Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 7:10-19
Isaiah Gives Ahaz the Sign of Immanuel
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah[a] said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman[b] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.[c] 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 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. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
18 On that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. 19 And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures.
- Isaiah 7:13 Heb he
- Isaiah 7:14 Gk the virgin
- Isaiah 7:14 That is God is with us
Sermon: “Worrying Over Nothing”
“The Present We’re Afraid to Open”
The season of gift-giving and gift receiving is almost upon us. There are all kinds of Christmas presents, aren’t there?
Some we open and greet with a heartfelt “Thank you!” Those are the presents we can tell someone took a great deal of time and effort to pick out and buy, maybe even to make by hand.
We open other presents and say, “Oh, wow…you shouldn’t have!” with what we hope is a convincing smile on our face.
Some presents are so completely and totally not what we ever would have wanted in a thousand Christmases, that best we can do is remember what our mother taught us. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
This clip shows people receiving presents of each kind, with the last the most un-Christmasy of all.
Clip, Christmas Story
Last Christmas, a survey carried out in Great Britain found that 64% of Brits told at least one Christmas fib to friends and family during the Christmas holidays.
They told some to spare hurt feelings. Forty percent, for example, only pretended to like a gift. Another one in five of those received a gift that they already had, but didn’t let the giver know it. This may lead to regifting, with one in six people giving away presents that they already own.
Other Brits pretended to make presents that they really bought, such as handmade or DIY items. Still more admitted to passing off store-bought food as homemade. Seventy-eight percent said they prefer useful gifts to a goofy gift that they’ll never use.
Finally, another article gave this handy guide to decoding Christmas white lies. These were my faves:
- When people say, “This is really useful,” it really means, “If I live to be a hundred, I will never use this thing.”
- When people say, “What a lovely surprise,” it really means, “I’m surprised you know so little about my taste that you bought me this.”
- When people say, “You shouldn’t have,” it really means “No, really, you shouldn’t have!”
- When people say, “I love it—where did you get it?” it really means, “I need to know where you bought this so I can take it back.”
In today’s scripture lesson, God offers King Ahaz an unprecedented gift. “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
Proof positive of God’s presence and power in our lives—I think that’s one present most of us wouldn’t turn down. What kind of sign would you ask for?
Imagine the possibilities here in our little village: water turned into Stag, a shiny new main street lined with businesses, a parting of the Kaskaskia with yours truly walking dry shod to the other side.
Ahaz took a pass on the whole deal. “I won’t ask, and I won’t put the LORD to the test.” Sounds good, right? Sad to say, the words were about as empty as Ahaz’s faith.
According to scripture, Ahaz was one of the worst kings Judah ever had. He worshiped the pagan god Baal and, even worse, sacrificed one of his own children to that god. As chapter seven opens, Ahaz and Judah are under threat of attack from the northern kingdom of Israel as well as the nation of Aram.
Isaiah tells Ahaz not to be afraid, that God would save Judah if the king was faithful. We heard Isaiah tell Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sign, as proof.
Hypocrite that he was, Ahaz didn’t ask for a sign because he didn’t want to take a chance that it might actually come true. At this point, it probably didn’t matter much, anyway. Ahaz had already decided to throw in his lot with Assyria, that era’s reigning superpower.
He later bribed the Assyrian king with silver and gold from the Temple, had Judah become Assyria’s vassal state, and even built an altar to the Assyrian gods in the Temple.
Isaiah said God would give Ahaz a sign whether he wanted one or not. It would be a child born with the name Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Instead of armies, a helpless child would be Judah’s hope.
The young woman Isaiah is talking about is most likely someone already pregnant both he and Ahaz knew. The notion of that woman being a virgin came along much later, from the English translation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for “young woman.” For Isaiah, the sign wasn’t the pregnancy, but the birth.
The baby’s growing up would be a timeline for God’s work. By the time the child could eat solid food and tell right from wrong, Isaiah said, the threat from Israel and Aram would be gone.
As it was, the prophet turned out to be right. Assyria’s armies rolled over both Israel and Aram, leaving them weak and helpless.
Judah managed to survive, and even enjoyed a short time of peace, before Assyria and its archenemy Egypt drew Judah into a new superpower tug-of-war that finally destroyed it.
The gospel writers latched onto Isaiah’s sign of God’s presence and hope as they tried to explain who Jesus was. It didn’t bother them that Isaiah had something completely different in mind.
After all, prophets in the Bible aren’t cheap fortunetellers, but those who speak the word of God to God’s people. Prophets put the past in perspective, help people understand the present, and open their eyes to God’s vision for the future.
People in Jesus’ time—as in ours—had no trouble believing that the word of God from one time and place could speak just as clearly to other times and places.
God is still with us, Matthew said, in a new and powerful way. Just as God saved Judah in the time of Isaiah, God would now save all people through Jesus. Matthew took Isaiah’s old sign, updated it, and applied it to the world.
The birth of Christ is a sign we all can believe in, a gift that suits every single person, no matter who we are or what we’re going through. The question is how good we are at sharing that gift, doing a bit of holy regifting in the best possible way.
We have to do what Matthew did and find new ways to tell an old story. Those for whom Christmas is just a time to party and get gifts need to know that Jesus’ birth matters.
It’s up to us to let them know that Christmas isn’t warm fuzzies from the past, but a key to the present and our hope for the future.
As Isaiah first wrote, and as Matthew believed, God is with us. May the promise of that presence bring tidings of comfort and joy as we remember Bethlehem’s child. May that promise also warn us, as Isaiah warned Ahaz, not to ignore the God who is with us, the God who is part of our world and our lives.