(a sermon for December 20, 2020, the 4th Sunday of Advent; fourth in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 1:18-25)
Before the magi followed a star rising in the east or a motely group of shepherds heard the song of the heavenly host…
…before a stable full of animals became the makeshift birthplace for a baby king or when Bethlehem became the place where a ruler was to born…
…even before a young girl is told by an angel of the Lord that she was to bear a child who would be called “Son of God…”
…long before any of this comes to pass, the story of Christmas begins: with a weak and rather wicked ruler by the name of Ahaz, and a battle of… faith versus fear.
Now, what’s interesting about this passage from the 7th chapter of Isaiah, and the reason we tend to return to it every Advent season, is that it does contain the prophecy of a young woman bearing a son who shall be named Immanuel; a single verse that provides the perfect entry into the familiar gospel story of Mary and Joseph and the manger birth of the Holy Child. Yet the not so familiar story is the one about what prompted Isaiah’s prophecy in the first place: Ahaz, you see, was the king of Judah who came into power around 735 B.C. when he was about 20 years old (!) and ruled for about 20 years; he was the son of King Jotham, who was regarded as a “good king” of Judah, which makes it all the more interesting that Ahaz was just the opposite: we’re not exactly sure why, but he literally seemed to relish going against the precepts of God. It is said that Ahaz’s many destructive practices – idol worship, sacrilege against the temple of the Lord, even the sacrifice of his own children (!) – contributed to the ultimate downfall of the entire kingdom of Judah!
And as we pick up the story in our text for this morning, Judah is in fact surrounded by at least two foreign armies and quite literally facing its own imminent destruction. Just prior to where we started reading today we’re told that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind,” and as you can imagine, King Ahaz is evaluating the situation and he’s worried, fearful for the future of Judah and quite honestly, concerned for his own well-being and survival. And yet, here’s the thing: all this worry and fear is happening despite the fact that Isaiah had already brought to him God’s assurance that his kingdom would prevail. And we’re told that Ahaz is so unconvinced of this that God actually invites and encourages Ahaz to ask for a sign as to the certainty of the promise: ask for anything, the Lord says, “let it be deep as as Sheol or high as heaven.” Or as The Message translates it, “Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!”
Now at this point and perhaps to his credit, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting to put the Lord to the test; but to God’s credit, God offers up a sign anyway; that of which we know so well: “a young woman [who] shall bear a son,” and a child who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” But even after this news, this monumental news, Ahaz is skeptical; and we’re left in this passage with the clear sense that even with this incredible news of heaven and earth colliding, this king of Judah is far too wrapped up in his fear of what his enemies were planning to even notice what God was even at that very moment doing in faithfulness and with love.
Not exactly the kind of story you want to hear just before Christmas, is it?
But while Ahaz’s response is certainly short-sighted and more than a little self-serving; friends, I have to confess to you this morning that I get it, most especially right now. Because if there’s nothing else that can be said about our lives in this strange, woe begotten year of 2020 it’s that when the world goes crazy, fear tends to come into direct opposition to faith. It’s one thing, after all, to profess that we’ll all get through this global pandemic and we won’t get Covid-19 and that life is going to return to normal sooner rather than later; but it’s quite another thing to not let our worries and fears about the uncertainty of it all get the better of us.
And never mind the pandemic for a moment; I dare say that every single one of us can name a time or situation in our lives when there has quite literally existed a tug of war between “keeping the faith” on the one side and “giving in to fear” on the other. And the truth of the matter is that when your back is against the wall and all the problems of this life just seem to keep piling on with no end in sight, it’s hard to accept the promise of relief or support coming anytime soon; easier, if I might quote Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, “to trust in alliances and arms and investments and securities [rather] than God,” because to “not worry about tomorrow… is easier said than done.” Much easier, even more tempting at times, to give up, give in and let fear rule the day; that’s the problem, you see, for the King Ahazzes of every generation, and for that matter, that’s also the problem for you and me in these times in which we’re living. But there are consequences for that kind of stance: as the Lord himself says to Ahaz (again, just prior to our reading this morning), “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” (v. 9)
So isn’t it good, then, that God offers us the gift of standing firm amidst the fear? Isn’t it good that God is with us in the standing? And isn’t it wonderful in that it’s all going to come about… because of a child?
