Sunday, December 18, 2016

Isaiah, Ahaz, and the End of the Beginning


A sermon for St. Luke's, Madison, preached December 18 on the 4th Sunday of Advent. The lessons appointed for the day are:
Well, we’ve made it to the end of the beginning. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. The next time you’re in church, it will probably be Christmas. With any luck, Advent has done its work of slowing us down and inviting us to the good work of true preparation. Not just ribbons and gifts but the soul and new life and responsiveness to God. 

Advent goes about this peculiar work each year through an unusual, if predictable, cast of characters. Of course there’s the holy family. Mary, Joseph, the baby she carries. There are the weird stories Jesus tells during Advent about people disappearing in fields, warnings that God is like a thief in the night, the fall of the temple, and all that precedes the end. You know, bedtime stuff for kids. There’s that sharply dressed, camel-hair-wearing young man (with the beautiful beard) named John, fixed on the banks of the Jordan River, eating bugs. And of course there are smaller cameo appearances by Elizabeth, Gabriel, etc. But before we skip to the cameos, there’s at least one more in the mix, among the principle actors, prone to being overlooked, so steady and regular we are likely to take him for granted. But alongside Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, John the Baptist, and the unknowability of the end of time, Advent rightly makes room for Isaiah.

The truth is, Isaiah is the source of some of the best Advent material. That shoot and stump picture from a couple of weeks ago? The branch and green leaf sprung up from the root? Isaiah. How about, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given?" Isaiah again. “And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And Handel says, “Thank you!” All of it, Isaiah. And not just the happy bits. The babe born on Christmas will of course grow up, and we’ll follow him. We’ll follow him all the way to the night before he dies, Maundy Thursday, and on that day Isaiah will be there to meet us again. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” From Isaiah 53. And on that day we’ll read the whole psalm.

Like a good iPhone app you take for granted, Isaiah has been running quietly in the background this whole Advent. In fact, today’s is one of the shorter readings from Isaiah, just a snippet. A curious day maybe to highlight the prophet, but today’s short reading from Isaiah gives us everything we will want to remember when we do get to the great and holy feast we are about to celebrate. But maybe that reading came just enough minutes ago that you need a refresher. It was the first reading. No worries. I’ve got your back.

In the first reading today, Isaiah shows up and offers Ahaz a pretty good deal. This is where a lot of folks check out. Who’s Ahaz? Why should I care? (Can I get an 'amen'?) Ahaz is the King of Judah. Do you remember how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt? And how some time later the people of Israel told God they wanted a king? And God wasn’t wild about the idea, but God eventually said yes? Well, it didn’t take long for the kingdom to split and soon there were two kingdoms of Israelites. Two kingdoms of people delivered by one God out of slavery in Egypt. Israel and Judah. Ahaz is the king of Judah. 

So Isaiah goes to Ahaz. And he tries to give Ahaz the kind of blank check with God that most of us would kill for. He says, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ask for a sign. Name it. Anything goes. And I don’t know about you, but I want that deal! Not sure about the new job? Want a sign that it’s really for you? Uncertain about a relationship, or the next stage of your life and the decisions before you and which paths will lead to flourishing? In the face of despair, do you long for some signal, a wink, to tell you that God hears your cries - the cries you won’t cry for anyone else - could you stand some assurance that it might, in the end, work out after all? This is the kind of promise Isaiah puts before Ahaz. As deep as Sheol or high as heaven, he says. But Ahaz refuses and in a way that might sound familiar. “I will not put the Lord God to the test,” he says. And this should sound familiar. Jesus uses these same words to answer the temptations of the devil in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. I will not put the Lord God to the test. This echo of Jesus makes Ahaz sound almost noble. But Isaiah is no Satan and Ahaz is not noble. But it takes a little background to see why. That’s right! You deserve the full story.

