Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Rod from the Stem of Jesse: An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 10-12

Sermon on Isaiah 10-12 (10:5-7, 12, 15-25, 33-34; 11:1-16; 12:1-6); Luke 4:14-21; Romans 15:7-13.  Delivered 14 December 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The eighth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 7-8a, and Isaiah 8b-9.

As we continue our journey through Advent, it's important to remember that the season started, not just as a time of hopeful expectation, but as a time of penitent preparation. In the East, they hold a Nativity Fast that lasts as long as Lent, though not quite as severe. It's punctuated with feast-days for many Old Testament prophets who foresaw the incarnation, the Word of God coming in the fragility of human flesh, a rose ever blooming yet able to be trampled to the ground for our transgressions. The season paved the way for the upcoming Feast of the Epiphany, when many people were baptized to connect with Christ's baptism. In the West, Advent served two purposes: to remember the centuries-long wait for Christ's first coming, and to underscore our real and present centuries-long wait for Christ's second coming. The long wait is all worthwhile, because “the best of all is, God is with us”.

During the days of the Syro-Ephraimite War, there was plenty of room both for penitence and for hope. Time and time again, Isaiah warned Ahaz – and the whole House of David, and the whole nation of Judah – to trust in God, not in Assyria, and to fear neither Assyria nor Ephraim nor Aram-Damascus, nor anyone or anything else. And time and time again, Isaiah prophesied that God would assure them of their safety by giving them a living Sign of his living presence – and this living Sign, a Child to be born, would be the perfect love of God who casts out all our fear (cf. 1 John 4:18).

The nations of Ephraim and Aram-Damascus were doomed to fall – that much was already clear. But, Isaiah warned, the same was true even of mighty Assyria, who would conquer Ephraim and Aram. No doubt some wondered how God could ever use a pagan nation for his purposes. Don't godly goals need a godly tool? But God would use Assyria. Just the same, he would destroy Assyria, because their attitude was the attitude of a conqueror, not of a servant. God can use even the most arrogant pagan power to accomplish his own ends, but being used by God doesn't make one right. Being used by God isn't an endorsement, as it turns out, and Assyria's fate would be Exhibit A. Assyria is only a tool in God's hands, like an axe or a saw (Isaiah 10:15). She claimed to be more, she boasted of being more – and she would be punished (Isaiah 10:16-19).

That's a sobering reminder to all great national powers on the world stage, from America to Russia, from China to Europe, from modern Israel to Iran and the Arab states: We play our roles, but we don't write the script. Just because God has used us in the past, doesn't mean that we're pivotal to his purposes. Just because God has used us in the past, or even blessed us in the past, doesn't mean that we won't be humbled if we exalt ourselves above him or if we confuse our national agendas for his holy Christ-centered mission. That's true of nations and governments, that's true of individuals and groups, that's true of institutions and corporations and cultures. Even mighty Assyria wasn't 'too big to fail'.

But Assyria had forgotten her place. She'd claimed that even her generals were like kings, and that one nation was just the same as another: all dwarfed by her greatness. For Isaiah, Assyria is a prime example of arrogance – but, Isaiah says, her towering trees will be lopped down, her forests will be cleared by fire (Isaiah 10:18-19, 33-34). Yet while the mighty trunks of Assyrian arrogance topple and crash to the earth, Isaiah foresees a small shoot poking its way up out of a humble stump (Isaiah 11:1). It's a perfect illustration of God working, not just in grand displays and in shock-and-awe, but in the gentle growth of new life. Assyria mocked humility, but God revels in it.

That small shoot, that flowering stem, comes from the stump of Jesse – not of mighty royal David, see, but Jesse. Jesse wasn't a king. Jesse was just a man from a small and ordinary clan – but God chose to bring the whole House of David out of this humble stock. And once again, when David's descendants had returned to the simplicity of ordinary and unrecognized life like Jesse's, a new rod would spring up from his stem. He comes like a flower, blooming off of Jesse's lineage through the Virgin Mary. One fourth-century bishop, Ambrose, wrote: “When he blossoms in our land, makes fragrant the field of the soul, and flourishes in his church, we can no longer fear the cold or rain, but only anticipate the day of judgment” (Apology on David 8.43).

And here we have a divine mystery: How can the one who stems from the root himself be the root? For this “Root of Jesse” is both the Root of David and also David's Offspring, as Revelation 22:16 tells us. Jesus embarrassed the Pharisees with a similar question about how David's son could be David's Lord (Mark 12:37; Matthew 22:45; Luke 20:44). And the only answer is that “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14) – that the living presence of the very God who created David and sat David on a throne, then stooped down to be a twig on the tree he himself had planted.

So, Isaiah tells us, building upon the Immanuel sign (Isaiah 7:14-16) and the Prince of Peace sign (Isaiah 9:6-7), that this Rod of Jesse would be a humble king, a perfect king, the giver of peace and hope – and in everything he does, this Messiah, he'll follow God's Spirit. Humility trumps arrogance, because humility is from the Spirit, and all that the Spirit gives, the Son puts into action. Trust trumps fear, because the Spirit impels faith. So when the Messiah comes, Isaiah promises, he'll do everything by means of God's Spirit, and not by arrogant human wisdom.

Instead of faulty decisions, the Spirit of the LORD filling him will be the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge (Isaiah 11:2). And the fearful dread of enemy powers, like Ahaz and sinful Judah had, is replaced by a healthy 'fear of the LORD': “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13). This 'beginning of wisdom' delights the Son (Isaiah 11:3): it isn't some cowering in fear, but a healthy awe and reverence for God's all-powerful, fiery love, his hot and holy passion for glorifying his name by breathing new life into us.

