06 December 2014

nativity: 8

Signs and Salvation.

One particular thread of this story takes its shape, as many stories do, a long time ago in a far and distant land. Although we cannot always go all the way to the very beginnings of this grand story, we do need to look back a long way in order to capture the true meaning of what has been passed on to us today. This piece calls us to step into the ancient city of Jerusalem – a long time before Christ was born.

Here we find the king of the southern nation of Judah, standing alone against the impending armies of Assyria. They had already poured over the nation's borders, but were yet unable to take the city of Jerusalem. Surrounding Zion, it stood there as a stronghold, kept by the promise of God that they would not be overcome by the foreign invaders. And there, in the middle of the city, alone in the palace, was one man – King Ahaz. This was his moment of decision, his pivotal stand in history. So far, he was floundering in the face of this crisis. He was not like his predecessor, Uzziah, who had stood firm in his kingship against the armies that would have destroyed Judah. Instead, Ahaz was presiding over a time of failure of faithfulness of God's people, and hope was struggling to stay alive.

As a second wave of invaders, with new resolve, came rushing across the border, the prophetic voice came to King Ahaz, assuring him that this conflict would not be decided by military might or political cleverness. This battle would rest upon the Lord's people to trust that he would accomplish what he had promised. We find this part of the story in Isaiah 7, where the prophet meets the king at the end of the Upper Pool, an aqueduct that was part of the survival plan for the impending siege on the city.

Those closest to the king wanted him to play politics, to make an alliance with those who were threatening the country – an appeasement. Even to the north, Israel and Ephraim had joined with the Assyrians, and the king's advisors told him that it was time to either join with them or die. Enter Isaiah, who emphatically reminds the king that this is not the path which Israel's God has made for his people. They are to find their security and salvation in him alone, not in their own military power or political gaming. The word of the Lord is that the surrounding nations are nothing more than smoldering stubs – their combined might would soon be stamped out. The issue is not one of politics, but of faith.

In his attempt to persuade Ahaz to do nothing (politically), Isaiah instructs him to ask the Lord for a sign – to look heavenward and see that God is indeed in this moment: Ask for his assurance, to know that the words of the prophet are true. But Ahaz will not do this, claiming that he will not put the Lord to the test. He hides behind religious-sounding language, appearing to understand the stories of Israel. His piety is a politician's show, and God calls him on this and provides a sign even in the face of Ahaz's failed trust. The sign is that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a special child (we have no reason to think that this prediction has anything other than 'natural' means of conception in mind). This child would be special, not because of his mother's circumstances, but because he will be the renewal of David's kingship in Israel – he will be (read on through Isaiah 9) known as Mighty God.

This child will be born into humble circumstances, sharing in the poverty of his people. But, he will rise to great prominence and power, and enact the dominion and dynasty of Israel's covenant and God's kingdom.

Unfortunately this sign does nothing for Ahaz, who continues on with his political gaming, all the way to disaster. He quickly discovered that some people simply will not be appeased, and some enemies are not to be trifled with. He grabs the tiger by the tail and pays the consequences. Nevertheless, God remained true to his word, and to the sign which he gave through Isaiah. He kept a remnant of his people and raised up other kings before Israel finally succumbed to destruction and exile, where they would remain for quite some time.

Into this story Matthew casts the hope for the people of God. He introduces a righteous man named Joseph, who was devout and upright and steadfast in the story of Israel – like his predecessor Ahaz. He was respected and well-known, and thrown into a story of disgrace and shame. Lying in bed that one night it the angel of the Lord who reminds him of the sign that was given to the people of God. Our very-familiar thought of virgin conception must have been overwhelming the first time he had to consider Mary's circumstance. In realizing that God's fulfillment of his promises is always greater than our expectation, Joseph remembers the significance of salvation that comes from this God-given sign, and the importance of trusting in the God who spoke it.

He embraces the story, and Matthew wishes for us to embrace the magnitude of what is happening. This is why he recalls the ancient words spoken by the Upper Pool in Jerusalem's time of distress – the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel (which means 'God with us').

This is more than a nice religious bumper sticker or kitschy holiday art pointing us to the interestingness of Jesus' birth. This is the long-awaited sign from heaven, given to a people in great distress and uncertainty, that God would be faithful to this promises – he will guide and guard his people. Centuries of reading Isaiah never quite expected this child to be divine (at least, not in this sense). But this is the work of God in the world doing incredibly more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.

This child is Emmanuel. God with us. And this is how God came to be with us, breaking heaven into earth in a strange and powerful new way. This God with us enables us to approach the throne of God with great boldness, accepting the forgiveness of sins, and become children of God ourselves. The sign that has come has become the salvation of the world.

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