Fourth Advent. Dec. 18, 2016. Isaiah7:10-16, Psalm 80:-1-7, Matt 1:18-25, Romans 1:1-7
The Christmas season is a mixed bag for many people. While we look forward to festivities and family, often we dread the same things.
While we love to build memories and wax nostalgic, memories of the loss of loved ones and "the way we used to do it" can be painful. There is always a sense of past and future bound in the present. It is so obviously present when the elderly, middle aged, and the young gather for the exchange of thoughts, gifts, blessings and hopes. It is special and wonderful and sometimes totally not up to our expectations. I think the Christmas season is most meaningful, helpful, and truly joyful when it gets beyond the glitter and deals hopefully and realistically with the mixed bag of life.
Reading today, I am taken captive by the Isaiah piece. Usually we read the familiar; "...look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel" out of context. We take it as a happy prophecy and then quickly skip to "away in a manger no crying he makes." That keeps us in a false happy place and robs the chance for deeper meaning and real joy to surface.
There is so much more here. There is so much that mixes past, present, and future with the hopeful and the hellish. It's a mixed bag.
The passage begins with King Ahaz of Judah refusing to ask for a sign from God, and framing his refusal as an act of piety. It is, however, more of a refusal of what God is offering. He doesn't want to hear what God is going to say. He wants political answers, power and security, not faith and trust. Isaiah gives the sign anyway, and it is ambiguous, with both good and troublesome implications. Isaiah promises a child, not a warrior king, and maybe this is why Ahaz didn't want to hear it. Ahaz has his own ideas of what is best for Judah, and it certainly isn't trusting in a God that offers a king in diapers.
Judah is in a hard spot, Ahaz is truly up against a wall and acting like any government or powerful (and scared) ruler would act. Both Israel (Ephraim) and Egypt are hostile and Ahaz has (held his nose?) and allied with the powerful Assyria. It seems to make sense, except that Judah is like a mouse accepting protection from a cat. For Ahaz it seems to be the only way, and right now the cat is preoccupied with Egypt and Israel so it appears to be the best short term choice. But what happens when the cat gets hungry and remembers the mouse? Read Isaiah 8:1-15, it spells out the Assyrian invasion.
The sign of the child promises that within the time it takes for this child to be weaned, (2-3 years), the problem of Israel and Egypt will disappear, a good thing. But then the cat, the king of Assyria, will turn and shave Judah bald and the rich vineyards will become thorny, only good for wandering cattle and sheep instead of a settled and civilized place. Isaiah calls for trust in God for sanctuary.
This kind of trust, trust in a non-warrior God within a warrior culture, is an incredibly difficult thing to accept. It's a wonderful promise, that God is in control, that we can trust our God, that the powers of mankind cannot last, but God can. It's a wonderful promise that God's people, both then and now, mostly struggle with understanding. If Ahaz had asked for a sign, had trusted God and not formed an alliance with Assyria, would anything have turned out better? Would Egypt, Israel, and Assyrian turned the other cheek, become good buddies, and all would be peace? I doubt it. The one thing that would be different, however, is that Judah would have been right with God. Squashed maybe, but faithful. (And if that isn't a mixed bag too...)
Fred Gaiser, (Luther Seminary, St. Paul Minn. OT professor emeritus), says that this text brilliantly reminds us that God's coming is both promise and judgement. He says there is always both continuity and surprise in how God's word comes to God's people.
Continuity and surprise. Promise and judgement. A mixed bag to take into our seasonal contemplation. I like this. I like that the promise is real, but so are the dangers of complacency or aligning with the powers of this world. This season of faith, with all it's promise, is not easy. It is, however, hopeful. We hope for new starts, for demonstrations of love, for hope that we will catch on to the signs God wants to give.
Answers to the mixed bag? I'm still looking, but I am doing that looking assured by the hope that God keeps on speaking then, now, and into the future.