Sunday, December 23, 2007

Something’s Coming—Hope

Isaiah 7: 10-16

Now we come, o blest Isaiah, to the dawning of the morn
When the God of every nation will appear in human form.
What you saw and spoke so boldly in your great prophetic dream
We now see with jubilation in the simple Nazarene.
--Used with permission of the author, John Thornburg

(2 Kings 16: 1-20)

In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of King Jotham of Judah became King. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was good in the sight of God, but followed in the ways of the kings of Israel. . .

Eyes rolled back in your head yet? Yeah, Not a very Christmassy passage. It's from 2 Kings, and is the historical account of what Isaiah refers to. It’s full of history, it’s full of impending war, geo-political maneuvering, and a ruler who ignores God, trusting to his own instincts. Hmmm. . . .

Yeah, not very Christmassy. Still, there’s a reason why we read this Isaiah passage during Advent. It’s because we, as Christians, understand verse 14 in a special, unique way. We understand that young woman (the most accurate translations do not say virgin) to be Mary, and we understand that child to be Jesus. He is the one who has come to be with us, to be Immanuel.

But there is a more universal reading of this passage. Ahaz’s actions can teach us something all on their own, without our needing to jump right to Isaiah 7:14.

So, back to the history lesson, just a little more concise.

Ahaz. King of Judah, is confronted on two sides by armies. One is the army of Syria, one is the Army of Israel. Both are armies backed by bigger regional powers, and Judah is being told to submit. Ahaz gets it into his mind to ask Assyria for help, the big daddy of all empires at this time in world history. Ahaz will trade Judah’s sovereignty, their independence, for security against these other two powers.

Problem is, he’s doing this against the advice of Isaiah, his prophet, and against the covenant that Judah has with God. Israel at this point is already a foreign country, long gone in terms of faithfulness to God. Judah is heading that way, especially with Ahaz as it’s king. He is the descendant of David, the holder of the covenant with God, and was required to model faith in the face of everything, even something as heavy as this.

And he’s not doing it. In old Texas Honky Tonk language, "he ain't dancing with what brung him." His reason sounds pious and god-fearing: "I refuse to put God to the test”, he says. Great! The problem is that his God-based advisor is telling him to, giving him permission to. So Ahaz' approach to Assyria is a pretty bullheaded, faithless, cynical response hiding behind a pious face. And Isaiah will have none of it. He gives Ahaz the sign anyway—a young woman is going to conceive and bear a son, and by the time that son is old enough to know right from wrong, this danger will be over.

Now, Isaiah may know who the baby is, he may know the mother. It might be Ahaz’ own son, it may just be Isaiah saying that this danger will be soon past. Whatever—It is pretty clear that Isaiah is talking about a specific national crisis at a specific time. He is almost definitely not prophesying about the coming of one of Ahaz's own descendants, a baby born in Bethlehem some 700 years later.

Here is his message—Put your faith in God, not in your own political wrangling. Put your faith in God, not in Assyria, who was a former enemy. Put your faith in God, because God will turn things to the good for His chosen people, on his time.

What was true for Ahaz to remember in his time is true for us in our time. We too live in a time of war, a time when piety and “God talk” hide much more secular motivations, a time when people say that they have trust in God, but their actions show that they trust their own minds much more.

What we forget is that, just like Ahaz, what troubles us is also temporary, and will also soon be taken care of in God’s own time. God took care of us in the birth of his son. God took care that we could know him most fully in the birth of a baby, one that grows over time, God’s time, to become the savior, and the teacher. It is through Christ that we know God’s character.

We know that God does deliver. It isn't according to our schedule, it isn't according to our plan, but we know it happens. That time of waiting patiently and actively for God to reveal God's plan is filled with hope. Hope is something deeper here than "I hope that there is a Nintendo Wii under the Christmas tree." This sort of hope is knowing that what is coming is Good, will benefit the whole world. Hope is knowing that the city on the mountain, the New Jerusalem, the Peaceable Kingdom, is already out there, just out of sight. Hope is living like it has arrived. Ahaz' cynical approach to the crisis of Judah, to submit to a former enemy in order to protect Judah from current ones, went against the national character as the nation of God, distrusted God's own command AND historical precedent, and ignored his own mandate as the King of the nation.

Far too often, we rely more on what we see, tangible items, rather than on God, don't we? We plan according to what we have on hand, rather than on what we are being asked to do. We seek security in the physical, rather than security and trust in the Lord.

Well, folks, behold--A young woman is about to conceive and bear a son, and by the time he knows good from evil, our troubles will have been resolved. That little child's' name is Immanuel--God is with us.

Trust in him, and in God, who has brought you this far, after all! Why not dance with what bring ya!

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