December 16, 2019
The Advent 4A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 1:18-25 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 7:10-16 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 80:1-7,17-19 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 1:1-7 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 29 (Lord’s Day 11)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suppose that one day you were reading a story in which an elderly woman is talking to her pregnant granddaughter. “Now listen, my dear,” the old woman says, “I would ask that you name this child after your grandfather and so give him the name Nelson.” Suppose the young woman agrees. “OK, Grandma, his name will be Nelson.” But what would you think if the narrator of the story then wrote, “And so this fulfilled a prediction once made by the pregnant woman’s father that her firstborn would be named ‘Wallace.’”
Well, which is it: Nelson or Wallace? And if it ends up being Nelson, then what does Wallace have to do with anything?
So also in Matthew 1: the angel says to name the baby “Jesus,” and Matthew turns right around and says, “That’s right: he’s little baby Immanuel.” And no sooner does Matthew write that and we are told that when the baby was born, Joseph did as he was told and named the little fellow “Jesus.”
Jesus. Immanuel. Immanuel. Jesus. Must we choose? Was Matthew just not noticing his inconsistencies here?
Apparently, you cannot speak the one without invoking the other. Jesus = Immanuel.
Jesus = God with us.
God with us in all our flesh-and-blood realities and messiness.
God with us in diapers.
God with us nursing at Mary’s breast.
God with us in learning to eat small pieces of bread and drinking from a cup without spilling milk all down his chin.
“Christ among the pots and pans” as Teresa of Avila put it. Christ among the barn animals and then those quirky magi astrologers and then all the rest of the Gospel’s curious cast of characters.
God with us.
God with the prostitutes and the lepers and the outcast in whose company Jesus would delight again and again. God at the dinner table with a chive stuck between his incisors. God lifting the cup of wine to his lips.
God with us.
God with the little children whose warm brows he touched and blessed. God smiling when a baby was shown to him by a proud new mother.
God with us in all our ordinary times and days. God with us, as Jesus would say to bookend Matthew’s gospel, even unto the end of the ages. Always. With us. Immanuel.
Immanuel is God-with-us in the cancer clinic and at the local nursing home where bodies slump pitifully in wheelchairs pushed up against the hallway walls.
Immanuel is God-with-us in the Hospice room and when life’s final breath slips past a dear one’s teeth and lips.
Immanuel is God-with-us when the pink slip comes and when the beloved child sneers, “I hate you!”
Immanuel is God-with-us when you pack the Christmas decorations away and, with an aching heart, you realize afresh that your one son never did call over the holidays. Not once.
Immanuel is God-with-us when your dear wife or mother stares at you with an Alzheimer’s glaze and absently asks, “What was your name again, dear?”
Ever and always Jesus stares straight into you with his two good eyes and he does so not only when you can smile back but most certainly also when your own eyes are full of tears. In fact, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with you” even in those times when you are so angry with God that you refuse to meet his eyes. But even when you feel like you can’t look at him, he never looks away from you.
His name says it all.
This is less a textual note and more of a general New Testament textual observation: but isn’t it curious that Joseph never speaks in the Bible? Even in Luke’s far more extended “Christmas” narrative in Luke 1-2, Joseph never utters a syllable. But perhaps that is because, as Matthew notes in this Year A lection from Matthew 1, Joseph was “a righteous man.” A righteous person lets his or her actions do the talking. A righteous person is the opposite of someone who is “all talk, no action.” Joseph in Matthew 1 acts swiftly on the messages he receives from God, even when those messages are counter-intuitive and difficult. (It’s difficult to imagine that Joseph’s decision to stick with Mary was universally hailed as a good idea. People no doubt talked behind his back, whispering about her pre-nuptial pregnancy and wondering if either Joseph was himself the too-eager paramour of Mary or if he was actually sticking with a woman who had been unfaithful to him even before they were married.) But a righteous man need not say much. His actions say it all.
One other note: Notice how “Immanuel/God-with-Us” in Matthew 1 bookends with the very end of the gospel in Matthew 28 when Jesus promises “Surely I am WITH YOU to the end of the age.” This is a nice inclusio from Matthew that reinforces the vital nature of this overarching theme in his gospel.
