Monday, December 19, 2011

Sermon on Isaiah 9:10-17--Immanuel, God with Us

10 Moreover the LORD spoke again to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, nor will I test the LORD!”
13 Then he said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.[b] 15 Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings. 17 The LORD will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father’s house—days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah.”
In the land of Israel, long before Jesus, there was this man of God who spoke God’s word with courage. His name was Isaiah. He was what the Hebrew people called a prophet. The word prophet is a word that we hear a lot, but the idea of a prophet in Israel had a larger role and a more expansive meaning that we have in twentieth century America.

People like Isaiah, who were God’s prophets were both foretellers and forth-tellers. Let me explain that. Did prophets foretell things in the future that were going to happen in generations or even decades to come? Yes they did.

More often than not though the prophet spoke God’s truth about what was going to happen in the future in order to bring God’s insight into contemporary situations. Then, there was a smidgen of hope that if people heard God’s Word, and responded to it with repentance and faithfulness, that the people would experience God’s power and presence in a deeper and more profound way.

The chapter before this one in Isaiah is an often quoted passage, especially for persons who are seeking to understand what the call of God is like. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah goes to the temple, and into the sanctuary, and he encounters God there. He is overwhelmed.  Isaiah tells God that he is an unclean man with unclean lips. God purifies Isaiah. Then the heavenly hosts began to ask who will go out on God’s behalf. Isaiah commits to do just that.

God tells Isaiah that he will go out and preach God’s word to people. And he will be persecuted, rejected, and ignored because of it. Do you still want to go, Isaiah? Are you still willing to say, “Here am I, send me!?”

Isaiah was willing to be God’s spokesperson, and at some points God’s laughing stock, and went out to God’s people with words of caution and warning, blessing and encouragement. One of the first prophetic duties Isaiah was called to perform was to speak God’s Word to Israel’s king.

Now it so happens that Isaiah was alive during when promised land was a divided kingdom. The northern kingdom was called Israel or Ephraim. It was less godly than the southern kingdom. The southern kingdom was called Judah. Judah’s king was, at this point, in a little bit of a crisis. Israel and Judah were combining to attack Israel. The king was pondering whether he should join up with Assyria against Syria and Israel or Ephraim. This was not a wise idea, nor an idea that God would honor.

Ahaz begins a dialogue with Isaiah, or was it vise-versa. Anyway. God offers to give Ahaz a sign that is amazing and fantastic. Ahaz says that he is not going to test God by asking for a sign.

To that God says this, that in the next few years this young woman, who apparently was in their presence, was going to conceive. She was going to have a child. And that they should call that child, “God with us”, because the child was a promise that God would see Israel through the difficult time. The child would have it rough, and there would be some difficult financial times ahead, but they would be able to avoid complete disaster. At least temporarily.

And that is exactly what happened. And many people believe this child to be the king Hezekiah, who was one of the righteous kings of Israel, at least until the end of his life. Isaiah brought prophetic messages to him as well.

And this promise during this crisis, GOD WITH US, demonstrated by the conception of a yet to be born child, became a part of God’s people’s collective memory. And came to be understood not only as a prophecy for that time, but also as a promise for what was going to happen when the Messiah came. So when people were drug off to Israel, they believed that at one point God was going to raise up a leader, born of a virgin, that would be a life that was lived as GOD WITH THEM.

Immanuel. God with Us. Immanuel. God with Us. These words filled people’s hearts. When they wondered if their children were going to have a future, they clung to the promise of the coming Messiah. When the persecution from invading powers, they remembered that salvation may be just around the corner, being formed in a woman’s womb, a miracle of God, and a sign that God would never abandon them, would never leave them or forsake them.

God could have given bigger signs. Hurricanes. Food falling from the skies. Mountains of gold appearing out of nowhere. In fact, to Ahaz, he offered anything. But, when God chooses to show us that he hears our prayers, when he wants to show us that he has not left us alone or forgotten about us, he gives us something more amazing and more precious. When God wants to show us that he is with us, he sends his message of his presence and faithfulness through the gift of a child.

I have always thought this very appropriate and very wise on God’s part. There is just something about a child, and children, that even if they are not a sign of deliverance or a promised Messiah, that helps us trust in the presence of God and have hope for the future.

This is why we respond so favorably to children. This is why our worlds seem to get bigger and our hearts seem to become more tender when we are awaiting the arrival of a newborn child, and as they wiggle their way into our lives and we begin to care for them and treasure them. This is why grandparents and great-grandparents long to be close to their grandchildren. This is why churches hope to hear the cries of babies and the pitter-patter of little footsteps in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Children embody hope for nearly all of us. The miracle that they are teaches us about God’s presence and his goodness.

But by the time we read the New Testament, and we hear this passage quoted in the gospel of Matthew, we begin to understand that this child that we hear about, this Immanuel, this Jesus is a more special gift than we ever expected.

As the angels said to Joseph in Matthew 1,

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”
22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,”[d] which is translated, “God with us.”

You see, God’s promise through Jesus is always better and always more amazing than what we expect. The people were looking for some person whose leadership would make them feel like God was on their side. But when God sent Jesus, he did even better. He sent his Son Jesus as God in human form.

That little child growing inside Mary was not just a great teacher that was going to show people right from wrong, although he was that. That little guy in that young woman’s womb was not just going to grow into a great leader, although he was going to do that as well. That child that Mary and Joseph would raise was going to be God in a bod, he was going to a living, breathing man that was also God.

When we see that little Jesus in a manger, we see the lengths that God will go to in order to reach out to us, love us, be with us, and make a way for us to be with him for eternity. Jesus left the comfort of heaven for a feed trough. He left the choirs of angels for the jeers of ugly crowds. He left the beauty of heaven for arid dirt, sand, and stone of ancient Israel. And Jesus did all of that because he loves us with all of his heart, and he cannot bear to see us hopeless and helpless, and lost without him.

So Jesus came from heaven to earth. He was tempted just like we are, yet without sin. He was hungry and sick. He was tired and lonely. He cried. He teased his friends. He worked a job where he got sore and he had blisters. He went fishing. He experienced rejection from family and friends. In the end he was beaten and bruised to take our sins upon himself. And he did all of that out of love for you. To save you. To show you the way. To show me the way.

And when he died, he rose again. And he appeared to his disciples. And it came to the point where Jesus was going to ascend to heaven, he began to speak about the promise of the Holy Spirit coming to indwell and guide his disciples. And they were told to go into all the world and tell other people about the love of Christ. And Jesus told them as they went out into the world as his friends and representatives that “lo, I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”

So this promise that we hear in Isaiah, that we see fulfilled with Jesus, this promise that God is with us, is not just a promise for days of old. It is a promise of Jesus for disciples today as well. We may feel abandoned, but we are not abandoned by our Heavenly Father. God is with us. We may feel alone, but we are never alone. God is with us. We may feel that nobody cares about us, or what we are going through. But that is simply untrue. We know this because God is with us.

The question is, will we believe and trust that truth, or will we ignore it. Because if we live our life with this trust and this confidence in the truth that God’s love surrounds us, and is always near to us, and always accessible to us, we can live a totally different kind of life. We will not have to be filled with anxiety. We won’t have to be riddled with doubt. And we won’t feel comfortable just being apathetic either. Instead we will be able to live in faith. And when we truly trust that God is with us we will be able to claim the truth that the Apostle Paul proclaimed in Romans 8

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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