And doesn't that sound like Jesus – anointed with God's Spirit to do God's work, and indeed the giver of God's Spirit to us? He himself, reading Isaiah's prophecy about God's Spirit being on God's special Servant, said to the Nazareth synagogue, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). The Spirit has anointed Jesus “to proclaim good news to the poor”, to “bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2) – stopping just short of the words, “And the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). How is he anointed? With “the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of the knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). And this points forward to Epiphany, when we celebrate the Spirit indeed being seen resting upon Jesus. Everything that the Son does by the Spirit will be for the glory of the Father – it's a picture of perfect trinitarian harmony working itself out in the economy of redemption. Charles Wesley picks it up (Poetical Works 3:141-142):

Glory to God, and peace on earth!
A Branch shall spring from Jesse's line,
Of human yet of heavenly birth,
And filled with all the Spirit divine.

The Spirit of wisdom from above
Shall dwell within his peaceful breast;
On him the Spirit of power and love
And counsel shall forever rest.

The Spirit of godly, filial fear
On him for all mankind shall stay,
And make his senses quick and clear
And guide him in the perfect way.

Shall make him apt to teach and reign
His heavenly mission to fulfill,
Judgment and justice to maintain,
And execute his Father's will....

Yet will he plead the sinner's cause,
The poor and self-condemned release,
Freed by the sufferings of his cross,
And saved by his own righteousness.

Yes, he once came to saved the wicked, freeing us by taking our sufferings upon the cross. And as he came to save the wicked in his First Advent, he will come to finally destroy wickedness in his Second Advent (Isaiah 11:4). And we have the choice before us of life or death: life, if we let him save us by destroying our wicked selves in his own death on the cross; or death, if we cling so tightly to our wickedness that we follow it down and lose our souls. John the Seer, foreseeing the appearance of Christ at his Second Advent, said that “out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron” (Revelation 19:15); and Paul, speaking of the Lawless One who would vex God's people in the time to come, said that Jesus would “overthrow him with the breath of his mouth, and destroy him by the splendor of his coming” (2Thessalonians 2:8).

In the meantime, we live between the First Advent and the Second. The reign of Immanuel, the reign of our Prince of Peace, has partly begun, but not fully, not as it will. For Isaiah, both are in the future, and he can slide easily between them and the era in between. What does the kingdom look like? What does it look like when Jesus, the Messiah, “rules the world in truth and grace, / and makes the nations prove / the glories of his righteousness / and wonders of his love”?

For starters, Jesus will reign and judge according to God's Spirit, not according to human estimates. That should speak to us. In our day, we're a divided nation – divided politically, racially, culturally, in so many ways. And it all mainly comes down to the fact that we naturally judge cases on the basis of our own personal experiences, our own tribal sympathies, our own bundle of biases. We see it Ferguson, Missouri; we see it in Staten Island, New York; we see it in virtually every political firestorm, every debate about immigration, about health insurance, about military actions, about interrogation techniques, about oil pipelines, about tax breaks, about just about anything.

Whatever the right way to look at the issues of the day, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but Jesus Christ sees by the Spirit of God. And so “he will not judge by what he sees with his eyes or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). As the Word of the LORD made flesh, he “seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). That's how he rules now from heaven above, and that's how he'll rule when he comes again to earth to reign.

In that coming time, the Second Coming of Christ, “Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim” (Isaiah 11:13). In those days, the division of the kingdom flamed into all-out war; but Isaiah still spoke of a time for bygones to be bygones. Just as our country thinks and acts as a divided nation, though indivisible we proclaim it, so we live in days of a divided church, though Jesus prayed for us to be one holy people just as he and the Father are one holy God (John 17:20-23). We're so prone to factions about things that just don't matter. Now, many issues in the church today sadly revolve around non-negotiable issues of the gospel: basic doctrines of the faith, basic attitudes toward the Bible, basic commitments of holy living. And there, the only remedy for dissent from the generation-to-generation consensus of the church's witness is repentance from unfaithful stewardship of the faith.

But then there are things that just don't rise to the level of 'gospel issues'. And still we divide over them – if not outwardly, at least in our hearts. We divide fellowship over secondary points of theology: predestination and free will, for example, or views of the creation, or approaches to biblical prophecy. We divide over remarkably petty things like our musical tastes, or our preaching styles, or even the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. We even divide into factions around our leaders and figureheads (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). But were you baptized into Martin Luther, anointed with the spirit of John Calvin, fed with the body and blood of the Wesleys? Were Menno Simons or Jacob Albright crucified for your sins? They all have much to teach us, and it's okay to differ about these secondary things, so long as we keep first things first and “love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19). But in that day when the kingdom comes in full, Ephraim and Judah won't be hostile; in that day, the unity that Jesus vouchsafed to his church will be made perfect, when we'll be “brought to complete unity” (John 17:23). So “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Under the Messiah's reign, God will reclaim his lost people, the severed branches of Israel. Isaiah speaks of a remnant of the physical offspring of Jacob's line, a remnant who are spared to return to the Mighty God (Isaiah 10:21) – and we know that the Prince of Peace is truly the Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6). This remnant won't place their faith in Assyria. They won't place their faith in any idol, only in God; any human government, only the Messiah. Their faith centers only on “the LORD, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 10:20; cf. Isaiah 12:6). And so they'll return to their promised inheritance.

