Sermon in Two Voices: A Sign of Hope
A: First Church folk, I want to introduce you to my friend, Nicole Lindgren. Nicole is visiting us from Saskatoon this weekend, and receiving one of our congregation’s student scholarships. She recently began a Masters program at the Vancouver School of Theology in Public and Pastoral Leadership.
Besides that, Nicole has been the Director at our Synod Camp (Camp Christopher) the last couple of summers. And a while back, she was in my Youth Group at St. Andrew’s in Saskatoon.
Anyway, Nicole has been doing some preaching in Presbyterian churches lately, so I thought I’d ask her to help me out with the sermon this morning.
N: Hello everyone! I’m very happy to be here today…
Amanda, I’ve noticed that in the Season of Advent, the Lectionary always gives us a series of readings from the prophets.
A: Yes, it’s all Isaiah this year.
N: And then there’s a corresponding text from the Gospel in which the author quotes from the prophet.
A: Yes, that’s why we heard the same verse twice this morning. First from Isaiah, and then from Matthew quoting Isaiah. It might have seemed a little bit repetitive.
N: I think 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.
A: 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.”
N: But didn’t the Prophet Isaiah write about 700 years before the time of Jesus? That’s amazing to think that he could predict what was going to happen all those centuries later.
A: Yes, that would be quite something if he was actually talking about Jesus.
N: You don’t think he was talking about Jesus?
A: Well, it’s certainly 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. But I don’t think we can ignore the fact that he wrote it more than 700 years before the time of Jesus (as you noted), and that Jesus’ birth centuries later would be much too late to respond to the issues and troubles of Isaiah and his people.
N: So, for a moment at least, we need to step back into Isaiah’s context. I’ve done some reading about that, and I’ve learned that the prophet was trying to advise King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz was 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 wasn’t sure which team to join up with, and he may have been worried that there was no good choice to be made.
A: It sounds like the kind of political trouble that world leaders have had to deal with in every time period. Sometimes becoming an ally to one nation makes you an enemy to another, and it’s very difficult to know what to do to keep peace.
In this case, King Ahaz is lucky that he’s got a prophet of God to advise him. Through the prophet, God graciously tries to offer some help to King Ahaz, inviting him to ask for a sign. Ahaz doesn’t think it is a good idea to test God. But God gives him one anyway.
N: The sign is the young woman, right? 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.”
A: 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.
N: So, who is this young woman that Isaiah is talking about?
A: 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.
N: 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.
A: You’re absolutely right. It could have been any young pregnant woman. But that reminds me of another question people may have. Isaiah said, “the young woman” is with child. He didn’t say “a virgin” shall conceive like Matthew did later.
N: So Isaiah probably isn’t talking about a miraculous birth… 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.
A: Yes, the change to the word “virgin” 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?
N: I hope it helped King Ahaz to put things in perspective. I notice that Isaiah also gave the child a pretty powerful and symbolic name.
A: Yes, a lot of the prophets liked to do that sort of thing. Imagine if your mother had named you “Nicole” in order to, say, remind your father of something important. Hmmm… Nicole… St. Nicholas… Remember to get your wife a Christmas present!
N: But this child’s name 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.”
A: 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.”
N: 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.
A: 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.
N: It is hard to hear those words without thinking about the places of darkness and despair in our world today. Although I sometimes feel like I’m struggling with difficult things in my life, my troubles are nothing compared to some of my neighbours, both near and far.
A: I am thinking about people struggling with serious depression and seasonal-affective disorders in this darkest time of the year.
N: I am thinking about people who are waiting to receive a Christmas food hamper this week in Saskatoon and Regina, but also knowing that it won’t be enough to keep their families fed through the end of the month.
A: I am thinking about people in Ukraine who have been living through a war for almost a year now, and will be trying to celebrate Christmas in the context of ongoing danger and uncertainty.
N: I am thinking about Indigenous communities impacted by missing and murdered women, girls & 2-spirited people, experiencing grief, anger, and fear for the safety of their sisters and daughters and friends.
A: And though I’m so grateful that the Mathiang-Thiey family has finally arrived in Canada, I’m thinking about other refugees that are still waiting in Sudan and in other places around the world.
N: That’s a lot of people in the world who need to hear a message of hope for the future. And perhaps some of the people here today need some hope as well. I wonder if the Gospel story today might help.
A: Well, most people probably remember that 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.”
N: That’s where the author of Matthew’s Gospel quotes from the prophet Isaiah in describing what was happening there. He says that 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.
It’s amazing to see that 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 spouse and father to her child.
A: 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?
N: I don’t think it means 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 I wonder if this assurance that God is with us can 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.
A: I sure hope so.
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 things like our Christmas In Memoriam Project. 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.
N: 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.