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Fourth Sunday of Advent
Pastor Eric Deibler
- Isaiah 7:1-16
- Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
- Romans 1:1-7
- Matthew 1:18-25
I must admit that I love a good T.V. series. And yes, I tend to binge-watch. But there’s a problem with binge-watching something. Yes, you get the full effect of the story in one massive dose. The problem is that by the time the next season is ready, you’ve already forgotten quite a bit. Sure, you can try and make sense of your hazy half-recollections, but you’re still trying to piece things together. In fact, a lot of times, I’ll go back and re-watch the last episode or two in the previous season of a series just to get myself back up to speed.
We need to do the same kind of thing with our reading from Isaiah for this morning. The lesson, as it’s actually appointed, begins with verse 7 of today’s reading. But when it’s just chopped off like that, it comes across as odd and a little confusing. After all, King Ahaz seems to be saying and doing the right thing. As Jesus reminds us in the New Testament, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”, right? That’s why I asked Kim to expand the reading. We need to watch some of the last episode in order for today’s episode to make any sense.
What has happened is that the kingdom of Israel has been split between a newer, smaller kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah. Israel has united with Aram and together these two smaller kingdoms north of Judah have threatened to attack Jerusalem. This goes far beyond being merely worrisome. This frightens King Ahaz. In fact, it frightens him so much that he is seeking an alliance with Assyria. It’s a strategic decision, because Assyria lies to the north of the two kingdoms that threaten Ahaz. The problem is that Assyria is the dominant expansionist power in the region, but one which is not necessarily friendly to the kingdom of Judah. In other words, King Ahaz is about to make an appeal the greater threat, Assyria, against a lesser threat, Israel and Aram. It’s a decision which, as Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “reflects short-term panic and long-term foolishness.”
Here’s the thing: The House of David has always received the promise of unconditional, long-term support from God. The House of David could rest secured in God’s unwavering loyalty. And yet now, in this moment of panic, the leader of the House of David, King Ahaz, decides to seek security from a source other than God. The military might of Assyria seems like a more sensible alternative.
3 Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz… 4 and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands…” (Isaiah 7:3-4). In other words, “Wait a second. Listen, settle down, and don’t be afraid. Don’t lose heart because of these two used-up has-beens. They won’t last. They don’t pose a real threat.” God offers a reassessment of the political situation that’s not colored by fear. The king’s future lies not in trusting Assyria, but in trusting God. Isaiah tells the king to “have faith”. In the middle of this pressing, very concrete crisis, King Ahaz is invited to reconsider and reembrace the profound promise given by God to the king’s family, generations before. Isaiah encourages him to see beyond the immediate threat and the “help” of Assyria and instead to focus on God’s faithfulness as the one true source of assurance and well-being.
But here’s the thing. Faith is not something that has to do with our intellect or cognitive belief. For Isaiah, in fact for all of Hebrew Scripture, faith is something much more concrete. It’s a matter of being able to rely in a very practical way upon the assurance of God. It means entrusting your security and future to the attentiveness of God. God’s attentiveness is enough. There’s no need for panic, or anxiety, or foolishness. It’s placing yourself in God’s reliable care, which is unfailing. In other words, faith is not a cognitive enterprise; what we often call “belief”. Instead, in the midst of risk, it’s a deep trust that redefines the entire situation.
It’s now clear that Ahaz’s reluctance to ask for a sign from God is not an expression of humble faith. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s an expression of a complete lack of faith. The future of Jerusalem lies in Ahaz’s ability to judge between the temptation fear and the offer of faith. It’s the exact opposite of the central message of Isaiah. As Brueggemann states: “Faith matters to life and death, to war and peace, to prosperity and destruction, to concrete decisions in the real world.” In other words, no sphere of life is to be kept separate and discreet from faith. It’s about very concrete, very real things.
Maybe that’s why God decided finally to take on human form and to be with us. It doesn’t get any more concrete than that. And whereas Ahaz fails to grasp a faith of this nature, Joseph is its embodiment.
“18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
In the midst of a very delicate, embarrassing, even dangerous situation, Joseph demonstrates a deep trust in the assurance and promise of God that redefines the situation.
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
And why does God choose to be with us? “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” As the Matthew’s story unfolds, we see that the work of Jesus goes far beyond just the people of Israel. It includes the sick, the poor, the tax collectors, the oppressed and finally everyone else, Jew and non-Jew alike. In other words, the salvation Jesus brings is not only personal. It’s social, political, and cosmic in nature.
It flies in the face of our human tendency, which is to turn in on ourselves. We succumb to the sin of selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-importance. But this is not supposed to be who we are. For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ birth — that light has come into darkness and, as the Gospel of John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” But that light isn’t bound to mean much unless we first look, with complete honesty, at the darkness.
Advent is a time to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We live in a world racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. “God with us” is a much-needed corrective. “God with us” corrects “God is for me.” “God with us” corrects “God is for us.” “God with us” helps us remember that when we do turn away from others, we turn away from those who need us and those whom we need. We turn away from accountability and responsibility.
Tish Warren Harrison is an Anglican priest. Regarding the season of Advent she writes, “Our response to the wrongness of the world (and of ourselves) can often be an unhealthy escapism, and we can turn to the holidays as anesthesia from pain as much as anything else. We need collective space, as a society, to grieve—to look long and hard at what is cracked and fractured in our world and in our lives. Only then can celebration become deep, rich and resonant, not as a saccharine act of delusion but as a defiant act of hope.”
“God with us” is the good news that escapism is not possible anymore. And as much as we might want to individualize God or take a break from God, Emmanuel tells a different story. God simply will not leave us alone, neither to our own devices nor to avoid accountability to the other. It was true for Ahaz. It’s true for us.
God really does know what’s best for us. Being alone is dangerous to our own selves and to others. We need “us,” to know God’s solidarity as one promise of the incarnation. We need “us” to move us toward alleviating the pain of others. We need “us” because being in community is not only our necessity but also our responsibility.
“God with us” is both promise and possibility; both presence and potential. “God with us” means that we are not alone. We are never alone. We are never apart from God and we are never apart from each other. “God with us” means that we look into the darkness together, honestly. Because we have been wounded by the evil in the world. But we have also used it to our advantage, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.
The darkness is not going away. It’s that realization that can make this season so difficult for so many. The coming of Christmas is its own miracle. But it doesn’t miraculously remove that for which there is no cure. That’s why God became flesh in the first place. The darkness continues. But together we sing, we light candles, we share meals, we give gifts, and we celebrate—all of which help us see the sign so easily overlooked when we are alone. The sign that is both our certain hope and the hope to which we defiantly witness: “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” (Isaiah 7:14), “God with us”. AMEN