Paul teaches the same thing, as we read (Romans 15:7-13). For the sake of God's mercy to the Nations, many branches have been allowed to wither from the Israelite tree. They broke off when they stumbled in unbelief over the Stone of Stumbling, Jesus Christ (Isaiah 8:14; Romans 9:33-34). But these broken-off branches aren't lost. If even the remnant of Israel, the apostles, was such a great channel for God's mercy to the world, how much more the restoration of all the broken branches (Romans 11:12)! Through holy jealousy for the promises of God (Romans 10:19-20; 11:11-14), God is able to graft the broken branches back into God's people, and so all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:24-26). A remnant will return, and the people will be restored.

The rule of Jesus is good news for Jews. And it's good news for Gentiles, too – good news for all the Nations. In the Bible, these foreign nations so often are compared to animals, beasts, who prey on Israel; but Israel, the real humanity, is supposed to rule over them and domesticate them, just like Adam was made to do (Genesis 1:28). In Daniel's visions, remember, it's one like a Son of Man – that is, a human figure, faithful Israel in the person of the Messiah – who gets the authority stripped away from the beastly empires (Daniel 7:1-14). Assyria had roared like a lion and preyed on surrounding peoples (Isaiah 5:29-30), but the time is coming for beasts to be tamed, and even the Assyrian lion will settle down with oxen (Isaiah 11:6-7). As beasts prowl the global landscape, we look forward to the day when the LORD will say, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Isaiah 19:25), when even oppressing nations will be converted and tamed to live together in the worship of the LORD (Isaiah 19:19-25).

The tamed beasts, the Nations, will join in life together with God's people, “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) – not just any child, but first and foremost the Child who was born, the Son who was given (Isaiah 9:6), the Child whom Christmas celebrates. And the age-old Serpent can do no more harm (Isaiah 11:8-9; cf. Genesis 3:15), for as Ambrose remarked, “the Word of God became flesh, put his hand into the serpent's den, removed the venom, and took away sin” (Explanation of the Twelve Psalms 37.4). Praise God for the day when “they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9)! And just as before, Isaiah saw the LORD raising up a banner to call the Nations to attack Israel in judgment (Isaiah 5:26), now the LORD raises up a banner to call the Nations to worship – and that Banner is the Root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10). When the Root of Jesse reigns, all will know the LORD intimately, and he opens himself up as the Well of Salvation who satisfies every thirst (Isaiah 12:3; cf. John 4:13-14; 7:37-39). That will be, when Christ comes again, but the Nations are being called around the Banner now.

A Branch shall in that gospel day
Out of the root of Jesse rise,
Stand as an ensign, and display
The cross in all the Gentiles' eyes.

Thither the Gentile world shall flow,
And hide them in their Saviour's breast,
Rejoice his pardoning love to know,
And holiness his glorious rest.

Then shall the Lord his power display,
His ancient people to retrieve,
Gather the hopeless castaway,
And bid the house of Israel live. (Charles Wesley, Poetical Works 3:144)

All these things are in the process of being done. The Nations are being tamed and discipled; the Exiled Remnant is being readied for grafting back in; Christ continues to heal spots of disunity; he gives the water of life freely; and he already rules in perfect justice by the Spirit of God. We live between the Advents, and so we're called to praise God for what he has done at the First Advent and what he will do at the Second. “At all times let us stand firm”, another fourth-century bishop named Athanasius wrote, “but especially now, although many afflictions overtake us and many heretics are furious against us. Let us then, my beloved brothers, celebrate with thanksgiving the holy feast that now draws near to us, 'girding up the loins of our minds', like our Savior, Jesus Christ, of whom it is written, 'Righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins'” (Festal Letter 3, quoting Isaiah 11:5).

Our mission is pretty simple, really: we call the Nations and the Exiles alike to rally around the Banner, the Branch of the LORD (Isaiah 4:2), who works and rules by the Spirit. We sing to the LORD with rejoicing, singing the story of the gospel from beginning to end, so “let the mighty advent chorus / onward roll from tongue to tongue”. So “give praise to the LORD” Jesus Christ; “proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4), for he bears the name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9). “Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things”, for Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again, and “let this be known to all the world” (Isaiah 12:5). Flying to heaven away from the world God created is not our blessed hope; it's at best a waystation between now and the day of resurrection upon the renewed earth. No, but “we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:13-14), and so we “wait for God's Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

So “shout aloud and sing for joy” to the world, “people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you” (Isaiah 12:6), who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Be baptized with his baptism; be immersed in the Well of Salvation, that the Spirit that filled him may rest upon us also, and to taste the Joy of the World and see that his rule is joyous indeed (cf. Psalm 34:8; 1 Peter 2:3). As you prepare in your homes for Christmas, and as you prepare in your hearts for Christ's return to earth, don't lose sight of this mission of hope, to “make known among the nations what he has done” so that the God who is our salvation can be their salvation too, and so that we all may trust and not be afraid (Isaiah 12:2; cf. Isaiah 10:24). Let us pray:

  • O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things, come and teach us the way of prudence.
  • O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
  • O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign among the peoples, before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
  • O Key of David and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open and no one can shut, you shut and no one can open; come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • O Morning Star, splendor of eternal light and sun of righteousness, come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
  • O King of the Nations and their Desire, the cornerstone making both one, come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
  • O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their savior, come and save us, Lord our God.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Unto Us a Child is Born": An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 8-9

Sermon on Isaiah 8:11--9:7; Matthew 4:12-17; and 1 Peter 3:13-16.  Delivered 7 December 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The seventh installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, Isaiah 6, and Isaiah 7-8a.

