Sunday, December 18, 2016

Behold the Sign -- Sermon for Advent 4A

Nativity with the Prophets Ezekiel & Isaiah

Isaiah 7:10-17

When I was younger, we would occasionally drive to Portland, which was a 300-mile drive from Klamath Falls. On a good day the trip took about five hours. Of course, if you’re a child that’s a long time, and you can get antsy. So my brother and I would pepper our parents with questions about when we would arrive. Over time, we learned to watch for certain signs that signaled that we were getting close. One sure sign was the big Farmers Insurance building that sat alongside Interstate 5. When we saw it, we knew that Portland was just around the corner!

The season of Advent offers signs that Christmas is close at hand. Each week we’ve lit candles that help us prepare to receive the promise of Christmas.  Since we lit the fourth candle this morning, which is the candle of love, we can be quite certain that the next candle we light will be the Christ Candle, marking the coming of Christmas. So, be on the alert, the time of celebration is at hand!


In Isaiah 7 the prophet Isaiah offered a sign to King Ahaz to assure him that God was with the people. So, he didn’t have to worry any more about his enemies. He just needed to put his trust in God.  You see; two of his neighbors were laying siege to Jerusalem. They were planning to replace Ahaz with a person of their own choosing, who would join them in their rebellion against the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah wanted to assure the panicky king that God would take care of things. Unfortunately Ahaz was what you might call a “functional atheist.” So, when Isaiah told Ahaz he could ask for a sign that God was with him, Ahaz piously refused. He told the prophet he didn’t want to “test” God. That sounds good on the surface, except that it was covering up his lack of faith in God. 

Even though Ahaz resisted Isaiah’s offer, the prophet still offered him a sign. He told the king that a young woman was going to have a child and this child would be named Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” Before this child was old enough to tell the difference between good and evil, the neighbors who are bothering him would no longer exist. In other words, their brave rebellion would fail, leading to their destruction. So, don’t worry. Instead, trust God! 

There has been a lot of speculation about the identity of this child who is to be named Immanuel. Some say it was Ahaz’s son and heir, Hezekiah. Others think it might have been Isaiah’s own child. But ultimately it doesn’t matter who the child was, because Isaiah’s point is that the birth and maturity of a child, any child, born at that moment, was a sign that God is present. We know this to be true in our own lives. The little children who inhabit this congregation are signs that God is with us. There is life blooming in our midst.  

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we’re being asked to look around and discern the signs that “God is With Us?”

While Isaiah is focused on the crisis brewing in Jerusalem, Matthew looked to Isaiah 7:14 to help explain the birth of Jesus. This is why Isaiah 7 is an Advent text. It’s paired in the lectionary with a reading from Matthew 1, where an angel appears to Joseph, and tells him, that his bride-to-be’s pregnancy is from God. The angel tells Joseph to name this child Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins. The angel also tells Joseph that the birth of this child will fulfill the promise of scripture, which declares that a virgin will bear a child and they will name the child Emmanuel, or “God is with us.” 

If your ears picked up on the word virgin, you’re not alone. You see Matthew is big on scripture fulfillment, and when he read Isaiah 7:14 in the Greek, he found a theological explanation for Jesus’ unique parentage. Now, we could go off and have a long conversation about how the Bible is translated, and how the Gospel writers used the Old Testament, but that might lead us away from the point at hand. That point is, we’ve been given a sign that God is with us. 

I realize we’re a non-creedal people, which means we’re not in the habit of reciting the Apostles Creed. But, it’s worth noting that when Christians confess that Jesus “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,” the issue at hand isn’t biology. It’s theology. It’s a recognition that there’s something unique about this child. It’s a reminder that God is revealing God’s self in the person of this child. Matthew draws on Isaiah promise to a king who was afraid to trust God. I realize that many modern Christians struggle with this confession, but perhaps theologian Karl Barth can help us sort things out. He writes:

The sign itself was always left as free of explanation as possible. More important still is the fact that the Sign did not in the least explain the thing signified. Rather it brought to light essentially and purposefully its very inexplicability, its character of mystery. [Karl Barth Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 108].
In other words, if we get hung up on the how--on the biology–then we’ll miss this sign that God is revealed to us in the flesh and blood of a child born in Bethlehem. This is the one we call Immanuel. To quote from the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). 

This is why each Advent we sing: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God Appear.” We wait with great expectation for our redemption at the hands of God.  As the hymn declares, the “Desire of the nations” will “bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” [Chalice Hymnal, p. 119].

Ahaz found it difficult to believe Isaiah’s message. He resisted asking for a sign, because he couldn’t believe that God was present. Like I said, he was a functional atheist. I wonder, on this Advent morning, how many of us are functional atheists as well? How often do we go about our lives with no thought of God being present? 

Don Saliers writes of this Advent sign that “it is more likely that we come to understand God to be at work in the ambiguities, the twists, and the ironies of human history, as Reinhold Niebuhr has long since observed” [Feasting on the Word, p. 76]. Looking to a child born in Bethlehem for a sign that God is present seems far-fetched, but isn’t this just the way things work with God? It’s not the big bang in the sky that announces God’s presence, it’s in the midst of the little things, the twists and turns of history, that we discern the work of the Spirit. Of course, this requires a great deal of faith, and sometimes faith is in short supply. That’s the way it was with King Ahaz. He couldn’t see the signs of life all around him that spoke of God’s presence, because he was blinded by his fear. 

Faith doesn’t have to be passive, unless we’re waiting for that big bang in the sky before we act. If we’re willing to embrace the idea that God is already at work in our midst, then we can begin to look for those places and get on board. We can be that movement of wholeness in a fragmented world. Of course, that means recognizing our own fragmentation and allowing Jesus to heal us along with the rest of the cosmos, which according to the Gospel of John, God loves (John 3:16). 

Since we lit the candle of love this morning, let’s go forward with that love shining into the world through our lives. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety out there, just as there was in Jerusalem when Isaiah spoke to King Ahaz. Fear and anxiety is understandable, but we stand here this morning with the promise that God is with us. We have a sign to take hold of. That sign is the child born of Mary in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago! So: “Lift up your heads, O Mighty gates; behold the glorious Ruler waits! The Sovereign One is drawing near; the Savior of the World is here.” (CH, 129).

Picture attribution: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?. Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55804 [retrieved December 17, 2016]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio,_nativit%C3%A0_tra_i_profeti_isaia_e_giobbe.jpg.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Advent 4A
December 18, 2016

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