Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent Weekday: December 18

Isaiah 7:10-14
Psalm 24
Luke 1:26-38

Today is the second day in which the "O Antiphons" are used at Morning and Evening Prayer. The text of today's antiphon is:

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with your outstretched arm.

I want to focus on the final line of the antiphon in a moment, but first, a little history on the word 'Adonai'.

Adonai, simply put, is the common Hebrew word that we define as 'Lord'. In Hebrew, there are many names used to describe God: Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai, El, Yah, and others - not to mention conjunctive phrases like El Shaddai, Yahweh Sabaoth, and El Elyon. Of all these phrases, Adonai is among the most common we use today, partially because it is the common substitute for Yahweh - which late Jewish tradition considered too sacred to be spoken, and partially because Adonai itself appears in the Hebrew Scriptures often enough on its own.

(Just as a side note, Jehovah is a latinized version of Yahweh, which came down to us in the King James Bible and in many hymns... but the Hebrew has no corresponding hard "J" sound... so the use of the title Jehovah, while common, is questionable.)

As the Scriptures were translated into Latin, Greek, and eventually our own English tongue, the late Jewish tradition was maintained, and the word Yahweh was changed to Lord in small capitals, while genuine occurrences of the word Adonai, meaning Lord, remained in regular type. Ever wonder why you see Lord and Lord in your Bible? There's your answer.

Okay, history lesson over... moving on...

The final verse of today's antiphon calls on Adonai to come and redeem us with outstretched arm. What a wonderful vision that brings, but I must ask a question for each of us to consider. Is that something we are truly praying for?

In our reading from Isaiah today, King Ahaz refuses to ask a sign of Yahweh "No," he responds to God's request, "I will not test Yahweh like that." God has graciously invited him to pray for anything... ANYTHING... and he refuses. In steps the prophet Isaiah, who tells Ahaz that he is exhausting God's patience. But why?

Sometimes, we like to pat ourselves on the back with the conservativeness of our prayers. And yet, the Letter to James clearly teaches us that we "have not because we ask not". God himself, in his very own voice, and in the presence of his prophet, is giving Ahaz license to ask for anything at all, no matter how unreachable it may seem. This is, after all, the one whom we acclaim in our Psalm today as having laid the earth's foundations, who is sovereign over the world and its creatures. He can grant whatever he wants. He can do the impossible. He can make a childless old woman to be fruitful, just as he can grace a virgin womb with child. Even though the stories of Elizabeth and Mary are centuries after Ahaz, he need only to look in his own people's past to recognize the provision of God to the Israelites in the Exodus, in their conquest of the promised land, and in the fruitfulness of Hannah, who bore Samuel around half a millennium before his own reign commenced.

We could stop and examine why Ahaz declined to offer a prayer rooted in his own heart... his own needs... we could argue about it being a setup for Yahweh to speak the prophecy of the Virgin Birth, or deride Ahaz for his lack of confidence or faith. But that's not where we are going today. Today, we are called to look at ourselves and examine ourselves in the light of Ahaz's declination.

Here's your question of the day: Do I shy away from asking of God boldly in prayer?

Now, I want to be cautious here... because taken in conjunction with several of Jesus' own statements, and totally out of context, you might be tempted to walk away from the Sanctuary today saying, "God will give me whatever I want." I mean, with phrases like we have in our first reading, the one we discussed from the fourth chapter of James, and Jesus' own words "Whatever you ask in my name, I will grant"... I mean somewhere on this planet, there should be a bunch of dead Christian persecutors stacked like firewood; children should have flooded Harvard and Yale until it burst at the seams; and mother-in-laws throughout the civilized world should be in Hawaii at this time of the year, far away from the homes, particularly, of the newlywed! Seriously, if we thought we could get whatever we asked for in prayer, we'd start praying for some silly, some useless, and indeed for some very dark things. Thus, we rightly point out that going to God in prayer must be done in harmony with his nature, character, and word.

And so, as a result, we often balance out the call to pray boldly with a recognition that God doesn't give us *everything* we want... and our boldness in prayer is undercut. We are reduced to praying for a good night of rest, recovery from illness soon, and all kinds of other things which often come across as 'hedging' on God's promise to hear and answer our prayers.

Friends, we are discussing a God who formed the cosmos with a simple thought. He shaped us from the earth's primal elements. He protected Noah. He guided a chosen people from bondage to freedom, and gave them a Law to promote justice and renewal among them. He took on our flesh that we might find our human nature restored to what had been marred through the fall of our first parents... just as we are called to be bold in our witness, bold in what we believe, we are called to be bold in trusting what God can do for us; and that includes bringing his mighty arm to bear to save us and deliver us from our trials.

I'm not trying to go all TV preacher on you; and don't worry, there won't be a tithe request coming your way in a few minutes... I simply want to excite, encourage, implore you - pray boldly! God will come to answer you with his redeeming arm wielding power!

Beloved, you have been nourished here today in Word and Sacrament... GO FORTH PRAYING BOLDLY, trusting in the power of Adonai to guide your heart in prayer, and to answer even the boldest prayer in the way that is right, best, and holy for you and those you lift before him.