Today is the final Sunday of the Advent season before Christmas. In our worship we have been guided by a theme related to time – an unexpected hour. We have allowed for times of silence, we have pondered some of the ways that God’s time is different than our own.
It’s been wonderful to have the youth giving leadership to our worship through the scripture readings and leading the children’s story. I’m sure in their world right now one of the greatest things about this time has to do with exams being finished and the open days of Christmas vacation in front of them.
I have asked the youth if they would read the Isaiah and Gospel passages at this point in the service, so they can be fresh in our minds for the meditation.
Read Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25
The passage from Isaiah makes it into our Advent readings for one dominant reason. It contains a prophesy that is cited in Matthew’s gospel as being fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Most likely, that verse is the only thing that sounds remotely familiar from the portion of Isaiah that was read. It’s verse 14 of chapter 7. “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanu-el, which translates as “with us is God.” Matthew’s gospel is laced with references to the Hebrew scriptures, especially the prophet Isaiah, which are fulfilled in the person of Jesus. This is the first of those fulfillments. The young woman is Mary, a virgin, and the son is Jesus, Immanuel, God is with us.
If we just focused on that one verse from Isaiah, and think that Matthew is only concerned with that one little proof text snippet from the prophet, it would be fairly easy to miss the environment that produced these words from Isaiah in the first place. The reason Isaiah is giving these words is because he is living in a time of war, and he is speaking to his people about their time. War was in the making and Isaiah’s people, the people of Judah, were about to be invaded by their neighbors to the north, Syria and Israel, those northern 10 tribes that broke with Judah after Solomon’s reign. These two countries had formed an alliance against Judah. These events are recorded in the opening verses of Isaiah 7. Syria is referred to as Aram and Israel is sometimes referred to as Ephraim. The prophet Isaiah tells Ahaz, king of Judah, not to be afraid because of these two kings coming against him. They will come to their end and Judah will be preserved. But Ahaz, and all the people, justifiably, are terrified. So 7:2 says, “When the house of David (Judah) heard that Aram (Syria) had allied itself with Ephraim (Israel), the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” But the Lord Yahweh says through Isaiah, “Take heed, be quiet, do not be afraid.”
Then, Yahweh comes to Ahaz, king of Judah, and tells him to ask for a sign. Ask for a sign Ahaz, I want to give you a sign. Ahaz says he doesn’t want to test God by asking for a sign, but Yahweh says, that’s OK, I’m going to give you one anyway. I want to give you a sign. This is the sign for you who fear that your days are done, that you will soon be ravished by the nations around you and that you’ll be impoverished eating bread and water for the rest of your life. Here’s the sign, are you ready? Now I’m reading directly from 7:14, starting in the middle of that verse: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him with us is God (Immanuel). He (the child) shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” That’s the sign for the king.
This is a prophesy about how soon it’s going to be before Ahaz doesn’t have to worry about these kings anymore. It’s going to happen really soon, just a couple years. Here’s the sign. You see, right now there’s a young woman who is pregnant. Well, we know that you can’t be pregnant for more than nine months, or much more, so in less than nine months, this child is going to be born, and before the child can even tell right from wrong, before he’s a toddler who knows that he’s not supposed to be getting into the kitchen cabinets or opening up the refrigerator by himself, these two kings aren’t even going to be a threat anymore, their land will be deserted as Isaiah says. And the child isn’t going to be eating bread and water like a war refugee and even more awful things that people eat when they are under siege in order to stay alive, the child is going to be eating curds and honey, the good stuff. This kid could be another nameless victim of war, his little life cut short by the ravages of warfare, but he’s going to be safe and secure, and nobody is going to threaten his well being.
And, by the way, I’d suggest you nickname this child “God is with us.” So when the child is born the mother cues to her tiny little boy, hello “God is with us,” I’m so glad that you made it into this world safely. And the father asks “Can I hold “God is with us?” And the neighbors comment how much “God is with us” is growing and how healthy he looks. And pretty soon “God is with us” is crawling, then walking, then running around the neighborhood, which is no longer under threat, but has safe streets and abundant amounts of food for families. Alright “God is with us,” time to come in for supper and get ready for bed after another day of play.
The prophesy of this Immanuel child was a prophesy that had to do with time, and the child served as a sign of the passing of time and how quickly things would turn around for the better for Judah. The sign could have been anything that designated a couple years of time passing. King Ahaz could have been told not to shave his beard, and by the time his beard gets to be about a foot long, these kings aren’t going to be threatening him anymore. Something like that. That sounds like a reasonable kind of sign. But the sign of the nation staying secure was to watch a pregnant young woman, it doesn’t even designate a specific young woman, just pay attention to the pregnant young woman right now, she will have a child, a war child, a child born in the midst of conflict and dire circumstances, and by the time the child knows right from wrong, he will be thriving free from the threats of destruction. A child whose life could be altered or ended through the unpredictable and devastating effects of war.
