Three thousand years ago, an unremarkable boy grew into a remarkable king. He was a shepherd and musician, smaller than his brothers. And yet this boy took down Goliath, survived persecution from the first King of Judah, and he became the great king to unite the divided kingdoms.
Two hundred years later, they’re divided again and it’s looking bleak for this later King of Judah.
Advent 4A | Isaiah 7:10-16
Our reading from Isaiah puts us in the middle of a great geopolitical contest. It’s about 800 years before Jesus. The Neo-Assyrian Empire has risen to power, which makes them a dangerous neighbor. But it’s even worse. They’ve just joined forces with the other half of the once-united Kingdom.
The northern kingdom, formerly known as Israel is Ephraim. And it’s king has cut a deal with the King of the Assyrians and formed the Syro-Ephraimite Coalition. An alliance which is now in our story threatening Judah.
Judah’s king, Ahaz is terrified. Reasonably.
So it’s here that the prophet Isaiah enters and tells him that GOD will save Judah from destruction.
You might be wondering why we’re reading about kings from 2800 years ago and what this has to do with Jesus. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first, we have to deal with destruction and salvation.
What is Isaiah telling us about GOD and salvation?
He tells Ahaz that whether or not he asks for deliverance, GOD is going to save him. In this case, saving Jerusalem from the death march on its way to destroy his capital.
And he’ll do that by taking out these kings and destroying these armies. They aren’t going to get the final word.
But there’s a wrinkle here. GOD doesn’t just swoop in and fix our mistakes like a helicopter parent. There isn’t a single moment when all salvation is going to happen. Instead, we have a sign which not only marks that something is happening but also how long it takes.
A young woman (the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily imply virgin) will give birth to a son. And by the time he grows to a discerning age of young adulthood, meaning for their culture 12 to 15 he will be eating of plenty and luxury.
This sign is a window, a time frame in which GOD’s saving power will work. A decade and a half. A generation. To go from fear of destruction to comfort and abundance.
It won’t be overnight.
No wonder the writer of Matthew used this image.
For the birth of Jesus wasn’t the instantaneous saving moment, but the sign of its beginning.
And why this exchange in our gospel about Joseph is so potent. This is the sign, yes. The sign of the beginning. The sign of a generation of transformation and deliverance from evil. Of protection from invasion.
But what happens next in this story? Right after this birth? A frightened king, Herod, fearing his own overthrow from a legitimate king, seeks to find Jesus. When the toddler’s location gets narrowed down to Bethlehem, he has all the male infants massacred. To protect his throne.
How unlike Ahaz King of Judah, from the Davidic line protected and saved by GOD. Herod, Roman-appointed king of Judea tries to save himself. His power. All he has accomplished.
This fear remains.
The strange overlap of time and space, the echoes of history, not just in these two stories from Isaiah and Matthew, but in our story. In the history we’re making.
For four years there has been a civil war in Syria, which began with the #Arabspring in 2012. But like all geopolitics, it gets complicated.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar support the rebels. Russia and Iran support the president, Bashar al-Assad. While the US opposes Assad personally, he has pledged to fight ISIS, so he has received support to fight on the same side as many others in the region, and in our interests. But he’s playing both sides, often giving ISIS protection while claiming to be against them. Direct US action could spark another World War.
In Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, once as important to the region as Constantinople and Cairo, we’ve seen total devastation. And this fall, a frightened president, whose playing everyone for a fool, looked to end this civil war with a siege, denying food and medical supplies to half the city in violation of international law. Russia has directly bombed hospitals and schools in the city. The United Nations believes the war has left hundreds of thousnds of people dead.
This week, however, Assad’s killing his own people reached a new low. A massacre of innocents in the streets and homes. Not rebels. Children. Everyone. A massacre the United Nations is calling “A complete meltdown of humanity.”
Civilians are fleeing. A truce struck allowing many to leave hit a snag yesterday and now many are trapped. No place to go. Convoys stopped in the street. Thousands more stuck in their homes with no electricity or running water. Many trying to flee, following the multitudes who preceded them.
Just like the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt as refugees.
We see these echoes in our world of tyranny and destruction. Fear and panic. Evil and the wanton disregard for human life. A complete meltdown of humanity.
We see these echoes.
And we see echoes of opportunities for salvation.
The sign Isaiah speaks to Ahaz about; the baby born of a young woman. Growing up to eat curds and honey. The oppressors will be vanquished. And they were. Ephraim, the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed; it’s people sent into exile never to return home.
While Isaiah is speaking to a single, specific geo-political moment with two combined armies bearing down on a frightened king, GOD delivered.
But it’s these echoes which inform us. Echoes of trust in GOD. Echoes of surviving destruction and receiving salvation.
And it’s also echoes turned upside down. Of no trust, fear, wanton and selfish destruction. Self-preservation and vindictiveness which are condemned. And we have opportunities to see in the birth story not just a miraculous moment, but a generation of growth and new life.
That is our assurance for this generation.
Now look at the end of that gospel story. A Christmas preview in Advent. I was tempted to cut it out and wait for Christmas next Saturday night and Sunday morning. But read it again and notice it.
“he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
Matthew doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’s birth. Or even what GOD did. It isn’t about a miraculous pregnancy and a pastoral birth at all.
Joseph trusted GOD. Mary bore her son (not Joseph’s or GOD’s son, but Mary’s). And he named the boy Jesus.
How it all happens is for our imaginations. To turn these echoes of story into the reverberations of a living faith.
How we make this a generation of abundance is for our imaginations and our conscience to act. This final week of Advent, may your dreams be vivid and full of the abundant promise of GOD’s saving grace.