December 23, 2007

Instead of a traditional sermon, this morning’s reflection on the scripture readings took the form of three reflections. The first two were presented in conversation with the children of the church. The third reflection was given from the pulpit.

Isaiah 7:10-16

“Isaiah gives Ahaz the sign of Emmanuel”
About seven hundred years before the time of Jesus, there was a king in the land of Judah whose name was Ahaz. That’s the king that Ryan was just reading about from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Now, what you need to know about King Ahaz, in order to understand the bible reading today, is that Ahaz was really scared and worried. Ahaz was worried about two other kings that were threatening to attack his country. Ahaz was scared because the King of Israel and the King of Aram had decided to get all their armies together and to fight against King Ahaz and the people of Judah. Ahaz was dreading the possibility of getting attacked and maybe conquered too.

But in the story Ryan read for us, the prophet Isaiah is helping King Ahaz not to be scared. The prophet Isaiah has a message from God for King Ahaz. (That’s what prophets do, right? They bring messages from God.) And the message is, “Don’t be worried, King Ahaz, because God is with us.”

Sometimes the prophets in the bible was some really funny ways of demonstrating their messages from God. And this is one of those times. What Isaiah did was he pointed to a young woman who was pregnant. You know what that looks like, right? When a woman is going to have a baby, and it’s almost time for the baby to be born, she has a big, big belly because the baby is inside.

The woman Isaiah pointed at was soon going to have a baby boy. Well, Isaiah pointed at her, and he said to King Ahaz, “Look, she’s going to have a baby boy, and she’s going to call him Emmanuel!”

Does anyone know what “Emmanuel” means? (It means “God is with us”.)

And then Isaiah told King Ahaz that before the baby is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, King Ahaz won’t have anything to worry about from those two kings and their armies.

Before the child even grows up, the land of those two kings (the ones that Ahaz was so scared of) will be deserted. King Ahaz was scared of those two kings, and he was worried that they would attack and conquer his country. But Isaiah told him not to worry. He said, “God is with us, and very soon, everything will be okay.” And he was right.

Matthew 1:18-25

“The Angel tells Joseph to name the child Emmanuel”
Did anything in this second bible story remind you of something from the first story? (A young woman who’s going to have a baby boy and name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”.)

You’ve probably heard this story many times before, haven’t you? It’s the story of Mary and Joseph, and how they became the parents of Jesus. It’s part of the story of the first Christmas.

In some ways, I think that Joseph is kind of like King Ahaz, because both of them were pretty scared and worried about the future. Ahaz was worried about those other two kings attacking his country. Joseph was worried about marrying his fiancee, Mary, when she was already pregnant and he knew that he wasn’t the father.

King Ahaz had the prophet Isaiah to help him out and tell him that God was with him and that everything was going to be okay. Joseph didn’t have a prophet friend, but God did send a messenger to him. Do you remember how? (An angel in a dream.)

And the angel said to Joseph: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.”

Both King Ahaz and Joseph were worried and scared about the future. But God sent a prophet and an angel to tell them not to worry. God sent messengers to remind them that God was with them, and that helped them to do what they needed to do.

At Christmas every year, we remember that Jesus was called “Emmanuel” that means “God is with us,” and every time we see the baby Jesus we remember the promise that God is with us, and God will help us to follow Jesus and live like him.

“Good News: God is with us!”
There is something about a newborn child that speaks of hope and possibility and the wonder of God’s work in the world. Those of you who are parents will remember the experience of holding your tiny child for the first time, of marvelling at his/her perfect little hands and feet, of wondering at the fact that this amazing human being has come into the world through you, and of thinking about that child’s life ahead — of all the possibility and potential contained in such a small package. Even the grumpiest person, put face-to-face with a happy baby, cannot help but smile, because in a newborn child, we see God at work again. We witness God’s newest creation, and we are reminded once again that God is, indeed, with us.

When Isaiah assured King Ahaz that everything was going to be okay — that the Kings of Israel and Aram would not succeed in conquering Judah — Isaiah wanted to say something like this: “Don’t worry, Ahaz, it won’t be long before you’ll see that they’re not going to win. Relax, and trust God.”

Isaiah could have simply said, “Just wait two years, Ahaz. In two years you’ll see Israel and Aram deserted. Two years from now you won’t have to worry about those kings anymore.” But instead, Isaiah pointed to a pregnant woman in order to reassure the King of Judah. Isaiah pointed to a pregnant woman who would soon give birth to a baby boy, and Isaiah told Ahaz that the child’s name would be “Emmanuel.” The child’s name — and the child himself — would be a reminder of what Ahaz most needed to remember, that “God is with us.”

The text doesn’t tell us who the young woman was, or who the child was. Some commentators speculate that perhaps the woman was Isaiah’s wife, or maybe even Ahaz’s wife. But whoever she was, I like to think that she wasn’t just someone passing by on the street. I like to think that she was someone close to Ahaz. I like to imagine King Ahaz welcoming that child into the world with joy and gladness, and with the thought in his mind: “God is with us.” I like to think that every time Ahaz saw the child sleeping or eating, or playing, or crying, Ahaz would be reminded: “God is with us.” And Ahaz would have confidence and hope for the future.

The Gospel writer who composed the book of Matthew knew the Hebrew Scriptures and the stories of the prophets and kings very well. Writing near the end of the first century, the author and his Christian community wanted to express the amazing hope and promise that they had experienced through the life and ministry of the man called Jesus of Nazareth. And so the author turned to the story of King Ahaz and the sign of hope and promise given by God through the prophet Isaiah.

“Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

In the life of Jesus, that is exactly what Matthew’s Christian community had come to believe. They had experienced God’s presence and God’s love through everything Jesus said and did, through the way he lived and loved, and even through the way he died. Isaiah had told King Ahaz to look at the child and to be reminded, “God is with us.” The author of Matthew’s Gospel was saying, “Look at this child… look at this man, and you will see… God is with us!”

God is with us. That was the divine message for both Ahaz and Joseph in the midst of their particular fears and worries, and it is the good news that the author of Matthew’s Gospel sought to communicate through the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

There’s nothing particularly complicated or complex about that message: God is with us. And yet, we so often forget it. We so often get so wrapped up in our worries and fears, in our struggles and challenges, that we lose sight of the fact that we are not alone in this world.

I think we’re all a bit like Ahaz. We are more likely to wallow in our troubles and our fears than we are to ask for God’s help. We’re more likely to focus on the problems in our lives than we are to notice the ways in which God is working around us to bring blessing and hope and possibility to birth. Ahaz was so worried about the potential war that he didn’t even notice the fact that a child was about to be born! He needed a messenger from God to remind him that “God is with us” and that good things are happening around us every day.

Ahaz needed that sign from God — that physical reminder that God was with him. Every time he looked at the boy, he would be reminded, and that would make all the difference. For Matthew’s community – and for us, who, like them, follow the way of Jesus – Jesus is our reminder of that amazing truth, that wonderful good news that God is with us.

And today, as we gather around the Table of the Lord, we have the gift of another physical reminder of God’s presence. In the sharing of bread and juice, Christ is present. In this holy meal, God gives us strength for the journey. And when we come to the table in faith… when we open our hearts to receive God’s good gifts to us… we affirm our belief, our hope, and our joy, that God is, indeed, with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.