Sometimes, as Dixon reminded us yesterday, it takes a certain amount of arrogance to stand up before a congregation week in and week out and proclaim God’s Gospel to a group of people. I laughed yesterday at his advice to Holly†, and not just because he dared to compare her to an untrained dog. It does take a certain arrogance. It’s hard to know where to push forward and pull back. That’s why this endeavor we call preaching has to be done in prayer. Certainly, I found myself in that same position of wondering whether I ought to preach on Isaiah this morning earlier in the week. After all, everyone knows this passage of Isaiah. It is the prophesy of the virgin giving birth that the Gospel writers will use in support of Jesus’ claim to be the God incarnate / Man divine. What more is necessary? Without shirking from the need to boldly proclaim the Gospel and at risk of causing some of you to feel like I am preaching down to you, how does one convey effectively the meaning of the text? How does one take a familiar text and open it to a modern audience? That was the gist of Dixon’s admonition to Holly.
One cannot begin to understand the intricacies of this prophesy without an understanding of Ancient Near East geopolitics at this time and an understanding of ANE cosmology at this time, this time during which Isaiah receives the call, has the brand touched to his lips by the angel, and tells God, “Here I am. Send me.” Yes, our readings today pick up not too far from where Dixon preached yesterday. God-incident? You decide.
Geopolitically, Assyria is on the rise in the ANE. Egypt’s power has begun to wane; Persia and Greece are still a few centuries away from their respective dominations of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean basin. Assyria is the two-ton gorilla that is striking fear into the hearts and minds of everyone not a citizen. To us, they would be like Russia or China. To our modern enemies, they would be like us. They have the best armies. They have the best weaponry. They have the most wealth. And they are ruled by one of my favorite names in all the ANE histories, Tiglath-Pilezar. Gosh I love that name. As we had more children and ran out of boys’ names, I lobbied Karen hard for that name for David and Joshua. When Karen would not go for that, I lobbied for one of the cats to get that name. It’s not as bad as it sounds, right? The nickname would be Tiggy. It would stand out. When people asked him why his parents named him Tiglath-Pilezar, Tiggy could say that his parents named him for a guy not unlike Alexander the Great. He ruled an empire at its height in world affairs. See, some of her eye rolls directed at me are well-earned! But I digress.
Assyria has been flexing its muscles. In fact, as Isaiah has been being called and accepting that call, some battles have been occurring. A number of smaller kings have banded together to fight the Assyrians. And they have lost. That is the position in which Rezin of Aram and Pekah of Israel find themselves. Remember, the kingdom of Israel has had its civil war. Shortly after Solomon’s death, the kingdom has been divided into the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom, Israel and Judah. So Israel and Aram, smarting from a recent defeat at the hand of the Assyrians, have banded together to fight Judah, who declined to support the war effort. Israel and Aram have decided to conquer Judah “to teach it a lesson” and to recoup some of the tribute and prestige recently lost.
Judah is worried about these two armies coming together. Although we do not read about the initial worry today, Scripture teaches us that the King and people of Judah were worried about their impending doom. Isaiah, in fact, is sent by God to Ahaz to tell him to ignore the kings and armies. They are all bluster and hot air, and their attack will not overthrow Ahaz. Ahaz refuses to accept the comfort of the prophet. Instead, he strips the Temple of all its silver and gold and sends it to Tiglath-Pilezar. He calls himself Tiggy’s son and asks Tiggy to come and save him from the impending doom.
Perhaps that bit of background might help you understand why God is wearied by Judah’s pretense at faith and piety. Ahaz may not be willing to put God to the test, but he sure as heck is not willing to put his trust in God. Ahaz would rather depend on what he knows, bribery and flattery, to save himself and his kingdom than upon the grace and strength of the Lord.
To His credit, God does not respond like you or I likely would. How do we tend to respond when we offer help and it is refused? Are we quick to offer to help again, or do we tend to let the one offered help suffer for their rejection of our aid? Do we treat them as those in need or as squanderers? God sends Isaiah again to Ahaz and asks the king to demand a sign of Him? Now, Ahaz plays the part of the righteous king. “I will not. I will not put the Lord to the test.” The way our editors shape the reading, it sounds like Ahaz is a good king. But we know better. Ahaz has an outward piety, “I will trust in the Lord,” even though he plots and schemes to save his own skin by sending the gold and silver of the Temple to Tiggy for protection. No wonder God is wearied by him. No wonder God is wearied by us. How many times do you and I responded with an outward piety while inwardly distrusting the Lord our God? How many times do we answer “it is in God’s hand” or “No thanks are necessary, I was just doing what I was supposed to” when, underneath, we are convinced God needs our help, that God’s plan cannot work without us? Like ancient Israel, you and I need circumsized hearts. We need our inner beings aligned with our outward expressions; otherwise, we are much like the whitewashed tombs that Jesus criticizes in His ministry.
Two weeks ago, when I stood among you and preached on Advent, I reminded us that we were called to be a looking back and looking forward people. All Christians are called to look back at what Christ has done for us even as we look to the future He has planned for and promised each one of us, but it really should be in our spiritual DNA at Church of the Advent. After all, we claim a “patronal season” rather than a patronal feast. Another characteristic which ought to define us as a parish is our incarnation of God’s grace in a world that is so much like that of the Ancient Israel in our story today.
