To read the Isaiah 7 text click here: Isaiah 7:10-16
Images of the Kingdom: The Crib
King Ahaz of Judea (the Southern Kingdom) was in a tight spot. Should he ally himself with Samaria/Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Ephraim against Assyria? Will this make him even more vulnerable? And what about God-Yahweh? I can imagine his struggle was this: “If I ally myself against Assyria I risk utter destruction? If I ally myself against Samaria I risk the wrath of God?” What a choice! In the midst of this nightmare the prophet/counselor Isaiah comes to King Ahaz and tells him to ask God for a sign. And the King refuses! “Far be it from me to test God.” That sounds like he is being very pious and faithful. But is he? Isaiah doesn’t think so. Isaiah responds by telling him that God will send him a sign anyway. And the sign is a woman who is pregnant and will soon give birth. And the significance of this particular child is this - by the time the child is weaned this geo-political nightmare situation will be resolved. The pregnant young woman with child is a sign of hope and promise.
But why won’t King Ahaz ask for a sign after Isaiah specifically tells him that God wants him to ask for one? What is wrong with him? Is he really that pious? Or maybe he doesn’t really want a sign; maybe he is afraid of what the sign might end up being. He knows that he can’t control the sign that God will provide and that it will not necessarily be one that he wants, or likes or one that will support his own opinions and position. Therefore perhaps it is better not to have a sign at all! But Ahaz forgot something important: God’s signs are not dependent on our desire for them or our willingness to accept them. For God sends the sign anyway. This is the way God acts! God is constantly sending signs to us. The question this text poses to us is this – do we see and recognize the signs that God gives us, or do we ignore the signs that God sends to us, preferring instead to avoid any sign from God that doesn’t conform with our way of looking at the world? And preserving the fiction that we are ultimately in control!
So then, what are some of the signs that God sends to us? And how can we recognize them. Well, each of us will have a different experience with this, but there are some things that can be gleaned from our scripture texts for today that might help us to recognize signs from God.
First, God usually chooses the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary as the way of reaching out to us. In the case of King Ahaz, the sign was an ordinary birth of a child – like thousands and thousands of others. According to the text there is nothing extraordinary about this birth or this child at all. But yet, the birth of the child represents God’s commitment to the people of Judah, it is a sign of hope and promise, a sign that God is still present with the people of Judah, despite the mistakes, the unfaithfulness and the weakness of the leadership.
800 years later Matthew quotes from this passage when talking about the birth of Jesus. And while we prefer to focus on the extraordinary circumstances of the birth of Jesus, which are recounted in Luke, what Matthew gives us is more similar to Isaiah. Mary and Joseph are an ordinary couple, with problems, who are placed in a difficult situation, but the circumstance of the birth itself is just like any other birth – ordinary, painful, in less than perfect circumstances. It is an ordinary birth of a child, just like so many others births. And that is the point: God is enfleshed in Jesus – God enters into the world and human experience in an ordinary way – just like us! This is what it means when we affirm in the creed that we believe Jesus to be fully human! It is only because of this ordinariness that Jesus is able to be Immanuel – God with us!
What are the ordinary signs in which you daily encounter God through Jesus? Or, like King Ahaz, do you tend to miss the sign because they are not what you are looking for and don’t mess with your way of understanding the world and how God interacts with the world? Do you tend to look for the extraordinary and miss the ordinary? Here is the proclamation of the Gospel for today: God sends us many, many signs each and every day. Do you recognize them? Or are they too ordinary to be noticed?
Second, we also need to recognize that when King Ahaz rejects God’s offer of a sign, he is also refusing to trust God. If I ignore all the ordinary signs and look exclusively for the extraordinary then when the extraordinary doesn’t come I can just dismiss it all and use that as a justification for self-reliance and an affirmation of my prejudices. The famous saying (which is NOT in the bible) - “God helps those who help themselves” came into being just for this kind of situation – to give us a justification for ignoring God’s signs and thus God’s calling to us! That saying in totally contrary to the the Gospel proclamation that God has entered into the human experience in order to help those who cannot help themselves (that would be all of us, by the way!). This is what Jesus does – he reaches out to those who cannot help themselves and loves them and cares for them and feeds them. And we who have been on the receiving end of God’s love and grace are then called to reach out in the name of Jesus Immanuel in order to help those who cannot help themselves. When we recognize this – when we see Jesus active in love and grace and forgiveness and outreach – we are seeing a sign of God’s presence, love, hope, promise and commitment!
Lastly, there is one sign that God gives us every week , and this sign is particularly meaningful and profound during this Christmas season as we celebrate God’s enfleshing in Jesus. This sign of God’s presence with us, and commitment to us, and love for us is that which we experience at least weekly through the ordinary bread and wine of Holy Communion. Each and every week God invites you to the table to share in his love and presence. This may not be the kind of sign we want, or think we need – we may try to put all kinds of restrictions on the celebration and sharing of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, but ultimately this is the sign that God has given to us. And we are commanded to do this as often as we can, because we need it! We need to commune with God through Jesus. We all need this sign of God’s love and grace and forgiveness and presence. This is the Lord’s Table – all are welcome! Come to the table to experience a sign of God’s commitment and love – For You! Jesus Immanuel is with us!