As Frederick Buechner once mused (seeing as his own last name trips up many a person trying to pronounce it), what is it about our names and how we identify with them? With a last name like mine—Hoezee—I, like Fred Buechner, more-or-less expect it to be mispronounced as often as not by restaurant maitre’ds and telemarketers and even sometimes by the person introducing me when I am a guest preacher or speaker somewhere. That happens. But why is it that when that happens, I end up being the one to feel embarrassed about it? I’ve never once seen the person doing the mispronouncing blush but sometimes I do even as I just feel foolish for having been publicly addressed incorrectly.
(For the record, my name is pronounced like the Spanish name Jose or “Ho-Zay” and for Fred, it’s BEAK-NER).
It’s a strange business when it comes to our names and how we identify with them. It probably tells us that names are important but also that we come to identify with our own names. We get caught up in them. We like it when people associate good things with our names and feel chagrined in case for whatever the reason the opposite happens. We like it when someone recognizes our name (“Say, are you the person who wrote that nice article in the newspaper a while back . . .?”) and feel oddly diminished when someone who should know full well who we are glances at our name but with nary a hint of recognition or recollection.
Forget my name and I have the odd feeling it is me, my entire person, whom you have forgotten (or dismissed as being unworthy of recollection).
Matthew 1 is all about names. We get a whole Family Tree’s worth of names right out of the chute but finally we narrow down the whole chapter to one very specific name—actually, to two very specific names—almost as a way to say that all of history has been leading up to this one point when Someone would finally come with a Name above all names, a Name that will never be forgotten, a Name that will spell Life itself.
And in this case, if ever we get the name wrong or forget it altogether, it really will not be Jesus/Immanuel who will do the blushing.
Author: Stan Mast
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, just 3 days away from Christmas, our reading from Isaiah 7 doesn’t seem very Christmasy. Oh, it does if we focus only on verse 14 and the way our Gospel reading for today interprets it (Matthew 1:18-25). But if we read our text in its context, there’s no hint of shepherds keeping watch out in the fields by night; there’s only the enemy camped out at the very gates of Jerusalem. If we want to get the full meaning of this famous prophecy, we can’t skip right over to its New Testament fulfillment. We need to hear it as its first listeners heard it. Then we can grasp its deeper and wider meaning for our day.
The earlier verses of Isaiah 7 set the scene. Those days in 735/734 were a time of war and fear. The southern kingdom of Judah was under attack by a coalition of the northern kingdom of Israel and the Syrians. Those two unlikely allies had come together to fend off an attack by the rising power of Assyria, which was gobbling up countries to its west and south on the way to the seaports of the Mediterranean and the riches of Egypt. Judah had refused to join their alliance, preferring instead to attempt a treaty with Assyria. But now the combined armies of Israel and Syria have besieged Jerusalem during the reign of Ahaz, a part of the Davidic dynasty.
Judah and particularly Jerusalem was literally shaking with fear; “the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” So, as God always does when his people are afraid, God speaks a word of reassurance in verse 4. “Be careful, keep calm, and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood,” the two kings of the opposing armies. They threaten to ruin you, but it won’t happen. In fact, in 65 years (verse 8), that northern kingdom “will be too shattered to be a people.”
Then God names the issue here—faith. In whom will you trust in this time of international strife and domestic danger? Will it be the walls of Jerusalem, your tenuous alliance with Assyria, your political skills and military might? Or will it be Yahweh your covenant God who has shown himself faithful for centuries and now promises to save you? “If you don’t stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all (verse 9).”
That is the context of our text and its wonderful promise of a virgin getting pregnant and giving birth to a son who will be called Immanuel. God’s promise of the destruction of the northern coalition was a bit hard to believe given the situation in which Ahaz and his people found themselves. So God offered something to strengthen their faith, the very thing we often ask for when we aren’t sure we have heard God correctly—a sign, visible proof that the Lord has indeed spoken. “Ask the Lord your God for a sign,” and don’t skimp on what you ask. Go big, ask for anything “whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” I want you to trust me, so let me prove it to you with a big sign.
But Ahaz was either too discouraged to ask or his faith was already in the Assyrian ploy, so he refused to ask for a sign. He covered his lack of faith in Yahweh by quoting Yahweh’s own law back at God. “I will not put Yahweh to the test (Deut. 6:16).”