Earlier, when I asked how you and I would respond to the duplicity of the king, I heard a few evil laughs. I get it. My inner monologue had an eviler and louder laugh. How many of us, were we faced with Ahaz betrayal and duplicity, would maybe send a host of angels to help make sure the armies defeated Judah? How many of us might nuke Ahaz for selling our stuff and trusting in Tiggy? How many of us would feel betrayed at our “child” rejecting us and calling another “father”?
How does God respond in His weariness? How does God respond in His justice? How does God respond to the betrayal? The duplicity? The hurt? He sends a baby. You and I might be tempted to throw angels or lightning bolts at the problem, but God sends a baby! In fact, in this particular story, God has sent two. We do not read it today, but how does God confirm His prophesy with Isaiah? He promises a son, Shear-yashub. We do not speak Hebrew, but we know that Hebrew names in the Bible often have significant meaning. In this case the name means “A remnant shall return.” Is Isaiah called to deliver hard messages? You bet. Are things going to be hunky-dory for all the people of Judah and Israel in the near future? Nope. How does Isaiah know that God has not given up on him or his people? Because “A remnant shall return.” Yes, there will be suffering. Yes, there will be pain. But a remnant shall return. Every day Isaiah sees his son, he will remember God’s promise. When people look at you and me, they, too, should remember God’s promise, but that is through the second child promised in our passage of Isaiah.
One of God’s instructions to His people is “your ways are not My ways.” Is that anywhere more evident than in how God responds to Ahaz and to you and me in this passage of Isaiah? Is that anywhere more evident than in the birth of that Baby we will celebrate next week? You have joined me in rueful laughter as we considered how we would each respond to Ahaz. But God sends a baby. You and I are deserving of the same fate we have planned out in our heads for Ahaz, but to us God sent a baby. The world is shrouded in darkness and rejects its Creator at every turn; still, God sends a baby.
As Adventers, you and I are called to that looking back/looking forward whiplash. We are called always to be reminded of what God has done for us even as we look expectantly to the fulfillment of all His promises. We remember His death. We proclaim His Resurrection. We await His coming in glory. That’s the proclamation of all Christians in the liturgy, but it defines our mission as Adventers. It shapes our spiritual DNA. Hopefully, it reshapes, dare I say transforms, how you and I incarnate God’s grace in the world around us.
Think of the preposterousness of sending a baby into the world to fight evil. Who, but God, would think to do such a thing? And, yet, consider the significance of sending a baby rather than the lightning bolt or company of angels or whatever idea you and I had. Babies are cute. Babies are helpless. Babies need time to grow up. In sending a baby, God reminds us that He came as approachable, as fully human. The notion would have been even more preposterous in the ANE than in modern America today. God’s sojourned briefly with humans in the ANE cosmology. The gods could not spend much time among humans because our fleshy ickiness rubbed off on them. We do not speak much of it around here, but think of the significance of God becoming fully human as a baby. God was dependent upon a faithful mother and father to raise the child, to protect the child, to nurture the child. That child, of course, has all our experiences. I’m guessing He got a splinter or three helping dad around the shop. He probably caught colds and coughs. He experienced the raging hormones of pre-teen and teenage years. Jesus lived through every stage of human development. You might dismiss this focusing exclusively on His divinity, but the Scriptures and the Creeds remind us that He was fully human. He cried when Lazarus died. He had compassion on the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He was indignant toward suffering and injustice and the conflict between the inner hearts and outward expressions of faith. He experienced everything you and I experience. He is, in a sense you and I cannot begin to grasp, empathetic to our condition. And He came to save, not to judge (at least this time). Unlike the ANE pantheon, He came to take on the entirety of our experience, to remind each and every one of us that He created us good, that only our sins separated us from Him! He came to serve, to live a pattern of life for all His disciples, that we might honor and glorify Him and our Father in heaven. He is, to use the language of John from next week, the Word of God become flesh! Shadowy and imperfectly, you and I are now little incarnations of Him. You and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do those things He has given us to do. Yes, we might say we are the baby that He sends into the darkness. We are the compassionate, empowered disciple through whom He fights evil day in and day out in our lives. It is we who are called to fight homelessness. It is we who are called to fight racism. It is we who are called to fight poverty. It is we who are called to fight all ism’s that seek to enslave others in darkness. And we fight that battle as His little children, trusting He will glorify Himself through our labors and cause us to shine with that light He has planted in each one of us. We Adventers ought to be particularly attuned to that aspect of His call on our lives. We are looking back at what He has done even as we await all that He has planned for us!
One day the mission will change. One day, He will send His Son in glorious, apocalyptic majesty as Judge and as Savior. One day, we will be given rest from all our labors. But this day, a day we call Advent 4, is not that day. Until He comes again to judge the living and the dead, you and I are called to model the faith of a little child, to go forth in His Name to love others into His kingdom, and to remind the world that He truly has pitched His fleshy tent among us and desires us all to trust in His unfailing promises rather than to die in our sinful scheming. We are called, like Isaiah and countless throngs before us, like all who claim to look forward while looking back, to remind the world He came as a baby that we might all have the chance to live forever with Him in glory to the ends of the ages.