Five years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend a few months studying and living in Greece. I remember one autumn day in November 2009, no more than a few days after leaving Corinth, I stayed overnight in a village called Andritsaina, settled on the side of a tall hill in the mountains of Peloponnesian peninsula, near the border of Arcadia and Elis. I found I couldn't sleep that night, and so I determined to go out and hike to the top of the hill. Back and forth up the winding path I went until I reached the top, where a small chapel had been built of stone and surrounded with a small courtyard. The chapel was locked, but I determined that in the cold of that still and silent night, I would spend my hours walking around the church, devoting my time to prayer. Almost everything was pitch-black, except for a few spots of light down on the hillside, showing the village nestled among the trees of the forest. The hours of cold and darkness and gloom weighed on my soul as I prayed in total solitude. It seemed like ages went by until, ever so slowly, the sky turned dark blue as the first rays from the sun broke forth over Mount Lykaion. And then there were peaches and pinks and lavender and light blue – the dawn had come. Bit by bit, everything became clear and beautiful – the mountains, the forest, the rustic, red-roofed houses and taverns and churches of the little Greek village, and even other smaller villages dotting the landscape. Over a land of deep darkness, the sun's light had finally dawned. The long wait was all worthwhile.

Thousands of years ago, in the days when Ahaz was king of Judah, that darkness was all the deeper. We saw last Sunday that those were days of the Syro-Ephraimite War: when the nations of Aram-Damascus and Israel, to the north, and the Philistines and Edomites, to the south, threatened to crush Judah to dust, and Ahaz failed to resist the temptation to sell his soul to Assyria to make the problem go away. In those dreary days of desperation, the people were filled with the gloom, fear, and superstition that naturally arise when every horizon threatens danger (Isaiah 8:21-22). Isaiah paints a portrait of people running astray after false and vain hopes – not just the political powers that exalted themselves so high, but even the spirits of the dead and all kinds of pointless traditions – when instead they should be relying on the sure testimony of God, who knows best (Isaiah 8:19-20). A sober reminder for our own day, when we want to listen to everyone and everything except what God has spoken through his prophets and then in these last days by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2).

In that long night of darkness, Ahaz was filled with “dread” of the nations that threatened him (Isaiah 7:16), and so too did the people “dread” the destroying forces arrayed against them (Isaiah 8:12). But Isaiah warns, “Sanctify the LORD of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13). Their attention shouldn't be on how small and weak they are. Their attention shouldn't be on how massive and imposing the Arameans or Assyrians are. Their attention should be on how holy God is – holy God, holy and mighty, holy enough to fill heaven and earth with his endless might (cf. Isaiah 6:3).

Isaiah's direction isn't just given to Judah. It's given even to the Northern Kingdom, one of the states ganging up on poor Judah. Isaiah's concern is for the whole people of God, even in the midst of their violent division and their flirtations or outright devotion to pagan ways. Isaiah has warned passionately that Ephraim will get punished severely by the Assyrians, and we remember that the northernmost parts will be the hardest hit – stolen away by Assyria. But even as the war goes on, Isaiah stresses God's grace toward the rival nation's desolated land. Their land doesn't belong ultimately to wayward Ephraim. It's part of Immanuel's land (Isaiah 8:8), and his birth and life will change everything.

The one called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) will bring light even to gloomy “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1), for there he will proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:13-17). All this darkness, all this gloom – they don't last. The gloom is doomed! Just as the darkest night turns to day, their darkness can't withstand the dawning of the Light of the World (John 8:12), the “Light of Light Eternal” – Jesus Christ, to whom the whole “law and the testimony” points and of whom all the Law and the Prophets speak (Isaiah 8:20; Luke 24:44; John 1:45).

And listen again to what Isaiah says! Joy will overtake all the earth because “unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there shall be no end. He shall reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Don't let those familiar words grow stale! There's a wealth of treasure packed in them.

This 'Wonderful Counselor' of the prophecy meets us as “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), whose cross-bearing pilgrimage the world wrongly ignores as weakness and folly (1 Corinthians 1:25). Jesus Christ is the eternal Wisdom of God in person; he's “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). In our day, a chaotic choir of voices compete to sell us on their versions of wisdom: Do this like so! No, do it this other way! No, do this instead! Next do this! Just do it! Have it your way! Some voices tell us to look within, to retreat to our own little inner islands, and trust in our own sin-broken and deceitful hearts (cf. Jeremiah 17:9). Other voices tell us all the goods we need to own and the services we need to use if we want to be successful. Over the past decades, the idol of Mammon has increasingly tried to defile Advent with more and more commerce: it's all about getting the newest, the best, the priciest. So many voices cry out to us, “Buy! Buy!” Only one voice tells us to buy... for free:

Doesn't Wisdom call out? Doesn't Understanding raise her voice? […] Choose my instruction instead of silver; knowledge, rather than choice gold; for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her. […] Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters. And you who have no money, come, buy, and eat! ...Why spend money on what isn't bread, and your labor on what doesn't satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you'll delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. (Proverbs 8:1, 10-11; Isaiah 55:1-3)

What better counsel could we ever get than that? The Wisdom of God became flesh and pitched his tent alongside ours so that we might “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10; cf. John 1:14). Amid the many voices of this world, we need a Wonderful Counselor – a Counselor who gives life to the full, a Counselor who speaks by his written word and who guides his people continually with his gentle Spirit. And his sheep, from years of following their Shepherd, know his voice (John 10:4). No other Counselor is so wonderful. Hear what the acclaimed preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said about the Child born and the Son given (Sermons 5:47-48):

Christ is the Counselor whom I wish to consult every hour, and I wish that I could sit in his secret chamber all day and all night long, because to counsel with him is to have sweet counsel, hearty counsel, and wise counsel all at the same time. […] We go to Christ, and we get wisdom, we get love, we get sympathy, we get everything that can possibly be wanted in a counselor. […] “Lord,” said I, “I will follow thy counsel, and not my own devices”; and I have never had cause to regret it. Always take the Lord for thy guide, and thou shalt never go amiss. Backslider! thou that hast a name to live, and art dead, or nearly dead, Christ gives thee counsel. “I counsel thee to buy of me, gold tried in the fire and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed.” And sinner! thou that art far from God, Christ gives thee counsel. “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Depend on it, it is loving counsel. Take it. Go home and cast yourself upon your knees. Seek Christ; obey his counsel, and you shall have to rejoice that you ever listened to his voice, and heard it, and lived.

