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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Sign of a Child

Isaiah 7:10-16 ~ Advent IV ~ December 22, 2013
          “Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Where have we heard these words before? Ah! They were in both our First Lesson, from the Old Testament, and in the Gospel message, from the New Testament this morning. Written by Isaiah hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, they were then repeated by Matthew in his gospel.
As we look forward to the coming of Christmas in just a couple of days, we are ready to follow them all the way to Bethlehem, aren’t we? Yet these words had meaning in Isaiah’s time as well as Matthew’s. They have something to say to us today, too, as we await the coming of this child, Immanuel, “God is with us”, because God’s word is a living word which transcends time and place. It points us to signs God sends, even when we do not ask for them, because God’s love and salvation transend the history of mankind. They come to us when we least expect them, when we least deserve them, and when we most need them.
          The original message within these words applied to the events in Isaiah’s own time. Yet when Matthew was writing the words of his gospel, he saw how the events that transpired around the birth of Jesus also served as a fulfillment of prophecy of old, because that is how God works – persistently and freely providing signs of the love that surpass our greatest expectations.
          In the text from Isaiah this morning, Ahaz, the king of Judah, is in a quandary. As king he knows he must make decisions to protect the health and safety of his people but as a king anointed by God he knows he must follow the law God decreed which forbids the making of alliances with foreign powers. For God knows well the dangers for God’s people when foreign powers enter in, with their foreign ways and foreign gods.
          This story takes place during the Syro-Ephraimite War. The kings of Ephraim and Syria have formed a coalition; they want control of the region of Judah to support their rebellion and battle against Assyria. King Ahaz receives word that they plan to conquer Jerusalem and replace him with a puppet king, to do their bidding in their fight against Assyria. Fear seizes Ahaz and his people.
In the verses just before these, the LORD sent Isaiah to speak to Ahaz, and reassure him of the LORD’s favor, encourage his faith that God will deliver God’s people out of danger, and tell him to trust in God’s word - that Ephraim and Syria will flounder and fail. But God’s word of reassurance falls on deaf ears. Fear trumps faith.
Ahaz can’t wait, can’t believe, can’t trust. Instead, Ahaz hatches a plan of his own to enlist the assistance of the king of Assyria to help fight off the coalition forces. But this plan would be like making a pact with the devil. So the LORD continues to speak to Ahaz through Isaiah, and reassure him that God will keep God’s word and will save God’s people. And as God has done before, at Sinai and in Egypt, in the Wilderness and even at creation, God will send a sign. So Isaiah instructs Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  You name it. Ask of God a sign. Can you imagine it? What kind of sign might you ask of the LORD if you were invited to name a sign of God? God is inviting Ahaz to name whatever sign he needs to believe that God will continue to provide security and safety for these people – to reassure him that they will prevail and that these forces that are even now on their way to dismantle his kingdom will themselves fall.
On the surface, Ahaz’s reply might seem to be righteous – after all, we are not to put the LORD God to the test, right? Yet here God is imploring Ahaz, “tell me the sign that you require – let me show you a sign that my word is true.” And Ahaz’s response? Ahaz tells God, “NO!”
Ahaz refuses God’s invitation and then hides behind a show of righteousness. “I will not put the LORD to the test.” We have to ask, what’s going on here? If Ahaz, king of Judah cannot trust in the word of Adonai, the LORD God Almighty, what god does Ahaz believe in? What god does he trust?
Ahaz has a plan and maybe he doesn’t want to believe, because that would require him to change his course. And he doesn’t want to. Perhaps Ahaz has become like us, we who have given up looking for any sign beyond those we can make ourselves. Perhaps Ahaz is more able to trust the power he can see than to trust in the power of the one he cannot see. For Ahaz it seems easier to sell himself to Assyria than to wait for salvation from God.
“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” As I read these words, it makes me wonder: why does God persist? Why does God continue to pursue the recalcitrant people? But God does continue to love and reach out to the faithless ones. Isaiah then states, “Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign.”
God lays out a timeline of sorts. In the time it will take a young woman’s pregnancy to ripen and for the child to be born, and weaned, and begin to know right from wrong - those two kings – the ones who instill such fear in you that you would turn to your own devices rather than trust in the deliverance of the LORD your God – they will have fallen, they will be no more than smoldering stumps. It began with the sign of a child, and it came to pass that within three years, the kings of Ephraim and Syria indeed, had fallen.
Life is full of tensions. A king must seek the welfare of his people. We must look after our own welfare and that of our loved ones. A king must make political judgments that lead to health and life and security. We must look after our financial and future security, and the protection of our family and our property. The king has responsibility to learn and keep God’s law, as passed down from Deuteronomy. To be faithful, we must read the scriptures and study and learn the word of God. We’re not so very different from Ahaz, are we?
In the age of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, God promised the house of David an eternal dynasty as long as his descendants remained faithful to God’s covenant and teaching. In this age, inaugurated by the birth of a babe in Bethlehem, God gave to us a new covenant, through the promise of a child. This child, Jesus the Christ, would be God’s continued sign of love and faithfulness, because in Jesus, God is with us and will continue to be with us eternally. God is with us so that we might believe. God is with us so that we might live. God is with us, because sometimes, it is hard to believe, and God knows it and will accompany us as we face the tensions of each day.
The proclamation of the birth of Christ reveals the persistence of our God who knows how we struggle with faith and will give any sign, any grace, to help us believe and live. God gives even when we will not ask. Even when we decide that we can go it on our own, that we are far better at solving our own problems than we are at waiting for God to act, God gives us signs of God’s love and mercy. God gives even when we are afraid that the threats around us are too great to bear. God gives even when our fear trumps our faith. The sign of a child for us reveals God’s own vulnerability to the pain and distress of mortal life, and demonstrates God’s willingness to bear that suffering with us and for us.
The sign of a child who grew and lived among us, and lives with us still, a child born under surprising conditions, is a sign from God that we didn’t ask for. The child Jesus, born to a virgin, is a sign to us; the sign of Immanuel, God with us is the everlasting sign of God’s salvation for us; the sign of a child, God with us, is the sign of God’s power to save; Immanuel, God with us, brings new life so that we too might live eternally in the new covenant with God. The sign of a child, God with us, is a sign of security for every promise of God even when faith fails.
God’s signs take on many shapes. The sign of God with us may come in the form of a simple word of encouragement or a sudden revelation when things seem to be going horribly wrong in our lives. The sign of God with us may take the shape of assistance that comes when we least expect it and most need it. The sign of God with us may take the shape of a rainbow in the sky or new life bursting forth in the desert or a word of hope dropped into the maelstrom of our confusion and despair.
For the poor, the sign of God with us may come in the form of those who are inspired to lend a helping hand, or to provide a holiday meal, or to extend the love of Christ through the giving of gifts to perfect strangers to brighten their days. For the lonely, the sign of God with us might be something as simple as receiving a greeting card, a phone call, or a caring visit. Signs of God with us abound in our world, and sometimes, God’s sign is born out through the loving witness of people like you and me in our daily walk of faith.
In the cradle, we see the sign of a child, Immanuel, God’s word that comes to us as a living word that transcends time and place. In the cradle, we see the sign of a child, Immanuel, God’s living word that points us to faith, even when we do not ask, because God’s love and salvation persistently come to us when we least expect them, when we least deserve them, and when we most need them. Thanks be to God!


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