faith. Joseph believed – he lived as if what the angel told him was true. And the Holy Family came into being.

Ahaz’s failure to choose faith over prudence directly led to the end of the sovereign Kingdom of Judah, where the Law of Moses alone governed the people of God. Joseph’s embrace of foolish faith over prudent righteousness led to the beginning of the new Reign of God, which continues to arrive about us, even as we gather here. Choosing between good and bad is fairly easy. Choosing between two goods – that’s harder. Prudence and righteousness and wisdom and order are good things. But while they can keep the brokenness of the world at bay for a time, they cannot heal us; they cannot restore our world to God’s glory. Only through the foolish leap to faith can we dare to love without bounds, to trust without reason, to do what we have no reason to expect we can accomplish – and thereby serve as the hands of God to renew this broken world. Sometimes that faith is a call to patience – to wait for God’s time. Sometimes that faith is a call to service – to take on more than we can reasonably hope to do, trusting that God will step in where our abilities end. Sometimes that faith is a call to listen and reflect and wonder just where our unseen God leads us.