December 18, 2016

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Isaiah 7:10-16
Matthew 1:18-25

“God is with us”

In this Season of Advent, our Sunday morning scripture texts have been a series of readings from the prophet Isaiah and corresponding texts from the Gospels in which the early Christian evangelists quote from the prophet. And this morning was no exception.

Of course, the writers of the Gospels were making a strong effort to explain to their readers the meaning and significance of Jesus of Nazareth. Not only did they want to describe the wonders that he performed, and to recount his wise and life-transforming teaching, but they wanted to make it clear that this Jesus was the one sent from God. They wanted to show that he was the one that their people had been waiting, and hoping, and longing for, the one who would come with the power of God to save them.

And so, in our passage today, Matthew quotes Isaiah directly. It’s the passage that I always feel like singing when I hear it: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name, Emmanuel. God-with-us.”

The tendency with Christian interpretations of the prophets is to assume that when Isaiah wrote that prophecy, that he was predicting the birth of Jesus. We want to ignore the fact that he wrote it more than 700 years before the time of Jesus, and that Jesus’ birth centuries later would be much too late to respond to the issues and troubles of Isaiah and his people.

So, for a moment at least, we need to step back into Isaiah’s context. We’ve heard about it over the last few weeks with other texts from Isaiah, so we know that the prophet is trying to advise King Ahaz of Judah, and Ahaz is struggling with political decisions about who to align himself with and who to make his enemies. In a tug-of-war between Israel and Aram on one side, versus the powerful Kingdom of Assyria on the other, he’s not sure which team to join up with, and he may be worried that there is no good choice to be made.

God graciously tries to offer some help to King Ahaz, inviting him to ask for a sign, but Ahaz doesn’t think it is a good idea to test God. But God gives him one anyway.

Through the voice of the prophet, God says, “Look: the young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”

You understand why I said that the birth of Jesus would be a bit late to help with King Ahaz’s problem, right? What he needs is a solution to his political issue, a way forward to bring safety and prosperity to his people – not 700 years later – but soon.

So, who is this young woman that Isaiah is talking about? Some have suggested that maybe she was the king’s wife, already pregnant with their son, an heir who might become a good and wise ruler in place of his father. Others have said that Isaiah might be talking about his own pregnant wife, using their expected child as a kind of object lesson – a sign of hope, and possibility, and joy in the midst of a difficult political situation.

When you think about it, it may not matter who the young woman is… maybe it’s just someone that Isaiah saw passing by as he spoke to King Ahaz about his hope for the future.

It’s worth noting that Isaiah didn’t say “a virgin shall conceive.” He wasn’t talking about a miraculous birth… or at least no more miraculous a birth than any other. He used a Hebrew word that is best translated as “young woman” or a “woman of marriageable age,” a woman that you might expect could get pregnant.

The “virgin” bit gets in there when the Scriptures are translated from Hebrew into Greek – the Septuagint Greek translation uses a word that means “virgin” – and that’s the version that the author of Matthew’s Gospel quotes from.

But that’s an aside, really. The point is that Isaiah is pointing to a sign of hope and joy. Look! This young woman is about to have a baby. How can you be caught up in your political troubles when a new life is about to be born into the world?

And like many other children of prophets, Isaiah gives the child a symbolic name – a name that reminds everyone of an important truth. The child will be named, “Immanuel,” meaning “God is with us.” When anyone looks at that baby, at that toddler, at that young boy, they will remember, “We are not alone. God is with us.” Even if things are tough, even if there are questions about the future, even if there is instability and worry and fear… they will remember, “God is with us.”

And then the prophet gives even more encouragement. He says, “The child will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”

So, first of all there is hope because this child will have butter and honey to eat. That’s a good sign in itself, because it means that there will be prosperity in the land. And the boy will grow, and learn to reject evil and choose good… but before he does, before he is even a few years old, the kingdoms that are causing trouble for King Ahaz will be abandoned. Everything will be alright.

Unfortunately, the struggles of Isaiah’s generation are repeated through history, and 700 years later, the land of Judah is occupied by another foreign power, the Roman Empire.

But just as God brought hope and the assurance of the divine presence to Isaiah and the people of his day, God sent another sign of hope to the Jewish people of the first century CE – a sign that would not be for them alone, but for all people who are looking for light and hope in the midst of darkness and despair.

It is hard to say those words without thinking about the places of darkness and despair in our world today. Although I feel like I’ve had a tough week this week, struggling with a cold that made me feel terrible and impeded my ability to get my work done, my troubles are nothing compared to some of my neighbours, both near and far.

I am thinking about people struggling with serious depression and seasonal-affective disorders in this darkest time of the year.

I am thinking about people who are waiting to receive a Christmas food hamper this week, but also knowing that it won’t be enough to keep their families fed through the end of the month.

I am thinking about friends who have loved ones back in Cameroon where there is terrible unrest and conflict over language rights, resulting in protests, and violence, and fear.

I am thinking about the messages and images from Aleppo this week, the terrible violence and destruction of that city that is leading to the deaths of so many innocent civilians.

I am alo thinking about our own refugee family, not in such immediate danger, but still waiting, coping, and hoping for some good news, for a new life to begin in Canada.

Today’s Gospel reading has Joseph discovering that his fiancé is already pregnant, and not by him! He’s a kind man, and wants to avoid humiliating Mary, so he plans to just call off the engagement quietly. But then he has a dream. A dream with a messenger from God. A dream in which God encourages him to get married and stick with Mary whose child is “from the Holy Spirit.”

The author of Matthew’s Gospel quotes from the prophet Isaiah in describing what is happening here. A child is going to be born, and the baby boy will be called “Emmanuel” because in him we will know that God is with us.

For Joseph, knowing this – knowing that God was present and active – was enough to give him the courage and trust to stand by Mary and be her faithful husband and father to her child.

So, can that message of Christmas be enough for us as well? Can the assurance that God has come to be with us in Jesus, and that God is active in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that Christ is coming again to make all things new – can this assurance be enough to give us courage and trust in the midst of our struggles today?

It’s not that we have to believe perfectly all the time, or be totally happy and content with our circumstances or the state of the world… but can this assurance that God is with us be enough to give us courage and trust to stay faithful, and keep going, and keep working on God’s team to make peace with justice for all people?

This morning we have the pleasure of singing out the good news of God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ in hymns and anthems and joyful songs. And I am thankful for the gift of faith that inspires us to sing, and for the gift of hope that encourages us to help others through projects like our Advent Appeal. I am grateful for the good news of Emmanuel that we can share with those who are struggling through prayer, encouragement, presence, and practical support.

May we be inspired by the example of Joseph and Mary, who placed their trust in God, who stayed faithful through difficult circumstances, and who participated in birthing God’s presence into the world to bring hope and joy to all people.