That’s when Yahweh exploded, or rather when Isaiah spoke for Yahweh in explosive words. “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you now try the patience of my God also?” God has had it with you unbelievers. But instead of walking away, God gave his people a sign that has stood through the ages—not just something as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven, but something that would join the depths with the heights. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”
To say that this promise has been controversial is a colossal understatement. The controversy swirls around the word “virgin.” In the Hebrew it is the word almah, which means simply a young woman about to be married. The idea of being a sexual virgin is not necessarily at the heart of the word. However, the Latin version of this text (the Septuagint) uses the word parthenos, which definitely means a young woman who hasn’t had sex yet. That is certainly how Matthew understood Isaiah 7:14 when he applied it to Mary and Jesus.
So, some scholars say this is merely a promise for Ahaz and his people in 734. Isaiah was talking about some young woman in his time, maybe Ahaz’s young wife, maybe Isaiah’s own second wife, or maybe just some young woman walking past at the time. That contemporary almah would give birth to a son and that son would be proof that God is indeed with his people, even in a terrible time like this. Thus, he will be called Immanuel, God with us.
No, say other scholars, it is crystal clear from the New Testament that God is talking about the birth of the Messiah here in the fullness of time. The parthenos interprets the almah, giving the deeper meaning of that ancient promise. Even as that child in 734 BC proved that God was with his embattled people, that child in 4 BC proved that God is always with his people, and will save them from their sins.
It is clear from the rest of our text that God meant this promise for his Eighth Century people first of all. Verses 15 and 16 basically say that before this child goes on solid food, while he is still eating “curds and honey,” the northern alliance will be “laid waste.” And that’s exactly what happened when this sign child was only 2 years old. Or as another interpretation of verse 15 has it, before this boy reaches the age of discretion (“when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right”) the land will be so devastated by war that people will have to eat subsistence food like yogurt and honey. With either interpretation of that poetic phrase, this text is intended initially for Ahaz and his people.
But that wasn’t all God had in mind. Indeed, the way Matthew uses this prophecy is very instructive for how we deal with all of God’s promises. Matthew says that the Virgin Birth of Jesus “fulfilled” the word of the prophet. He filled it out, made it full. You never know the full meaning of God’s promises until you see them in the light of Christ, because as Paul put it, “no matter how many promises God has made, they are all ‘Yes’ in Christ.” (II Corinthians 1:20) We often cannot see Christ in the original promise, as Ahaz and even Isaiah surely didn’t here, but God was always pointing ahead to the grand fulfillment in Christ.
In a time of war and fear, God gave his Old Testament people a simple sign to assure them that their God was with them even though the northern coalition seemed invincible. In another time of international turmoil and internal danger, God gave his New Testament people a grand sign to assure them that God was with them, even though Rome seemed almighty. That sign still stands for us today, in a time of war and fear when leaders jockey for power and enemies are at the gates and we don’t know whom to trust. Elizabeth Achtemeier said it well: “the people of faith know that earth’s petty powers will never have the last word. After all, Jesus Christ was born when Caesar Augustus ruled, and Caesar is now dead, but Jesus Christ lives.”
So, rather than squabble over a word, let us trust the One who fulfilled the word of the Lord. When it is hard to trust God in impossible situations, let us look to the sign of a Virgin who gave birth to a Son who was in every sense of the word, Immanuel, God with us. Even she thought it was impossible (“how can this be?”), but God assured her, “With God nothing is impossible.” Advent is a call to faith when Christmas seems a long way off. We don’t have to ask for a sign to help us believe. He has already been born.
Signs are essential to life in this world. A red octagon tells us that we need to stop for cross traffic or we will get in a wreck. A black and white rectangle with an arrow warns us that traffic is going in only one direction on this street, so don’t turn into it. The green signs with white lettering overhead inform us where we are in a city and what highways are coming up. A blue sign with an H shows us the way to the hospital, while a sign with a picture of an airplane indicates where the airport is. Try to picture a city without signs and you will see how necessary they are to peaceful cohabitation. In a confusing world filled with conflict, one sign stands above the fray to show us that God is with us and wishes us “peace on earth.” Jesus is the Sign of God’s loving involvement with his world.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Author: Scott Hoezee
A scant three days before Christmas this year, the Lectionary via Psalm 80 takes us out of any setting we might ordinarily associate with the holidays and settles us instead into a very bleak landscape. There can be no missing in Psalm 80—despite the Lectionary’s attempted leap-frog over the starker verses in the middle of this poem—that this is being prayed to God from a setting of destruction and despair. This is a psalm that reflects on Israel’s experience after Jerusalem and its Temple had been sacked by the Babylonians. This is not a prayer to be offered up to God while sitting in front of a twinkly Christmas tree while a nice fire crackles on the hearth by which Christmas stockings have been hung with care. This is a prayer from the midst of war’s ravages.
