Good morning. So 10 days until Christmas! Who’s excited? I know that realization might inspire a variety of reactions this morning. I'm going to guess that for all of the kids that is awesome news. I'm going to guess for some of the rest of you it’s a mix of excitement and anticipation, seeing friends and family, celebrating traditions; and dread. Maybe it's because like me, you still have presents to get, or because this is the first Christmas without a loved one, or because you're not sure what Christmas will look like this year, or because you know what Christmas will look like this year and it's not good. I think that mix of emotions, that mix of reactions is a pretty good representation of what Advent is like. Excited anticipation mixed with a little worry, fear and uncertainty.
Today we're continuing this sermon series on what happens when the king comes. We've talked about when the king come there's light and peace and today we're going to talk about how when the king comes, God is with us, Immanuel. We've been reading from Isaiah these past weeks, and as we know Isaiah was a prophet who was telling God's people what God had to say. We've talked about what Isaiah said about the king that was to come and the vision of how things would be when the king came. And today's text talks about a sign that will show that the king is coming.
This week understanding the background of what was going on with the characters in the text is really important. We’ve talked about the not-so-good situation that the Israelites were in, but Isaiah's prophecy about this king to come happens while there is a war threatening the kingdom of Judah. The king at that time was King Ahaz, and he is trying to figure out what he should do to save his kingdom. They are not a military powerhouse, they don't have strong allies, they don’t have favors to call in, the odds are against them and Ahaz is worried that they're going to be completely wiped out if they don't get this right. He's getting pressure to join alliances, but he realizes that he and his country will basically be a pawn. There really isn't a clear solution, just a sense of impending doom. So in today's text King Ahaz talking to Isaiah and Isaiah tells him not to worry or fear, easier said than done right? So then Isaiah tells him that he's supposed to ask God for a sign. Now Ahaz tells Isaiah that he doesn't want to test God, honestly it probably seems like a trap since testing God was not something that you were supposed to do. But Ahaz isn't really that pious, he's actually scared of what God might tell him or what the sign might be. I imagine that his situation must have been so overwhelming that he was pretty much paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. There didn't seem to be any good way out of the situation so asking God for a sign might just be more than he could handle at that point. So Isaiah figures this out and tells him "fine, you won't ask God for a sign? God's going to give you a sign anyway, whether you like it or not." And here's the sign: a young woman will have a baby and name him Immanuel and this child will be the sign that things will get better for the Israelites. Probably not what Ahaz was expecting, and you know what, it doesn't really help his situation at that point!
I wonder what we do and what we should do when we're faced with overwhelming situations in our lives. I've thought a lot this week about what we do when things aren't going well in our lives. This past week we've experienced an unexpected death in our congregation, mourned the death of Nelson Mandela, suffered another school shooting while remembered the anniversary of the Newtown shootings, and all that on top of the anticipation, excitement, stress and anxiety of the holidays and everything else going on in our lives. I don't know what else you have going on in your life, but this can be a pretty overwhelming time.
I imagine that's a little bit what like King Ahaz felt, just plain overwhelmed, so weighed down by the circumstances in our lives that we can't imagine what to do next. One morning this week I was watching the news and I saw a segment about the Newtown shootings and they had the father of one of the little girls who was killed write a letter to himself.
I imagine that none of us would know how we could make it through such a tragedy, until we have to go through it. I can only imagine that it's probably the most overwhelming thing in a person’s life, and I imagine that we would all be asking some of these same questions.
Sometimes these situations, whether they are a death, a betrayal, abuse or tragedy, are so overwhelming that we are scared to ask God for a sign too, too scared to ask God those questions that we have. We worry that we might be scared and even more overwhelmed by the way God might respond. I tried to list this week all the bad things that can happen in our lives for which we wish we could ask God for a sign or an answer. Everything from disappointment to illness to abuse to war. There's a lot of times where we just want to ask why? Why God? Why would you let this happen? How are we going to make it through this? How we will survive? And as I thought about all those things that happen in our lives, as I thought about all of questions we have for God, all of the times we wish that God would just explain to us what the heck is going on, I began to think more and more about God's sign, God's answer to Ahaz's overwhelming predicament.
God's sign to Ahaz is a little confusing, a little vague and it probably didn't make immediate sense. How is this baby who's not even born yet going to solve the very real immediate problem that Judah was going through? God doesn't give Ahaz a secret weapon to defeat those who were threatening them. God didn't take away the threat or the tumultuous situation, no David and Goliath this time. God didn't even explain to him how it was all going to work out in the end. God said, I'm giving you Immanuel; I will be with you. The answer to all your questions, the fix for all this is my presence.
Now we jump ahead to Matthew and see that he interprets this text to make a connection to Jesus. Matthew wrote his gospel specifically to Jews, so they would have been familiar with this text from Isaiah and been able to make this connection too. The writer believed and we do too, that we can better understand Isaiah because we now know who he was talking about and we can see how Jesus fulfilled his prophecy. Now you'll notice Mary didn't name her baby Immanuel, but that doesn’t negate Isaiah’s prophecy, the name Immanuel has a deeper, more profound meaning, especially when we connect it to Jesus. It isn't his given name, or the name he was called or went by, but it is who he is. Because Immanuel, whether you spell it with an I or an E, means God with us. We believe that in the truest sense that Jesus was and is God with us, Immanuel. Now we don't know for sure if Ahaz "got it" or if any of this made sense for him, but God's sign to him is a sign to us too.
I wouldn't doubt that sometimes we wonder, especially during Advent, how this baby who's not even born yet going to solve our very real and immediate problems? How the heck is Jesus going to solve my problems? And the truth, much like in Ahaz's case, is that God is not necessarily going to solve your problems. The answer to your problems is not always going to be clean-cut and easy to swallow. The more funerals I do, the more tragedy and injustice that I witness, the more convinced I am, that I will never have the answers, I will never be able to give families an explanation of why their loved one died, and any attempt at that will never be satisfying. I won't be able to explain why injustice and evil and poverty are allowed to exist and I know now if I try it will never be true or satisfying. I know that we want answers, I know we want to be able to explain and fully understand why life is the way it is, but we can't. We want to be able to navigate the ups and downs and questions and heartaches of life, but the more we try, I think the more unsatisfied we are. God knows that. I think that God knows and God gives us the same answer he gave King Ahaz: Immanuel, God is with us. While all of our attempts at answering the tough questions of life aren't satisfying, God's presence is. While we crave understanding and explanation, a little deeper is the desire to just feel God's presence. God's presence doesn't necessarily solve the problem or take away the hurt or pain or grief, but it somehow satisfies. It brings that peace that passes understanding that we talked about last week, and somehow it's enough.
So what is the thing right now in your life? What are you looking for a sign for? What question have you been trying to answer? And what if God's answer is just Immanuel? That God is with you? My prayer for you all this week is that whether you're going through something right now or not, you will in the future, that through all the questions and doubts that God's presence will be the overwhelming answer, that even though it won't make sense, that God's presence will be enough, will be satisfying your longing. And isn’t that what Advent’s about, isn’t that what we’re waiting for? When the king comes, God is with us. God's response to the way this world is, the pain and heartache and sin is simply God's presence. No quick fixes, no once and for all miracles, no detailed plans for fixing it all, but Immanuel, God with us. Amen.
Pastor Jen Hibben