Thursday, 19 December 2013

Advent 4: You shall name him Emmanuel!

Sermon Isaiah 7:10-16
Peter Lockhart

Hope is an elusive thing:  it is that grasping at a future and looking for a transformation that has not been realised.  All of us hope for things: we desire for something to happen, for something to come. 

On this last Sunday of Advent we are challenged with thinking about what it is we hope for.  Too easily we could hope for the trivial, the banal and maybe even the selfish: nice weather for Christmas day; that the turkey or ham cooks well enough and tastes great; no arguments at the Christmas table; the gifts that I listed out so everyone knew what I needed; and the list goes on. 

But on this day as we set out on our pathway of hope we hear ancient words of hope which have a much deeper meaning and resonance in our lives.  They have echoed down over 2500 years to be heard again by our ears:

“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

When Ahaz refuses God’s offer of a sign of hope the prophet Isaiah intervenes and declares the sign that God is giving anyway:

“The young woman is with child and shall name him Immanuel!”

The situation for Ahaz appeared dire as the Assyrian Empire asserted its strength and threatened Israel’s future and stability.  Isaiah’s prophecies were filled with images of darkness and destruction but they were also matched with hope.

“Before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

The future still held trepidation, turmoil was still at hand but hope was given.  Beyond the limitations of Ahaz’s vision and faith God’s promise was made tangible in a child who was to be born.

As Christians we can easily confuse this prophecy of Isaiah to be speaking of Jesus because Matthew borrows the prophet’s words in his recount of the annunciation of Jesus birth to Joseph. Yet following the ancient text it is more likely that Isaiah was referring to Hezekiah: Ahaz’s successor.

Regardless, of whether the child being referred to was Hezekiah or not, and regardless of the fact Matthew uses the prophet’s words in reference to Jesus what is at stake is found in the name.

She shall name him Immanuel, which means God us with us.

Here is the message of hope, “God is with us!”  God is not against us!  God has not deserted us! God is not our enemy! God has not turned away!

God is! And God is with us!

This was the message of Isaiah to Ahaz.  This is the message from Matthew to his community. And this is the message of hope that we hear today “God is with us”.

Of course for those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the eternal Word made flesh, there is a true and new sense of God being with us in and through the incarnation.  But even for Isaiah and Ahaz the name Immanuel carries an eternal, if not incarnated, truth.  “God is with us!”

This is the hope to which Ahaz was to cling.  This was the hope that Matthew gave to his community as he retold the story of the incarnation.  And this is the message that I would continue to declare to you “God is with us!”

This hope, this faith, is a hope we can cling to regardless of our situation in life.

Ahaz was facing the possibility of war and destruction and we know the Israelites went through a time of desolation and despair.

The word of hope and promise comes in the naming of a child “God is with us”!

Matthew’s community was facing persecution coming from the conflict within the early Christian community as it broke away from being a Jewish sect.  Probably largely believers of Jewish origins Matthew’s community sat between traditional Jews and gentile Christians.  There would have been a sense of confusion as they sought their identity as followers of Christ

In addition to these internal ructions Matthew’s community was also confronted by the might of Rome with its so called divine Emperors.

The word of hope and promise comes in the naming of a child “God is with us”!

This is the message that breaks into our reality as well.  A message that goes back long before Isaiah prophesied to Ahaz and a message that rolls beyond the incarnation and into the future not yet come: God is with us!

This is the eternity of God’s life breaking in and making it known. 

It is this hope in God’s continued and constant presence which serves those hopes which lie deeper in our
existence: hope in a future for our children; hope for good health and well-being; hope for those who suffer in the world; hope for the meeting of basic needs; hope for understanding and meaning and purpose in life.

These larger and more universal hopes are met with the declaration of the constancy and care of God’s love “God is with us!”

Even when things seem dire, even when things seem bad:

God is with us!

God is not against us!  God has not deserted us! God is not our enemy! God has not turned away!

This is the hope to which we can cling and this is the hope we declare to the world this advent and each and every day. 

When Isaiah declared the child’s name would be Immanuel Isaiah was providing a tangible sign of what always remains true.  When Matthew used Isaiah’s words to rightly describe the incarnation of God in Jesus, he too was pointing at an ongoing eternal reality. 

To say “God is with us” is not simply to affirm the incarnation and momentary entry into the world by God, as monumental as this event was, but is to say something which maybe sounds even more confronting in reverse, if you will excuse the double negative:

“God is never not with us!”

This is our hope whether we experience it in the full or walk through life not feeling God’s closeness as others seem to “God is with us!”

All of our hopes and fears are met in this and we cling to this good news as we approach the celebration of Jesus birth.

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