This is a refugee psalm. This is an exile’s song. These are the pleadings of someone who has seen his whole world destroyed and is now desperate to find some hope for the future. Don’t set this song to some “Silent Night”-type carol tune. This is not “Joy to the World” or “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” These are the harsh, discordant raspings of the defeated, of the desolate, of the disconsolate. These are prayers begging God to come back to the people whom he for all the world seems to have abandoned. This is a repeated call for the light of God’s face to shine on his people because for the moment, they find themselves in a very dark place with precious little—if any—light to see their path forward.
On the face of it, then, this seems discordant with all the Hallmark and Currier & Ives stuff we usually associate with the Christmas Season. Yet for exactly this reason, these pleadings may fit our real world better than we think. Because let’s face it, we all know there is a level of artificiality to the normal trappings of the holiday season as it has evolved over time. It has gotten to the point that we almost feel as though we have to generate and crank up a false front of good cheer in order to fit in. We have been taught to resist sadness during December even as (for reasons we cannot really articulate were we pressed to do so) we feel worse about bad news from folks this time of the year than we would at any other time.
As I have noted in other Advent sermon starters over the years, if a sad event or an outright tragedy happens to someone near the Fourth of July in the United States, we don’t generally worry that this bit of sadness will “ruin” their celebration of Independence Day or forever mar their future observances of it. But when something bad happens close to or on Christmas, we right away find ourselves thinking, “Well, this will ruin their Christmas this year and probably the children of that family will forever associate Christmas Eve with the night their mother died. That’s just so too bad. Christmas is ruined!”
Do we think that sorrow has nothing to do with Christmas and the incarnation of God’s own Son that we mark this time of the year? Can you have either sadness OR Christmas but not both? Does sorrow chase the real meaning of Advent/Christmas clean out of the room?
Or can we remember that it was precisely the sorrows of this world that led to the incarnation in the first place? Can we realize that the refugee and exile pleas that permeate Psalm 80 are precisely the context from which we might best be able to appreciate the birth of God’s Son? The stark setting of Psalm 80 should not look to us to be some exception to the Advent and Christmas Season but perhaps more the rule. Psalm 80’s context of desolation and loss is the context from which many people will mark Christmas once again this year.
Maybe it’s actually the way we all meditate on this miracle if we are honest about it. Maybe we are not literally refugees or people living in exile right now but spiritually speaking we inhabit a world that is in so many ways adrift. And we all have sorrow enough pent up in the secret places of our hearts that we, too, could quite easily find ourselves begging God to rescue us, redeem us, make his face to shine on us so that we can be restored to something akin to what God must have had in mind for this creation when God began the whole thing in the beginning.
The original setting for Psalm 80 has a whole lot more to do with Christmas than we think. Yet this is also a psalm that is to be sung with hope. And like all of the Psalms of Lament, this one is proffered to God in the belief that despite all the wreckage of the world and of our lives that we might be able to see around us at any given moment, God is going to hear this prayer. God is not going to be deaf to us. God will turn his face toward us once more and will shine upon us.
Indeed, Advent means God did this once and for all and definitively when the Light of the World was made flesh long ago. And the evangelist John assures us that this Light shines in the darkness. And the darkness can do nothing to put it out. Now THAT is something worth pondering at Christmas and at all times. It does not deny the darkness the way we sometimes try to do this time of the year (even in the church) but it does tell us that there is a divine face that is shining upon us. And it always will.
It’s been making the rounds on Facebook and no doubt some—even some reading this sermon starter—will deem it to be crass partisan politics and no more. But it is more. Someone decided to take the usual nativity scene that can be seen on the front lawns of so many churches in December and depict it in ways that remind us of at least two things at once: first, Christ came into this world because it is a broken, divided place. But second, the Holy Family really was a refugee family that had to flee to Egypt in order to save the life of Baby Jesus. And in Egypt, Mary and Joseph were exiles for a time until it was safe to return to Palestine and to Nazareth. Were they put into cages? No, probably not. It appears that despite their refugee status, Mary, Joseph, and God’s incarnate Son were saved and kept safe for a time (no one is totally sure for how long). But they were as vulnerable as refugees and exiles perennially are in this world.
In the Bible it is remarkable that when God called Abram, God’s first word to Abram was “Go!” Abram was well settled in Ur—he had land, flocks, and no doubt a comfortable life. Yet the first step in God’s establishing a covenant with his fallen people was to turn Abram and Sarai into refugees. They would remain refugees for the rest of their lives, first in Egypt and then in Canaan. When Sarah dies years later in Genesis 24, Abraham has to parlay with the Canaanites in order to buy a plot of ground large enough to bury the love of his life. And in the end, that is exactly how much property he owned, too.
Small wonder, then, that when the ultimate descendant of Abraham came to this earth in the person of Jesus, one of the first things God had to say to Joseph and Mary was “Go!” It’s a reminder that Christ came down to this world to rescue all of us who sense we are exiles, people not living at “home” and pleading with God to shine his face upon us to lead us back to the Home that just is God’s very Self.
Author: Doug Bratt
God saves God’s adopted children by grace alone that we can only receive with our faith in Jesus Christ. However, God always calls those whom God loves to express that faith with our obedience.
Someone once said, “Make a good beginning and you’re half the way to winning.” Certainly, then, Paul seems halfway to winning in what’s arguably his most famous and theologically substantial letter. He begins his letter to the Romans, after all, very well.
It’s important, however, to note that it’s Paul himself who claims to make this good beginning. After all, while he often mentions other people at the beginning of his letters, he mentions no one else at Romans’ beginning. So why is it so important that the Romans know that Paul personally writes this letter?
Scholars suggest that much of what the Roman Christians knew about Paul’s theology was second-hand, that it came from his acquaintances that lived among them. As he writes this letter, however, he wants to do mission work in the western part of his world, including Spain. Since the apostle wants the Romans to support that outreach, he realizes they need to know more about his theology.
Contemporary missionaries often still do something similar. They often want to visit supporting churches partly because they realize that their supporters want to know something not just about what they’re doing, but also about their theology, about their views of what they’re doing.
Paul almost immediately identifies himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ,” or, more accurately translated, “a slave of Jesus Christ.” Some Roman slaves called themselves “slaves of Caesar.” By doing so, they were claiming to represent Caesar. So by calling himself Christ’s “slave,” the apostle is claiming that is he represents an even greater power, the living God.
His view of the nature of his calling as an apostle also forms part of Paul’s theology. As Fleming Rutledge, who lent me some ideas for this Starter, notes, when people think of people who are set apart, we usually think of those who have set themselves apart. So we may think, for instance, of monks who separate themselves from the rest of society.
Paul, however, hasn’t set himself apart to be an apostle. In fact, he did nearly everything in his power to avoid being one of Jesus’ messengers. God had to derail Saul’s plans to get rid of Christianity by knocking him off his high horse and blinding him for three days. It’s no wonder, then, that the apostle insists he doesn’t deserve to be called an apostle. Clearly God called Paul to that holy task.
Romans 1’s proclaimers might invite our hearers to contemplate God’s transforming call in our own lives. We might explore together how were it up to us, for instance, we’d be self-indulgent people who cared little about anyone but ourselves. We might also explore how God’s call on us transformed us into God’s “slaves.”
God did similar work in freeing Paul from Satan’s grip and sending him to the very Gentiles he’d once despised. That mission sent him throughout the Mediterranean world in conditions that would appall most of us today. His mission trips got him persecuted, imprisoned and threatened with death.
God’s beloved children owe so much to this man whom God set apart to be an apostle. Without him, after all, there would be, humanly speaking, no worldwide Christian church. Without God’s work through Paul, gentiles would still be sitting in spiritual darkness that’s deeper than the physical darkness that dominates the northern hemisphere at this time of year.
As the well-traveled Paul writes the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for today, he’s preparing for his biggest trip of all: to imperial Rome. The apostle’s coming to its tiny band of Christians that mighty Rome dwarfs in every conceivable way. Rutledge compares Christ’s followers in Rome to a handful of ants over which the mighty Coliseum towers. The Romans are, in fact, so mighty that Paul realizes that his visit may result in them squashing him like a bug.
The apostle, however, also knows that his message and mission are important enough to make that risk worthwhile. He brings a crucial word, after all, of salvation through Jesus Christ. Paul describes the whole majestic sweep of God’s dealings with not only people, but also God’s whole creation in three short but sparkling verses (3-6).