No wonder the nation will “rejoice before” Jesus “as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder” (Isaiah 9:3)! Second, unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Mighty God. Can it really be so? Or is it too good to be true? If anyone's tempted to doubt that this means exactly what it says, look at how Peter treats the chapter just before it. Peter has advice for those who suffer evil: “Don't fear what they fear, don't be afraid” (1 Peter 3:14) – that's Isaiah's advice to Judah. But where Isaiah tells them to instead sanctify the LORD of hosts (Isaiah 8:13) – that is, Yahweh, the God of Israel – Peter tells us to “sanctify Christ as LORD in your hearts” (1 Peter 3:15). Just so, in 1 Peter 2:8's twist on Isaiah 8:14, Jesus is now the “Stone for stumbling and the Rock for offense” for the faithless, those who don't build upon him and seek their sanctuary in him.

So as we Christians read Isaiah, Peter – moved along by the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself – wants us to be very careful not to misread this. We can't shrink this down to size. We aren't to pit Jesus against the Old Testament God, like some people in popular culture do: a God of wrath versus a God of love. No, that's a heresy as old as Marcion: the Old Testament is as loving as the New, and wrath is nothing but God's love for the downtrodden and the sacred. Nor do we get to treat Jesus as some lesser god, like some cults do. No, no, Jesus is the personal outpouring of Yahweh's love and rule. We're called to 'act accordingly' in worshipping him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength. And surely he is mighty. Jesus is the God whom Moses sang as a mighty warrior (Exodus 15:3). Jesus is the God who redeems his people “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15)! “Who is this King of Glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8).

Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Everlasting Father. Some people misuse those words too. Jesus bears the title 'everlasting father', but he isn't God the Father. We confess “one God in Trinity, and the trinity in unity, neither blending the persons nor dividing the substance: for there's one person of the Father, and another person of the Son, and another person of the Holy Spirit”. Jesus, as God the Son, is fully equal in glory and majesty with God the Father and God the Spirit – not three gods, but one God in three persons. But in the days of Ahaz long ago, kings proclaimed themselves as fathers to their people. But they were so often abusive. They didn't rule by love, no matter what they claimed; they ruled by fear, and they ruled by power. Those kingdoms rose, and those kingdoms fell. Isaiah wants us to know that this Royal Child, this King – King Jesus – is not like the others. King Jesus is the real deal. He will watch over his people in love forever!

Finally, unto us a Son is given, and his name shall be called... Prince of Peace. Not only will the Child be called 'Prince of Peace', but his “peace will have no end”, Isaiah says (Isaiah 9:7). He'll rule from David's throne forever – just as Gabriel promised Mary: “You will conceive, and you will give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33).

How moving the thought of a permanent Prince of Peace must've been in Isaiah's day, to a nation in crisis: threatened with violence from every side, no matter what they do. It's fitting to remember our Prince of Peace now, seventy-three years to the day after the “unprovoked and dastardly attack” – those were President Roosevelt's words – on Pearl Harbor. That day was also a Sunday – the second Sunday of Advent, then just as now. During a time when Christians all over were remembering the Prince of Peace, our naval base was attacked. We didn't go looking for war; it came upon us.

In our own day, circumstances around the world repeatedly ensnare our nation – wisely or unwisely, justly or unjustly – in military engagements. Domestically, we live in days of riots, unrest, dissatisfaction, abuse of power, scandal after scandal. You read the newspapers, you watch the news channels, you know plenty about it. But “do not fear what they fear, do not be afraid” (Isaiah 8:12). Wars and rumors of wars will come and go, but this word of God – “Be not afraid” – will never pass away. The Prince of Peace is “God with us” – forever, through all wars and beyond all wars. How we long for the day when “every warrior's boot in battle, and every garment rolled in blood, will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5) – the inevitable result of the Prince of Peace ruling. How we long for the day when the government will be upon his shoulders, and never will its greatness end. We have a promise: “peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling”.

The peace he brings is more than just the end of war, more than just the absence of hostility. It's wholeness: well-ordered, healthy, harmonious relationships. His peace is a healthy relationship with God, for as Paul writes in Romans 5:1, “Since we've been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. His peace is a peace within our very own souls and lives: no more inner conflict, no more war inside, no more out-of-kilter lives, but instead a real balance between rest and work, between family and career, between head and heart, between body and soul. His peace is a peace with each other, for we're told, “Rejoice! Strive for full restoration; encourage one another; be of one mind; live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). His peace is a peace between all our divisions, for “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And his peace is a peace between nations, for the LORD will “judge between the nations”, who “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Sar Shalom, and that shalom is the kind of peace this world needs, and we each need in our lives – peace in our hearts and peace with each other. There is peace in Jesus for “all the weary world” with “its sad and lowly plains” and all its “Babel sounds” of war and commotion and strife. There is peace in Jesus for all “beneath life's crushing load, / whose forms are bending low, / who toil along the climbing way / with painful steps and slow”. In all these respects, we serve the Prince of Peace by being peacemakers – by bringing his peace to individuals and groups, to families and nations, to clubs and cultures, to make disciples of them all.

