Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16 Commentary

Human life is full of signs.  A number painted on metal rectangle indicates the legal speed limit on a road or highway.  Twin golden arches are a sign of the culinary paradise that awaits you at the next exit.

Yet once you leave a highway, you find even more signs: A figure with pants on a restroom door indicates a men’s room; a skirted figure, a women’s room.  A 4/4 on a staff of music means that each measure of the composition will have four beats, and quarter notes will be worth a beat each.

Signs indicate or point to something.  A traffic arrow points which way to turn.  An index finger pointed high in the air indicates that you’re a member or fan of a successful sports team.

Some signs have great power.  Making the sign of the cross, for example, reminds Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians of Jesus Christ’s life’s central events.  The straight-armed Nazi salute told millions of people that Hitler claimed to be god.

When God gives Ahaz a sign in our text, the king is like an aspen leaf in a windstorm.  After all, he leads a Judah that’s under assault.  Enemies threaten Judah from three sides.  So it’s almost as if Canada and Mexico declared war on the United States, while Australia’s navy mounted an assault from the west.

National leaders generally look for political or military solutions to such problems.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that Ahaz wants to make a military pact with the mighty Tigleth-Pilser.  God, however, understands that military and political alliances offer only temporary solutions.

By contrast, the God who has specific solutions for specific problems has a lasting solution.  So God tells Ahaz through Isaiah not to be afraid of Israel and Damascus’ assault.  Their leaders are, after all, nothing more than a lit match that God can easily snuff out.  God promises that Judah’s enemies won’t replace Ahaz with another king.  After all, God has promised that one of David’s descendants will always sit on Israel’s throne.

But can David’s descendant Ahaz rely on God’s protection?  Can the king count on something that seems as flimsy as God’s promises when enemy kings are already beginning to blockade Jerusalem?

It’s the kind of question we face every day.  After all, we may not be facing military enemies the way Ahaz figuratively did.  But advancing age, questionable health, shaky finances or job uncertainty may make us shake like trees in the wind.  So can we count on God’s protection? Or must we make some alliance with some other powerful forces, counting on what they help us to do to save ourselves?

Isaiah insists Ahaz can trust the Lord who holds the future of nations in God’s hands.  God is even willing to bolster Ahaz’s trust.  In order to guarantee the truth of God’s promises to protect Ahaz, Isaiah promises to give the king a visible sign.  After all, the Lord who created us knows that God often needs to reinforce our flimsy faith in God.

So it’s almost as if God is willing to sign a contract with King Ahaz guaranteeing that God will keep him in power.  Isaiah says Ahaz can ask for anything possible or impossible.

The king, however, has perhaps already decided that God’s promises aren’t as reliable as military might.  So Ahaz rejects God’s startlingly gracious offer to give him a sign.

Of course, he makes his reasons for doing sound very religious.  In verse 12 the king says, “I will not put the Lord to the test,” using the same words that Jesus uses when the devil tempts him.  But, as Len Vander Zee notes, “While you may quote scripture to the devil, you don’t have to quote it to God.”  God, after all, already knows that we may not put God to the test.  This, however, is no test.  God is graciously offering a guarantee of God’s protection that Ahaz simply needs to receive with his faith.

But because the king refuses to trust God, God’s offer turns ominous.  Because he’s, in a sense, putting God to the test by trying God’s patience, God gives him a warning sign.  “The virgin will be with child,” Isaiah promises in verse 14, “And will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Is the prophet is speaking of a “young woman,” as the text reads in its original language?  Or does he refer to a “virgin,” as the Greek version of the Old Testament translates the word?  The Hebrew word Isaiah uses, almah, describes a young woman of marriageable age who may or may not have already been intimate with a man.  However, it’s not the Hebrew word for “virgin.”

Of course, Matthew sees this verse as a prophecy about Jesus.  His young mother was, after all, not just too young to be married.  Mary had also never been intimate with a man when the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus with her.

Yet while its choice of this text as an Advent lesson suggests the Lectionary thinks of this as a prophecy about Jesus, all biblical prophecy has an immediate as well as a long-term fulfillment.  So Elizabeth Achtemeier suggests that Ahaz and Isaiah, in fact, probably know the young woman of whom the prophet writes.  She may even be either the king or the prophet’s wife.

In any case, somewhere in Isaiah’s Israel, a child is born whose young mother gives him the name Immanuel.  He’s God’s sign that God will keep God’s promise to stay with Judah.

Yet while the child’s name serves as a sign for Ahaz, it’s not necessarily a comforting one.  Signs can, after all, have different meanings.  Immanuel, the sign that God is with us, is a bit like that.  It can, after all, signal either God’s judgment or salvation.  In Isaiah 8:8, after all, the prophet promises that the flood that is Assyria will flood the land of Judah as God’s judgment on its injustices.  Yet in verses 9-10 God also goes on to promise that Assyria will be defeated because God is with Judah.

Now we generally assume that “Immanuel, God with us,” is a comforting promise.  You and I presume that it assures us of the child born at Bethlehem’s protective love, forgiveness and mercy.  “God with us” is, after all, one of the chief messages of our Christmas celebrations.  It’s the promise to which we cling when no one else seems with us, when, in fact, everything may seem against us.

Yet as Achtemeier notes, we sometimes wrongly assume that God is only on our side.  Christians have claimed this promise to mean that that God allies himself with us whether we choose to obey or disobey the Lord.  For example, one of Nazi Germany’s slogans, Gott mit uns, “God with us,” chills anyone who knows a bit about the sometimes-violent twentieth century.

So Advent invites us to consider what it really means that God is with us in Jesus Christ.  It invites us to ask whether our lives can stand up to the scrutiny of a God who’s always there.  Do we really want God to be with us when we go online, off to work or out to play?

What’s more, can our society that’s as full of injustice as Judah’s was stand up to such scrutiny?  Do North Americans, for example, really want God closely examining not just our political and military machinations, but also our treatment of the poor?

Perhaps God’s adopted sons and daughters can only receive the birth of Immanuel with the plea, “Lord who is always with me, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  While, after all, we don’t deserve the grace of forgiveness, our loving God offers it to us in abundance anyway.

Reformed Christians profess that baptism is a sign that “as surely as water washes away dirt from the body, so certainly Christ’s blood and his Spirit wash away … all” of our “sins.”  Yet doesn’t believing that sometimes require the kind of faith to which Isaiah calls Ahaz in this morning’s text?

We naturally assume we must do something to save ourselves.  It’s hard for us to imagine finding salvation in just quietly trusting that God will be present to us to give us everything we need.

Isaiah, however, reminds us that our confidence comes from God’s unfailing love.  God graciously “establishes us,” providing everything needed to those who receive God’s grace with our trust in God’s promises.

Yet when Isaiah calls Ahaz to such trust, he’s dealing with political and military issues that still bedevil our own world.  Like Judah’s king, we easily assume that politicians, multinational corporations and the military can end the clashes of armies, ideologies and cultures.

The God of the prophets, however, is far bigger than even the mightiest people, groups and nations.  The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is Lord over all empires, nations and peoples.  God is in charge of history, all creation and the future.

In fact, Jesus Christ himself is a sign that earth’s powers don’t get the last word.  He was, after all, born when tyrants like Caesar Augustus and Herod could make people shake like trees in the forest.  But while those bullies died almost two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ lives.

Illustration Idea

Bruce Watson’s remarkable book, Freedom Summer, describes the summer of 1964 when hundreds of volunteers went to Mississippi to work for civil rights.  With the state’s oppressed black people, they endured ghastly harassment, intimidation and persecution.

Among other things, Watson emphasizes the ambiguous meaning of signs in the Mississippi in which they worked.  For white citizens, signs at the state line meant they were finally coming home.  But for black people and freedom workers, the signs at the Mississippi state line meant they were entering a land of discrimination, hatred and lynchings.


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