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A Sign From God

Sermon – 12/19/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Isaiah 7:  10-17

Our text for reflection this morning comes from the 7th chapter of Isaiah, verses 10 through 17:

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For 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.

17 The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah--the king of Assyria."  


Advent is a season of signs.  Signs all pointing to the birth of Jesus, to the coming of the Christ child.  The signs of the coming of Christmas are all around us -- the music, the decorations, even the advertising and the news.  I noticed Newsweek a week or two ago had their cover story on the birth of Jesus.  There's no shortage of the signs of the season.

The interfaith service a week ago Saturday that was held here (as it is every month) had very little spoken from a Christian perspective in the service, in part because the Christian portion of the service that month was our Bell Choir, and bell choirs by their very nature don't have a lot of words that go along with them, so there wasn't much spoken.  But even though nothing was said about Christmas or the birth of Jesus, the signs were all around us.  As here we were in this interfaith community of all these perspectives, surrounded by the signs, the symbols of Christmas, the decorations, the banners, the crèche scene are all here to remind us of what the season is about.  It's almost like we didn't need to say anything about it because the imagery itself just shouted out.  Even our windows -- three of our windows are about the Christmas story.

In spite of concerns that Santa Claus is replacing Jesus as the reason for the season and "Season's Greetings" has become the proper nomenclature in lieu of "Merry Christmas", there is no shortage of signs that people still remember who's birth it is that we celebrate.  

The question is, and always has been:  what does it mean?  What do all these signs mean?  The prophet Isaiah gives King Ahaz a sign from God in this very familiar advent passage.  And its meaning has been questioned ever since.  And we often read the meaning of the sign of this young woman with child because we read it from the perspective of the birth of Jesus, as retold in Matthew's gospel who cites Isaiah, rather than from the context of Isaiah.  And so I'd like to this morning briefly explore that latter context before we move on to the former.

In the year 734 (before the common era, or BCE), the government of Syria in northern Israel, referred to in this text as Ephraim, when Ephraim split from Judah, those two governments decided that Jerusalem, in the southern nation of Judah needed a new King.  I think we call that 'regime change'.  They wanted a King who would be friendly to them, who would agree with their foreign policy, who would join them in an alliance, in an axis of good, against the forces of evil represented by Assyria.  And please hear the difference between 'Assyria' (which is the equivalent to modern-day Iraq for the most part) and 'Syria', the kingdom directly to the north (and a little bit east).

In any case, they wanted Ahaz, the king of Judah, to join them in this alliance against Assyria.  Ahaz, however, realizes that Assyria is the military superpower of the world.  And therefore thinks it might be unwise to cross the King of Assyria.  It was simply a prudent political move that would ensure the nation's continued existence.  

Isaiah, however, saw it differently.  In the eyes of the prophet, Ahaz was capitulating to foreign gods and misplacing his faith in military security.  So he proposes an alternative -- rely on God, rather than on Assyria and military strength.  And just to show Ahaz he knows of what he speaks, he says 'Ask for a sign -- any sign, and God will give it to you'.  Ahaz, perhaps out of a sense of piety (remember Jesus in the temptation story says 'Do not test the Lord your God') simply says the same thing -- 'I don't want to test God'.  He turns down Isaiah.  Maybe it's just because he doesn't believe that Isaiah can deliver on his promise.

And so Isaiah gives him a sign anyway.  And it's nothing out of the ordinary, really.  He simply says this young woman that is with child shall give birth.  And before that child is 'bar-mitzvahed', before he comes of age to know the difference between good and evil, those two Kings and their countries will be no more.  And indeed, as was the case when Assyria finally moved in and destroyed the northern nations, and hence we refer to the lost 10 tribes of Israel.

In other words, to demonstrate God's involvement in international affairs, Isaiah turns to a common and yet miraculous event -- the birth of a child.

Do you seek in these times a sign that God is present and active in our world?  Look at the wonder of life.  Ponder the beauty of the earth.  Gaze at the depths of the heavens.  Marvel at that tiny little hand of the newborn infant that grabs on to your finger with so much pleasure -- your own.  And know, Immanuel, God with us.   

