(A sermon by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, based on Isa. 7:10-16 & Matt. 1:18-25). ______________________________________________________________________
The time was the eighth century before Christ. The place was the southern kingdom of Judah. Israel, the northern kingdom, had formed a political and military alliance with Syria. Both of these nations were now threatening to invade Judah and oust King Ahaz. Ahaz, of course, would do anything in his power to preserve his rule and prevent Israel and Syria from overthrowing him and ruling Judah. In this political and military context, Ahaz formed an alliance with Assyria and Egypt--hoping that this measure would ensure the security of himself and Judah.
However, Ahaz, in his effort to please the Assyrians in particular, betrayed his own faith in God by allowing the citizens of Judah to worship Assyrian gods and offer sacrifices to them; believing that if they put their trust in all the gods, rather than just one, that would guarantee Judah's security. Enter the prophet Isaiah, into the scene, who invites King Ahaz to ask God for a sign. You'd think that Ahaz would be receptive to Isaiah's invitation, after all, doesn't he need all of the help he can find, given the threat of Israel and Syria? Oh no, not Ahaz! He doesn't wish to test God by asking for a sign. More likely, is the reality that he's betrayed God by seeking signs elsewhere, from other foreign gods! He had lost his faith in the One True God and he has better things to do than listen to God's prophet Isaiah! It is rather revealing that the writer of Chronicles, commenting on Ahaz's reign, has this to say: "In his time of trouble, King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord."
But this doesn't stop Isaiah from speaking the Lord's Word to Ahaz anyway. Even in the face of rejection, Isaiah speaks the Good News: "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." What's more, Isaiah promised Ahaz that he need not worry about the two threatening kingdoms of Israel and Syria: "For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted."
Isaiah's reference to the young woman and child here is likely, in its original context, a reference to Ahaz's wife and their future son, Hezekiah, who goes down in the annals of Judah's history as a good king. So, for the people of Judah during and after Iasaiah's time; as well as for many devout Jews down through the ages--including today; the prophecy of Isaiah does not refer to Christ. Rather, it was a prophecy of deliverance and hope for Judah, that God would and did bless them with the righteous King Hezekiah, who ruled their nation with justice and peace and served his people in faithfulness to God.
One of the gifted scholars of our century, Jewish rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, did not interpret this prophecy of Isaiah as being fulfilled in the birth of Christ. However, Rabbi Heschel has a lot of insight to offer us Christians, when it comes to understanding the nature of prophecy. In his book, "The Prophets,"(p.194), he tells us that prophecy: "never comes to an end. For this reason, prophetic predictions are seldom final. No word is God's final word." In other words, God's word is a Living Word, is never static, but dynamic, speaking to us in its unique way, in every time and place. In this way of understanding prophecy, we Christians, can feel quite comfortable in "reading into" this passage of Isaiah a reference to the birth of Christ as our Immanuel, which means, literally, "God is with us." We can interpret this passage in this way, as long as we respect the orignial meaning and context of the passage, along with the legitimate interpretations of faithful Jewish people today and in every age. We cannot force or foist our interpretations onto them. This will often result in Christians and Jews agreeing to disagree in respectful ways of one another.
So, then, we as Christians can believe that, in the most clear, profound way, Jesus Christ was and is "God with us." He was and is our Immanuel: in his birth, life, teaching, suffering, death and resurrection. He is Immanuel now, too, as he works in of host of ways in our church and world today.
This prophetic passage from Isaiah still has much to teach us because it speaks to our present day circumstances, just as profoundly as it did in eighth century Judah. According to Professor Gerd Theissen, in his book "The Open Door:" "At that time king Ahaz was afraid that the country would collapse. Nowadays, too, many people fear that life will collapse: the economy, strategies for security, the ecosystem, the psychological balance of human beings. Like Ahaz we are rightly mistrustful of the promise of great signs and wonders which apparently indicate a turn for the better. But against our will, against our mistrust, God forces a sign on us, a sign which takes place time and time again and which we often overlook. The sign is simple and undramatic. A young woman will bear a child. It will grow up and live -- despite all the threats. And many threats will disappear by the time it is grown up."
"But many people will not listen to this voice. Many people fail to hear it. We are often as deaf and unmoving as stones. And so we are directed to hear this voice in the form of a child, of whom the Bible says that this voice took bodily form in him. The word of God became flesh in him. Because this child was born, this earth cannot be written off. Because this child came into our world, we must not forsake this world to find a good life. Because this child belongs to us, we need never give up the hope that peace is possible."
Many of our world leaders today, like Ahaz of old, are seeking a political and military security for themselves and their citizens by making alliances with other nations. For example, in our part of the world, we have the North American Free Trade Agreement; in Europe, they are moving towards a union with a common currency and open borders. All of this reconstructing of world power blocks is but a contemporary version of ancient empire-building; in an attempt by humans to ensure their own security. Such people look for the "Grand Design," while, in reality, the "Grandest Design of All" is right there, in front of their noses. It's not in political, military or economic power. All of these shall remain in a constant state of change and fluctuation as long as sin has its way in our world. Rather, it's in the humble child, our Immanuel, God with us even in the most threatening of times. In this child rests our ultimate security. His finitude, weakness and love is the greatest transformative power at work in the universe.
Thank God for people like Isaiah and Joseph in our gospel today--both of whom believed in God's Good News and acted upon it. If Isaiah and Joseph teach us anything, I believe that it's the willingness to place our faith in God and God's Word, especially when majority opinion polls rule, and so-called "common" reason and logic believe something different! As God's servants, both Isaiah and Joseph failed to buy into peer pressure to conform. If that were so, Isaiah's words would never have been preserved. Neither would Joseph have acted in trust and courage to honor Mary as his wife and adopt Jesus as his son. In the face of all odds, both Isaiah and Joseph dared to live in faithfulness to God.
What about you and me? How do we live and act? Are we more like Ahaz, by placing our trust and ultimate security in majority opinion polls, "common" reason and logic, worldly symbols of power and security? Or are we more like Isaiah and Joseph? Willing to trust in God and God's Word no matter how threatened and insecure we may feel? When the majority says: "Don't listen to him or her!" When the majority says: "Don't take her for your wife, she's unfaithful to you." When the majority says: "Trust in the gods of sport, wealth, fame, success and power." What will you say, how will you act?
In an increasingly hostile world, we continue to live by placing our ultimate trust in Immanuel, Jesus. He knows the deepest needs and longings of us all. Back in the fourteenth century, the monk, Meister Eckhart asked a question of himself, which is a valid question for us today as well: "What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God (many) years ago and I don't give birth to God's Son in my person and my culture and my times?"
Will you keep the Christ at the centre of your Christmas and in every season? Will you be bearers of Christ, like Isaiah, Joseph and Mary? Will you be open to God's provision for you by placing your trust in God? God is with us wherever we go and in whatever we do. God has promised to save us and the whole world from our sins. Now that's Good News worth celebrating today and everyday! Worth sharing with all people! Amen.