“Look,” says the prophet, “a woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” a name that literally means “God is with us.” This will be a child who will be barely grown before he’s able to make good and moral choices; a child who will be able in all things to “refuse the evil and choose the good;” a child who will make war and conflict and division a thing of the past; a child who will bring faith in the face of all fear. And perhaps most importantly, the birth of this child was to be the sure and certain promise that God would remain faithful to his people no matter how fearful they had become. God would be with them… come what may, and forever more.
As I say, I suppose had I been in Ahaz’s situation I might have been skeptical. After all, what possible help can a small, newborn baby possibly be against two powerful armies just about to end his kingdom; better that “the sign” from God be some show of military force! But then, isn’t this what God always does, to bring forth hope and love and life in the places where one least expects it? The truth is that God always enters in to our places of greatest weakness to stand firm with us and for us no matter how fearful we become. To quote the Rev. Brent Neely, a Lutheran pastor and writer from Cape Elizabeth, Maine (!), “Even in this day and age when fear runs amuck, we have no need to fear for a small child has proven to us that God is with us and that God is faithful to his promises. When our faith is weak [and] our fear is strong,” Neely writes, “God steps in without us even asking for it. God tells us, ‘I am with you!’ Hope is coming [and] the enemy that you fear is nothing compared to the promise that God has made with us.”
You know, truth be told, I wonder sometimes if Joseph was at all skeptical about the promise of this child who was about to come into his life. As the story is told in our text for this morning from Matthew, we already know that when Mary “was found to be with child” Joseph had resolved to “dismiss her quietly” so not to expose to public disgrace; but then, of course, the angel appeared to Joseph in his dream and all that changed. Still, you still have to wonder if Joseph was asking what all of this really meant; not just to him and Mary, but also to the whole world. Surely, there must have been some significant and legitimate fear in considering just how very much was hinging on the two of them becoming parents to this tiny, helpless infant who was no less than God come to earth! You have to wonder, even with all the prophecies and dreams and angels’ songs that had led him to this time, if Joseph didn’t wonder, why me? Why us? Why now? And what if it doesn’t happen?
Again, on the face of it, it all seems a pretty unlikely scenario, but therein lies the beauty and the purpose of God’s plan; that this child, this birth, this coming of this Messiah simply didn’t seem to make sense by the standards of the world. That the whole of Israel’s history; that all the prophecies foretold from days of old; that the sum total of human history should all hinge on a young girl saying yes, she’ll be the handmaiden of the Lord; on a husband who would not walk the other way; and on the chance that the two of them would find themselves in a dark, damp stable in Bethlehem on one particular holy night that divinely chosen from the foundation of the world (!)…
…but that was the sign, wasn’t it?
The sign that the Lord himself has given us: what you and I would deem a miracle; a miracle of divine proportion planned and laid out for centuries before it actually unfolded in all its glory. That’s the thing we need to remember, you know, especially as we draw closer now to Christmas; that all those wonderful things that make the story what it is – the angels’ chorus; the shepherds out abiding in the fields; the shining of a star in at a unique place and at a preordained time; and the magi who traversed across the miles so to discover where that star would finally rest – none of it was happenstance. It was all part of God’s plan and purpose; the miracle workings of a miraculous God whose promise it is to be with us… come what may and forevermore.
This is the true gift of Christmas, beloved, one that we need now more than ever: the Lord’s own sign of a child that shows us, again and again and again, that God is still and ever and always watching over the fearful and fretful people of God’s choice. And most especially in these strange and uncertain days, that this amazing, holy child continues to be a sign unto us and an unending reminder that God is with us still, offering to us strength and love in our times of weakness and assuring us that we are never alone, no matter the size and force of the enemies we face. No matter what we’ve had to face in 2020 or what may befall us in 2021, we are God’s people and God is with us, and so we have no reason to fear.
Hope is coming to us, and a small child is the sign of its coming.
For the child to be born is named Immanuel… God, with us.
Thanks be to God in Jesus, our Immanuel.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved