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O Antiphons – O Emmanuel

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 18, 2016)
Isaiah 7, Matthew 1 – “O Antiphons – O Emmanuel”

Today we wrap up our sermon, music, and sanctuary arts Advent series on the O Antiphons. As we’ve said those are prayers that have been around since the 8th century, prayed or chanted to the messianic titles for Christ found in Isaiah. The Scripture readings have been from both Isaiah and Luke, but today I want to focus on just the first one, the reading from Isaiah 7. Let’s listen for Wisdom and Word:

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign from the Lord your God. Make it as deep as the grave or as high as heaven.”

But Ahaz said, “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord.” [Don’t be fooled. He’s feigning piety here.]

Then Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Isn’t it enough for you to be tiresome for people that you are also tiresome before my God? Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel [which means “God is with us.” He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned. The Lord will bring upon you, upon your people, and upon your families days unlike any that have come since the day Ephraim broke away from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

These words are probably the most widely quoted from the Book of Isaiah, probably because they’ve been reheard Advent after Advent for centuries:

“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”

The writer of Matthew’s gospel quotes this line in the story about the birth of Jesus in the first chapter. As Joseph is pacing about, trying to decide what to do about his engagement with Mary, a pregnant Mary, with whom he has not had relations, an angel comes to him and says:

“Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

It’s hard to read this text from Isaiah with a fresh pair of eyes because of how Matthew uses it. And it’s a bit of an interpretive quagmire. Without going down a rabbit hole, the writer of Matthew was working from a Greek translation of Isaiah which used the word for “virgin” when the original Hebrew simply meant, “young woman.” Isaiah isn’t invested in the medical details of the young woman and her child. Then one has to wonder: who is the young woman and child? Scholars disagree. It could be Isaiah’s wife and son or the king’s, or a number of other possibilities. In any case, Matthew inserts his own answer to the question, and we’re still wrestling with it today.

But back to the story. What’s going on with Ahaz? If you’re a history buff, you may find this interesting. King Ahaz and his country, Judah, are in a bind. The northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Aram are trying to persuade Ahaz to join their alliance against the Assyrians. Those are the two kings Isaiah references earlier when he says, “Before the boy [Immanuel] learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.” Ahaz ends up choosing to align with Assyria. So now Aram and Israel are planning to attack the capital, Jerusalem, and Isaiah tells us Ahaz “heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of a forest shake when there is a wind.” Like a grove of aspen trees.

So God says, “Go ahead. Ask me for a sign.” But Ahaz refuses. He doesn’t want one.

And what happens? The sign comes anyway with both good and bad news for Ahaz. The good news is that his enemies will be defeated. The bad news is that the Assyrian army will storm Jerusalem and Judah will end up as a vassal state.

Now here’s the point at which some commentators start to firm up the conclusion that Ahaz was in the wrong precisely because he’d rather trust Tiglath-Pileser (the Assyrian king) than God. But the thing is, I actually sympathize with Ahaz. Signs from God are hard to read! Sometimes I’d rather trust my own instincts. I mean really—in the midst of a geopolitical crisis, threatened on three sides, while his country’s fate hinges on the decision he’s about to make, he’s invited to ask for a sign from on high. And it comes anyway… in something as ordinary as a baby. Not the stuff of international affairs, is it?

Maybe it’s irreverent to say, but who could blame him?

Signs of God’s presence can be hard to see, especially this time of year. We’re asked to pray, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in the midst of brutal current events and unlimited personal difficulties. Beneath the holiday glitter and cheer (and that all-pervading music) there is a lot of pain and fear. We rehearse the story of God-with-us year after year, of God coming among us quietly in human form when we crave more concrete assurances that God is present and active in the world. Truthfully, we’re with Ahaz—we’d rather trust something more obvious to get us out of this mess.

For instance, did you know that gun sales spiked during the Great Recession? The gun industry’s economic impact went up 66% since 2007. “As unemployment rises and the economy gets tough, the consumers are buying firearms for personal protection,” said the CEO of Smith & Wesson, the largest handgun manufacturer in the US. A friend of mine told me just the other day that his brother purchased an AR-15 for his family and put it under the Christmas tree. He was furious with his brother, “This is how you celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace? With a semi-automatic rifle?” Beneath the Christmas tree, it can be telling where we really place our trust in a world that feels increasingly chaotic and threatening.

God-with-us. It’s almost as if God, who knows how quickly we skittish people turn to short-term solutions. God knows what we do when we’re anxious and afraid, that we cling to power in its predictable forms—money, status, brute strength. As Barbara Lundblad puts it, God effectively said through Isaiah:

“I will give you a sign even if you don’t ask for one. A child. Immanuel. O my people, are you still waiting for the Warrior God — and now you are terrified that the gods of Syria are greater than I am? Must I be like you, only bigger? Must I be vengeful in a world obsessed with getting even?”

God is indeed with us, and there is hope, but the sign of that promise doesn’t look like our normal conceptions of power. The sign God sends is of a different kind of power, one that is patient and enduring and willing to play the long-game.        A mother will give birth to a child who will grow up and “learn to reject evil and choose good.”

As I read this text from Isaiah about events in the Middle East long ago, I couldn’t help but think about the Middle East today. And as I reflected on this child, Immanuel, I couldn’t help but remember that photo of the Syrian boy sitting in the back of the ambulance in Aleppo. Do you know which one I’m referring to? It’s been haunting me, actually, and I haven’t wanted to think about it. What wars like this do to people, children especially. It’s absolutely sickening. And heartbreaking.

Did you also hear about six-year-old Alex who lives just outside New York City? When Alex saw the picture of the Syrian boy, whose name is Omran, he wrote a letter to President Obama:

“Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home],’ he asked. ‘We’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.’”

President Obama shared it with world leaders that had gathered at a summit on refugees:

“The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn’t learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they’re from, or how they look, or how they pray, and who just understands the notion of treating somebody that is like him with compassion, with kindness — we can all learn from Alex.”

When I think about the state of political and business leadership in our country and around the globe, those typical mainstays of power, I can get really cynical. Not a lot of trust there.

But when I hear about people like Alex, I think, just maybe, that it’s a sign that God is still with us.