The full story is that Israel’s armies are coming after Judah. Israel has allied with Aram, no relation to the other two, who is also coming after Judah. Two against one. They are coming after Judah because Judah refused to partner with them to protect themselves from the mighty Assyrians. Judah hears they’re coming and is terrified; the kingdom of Judah prepares for the worst. God speaks to Ahaz, the king, through Isaiah and says, “Listen up, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands.” Through Isaiah, God promises that the evil threat won’t come to pass. But then Isaiah warns Ahaz, listen up, “If you don’t stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all.” And that’s when Isaiah, reading the body language of Ahaz - sensing that he’s not really buying it - says, “I know you’re finding trust hard right now. Please trust. Ask God for a sign to make it easier for you to trust! War might seem better, but your God will protect you. Wait on the Lord. Seek God, stand with God, and God will stand with you.” So when Ahaz finally gets around to saying, “I will not put the Lord to the test,” he may sound pious, but what he is really saying is, “No, thanks. I have put my trust somewhere else, thank you very much.” And of course it won’t be the last time a person hides behind piety in order to not trust God. That “somewhere” else Ahaz is trusting? It’s Assyria, who will in the very near future drive both Israel and Judah into exile. Before too long, historically speaking, the holy city of Jerusalem will fall.

But here’s the crazy thing. When Ahaz refuses God’s blank check offer through Isaiah, God doesn’t take back the offer. Instead, God writes out the check; God gives the sign: the young woman will be with child and bear a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel. This will be the sign. The promise still stands. The lands of Judah’s enemies will be deserted. But there is also judgment of Judah’s refusal to trust the promise. Judah’s own land will be deserted, too.

If it all sounds a little too BC for you, consider that we might not be so different from Judah’s king, Ahaz. We may not call ourselves besieged by enemies, though we may, if we’re honest, sometimes well feel like that; but we almost certainly do find ourselves, like all people, entangled in conflicts - maybe like Judah, even with family, people who were supposed to be close to us - and sometimes we’re conflicted within ourselves and the relationships feel suddenly serious, like they might take everything away from us. A flash of panic as a mix of outside circumstances, perceived betrayals, threats, and broken promises (sometimes our own) conspire to undo us. And there it is, in that flash, the very real prospect of losing it all. Have you been there? And it can seem like there’s no future, no way out, and so you enlist any and all available powers. Grab the big stick! Go for the kill. Make exceptions to your principles and the practices of your faith. Violence? No, not normally, but you know, under these circumstances…Just this one-

To which Isaiah says, ‘no!’ Trust God even in the furnace of your fears. Or where else is trust really trust? "Stop, God’s People," he says, "and count to ten." Return to the principles, those faithful practices, shaped by the story of God and your trust in God’s promise, the practices that, when you felt threatened, you’d rationalized away and traded for expediency. Put down the swords. Look up to the hills. Return to the Lord. Trust in God. Unclinch your fists, says Isaiah. Trust in God. Remember Moses and Egypt and God’s bringing you out. Trust in God. Sing the old hymns. Trust in God. Lift up your hearts. Trust in God. Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Trust in God. Give of your wealth. Trust in God. Dream new dreams. Trust in God. Love your enemies. Trust in God. Proclaim the new kingdom. Trust in God. Take this bread. Trust in God. Make room from the stranger. Trust in God. Stand with the poor and the prisoner. Trust in God. Drink the cup of forgiveness ’til it’s empty. Trust in God. And guess what, it won’t go empty. Trust in God. 

It takes some thinking through, to trust in God. Because every “yes” to trust in God means at least one “no” to the shortcut you and I were going to take without him. So take the time to think it through. Because here’s the crazy thing: when Ahaz refuses God’s blank check offer through Isaiah, God doesn’t take back the offer. Instead, God writes out the check; God gives the sign: the young woman will be with child and bear a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel. 

As we approach the coming Christmas feast, see the babe for what he is: the sign that God can be trusted and that, trusting God, it is not just the babe, but us, too, who are born to new life on that day.

Amen.

_____

With gratitude for Michael J. Chan's helpful commentary on the context of the lesson from Isaiah.


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