Now such romantic ideals are fine for poets and prophets, but as King you are responsible for the life of your people and the nation.  Isaiah has nothing but promises and a pregnant teenager as evidence.  Assyria, on the other hand, has a large army.  Which would you choose?  Ahaz makes the prudent choice, he takes Assyria's shock to Isaiah's awe.  For the prophet, it is a covenant of death and an ultimate indication that the nation has ceased to rely on God and instead relies on military strength.  Don't know if stories like this have any relevance to times like today, but find it where you will J.

Now, 800 years later, Matthew cites this passage from the prophet Isaiah in reference to the birth of Jesus.  But Matthew quotes from the Greek, rather than the Hebrew, and in the Greek translation the 'young woman' mentioned by Isaiah is described as a 'virgin', and the tense of the verb is changed from the present ('she is now pregnant') to the future ('she will conceive'), will bear a son.  Thus what originally was meant as a sign of God's presence in that time of international turmoil becomes a sign of God's incarnation in the birth of Jesus at the beginning of the first century.  

Now I would suggest to you that even though the sign from God given by Isaiah had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, Matthew got it exactly right.  For it is the same sign.  The birth of Immanuel in 734 BCE is the sign of God's incarnation.  Of God's becoming flesh in our midst.  And the birth of Jesus, 730 years later, is the sign of God's presence in that time of continuing turmoil.

The identification of Jesus with Isaiah's Immanuel is not saying that Isaiah had the ability to see 730 years into the future, but rather that God has the ability to come to us now, to become present now, just as then.  And is that not a message we need to hear, today?

One more thing I just have to note about this association with Isaiah's Immanuel in the birth of Jesus:  if the birth of Immanuel is the response to that threat of terror from Assyria, then to what terror is the birth of Jesus the response?  And the answer I think is Rome.  The terror of Rome.  Remember the story in Matthew 2 of the massacre of the children and the weeping of Rachel?  In the year 4 BCE, which many scholars think was probably about the time that Jesus was born, thousands of Jews -- men, women, and children -- were massacred by Roman soldiers to quell an uprising in Sapphoris just 4 miles from Nazareth.  They could smell the burning flesh in the hometown of Jesus.

Assyrian and Roman armies on the move spreading terror throughout the land, and God sends a baby as the response?  That's the sign of God's presence?  Yes indeed.  As if to mock human reliance on their own strength and ingenuity, and recall Isaiah 2 -- 'they shall beat their swords into plowshares' -- God sends an infant, turning the armies of the world and the superpowers on their heads.  And so in Mary's Magnificat he has 'brought down the mighty and lifted up the lowly'.

So if Isaiah was not referring to the birth of Jesus, what child did he have in mind?  Who would this Immanuel be?  Many scholars believe he was referring to a new prince who would soon be King, and thus Isaiah confidently proclaims in the 9th chapter when that birth announcement comes from the palace 'For unto us, a child is given'.  And Handel sets that passage to music to describe the birth of Jesus -- Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And Matthew used the reference to Immanuel to do the same.  In other words, as I understand it, Isaiah used the birth of a descendent of David to renew God's vision for a just, peaceful, and compassionate world in a time when the world was headed in the opposite direction.

Here again another familiar passage from the 11th chapter:  'A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.  The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them'.

Likewise Matthew draws on that same tradition to describe what God was doing through the infant Jesus.  The little child that shall lead us through this vision of God's world.  If we wish then to see the sign of God's activity today we need only to find Immanuel -- God with us -- places where that vision of God for our world is being born among us again today.  

On Friday I heard that vision articulated at the City Club of Eugene, of all places, wouldn't expect to find it there, not particularly a religious organization.  Kind of like finding the baby Jesus born in a barn, I mean, who would have thought?!  I did not expect to hear that at the City Club.  It was our annual holiday gifts program, when we hear from various leaders and representatives in the community who offer their gift in some symbolic way to Eugene.  Rick Dancer from KEZI news, Minalee Saks from Birth to Three, Rusty Rexius from Rexius Forest Products, Arther Golden.

But I want to share with you one clip from that -- I used to be President of City Club of Eugene and now I'm the videographer to make sure that it gets broadcast on cable vision on Wednesday nights.  So I just happen to have a videotape of the program and I want to share with you just a little clip, from Carmen Urbina, who is the Executive Director of Centro Latino.  Carmen comes to us from Honduras, and I was struck by the fact that even though she did not mention the birth of Jesus or Christmas in her presentation, of how much the stories she told sound like the story of a child born in the manger because there is no room at the Inn.

. . . I became a citizen of the United States, and therefore renounced my own Honduran citizenship because I really wanted to vote.  So I have a tremendous love for Eugene, because Eugene has become my home away from home.  And I am here for the long run.  This is why when I was asked 'What would you wish for Eugene?' I started to come up with all sorts of ideas.  The basic values that I was taught growing up is to look at the children of our community.  And you will know what is going on in your community, because that is the reflection of our community.

So I went and spoke to several teachers and vice principals of the 4J school district. So I will tell you 3 stories of three amazing children.

First, we have Joey.  Joey is a 4th grader and his teacher told me that she makes Joey a special breakfast every Monday because she knows that Monday when he comes to school, he will come hungry.  She knows that he receives his main meals at school.  She also showed me a closet where she has clean clothes for kids because some kids come to school hungry and not very clean.  So I thought my wish could be less starvation.  Because in Eugene, let us not lie to ourselves, we do not have hunger, we have starvation.  And thank you Food for Lane County for the things that you do.

Then I spoke to a vice principal, and he told me a story of Erica, a 2nd grader, 7 years old.  He said that Erica would be late for school every day, then one day Erica was on time.  The VP told her "good for you Erica, you made it on time, I'm so glad you're hear".  Erica had a big smile and said "Yes, I live really close by".  And the vice principal asked her 'where do you live?'.  "I live in the car with my mom and two brothers".  So I thought, I wish for more affordable housing in Eugene, let us not lie to ourselves Eugene -- homelessness and the homeless situation in our community is only getting worse.  Thank you Lane Shelter Care and St. Vincent DePaul for the things that you do.

Then there was the story of Maria, a 3rd grader from Oaxaca Mexico.  One day she was playing with a group of her friends when they started calling her 'dirty Indian' because she had her beautiful long braids.  There was supervision, but no one said anything or intervened.  She went home and she cut her braids off.  So I thought, I wish for more understanding between our community.  Let us not lie to ourselves Eugene, we have intolerance in our community, and it's getting only more overt.  

So I thought, what else should I wish for?  Affordable, accessible medical care?  Should I wish for a mental health care system that our community really deserves?  What should I wish for?  Then I thought the only gift that I can make is actually a challenge to the citizens and the residents of Eugene.  To have the courage to be leaders.  Have the courage to take leadership in our everyday lives.  Let us not be afraid of what that means.  We think that leaders are presidents or elected officials, you know, everybody else.  I challenge for all of us to redefine that word and take leadership at home, in school, at work, through remarks made, actions initiated, and involvement.  That teacher and that VP are leaders, they are the silent leaders whose moral leadership and energy inspires me.  

And that's my wish for my gift for Eugene.  Thank you very much. 
[Hearty Applause]    


I think about those stories and I think about our children, that just sang here.  What is the sign of God's presence with us?  It's when the citizens of God's community show that kind of leadership.  To make a difference in our world.  To make God's presence with us.  To show that kind of leadership that Jesus did and Ahaz did not.  When they trust God's vision, and take that leadership to beat the swords into plowshares.  To see Christ in the hungry and the homeless.  To open doors to the alienated and the outcasts.  To welcome the stranger, the person of different color or race or religion or sexual orientation or politics.

Isaiah gave to us the vision of God for our world and Jesus embodied it.  Made it flesh, made it real, tangible.  And those that are touched by this vision, who follow it in their lives, who make it real and visible in our world today are the hands guided by God impacting our human affairs.  

And when we understand and we implement this vision, and we see the world through the eyes of God, like Isaiah, like Jesus, Matthew, then God is with us.  

Immanuel, may it be. 


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