The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7: 10-16; Psalm 80: 1-7, 16-18; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18-25
THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. AMEN.
I want to talk about politics this morning (ushers if you don’t mind locking all the doors and not letting anyone out until after the sermon, please?). Whether you are a republican, democrat, independent, or other – it doesn’t matter – in my short life I don’t recall a presidential election cycle that seemed so negative. But if we were to press the rewind button and go back in time, we would see that throughout human history there have been untold numbers of rulers, kings, or presidents that were wildly unpopular, ineffective, or otherwise challenged.
And that is certainly true of the Bible. Today we hear a story about one such unpopular king. His name was Ahaz, and we hear about him in the reading from Isaiah. Ahaz was, during the time of Isaiah, the king of Judah, a small part of what is now Israel that included the cities like Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and some surrounding areas. Not only was Ahaz wildly unpopular, he was also cruel. He worshipped other gods, he built shrines and temples to honor gods of other countries, he murdered his own children, he took down the bronze altar in the Jerusalem temple. Ahaz did everything, according to the Bible, a king was not supposed to do. To put it in secular terms, Ahaz was a real a – (you know the rest of the word).
You could blame his mistakes on age – he was only twenty when he became king. What makes Ahaz different from other less than desirable rulers of Judah is that typically in Bible God punishes bad kings like Ahaz for their heathen ways. But not Ahaz.
I want to tell you a story about Ahaz, that sets up our reading today, and it helps us all understand what Isaiah is talking about today. When Ahaz became king of Judah, a foreign kingdom called Assyria to the East of Judah was growing in power and in size. Assyria trumped (no pun intended) everything Judah had. Assyria had fancier buildings, they had more land, a much bigger army. Judah was nothing compared to Assyria – but they had one thing Assyria did not have – access to the Mediterranean Coast. So Assyria starts to encroach upon Judah, while Ahaz is the king.
As Assyria starts moving east, several small states in what is now modern day Syria and northern Israel start to band together, because they don’t want to be swallowed up by the Assyrians. Two kings from these small states approach Ahaz and ask to form an alliance against Assyria. They figure that if enough small states like Judah band together, they might stand a chance against an empire the size of Assyria. What would you do if you were Ahaz? Whould you have said yes to their offer?
Ahaz declines their offer, perhaps naively thinking Assyria wasn’t as much of a threat. These small states whom Ahaz refused to join with, then decide to move against Ahaz and Judah, and Ahaz is scared out of his mind. He knows there is no way Judah would be victorious in a conflict against other unified states. So Ahaz, that wretched, good for nothing king of Judah, gets on his knees, and asks God (the God he did not worship, by the way) for help. Help comes in the form of the prophet Isaiah, who says to Ahaz, “The Lord will give you a sign. Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son.” Ahaz says, “It’s a pregnant woman, big deal.” And Isaiah says, “the name of the child shall be Immanuel, and by the time this child develops a conscience, the states coming to attack you will no longer be a threat.”
Isaiah was right. Assyria quickly moved, and conquered the states to the north. But all was not well for Ahaz, who basically handed Judah into Assyrian hands. But even then, when everything seemed to be lost, Isaiah found a miracle – a woman bearing a child.
I thought about this story this week as I watched a video of a three year old Syrian girl whose face was covered in blood and dirt following an explosion in her country. The girl’s lower lip hung low, conveying shock and in inability to articulate the horrors she had witnessed at such a young age. Adults tried to comfort her, but there she sat, quietly in shock.
That girl, and millions of similar age across the globe, are our future. She, with her disheveled hair and bloodied forehead, is our Immanuel. So powerful was the prophet’s vision of this child to Ahaz, that it was later picked up in the Gospel of Matthew, who incorporates a verse from this strange story of God’s mercy toward Ahaz to describe the mercy of Jesus. And it is completely appropriate for Matthew to do so, because as we hear in Isaiah and Matthew, the name of this child is “Immanuel.” “Immanuel” means “God is with us.”
The name of that child, Immanuel, was promised by God to a corrupt king of Judah, just as it is promised to all of us. And if we are honest and admit our own brokenness, we aren’t much different from Ahaz. Yet Immanuel proclaims, courageously, that God is for all of us and with all of us, whether we are a corrupt ruler, or a child victimized and physically injured as a result of political conflict and war. I don’t understand it, I don’t know how God could be for all of us, but somehow I believe it is true, and God must, too – for that is what the name Immanuel “God with us” means. If God is indeed with us, then this Christmas, will we be with, and for, each other? AMEN.