"God with us:
a threat or a promise?"
December 20, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
(revised from one delivered 12/21/86 at Greencastle, PA C.O.B.)
based upon Isaiah 7:10-14 and Matthew 1:18-25
Standing at just the right place on a clear day in Anchorage, Alaska, you can look northward and see the tallest mountain in North America. Nearly 150 miles away this tremendous piece of rock stands more than 20,000 feet above sea level. The Indians called it "Denali," the Great One. Later settlers named it Mt. McKinley.
From Anchorage, it does not appear to be so very far away, but such a distance can be deceptive. There are smaller mountains and a vast tundra plain that separate Anchorage and McKinley. It seems you are much closer than you really are. But even across such a distance, "Denali," the Great One, stands tall like a prophetic statement of God’s grandeur and power.
Standing at just the right place on a clear day in Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah could see for miles and years. In the distance he saw the Great One of Israel, and this vision was expressed in the form of a sign. "Behold," he told King Ahaz, "a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel."
Standing at just the right place on a clear night in Nazareth, engaged to wed an obviously pregnant Mary, Joseph could see for miles and years. In a dream, he saw an angel of the Great One of Israel, and this dream persuaded him not to quietly put aside his wife-to-be for obvious infidelity. The words of this dream harkened back to the days of Isaiah. "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel."
From his vantage point, Isaiah looked out and saw the mountain of the Lord, and by this sight he directed King Ahaz to see God at work in the very near future. And God was indeed at work at that point in time. But distances can be deceiving.
The angel of the Lord spoke the same words to Joseph in a dream hundreds of years later. And yet, those words were not ancient and outdated. In fact, as our faith tells us, those words were hundreds of years closer to the time of their fulfilment. The young woman Mary, a virgin, had obviously already conceived and would soon bear a child. Standing at just the right place on a clear day in Glen Arm, Maryland, we look back to that birth in Bethlehem, and hear in those words of Isaiah, the saving work of the Great One.
"Behold, a young woman, a virgin, shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel." In the Bible, two persons were the recipients of these words: Ahaz, King of Judah, and Joseph, husband of Mary.
Ahaz was a basically good King; that is, he was a good politician. Of course, the historians of the Bible don’t have many kind words for him. 2 Kings, chapter 16 summarizes his reign by saying, Ahaz "did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God." Ahaz probably would’ve written a different epitaph, calling himself a "political realist."
You see, some of his neighboring Kings joined forces and invaded Jerusalem. Kings tend to do that, you know - invade one another. Besieged by his not-so-friendly neighbors, Ahaz considered it the "smart" thing-to-do to call the big kid on the block over to his side to help. This bully came over, indeed, and beat up Ahaz’ troublesome neighbors, thus solving the problem. Political realism.
The prophet Isaiah, standing where he did, able to see the Great One in the distance, considered such realism to be not only naive, but also a bit faithless. "Depend upon God rather than the big kid on the block," he told Ahaz, "for sooner or later that bully will do to you exactly what he will do to these neighboring Kings who love to invade and besiege."
Could God be depended upon? "Ask a sign of God and see," said Isaiah, but political realist Ahaz already had his mind made up. "I will not put the Lord to the test," answered Ahaz, masking his decision with some out-of-place piety. Isaiah, however, saw through this "praise the Lord" exterior to the "I shall do as I please" interior. And so Isaiah gave Ahaz a sign, whether the King asked for it or not.
"Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel." The way Isaiah phrased these words, they sounded like a threat. To name a child "God with us" is act of faith when neighboring kings and their armies are threatening to break into your stronghold and pillage and plunder. King Ahaz’s solution was to call in the bully. Isaiah’s word from God was to trust instead in the Great One of Israel. If you don’t choose the Great One over the bully, Isaiah said, the bully will eventually do to you what you want him to do to others. And no matter how much you say, "God is with us," your words will become an ironic commentary on your choice.