Back in the mid-90’s the band The Cranberries wrote a song called War Child, speaking to the ways that war affects the most vulnerable. Here are some of the words:
Who will save the war child baby?
Who controls the key?
The web we weave is thick and sordid,
Fine by me.
At times of war we’re all the losers,
There’s no victory.
We shoot to kill and kill your lover,
Fine by me.
War child, victim of political pride.
Plant the seed, territorial greed.
Mind the war child,
We should mind the war child.
Who’s the loser now? Who’s the loser now?
We’re all the losers now. We’re all the losers now.
Becoming familiar with the environment that produced Isaiah’s words is a reminder of the kind of environment we are in. War is not happening at our doorstep, and sometimes it’s pretty easy to forget that our nation has been at war for nine years, but we too are in a time of war. Since the Wiki-leaks starting coming out there have been a group of pastors who have been encouraging preachers to use sermon time to call attention to the stories that are being made public about the war in Iraq. Isaac Villegas is a Mennonite pastor who is helping lead this group and he sites a story about a war child and mother who didn’t make it out alive from the war zone. This is his telling of the incident:
“In 2006, in the town of Samarra, 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, Khalib was in a rush to get to the hospital. His pregnant sister, Nabiha, was his passenger. She was in labor and Khalib had to get her to the hospital. They made their way down the usual streets. But down one street the U.S. military set up a checkpoint.
“The soldiers perceived the approaching vehicle as a threat, so they opened fire and ended up killing Nabiha and the child in her womb. She was 35, and the dead baby was a boy. War is never kind to women and children, especially to pregnant women.” (Citation HERE)
The prophet Isaiah would have known that war is never kind to women and children, especially pregnant women, so the sign that he spoke to the king was of the most vulnerable, delicate kind, the expectant mother and her child -the hope of the people, the children who we care for so dearly, who we pour so much love into, who carry the very blessing of God, God with us, through the way they remake the world in their generation. Ahaz didn’t even want to ask for a sign. But God vetoed him and told him to Look. Look, the young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall name him God is with us.
I confess that it’s been hard for me listen to the news very regularly in the last several weeks. The polarized political climate, the financial condition of our country, and the ongoing wars have for some reason felt extra heavy this last while. That story from Iraq is so incredibly sad to hear. One time I was coming into the house from the church office and the girls were playing really well together in the other room. Laughing and making up stories. I turned on NPR which was covering one of those topics, I forget what exactly. The girls kept laughing loudly and I went to turn up the volume on the radio so I could hear it better, and had this sudden thought that it was a horrible thing to drown out the laughter of children by listening to the sorrows of the world. So I turned off the radio and just listened to them instead for a while.
Matthew cites Isaiah to begin the story of Jesus. “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” One could argue that Matthew is trying to get away with a proof text, pull a quote out of context and use it for his own purposes. But there are more connections with the Isaiah passage than just this line. Joseph, Mary’s fiance, and not the boy’s father, could have had Mary sent away, if he was kind, or possibly stoned to death, if he wanted to press the issue. But he has a dream in which he hears the same phrase that was spoken to King Ahaz so many years earlier. “Do not be afraid.” Mary’s pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit and this boy will save his people from their sins. Name him Jesus, and nickname him Emmanuel, God is with us. Right away Matthew then introduces King Herod and we’re reminded that Jesus is another war child, living through the Roman occupation of his people. Herod wishes to kill Jesus, and Joseph and Mary become refugees, fleeing to Egypt for safety.
Parents and children in Iraq or Afghanistan face the threats of war daily and often become refugees within their own country. It’s different here, but in a way, the children in our country born in the last nine years are also war children. I was thinking about all of the kids in our congregation who, for their whole lives, our country has been at war. It was October, 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan. That means Kate I, Grace H, Eliza L, and Kate H were the last children here to be born before war. Born that same year, 2001, but before October. So then Julia H, Alex I, Ethan R, Eve and Lily M, Ian and Ella H, Zao and Serenity L, Aven J, Henry B, Logan W, and the child to come for Melissa and Linn S – all of these were born during war. We treasure them as God’s gifts to us and are grateful for their health and safety, but we also wonder what kind of world this is that they are growing up in. We fiercely desire for them to be able to play and grow and thrive. We wonder about the subtle ways that a culture of violence affects them. We wonder how we’re doing as parents and mentors and teachers of these young people.
With Jesus as the Emmanuel child, the one who filled to full measure this sign of God with us, we remember that the “us” that God is with is the big “Us.” Not just a single nation state or a particular group of people, but Jesus comes to show us that “God with us” means that all of the children of the world are dearly loved, held within God’s tender embrace. And that God fiercely desires that all of God’s children have a safe place to play and thrive.
Advent is a season where a mother and a child take center stage – this vulnerable picture of a partnership between the Holy Spirit and Mary, the partnership of God and humanity. There, where the Christ child is born, we kindle our hope. We fight despair and strain our ears to hear those holy words, “Do not fear.” Immanuel, God is with us. All of us. Thanks be to God.