He speaks of the chosen Israelites to whom God promised a Messiah. Paul says this Savior, who was the Son of God, was born to parents who were descendants of Israel’s mighty king David. Even after people managed to crucify this Messiah, God raised him to life. Yet by resurrecting him God also made Jesus Lord over not just the Jews, but also all peoples.
Yet as one scholar notes, these three dramatic verses summarize the sweep not only of God’s salvation, but also of Paul’s entire letter to the Romans. In them he announces its central themes of human sin, God’s grace and faithful obedience that will dominate the rest of this letter.
However, Paul also insists God didn’t graciously save him merely to preach to the dispersed people of Israel. His message of sin, God’s grace and the need for faithful response is also for people “from among all the Gentiles” (5). Just as the scope of human sin is universal, so is the scope of God’s love in Jesus Christ. At the heart of Paul’s message for all people is verse 5’s call to the “obedience that comes from faith.” Essentially Paul calls God’s beloved people to demonstrate faith in Jesus Christ by, in part, obeying God.
We, however, naturally like rebels. Our culture often romanticizes those who don’t conform. Into this world that treasures disobedience comes Paul talking about the obedience that comes not from fear, or guilt, or compulsion, but from faith. He comes talking, quite simply, about what the Heidelberg Catechism calls the good that we do that “arises out of true faith.”
Of course, this obedience that grows out of genuine faith has a specific shape. Paul, after all, talks elsewhere about being “in Christ” and “having the mind of Christ.” He describes “dying and rising with Christ,” as well as “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, the obedience that comes from faith isn’t generic. It’s, instead, a very christological obedience that’s not only best modeled by Jesus Christ, but is also empowered by Christ, through his Holy Spirit.
After all, God has graciously given God’s adopted sons and daughters the gift of faith in order to produce not rebellion, but obedience to God. The way of rebellion is, as Rutledge notes, the way of death of the spirit and soul. And while obedience to God sometimes is the way of the death of the body, it’s also the way of life for every part of God’s people.
Of course, perhaps few who read this Sermon Starter will have to give our lives for our faith. So the obedience that comes from faith displays itself for at least some of us, as Rutledge notes, in the ordinary rhythms of our lives. It reveals itself in daily dealings with friends and family members, students and classmates, neighbors and co-workers.
So Christians who want to live out our faith ask ourselves question like: “Will I reach out to that person to whom no one else reaches out? Will I protest against the unjust treatment of our society’s most vulnerable citizens? Will I spend as much time teaching children about God’s ways as I do bringing them to school and other activities?” Will, in other words, my faith, by God’s grace, produce Christ-like obedience?
The Romans Christians to whom Paul writes our text lived in some of Rome’s toughest neighborhoods that plagues often clobbered hardest. While pagan doctors didn’t know those diseases’ causes, they did know their contagion. They also believed that plagues were signs that the gods didn’t care whether the people they affected lived or died. So pagan doctors generally fled plague-infested slums.
Roman Christians, by contrast, recognized that God both loved them and called them to love each other. So they were often the only people who were willing to care for plague victims. Their house churches overcame the plagues’ difficulties and took in surviving neighbors as Christian converts. Such good grew out of Rome’s Christians’ true faith in Jesus Christ.
In 2006 Charles Carl Roberts massacre 5 people in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Among the victims whose Christian faith led to her obedience was 13 year-old Marian Fisher. She, after all, stepped forward and told Roberts, “Shoot just me, and leave the others go.” Quite simply, Marian offered to take the place of children who were younger, smaller and weaker.
Some couldn’t help but hear in her offer echoes of Jesus. He, after all, stepped forward to let God condemn him in the place of people who were smaller and weaker. Even more incredibly, Jesus died for people who are completely naturally capable of crucifying him.
Yet the Amish obedience that comes from faith didn’t end with Marian Fisher’s sacrificial offer. It also embraced the father, wife and children of the man who so callously murdered their children before killing himself. The Amish community donated some of the funds people sent them to Roberts’ family.
Amish people are no more perfect than any of Jesus’ followers. Their theology is somewhat unusual. Their interpretation of Jesus’ words, “Unless you forgive others, your Heavenly Father won’t forgive you” borders on legalism. What’s more, the Amish treat those who rebel against their strict morality quite harshly.
But when trouble came, the Spirit used their true faith to embolden Amish people to show the kind of obedience that comes from faith. They rooted their obedient forgiveness of and generosity toward the murderer’s family in their faith in Jesus Christ.