Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Today’s texts turn around the issue of trust — especially the ways that we trust God (or don’t!) King Ahaz of Judah, one of the successors to David and a fellow who is beset on all sides by enemies and would-be conquerors, is challenged by the prophet Isaiah to put his trust in God. Isaiah even says, “Ask God for a sign!”
Ahaz’ answer sounds pretty pious — “I would never test God like that!” But, in reality, is a false show of humility, since he has already made his political bed with one of those foreign powers (Assyria) that he hoped was going to secure his place in history (and save his neck at the same time!)
Ahaz was wrong on all counts — he did not trust God and it was only a short time later that the kingdom of Judah was placed into political serfdom by Assyria. Ahaz died at the ripe old age of 36, in 715 BCE (a nice summary article is available here.)
Of course, all of this ancient drama is the setup for Matthew, in today’s gospel passage, who takes Isaiah’s words about the Lord’s sign to the people that God would always be with them — a child named Immanuel — and applies them to the coming birth of Jesus. As in the time of Isaiah, so in the time of Jesus: the ultimate “good news” is always that God will be with us!
How easy — or hard — is it for you to trust God with the details and challenges of your life? Would you be willing to accept a “sign” from God that God is with you?
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
The psalm text for today features a recurring prayer: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Some commentators believe that these words were written after a time of great trial in the nation of Israel. In what ways do you think they reflect either repentance, or trust (hope) in God…or both?
Paul is writing to relatively new Christians — and to people without much background in the Jewish scriptures — and trying to introduce them to the character of Jesus as one who has long been predicted to come as the “Son of God.” These few verses serve as a good summary of the belief of the early church about who Jesus was.
From these verses, what are 3-5 things you could identify as important to believe about Jesus?
Coming back now to the theme of trust in God — Joseph is called to exercise a pretty extreme form of that trust. His fiancee, Mary, has turned up pregnant — a scandal at any time, but particularly so in the society of this time. Mary actually could have been put to death, according to the laws of the time. Instead, Joseph decides he will just “put her away quietly.” A simple divorce — let her get on with her life, and he will try to get on with his.
Then, lo and behold, he gets a message from God: “Go ahead with the marriage, Joe; this child is the Son of God and will save his people from their sins. Trust me on this one.”
So, Joseph does — unlike Ahaz, he places his reputation, his career, and his life in God’s hands. Matthew says, “And now you know why God told us about all that Immanuel stuff — because, in Jesus, God really is with us.”
Have you ever considered what a risk Joseph took to trust the dream and go ahead with his marriage to Mary? Are there any ways in which you can identify with Joseph, in terms of having to trust that a situation would work out, even if it didn’t look very good at the time?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Back in the early 90s there was a popular TV show called Evening Shade. You might remember it – Burt Reynolds starred as a football coach in small-town Arkansas, but the stories were mainly about the daily doings in his personal life, with his wife and kids and friends.
One night, at the end of the show, his two elementary school-aged children were ready for bed and were looking out the bedroom windows over the porch and chatting. The little boy said, “Do you ever feel lonely and scared?” His sister replied, “Well, sometimes; but then I remember what they say in Sunday School, about how God is always with us and I feel better.” The boy thought a few minutes – then he said, “Yeah, well, that praying stuff is all right I guess; but sometimes you just need somebody with some skin on them.”
Most of us know how he feels. There is a lot of talk this time of year about “blue Christmas,” about people who are particularly sad and lonely and depressed this time of year, and I know that’s true. Many of us have some sad memories associated with the Advent and Christmas seasons, and most of us have lived long enough to have lost a loved one whose absence is deeply felt at every holiday celebration. And in the midst of that loneliness and ache, there is often a nagging question of “Where is God in all this? Why did God let this happen? Why doesn’t God ease my suffering?”
On a larger scale, many of us look at the world around us and think– “How long, O Lord, how long?” It is legitimate for us to wonder, “If God is good and powerful, why is there so much evil in the world? Is God indifferent? Or just incompetent? If God can do something about this, why hasn’t something been done? And if God can’t, then why should we bother with God?”
These are not new feelings, or new questions. Out text from Isaiah reflects a time when the southern Kingdom of Judah under King Ahaz was under great duress. There was a web of international intrigue and political and military danger. Short form: Syria and the northern Kingdom of Israel were attempting to free themselves from the Assyrian Empire and wanted Judah to join them in the battle. They also threatened Ahaz, telling him if he refused to help they would invade. In the midst of this the prophet Isaiah tells Ahaz not to worry, God will take care of it. The preacher advises him to put his trust in the LORD. He even tells him, “Ask for a sign, any sign, God will give you a sign.”
Ahaz piously quotes scripture and says he doesn’t need a sign; but the truth is, he has already decided that he can’t trust God that much. He has already asked Assyria for help against the two small kingdoms to his north. Like the little boy in Evening Shade, he needs somebody with some skin on them. Though Ahaz has turned down the offer of a sign; Isaiah gives him one anyway. 7:14 reads, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel means “God with us.” It’s as if Isaiah realizes that Ahaz is afraid enough that he needs some concrete, earthly assurance; he needs someone with skin on them, in order to feel confident in God’s presence and protection. So the promise is made: “Look, God will send someone with skin on them and before they are old enough to know Good food from bad, this crisis will be over, and Judah will be safe.”
This promise of “Immanuel,” of “God with us,” of God “with skin on,” is something that Matthew picked up and applied to the story of Jesus. New Testament Scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright points out that until Matthew wrote his gospel; no one else had ever placed any significance on this passage as applying to the promised Messiah. But Matthew did, and using the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, “young woman,” almah in Hebrew, came out as “virgin,’ parthenos in Greek. But the important thing here is not the virginity of the mother but the divinity of the child. Matthew plainly asserts that in this child, God is present, God is here, God is with us.
In his book God is Closer Than You Think, Presbyterian pastor John Ortberg makes the case that “The central promise in the Bible is not ‘I will forgive you,’ although of course that promise is there. It is not the promise of life after death, although we are offered that as well. The most frequent promise in the Bible is ‘I will be with you.’ ” (p. 15)
Over and over again from Abraham and Sarah to Jacob and Joseph and Moses to King David and on to Amos and other prophets, to the Virgin Mary and the Righteous Joseph; the word of comfort and promise keeps on coming, “Don’t be afraid, I am with you.”
Ahaz was afraid, and turned away from God’s promise and sign – and put his trust in the mighty armies of Assyria. That worked for a while but ultimately failed.
Joseph was afraid, but in a dream God told him, “Do not be afraid.” And then made to him the same promise that was made to Ahaz – “The child will be a sign of Emmanuel, of “God with us.”
Our calling today is to trust in the promise of God and not be afraid; not be afraid of the ordinary trials and tribulations of life and not be afraid to stand for the Kingdom of God, and not be afraid to take action on behalf those suffering in poverty, and not be afraid to stand with and speak out for those who have been pushed to the margins of our society.
Our calling today is to be a sign of “God with us,” in the world. Our calling today is to be someone with skin on them for those who are hurting and suffering. Our calling is to reach out to the world with the love of God, realizing that when we do so in the name of Christ, we are the hands of Christ in the world.
And if we find ourselves slipping back into fear, searching either or hearts, or perhaps the night sky, for a sign of God’s prince in the world, if we find ourselves yearning for someone with skin on them – we must remember this: the church is the body of Christ in the world. We can turn to those ordinary, sinful, frightened, people on the pews around us and know that God is here in our midst. “God is with us;” in this place, and in this life.
Amen and amen.