And this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Everlasting Father, this Prince of Peace, whose kingdom never ends – he comes as a Child, in the weakness of a newborn baby. That is how the Light of the world breaks into the darkness: in the form of a spark. I don't think I could put it any better than John Oswalt did in his commentary on Isaiah (Oswalt 1:245):

How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression, and coercion? By being more arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely, the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble – the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.

And so indeed we're delivered from the tyranny of sin and raised up to new life as friends of God in Christ! Outside of Christ, we're lost – each and every one of us. Outside of Christ, we've all been a “people that walked in darkness”. Outside of Christ, we've all been those who “dwelled in the land of the shadow of death”. Paul notes that we were “dead in our transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world”, and that “all of us also lived among” the disobedient, “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts”, and so we were “children of wrath” no less than anyone else (Ephesians 2:1-3).

But here's the good news! Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given! He is Immanuel – “the best of all is, God is with us!” Our Immanuel is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”. Though we were in darkness, though we were “those whose dreary dwelling / borders on the shades of death”, yet the Son was given to us – and given up for us. “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5).

Even when we were in deepest darkness and gloom, even when we were children of wrath living in a land of death, Jesus is born to us and for us! He promises, “I am the Light of the World: whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). This couldn't happen without the long-awaited miracle of the Child who was born, the Son who was given. We owe all our light to this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Everlasting Father, this Prince of Peace – our risen King of Kings and reigning Lord of Lords, the Light of the World. He's our heavenly Christmas gift, and for a gift like this, the long wait was all worthwhile. “Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Trust in him; don't trip over him. If we cleave to him in faith, hope, and love, he is our sanctuary in a weary and war-torn world, and even our sanctuary from our own weary and war-torn souls. Come to him and “rest beside the weary road”, and sanctify the Babe of Bethlehem as the LORD God in your hearts.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"God is With Us": An Advent Sermon on Isaiah 7-8

Sermon on 2 Kings 16:1-12, 18; Isaiah 7:1--8:10; and Matthew 1:18-25.  Delivered 30 November 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The sixth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, Isaiah 5, and Isaiah 6.

The day was March 2; the year was 1791. On that day, three months before the spiritual crisis that sparked the conversion of our spiritual father Jacob Albright, another man, eighty-eight years on this earth, rested now on his deathbed. He'd served the Lord for decades. When his message of love and holiness proved too radical for the pulpits, he preached in the fields, in the markets, at the factories and the mines. But he too was just a man, destined to die. His dearest friends crowded around him as he clasped their hands in his and bade each of them farewell. Then, as the minute of death came upon him, he called upon his last ounce of strength to raise up his weary arms – and in the strongest voice his fading body could muster, he uttered and uttered again his final words: “The best of all is, God is with us. The best of all is, God is with us!” And on that solid affirmation of hope, John Wesley's spirit passed into the arms of the God who was already with him, to be “at home with the Lord” until the day of resurrection will come.

Over twenty-five centuries before that dying declaration, a troubled king's doubts stood in starkest contrast with Wesley's faithful resolve. Those were dark days. About four or five years had passed now since the prophet Isaiah had beheld God in the beauty of his holiness, in the year when King Uzziah of Judah had died (Isaiah6:1). Now, the late Uzziah's grandson Ahaz rules. Ahaz had served as co-regent with his father Jotham, but it seems that Jotham's been forced into retirement by those who preferred the way Ahaz saw things. And in those days of the wayward king Ahaz, Judah's found itself in a real pickle (Isaiah 7:1-6).

These are the days when the Middle East was dominated by one people above all others: the Assyrians and their mighty empire. The other nations are pinned under Assyria's thumb as its servants. Tired of the trouble, two much smaller but significant nations drop their age-old enmity, shake hands, and agree together that the time has come for secession from Assyria's orbit. One is Aram-Damascus, now in Syria; the other is the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which Isaiah calls “Ephraim”. Refusing to pay tribute to mighty Assyria any longer, they revolt, setting off the four-year Syro-Ephraimite War. But two little nations have a tough fight ahead of them. The Philistines and the Edomites help, but there's one thorny holdout: Judah.

Ahaz, king of Judah, fears Syria and Ephraim. But he fears Assyria more. Going against Assyria is risky and unwise, so he refuses to join the Aramean king Rezin and the Israelite king Pekah in their conspiracy against Assyria. Rezin and Pekah aren't happy. The year is 735 BC when they launch a devastating and brutal invasion, hoping that if they can remove Ahaz from his throne, they can install an anti-Assyrian leader as their puppet. And faced with Syria and Ephraim ganging up on him from the north, and the Philistines and Edomites pillaging in the south, Ahaz is knocking in his boots.

