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).

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