A threat, indeed. However, woven into that prophecy of Isaiah to Ahaz was a thread of hope. Ahaz was left with words he could either take as a threat or as a promise. Being who he was, a political realist, he opted to see it as a toothless threat. In a way he was right, except history records that this threat did have teeth. It came to pass. Yes, the big kid on the block did come and handle Ahaz’s immediate problems. The later price, though, was much more than the King of Israel was prepared to pay. The bully had his way.
Joseph was basically a good man - that is, he was honest and compassionate. As the story is told in Matthew’s gospel, when Joseph discovered his wife-to-be was pregnant with someone else’s child, he felt he could not follow through and marry this woman. It wouldn’t be right. On the other hand, however, he felt he could not end their relationship in a way that would damage her reputation. That wouldn’t be right, either. A quiet annulment before a few friendly witnesses rather than an out-in-the-open court procedure - this was his decision: honest and compassionate.
A dream in the quiet of the night changed his mind. In it, an angel spoke words of promise, that Mary was not pregnant due to some affair with another guy. She, instead, was chosen by God for an altogether different kind of affair, a dangerous liaison to save God’s people. Mary would give birth to a child who would accomplish this. The details of the dream were rather sketchy, but there was a connection with another clear moment, centuries earlier, when the prophet Isaiah foresaw a child to be named Immanuel, God with us. The angel invited Joseph to take the risk and join in that dangerous adventure, to go with God.
Was this dream for real? If so, could God be depended upon? Face it, Joseph was but a carpenter. What did he know of such things? Why Mary, and not some other Ruth or Esther? The first years of marriage are stressful enough without something like this hanging over it... These, and many more, are thoughts and questions we bring to the text. Nothing is said of Joseph’s ponderings after the dream. In fact, scripture never records a single word the earthly father of our Lord ever uttered. It merely says that with his actions, Joseph responded with a "yes." He took Mary as his wife and raised the child as his own.
"Behold, a young woman, a virgin, shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel." How differently Ahaz and Joseph responded to the same words of the prophet. Ahaz chose to see within Isaiah’s words - a threat. Joseph, instead, chose to see a hopeful promise. Ahaz ignored it to his own peril and, indeed, a threat came true for Jerusalem. Joseph stepped into it, and a promise came true for God’s people. Immanuel: God with us. God being with us can be seen as a threat or a promise.
The wonder of Christmas is that God chose to come to us in the least threatening way possible: as a child - a vulnerable child, born into a family of few means, born in a cattle shed, amid the fodder and manure, so the story goes. How could such a child be a threat to anyone? Under those circumstances he had only a 50/50 chance of reaching his first birthday. God came as a vulnerable child. Hardly a threat. And yet, King Herod, another political realist, tried his hardest to have this child killed.
At Christmas we celebrate God coming as a vulnerable child, but I sometimes wonder if we, ourselves, don’t also find him a bit of a threat. Why else would we pile onto this season all the things that we do? This mountaintop of a birth Isaiah saw so long ago, do we allow this birth to transform us? If the Great One of Israel would take the route of vulnerability and come to us in such a non-threatening way, might such an act of God lead us to respond in the same manner? I wonder.
To approach God without pretense, admitting our weakness and allowing God to use our weakness as a strength, is this not the promise of Immanuel, God with us? To approach each other without pretense, admitting our weakness and allowing God to use our weakness as a strength, is this not the promise of Immanuel, God with us?
Such a promise can be threatening! It’s much easier to put up a nativity scene which passersby can enjoy, than it is to act out this "God with us" promise of Christmas in our lives. The possibilities of the promise are awesome. What makes Immanuel a threat, however, is the simple question which echoes back whenever we claim "God is with us." The question? "Are we with God?" Are we willing to step into the promise, whatever the risk? That’s all Joseph did, something Ahaz couldn’t.
"Behold, a young woman, a virgin, shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel, God with us." We stand at just the right place on this Sunday before Christmas to see the mountaintop of Christ’s birth. We can respond to it as a threat or a promise. What will it be this year?
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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