Even in the midst of Ahaz's mistrust, God doesn't desert him. He sends Isaiah to him with a message of reassurance and hope: “It will not take place, it will not happen” (Isaiah 7:7). Ahaz doesn't need to sweat it; if he has faith, he and the people will have safety. Ahaz is right not to join Syria and Ephraim: they're cruising for a bruising. God promises to use the Assyrian onslaught to his own ends: they'll be like a razor to shave down the rebel kings (Isaiah7:20). And sure enough, we already read that when the Assyrians attacked Damascus, they put Rezin to death (2 Kings 16:9). The Syrian state of Aram-Damascus was split into several Assyrian provinces, but Rezin and his nation were no more. And as for the Israelite king Pekah, who only seized his crown by assassinating Israel's last king after a two-year reign, he himself got assassinated at the end of the war, and Assyria annexed most of Israel's northern territories. Second Kings recounts Pekah's reign briefly (15:23-25, 28-30):

In the fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah, Pekahiah son of Menahem became king of Israel in Samaria. Pekahiah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. … One of his chief officers, Pekah son of Remaliah, conspired against him. Taking fifty men of Gilead with him, he assassinated Pekahiah, along with Argob and Arieh, in the citadel of the royal palace at Samaria. So Pekah killed Pekahiah and succeeded him as king. … He did evil in the eyes of the LORD. He didn't turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. In the time of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria. Then Hoshea son of Elah conspired against Pekah son of Remaliah. He attacked and assassinated him, and then succeeded him as king in the twentieth year of Jotham son of Uzziah.

What was that Jesus said about how he who lives by the sword would die by the sword (Matthew 26:52)? That was the fate of both rebel kings – a fate Ahaz shouldn't join. What's more, the northern kingdom of Israel only had a decade left after that; Hoshea would be its last king. The Assyrian king Tukulti-apil-Esharra III in his own records tell us about how he crushed the rebellion:

I laid siege to and conquered the town Hadara, the inherited property of Rezin of Damascus, the place where he was born. I brought away as prisoners 800 of its inhabitants with their possessions. … 592 towns of the 16 districts of the country of Damascus, I destroyed, making them look like hills of ruined cities over which the flood had swept. … ...Gal'za, Abilakka, which are adjacent to Israel, and the wide land of Naphtali, in its entire extent, I united with Assyria. Officers of mine I installed as governors upon them. … Israel – all its inhabitants and their possessions I led to Assyria. They overthrew their king Pekah, and I placed Hoshea as king over them. I received from them 10 talents of gold, 1000 talents of silver as their tribute and brought them to Assyria.

In the face of dominance like that, it's easy to see why Ahaz would be scared. He certainly shouldn't join Rezin and Pekah in going down to their doom. But, Isaiah says, neither should Ahaz cozy up to Assyria's raw power. Pulled first one way, then the next, choosing sides here is a lose-lose situation. The only win is Option #3: lean on God's covenant with David, trust in God alone, and wait for the storm to pass. “If you don't stand firm in your faith”, Isaiah warns, “you won't stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). He has one job: lay low, don't meddle, cling to God, and most definitely to not go fawning all over how great and wonderful Assyria is. Stay in the gentle waters; don't wade into the flood (Isaiah 8:6-7). Allying with Assyria and becoming one of her tributaries can only bring even more trouble down the road – and the record of 2 Kings bears that out abundantly.

Ahaz, alas, isn't convinced. So Isaiah makes him a bold offer: to ask for a sign of his choice, a small thing or a big thing, to prove that God is behind this (Isaiah 7:10-11). Ahaz tries to refuse (Isaiah 7:12). He pretends it's because he respects God too much – but that's a lie, and Isaiah sees right through it. Ahaz's so-called faith is nothing but bad faith: he's already made up his mind to seek his salvation, not in Almighty God, but in mighty Assyria. Isaiah promises a sign anyway – a sign ultimately not given just to Ahaz, but to the whole “house of David” (Isaiah 7:13).

This whole section of Isaiah is united by a series of signs, all revolving around children with important names or titles. So Isaiah's prophecies here twice point out the birth of a child who acts like a stopwatch, a timer until the promise encoded in his name comes to pass. In Isaiah 7:14, the birth of Immanuel is a sign of salvation: his name means, “God is with us” – so why fear, when faith's an option? But in Isaiah 8:3, the birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz promises judgment on Syria and Ephraim, judgment that will spill over onto Judah since Ahaz is so determined to worm his way into the situation. For 'Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz' is a sign of judgment: his name means, “Quick to plunder, speedy to spoil” – so there's plenty to fear, when faith is rejected.

In Isaiah's initial and immediate thinking, both names are probably for his son: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz is probably the first fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14-16. The wording of Isaiah 8:3 suggests that Isaiah has just married a new wife – perhaps Shearjashub's mother died – so she is the 'maiden' who conceived and gave birth to a child. After all, if Isaiah really was a grandson of King Joash of Judah, his son would belong to the “house of David”. But before we're even out of these chapters, Isaiah can see that it doesn't stop there.

His son, a sign from God, points forward to a greater 'Immanuel'. He foreshadows an 'Immanuel' who isn't just a sign of God's presence with us, but the reality of that presence, the actual fact of God being with us. He points to the truer and fuller Immanuel, the personal imminence of God our Savior, who declares, “Before me there was no god formed, nor will there be one after me: I, even I, am Yahweh” – Jehovah, the LORD – “and apart from me, there is no Savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed – I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses that I am God” (Isaiah 43:10-11). That Savior is our Savior, our 'Immanuel'. As John Oswalt writes, discerning how the sign to Ahaz becomes a sign to the whole house of David for centuries to come (Oswalt 1:227):

Ultimately, Immanuel is the owner of the land, the one against whom Assyria's threats are ultimately lodged, the one upon whom deliverance finally depends. That cannot be Isaiah's son, nor even some unknown son of Ahaz. It can only be the Messiah, in whom all hope resides. It is as if Isaiah, plunging deeper and deeper into the dark implications of his sign, is suddenly brought up short by the deepest implication: God is with us and, best of all, will be with us, not merely in the impersonal developments of history, but somehow as a person.

