A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 19, 2010.
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
We’re familiar with the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The lessons for the Fourth Sunday of Advent from the Hebrew Testament and Gospel of Matthew provide a working example of that expression. The Gospel lesson—about how an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and announced that his fiancé was pregnant because of the Holy Spirit—draws from Isaiah 7. We’re so familiar with the Gospel lesson that we overlook the passage from Isaiah to which the angel referred.
The Isaiah lesson involves an event that occurred around 734 B.C. King Ahaz was ruler of Judah with Jerusalem as its capitol. King Rezin was ruler of Aram (Syria) which had Damascus as its capitol. King Pekah was ruler of Israel (also called Ephraim) which had Samaria as its capitol.
Rezin (King of Syria) and Pekah (King of Israel) formed an alliance aimed at challenging the powerful Assyrian Empire. When Ahaz refused to throw in with their alliance, Rezin and Pekah invaded Judah. They intended to overthrow Ahaz, install another king, and forge the alliance they desired. As you might imagine, that frightened Ahaz and the people of Judah.
We learn at Isaiah 7:1-9 how God sent Isaiah to meet Ahaz and directed the prophet to take his son Shearjashub (whose name in Hebrew means “a remnant shall return”) to the meeting. Isaiah 7:4 shows us the message Isaiah was directed to deliver to the anxious king: “and say to him [Ahaz], ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah …'”
At Isaiah 7:10-12 God directs Ahaz to request a sign of divine presence. Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” So Isaiah tells the king: 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 (Is. 7:14).
Immanuel means “God with us.” The promised child was a sign of God’s saving presence to give Ahaz hope in the face of the threatened invasion by Syria and Israel. The “young woman” in verse 14 (perhaps Isaiah’s wife) would bear a son, name him Immanuel, and the threatened invasion would be put down by the time the promised boy was old enough to tell the difference between safe food and food that wasn’t safe to eat.
Ahaz refused to ask for a sign of God’s presence even after God ordered him to request it. The religious convention of the time was that people who trusted God should not “put God to the test.” Some people are so religious they won’t even accept a sign of God’s assurance about God’s saving presence. They don’t want a “God with us” sign.
But Ahaz showed his faithlessness, not his faithfulness, by refusing God’s offer for a sign of God’s saving presence. After all, God commanded that he ask for the sign. God even gave Ahaz what amounted to a blank check: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God wanted Ahaz to have a sign of God’s saving presence. God wanted to give Ahaz a “God with us” sign, but Ahaz didn’t want it.
We can become so captured by religious tradition that we fail to see God calling us to new dimensions of fellowship. We can become so accustomed to dealing with and understanding God in certain ways that we will object—on religious grounds at that—when God shows up with a new saving presence message or in a saving presence way different from our experience. We can’t believe that God would do a new thing.
• How dare God show us that the ways we’ve always done things must change!
• How dare God invite us to see God working in redemptive ways we don’t understand!
• How dare God lead us down redemptive paths we haven’t traveled, especially if they are paths we’ve always considered wrong!
• How dare God break the rules we understand about how we deal with God, how we deal with others, and how God is God!
Like Ahaz, we have “issues” whenever God acts different from our notion of religious convention. Where is God trying to show you God’s saving presence in new ways? Are you missing the signs of God’s saving presence because you have “issues” that hinder you from trusting God to be God in ways different from your politics, your religion, your social views, or something else?
God is trustworthy, even if we are unfaithful because we are tied to our “issues.” God will make God’s presence known in whatever ways God chooses even if we won’t believe God can do so. God invites us to see God’s signs of saving presence and promises to deliver them. But God doesn’t need our permission to deliver God’s signs. God doesn’t need our permission to do God’s thing because God doesn’t need our permission to be God!
The sign of God’s saving presence would be a pregnant woman and her soon to be born son. A pregnant woman—what could be a more vulnerable sign? Women and children are associated in Scripture with vulnerability, not deliverance. Yet, by that sign, God assured Ahaz that Judah would be delivered from the threat presented by Syria and Israel. Judah and Jerusalem would witness the saving presence of God.
Ahaz didn’t get details, only an outline of a faithful promise. The promise came in the name to be given the son: Immanuel means “God with us.” Sometimes that is all God gives us, an outline, a promise, and a name. Then God expects us to trust God, even if God is doing something we’ve never imagined.
More than 700 years later, Joseph also faced a threatening predicament. His fiancée, Mary, was pregnant. In that culture an engagement amounted to marriage so Mary’s pregnancy amounted to adultery. According to the religious convention of the time, Joseph was entitled to a divorce, but he wanted to end their relationship in a way that would protect Mary from shame.
At Matthew 1:20 we read: But just when he [Joseph] 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Verses 22 and 23 are not the angel’s words! Matthew is interpreting what the angel’s visit to Joseph means to the world. Matthew tells us that “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means God is with us.” We believe that God’s saving presence is Personal in Jesus.
God didn’t ask Joseph if he wanted a sign of God’s redeeming presence. God provided the sign in Mary’s pregnancy and challenged Joseph to embrace it! The issue was whether Joseph could get over the fact that God was doing something Joseph never imagined, and that God was inviting Joseph to be part of it. Well, where’s the good news for us?
God wants to us to live with “God with us” power! “God with us” is true! No matter how low we fall, how anxious we become, or how difficult it may be for us to imagine, “God with us” is a divine promise that we are not alone. We are not forsaken. We live in hope because we know the “God with us” truth. We can live with victory because of the “God with us” promise. We can look beyond our fears, anxieties, and even the mysteries of God’s promises claiming—and sometimes clinging—to the “God with us” truth.
“God with us” is Personal. In Jesus, God has assumed our humanity. In Jesus, God has joined our journey. According to Matthew, “Immanuel” means “Jesus is God-with-us.” Jesus is the personal embodiment of “God with us.”
In Jesus, we learn that “God with us” is true when our little boats are tossed by the sudden storms of life. In Jesus, we learn that “God with us” is true even when people don’t think anything good can come from our Nazareth. In Jesus, we see that “God with us” is true when we have been put out, left out, or dropped out by the powers around us. In Jesus, we understand that even death can’t separate us from “God with us” love, “God with us” hope, and “God with us” peace.
Don’t be afraid to embrace and proclaim that God’s Spirit is active, alive, and working in your life, and in the world! At Matthew 1:24 we read: When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her [Mary] as his wife, but he had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Joseph didn’t understand the details. But he trusted the divine assurance that God’s saving presence was working in a new way. Trusting the “God with us” promise, Joseph embraced a pregnant woman and claimed her as his wife. Trusting the “God with us” promise, Joseph adopted Mary’s baby as his own son and named him “Jesus,” the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Joshua, which means “The LORD saves/helps.”
Followers of Jesus live in the saving/helping power of “God with us.” Followers of Jesus embrace the “God with us” truth in an anxious world. Followers of Jesus are prophets determined to make a “God with us” difference in the world. In Jesus, God calls us to subversive, radical, and redemptive living possible only because of “God with us” faith, “God with us” hope, and “God with us” love.
This is our faith! This is our hope! This is our living! “God with us” is true. “God with us” is visible. “God with us” is our victory!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.