The best of all is, God is with us.” As we've gathered here this morning to begin celebrating Advent, the start of the Christian year, we've placed ourselves in Isaiah's shoes. His heart beats with that heartfelt song, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” We stand at Isaiah's side, peering over his shoulder into the dim centuries ahead of him, as he awaits a day when all the foibles and frailties of even God's anointed kings would finally give way to the true Anointed King, the Messiah. Beyond his own son, beyond the kings who come and go, he looks forward into the misty future – and there he can again say, “My eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). Only that holy King could come and give us clean lips and a pure heart (cf. Isaiah 6:7; 2 Timothy 2:22).

Standing at Isaiah's side, we look forward to the day when all the petty powers of this life – our Syrias, our Ephraims, our Philistines and Edomites, and all the little and large frustrations that conspire to bring us down – cannot taunt us nor daunt us. We look forward to the day when the terrible but transitory superpowers of the world – Assyria, Rome, and the dreadful empire of godless society – cannot break the trust that, in the true Immanuel, God really is with us.

But we don't just look forward. In Advent, we look back to look forward. We look back, because we know how these things came to pass. We don't just know that Immanuel would be born: we know his name. We know that he is Jesus, the Son of God – but also the legal son of Joseph, a descendant of King David through King Ahaz (Matthew 1:9,16). We know that his mother was not just any maiden, but indeed the Virgin Mary – and so, not just partially but fully, it has come about that “the virgin conceived and gave birth to a son”, a son to save us from our sins – our Immanuel, our God with us (Matthew1:23).

Mary, a young girl from Nazareth, was chosen for a great purpose: to give birth to, and nurture, and raise, the Anointed King born as a sign to the whole “house of David”. This was how our “long-expected Jesus” came into the world, “born to set [his] people free”. He was not just “incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and made man”, but as the holy creed of our faith likewise declares, he was and is the “only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made; of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made”. We don't just say it – we sing it!

True God of true God,
Light of Light Eternal,
Lo, he shuns not the virgin's womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him:
Christ the Lord!

Jesus, our Savior forever, is the very presence of the uncreated God with us. Jesus is God on our side against everything that wants to harm us – including our own sinful habits. Our Immanuel – “Light from Light Eternal”, but now made flesh – was “born [his] people to deliver, born a child and yet a king, born to reign in us forever”. And because we truly trust in him to bring his “gracious kingdom”, we don't have to fear when the principalities and powers, like Syria and Ephraim, gang up on us. Nor do we have to go running to worldly powers to save us from the powers of this world! We don't overcome the flames by starting a bigger fire. We don't avoid drowning in the creek by breaching the dam that holds back the ocean! No, we have a far better help: God with us.

When setback after setback gangs up on us and piles on, we can easily feel intimidated and hopeless, just as Ahaz did. And we have the choice set before Ahaz, for the sign has been given: we can surrender to the easy fix with which our fears tempt us, or we can hold firm in faith to the God who is with us. We don't have to go running to Assyrian arms. We don't have to stay caught in our destructive coping mechanisms. We don't have to hedge our bets, as though God were distant or insufficient. We don't have to render to Caesar out of what belongs to God, as Ahaz did to pay tribute to Assyria (Mark12:17; 2 Kings 16:8; 2 Chronicles 28:21). We don't have to pervert our altars, as Ahaz did to flatter and imitate Assyria (2 Kings16:10-16). We don't have remodel the temple of God to fit in either with our forefathers' well-intentioned tastes or with the latest fashions in pop paganism (cf. 2 Kings 16:17-18). No, we don't have to conform to every whimsical, johnny-come-lately agenda that exalts mortal pride above the immortal Creator's loving design.

Instead, we have this promise: “God with us”. If you've felt afraid, if you've felt tempest-tossed, if you've felt harried and harassed and worn down, remember: “God with us”. If you've longed from the depths of a tired heart in an aching and ailing body for things to be different, well, Advent is all about grasping through that longing to the solution in this promise: “God with us!” So few words, such immense power. God – with us! “Holy, holy, holy” – with us! The one whose glory fills the whole earth – with us! “The King, the LORD Almighty” – with us! He sends us, but he doesn't send us away. No, “the best of all is, God is with us”.

Advent is all about rediscovering that ancient but ever-present promise: “God with us”. We don't have to fear Syria and Ephraim, and we don't have to fear Assyria. We don't have to fear setbacks, and we don't have to fear the ebb and flow of the tides of ungodliness. From all our “fears and sins”, Immanuel truly has come to “release us”; we lay all our sins and all our fears on him. So, “let us find our rest” in him by faith! We don't have to fight. We don't have to wear ourselves out. That isn't our calling. Our call is to bear patient and steady witness. It may be true that “hate is strong and mocks the song / of peace on earth, good will to men”. But the virgin has conceived and given birth to a son, a son who is truly Immanuel, the long-awaited Messiah. And so there “pealed the bells more loud and deep: / 'God is not dead, nor does he sleep; / the wrong shall fail, the right prevail / with peace on earth, good will to men'”.

But why? Why does all the welkin ring? Why do the herald angels sing? How comes there “peace on earth and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled”? How could such a thing possibly be? One reason, and only one, is our answer: because this “offspring of the virgin's womb” is none other than “the Incarnate Deity / pleased as man with men to appear: / Jesus, our Immanuel here”. There is only one reason, one promised sign wrapped up in the promise's truth. From beneath Bethlehem's starry sky, through all the shameful agonies of Calvary, through the gloom of the night-wrapped tomb, to the beauty of new life, and finally to the right hand of the Majesty on high, “the best of all is, God is with us” – and “lo”, says Jesus, our Immanuel, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matthew28:19-20).