Well, Thanksgiving has just passed us, and if the holidays teach us anything in America, it’s that we should always be thinking one or two holidays ahead of the one we’re actually celebrating. If you play your cards right, this works out really well. You can put up a tree for Halloween and decorate it with spiders and ghosts and whatnot, and you’re halfway home when Christmas comes around. I’m thinking this year of hanging up heart-shaped wreaths around the house just to get the jump on Valentine’s Day.
But we know Christmas is near, and that means, along with the annual furor over what Starbucks is or isn’t doing with their cups, Christmas plays and Christmas specials are on their way. And along with presenting the Christmas story, usually out of Luke’s gospel, it’s also common to talk about some Old Testament passages that we understand to tell us something about the Messiah who is to come that we (and the Apostles) believe is Jesus. If you like Handel’s “Messiah,” as I do, you know a lot of it is around Old Testament passages.
The problem we run into, though, is that these performances don’t generally have the time to explain how these passages work. And I can understand that. When you’re trying to write a gripping Christmas play, it’s hard to find room for the character Bible Nerd #1 who explains to everyone what was going in the ninth century BC. When Linus stands up and the spotlight comes on, every kid in America would fall asleep if he launched into an explanation of Second Temple Judaism and the political situation in Judea. To me, that would make Linus even more awesome, but you can see how most kids, or human beings for that matter, wouldn’t care for it.
But unfortunately, this means we lose the original context and meaning of the passages themselves. We lose the story. The Apostles can quote those passages because they expect you to know the original story and apply it to the life of Jesus, but when we don’t know the original story, we lose all that meaning the New Testament depends on. These passages just become raw predictions, and the Old Testament starts to look like a lot of unrelated material, but, sprinkled here and there are these secret code passages that reveal the future. And we all know all the books that have been written that treat the Bible like this, right? Like, if you hold it upside down and squint and read every third word, you’ll discover that the Old Testament predicts all the great disasters in the world like World War II and Justin Bieber’s music.
The Old Testament, though, is a story of a relationship between Israel and her God and what happened between them. It is this story that the New Testament needs you to know so that you can know Jesus better – so that you can know God better and how we relate to Him better. And that’s what I want to share with you this morning. Allow me to magically transform into Bible Nerd #1. You’ll notice that didn’t take very long. And let me share this story with you so that we might see Jesus in all the ways he wants us to know him.
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For 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. 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.”
The time is the late eighth century BC in the region where Israel now sits. Israel herself has had a split. Most of Israel did not accept Solomon’s son to be their king and the majority of the tribes rebelled and formed a new kingdom. The tribe of Judah, and Benjamin shortly afterward, decided to be loyal to David’s line and did not rebel. So, Israel was divided, with the northern portion being the ten tribes who rebelled and the southern portion being the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
This may just seem like the way nations go. In America, we also had a time when our nation was divided into the North and the South. Many countries experience division like this. But you have to keep in mind that, in the Old Testament, Israel is not just some nation.
Israel was the product of God’s promises to Abraham, that his descendants would fill the world and all the nations would be blessed by them. God rescued the Israelites from Egypt because of the promises He’d made, and He made new promises to them – that He would be their God and they would be His people. He gave them His laws and set up His priesthood in Israel. If you belonged to another nation and wanted to worship the true God, you had to join on with Israel. God promised that a descendant of David would rule Israel forever. He promised them peace and prosperity in the land of their own. He promised that rule would never depart from Judah.
So, you have to understand that, when disasters happen to Israel in the Old Testament, there’s a problem that we don’t have when we’re simply reading the history of nations. The problem is: how can God be faithful to His promises when the situation looks so bleak?
Oh, we can point to Israel’s own disobedience. This is, in fact, what the prophets spend most of their time doing. Being an Old Testament prophet is ten percent predicting the future and ninety percent getting on to Israel for her bad behavior and urging her to repent. The covenant, or “the deal” Israel had with God also outlined that there would be consequences if she decided not to keep her end of the bargain. If she refused to be the faithful, righteous people in the world that God wanted to bear His name, and instead became power hungry, unjust, greedy, and idolatrous just like all the other nations, she would lose her place and prosperity. So, yes, we can easily say this is the outcome of Israel’s sins.
But here’s the snag: God – because He is merciful and faithful, and His word is His bond no matter what, and His promises are sure, and He is deeply in love with His people – will make good on His promises no matter what. He will keep up what He said He would do even if everyone else goes back on their word. What’s more, God promises that Israel will get her glorious future back! And so we have a problem – how can this possibly happen? How can God have a righteous descendant of David ruling over a prosperous, just, and faithful kingdom of Israel when Israel is split in two, has two, different rulers, and is notoriously unfaithful? God said one thing, but everything in the world at the time looked very much like those things simply could not come to pass.
It gets worse.
You see, the northern kingdom of Israel (which is usually just called “Israel” at this point in history, because it’s 10/12ths of the nation) and the southern kingdom (usually just called “Judah”) are not living peaceably together. Yes, they share a border and the land, but they are not getting along as you might imagine. They resent each other for what has happened. And both believe they are the rightful owners of the Promised Land and are the rightful rulers of it, and this leads to all kinds of troubles.
By the time we get to our passage, Israel, in the North, has allied themselves with what we would call Syria, and they are marching on Judah, trying to figure out a way to take the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, obviously, is not just the capital, but God has made several promises to and about Jerusalem. Occupying Jerusalem is not just about good strategy; it’s about who gets to be the true Israel and all the rights and promises that come from that.
We read earlier in Isaiah 7 that when Judah’s leaders heard this was happening, “the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”
I want you to take a minute and really try to put yourself in ancient Judah.
The armies of Ephraim and Aram are not abstract concepts to the people of Judah. Those people in Jerusalem are not besieged by a metaphor. No one is walking the walls going, “You know, this is sort of an allegory for life.” When you are in Judah at this point in the text, soldiers are coming to kill you. Lots of them. They will take your city, take your house and belongings, and probably do terrible things to your spouse and your children. You could look out and, around the city, see sunlight glittering off spears and shields like it glitters off the ocean. The campfires at night would fill your vision – multitudes surrounding you with only one goal in mind. You can taste the grit in your teeth from the dust that has risen up and blows through the streets from the marching of a great army. Somewhere in that camp is someone with brown hair and hazel eyes who is stronger than you, faster than you, and his sword has your name on it. Under the hot sun, in those dusty streets, everywhere you look, you can only see the inevitability of death staring back at you, and there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening.
It’s hard to come up with a modern scenario that would help us really feel what they felt. You know, there was a time when people in the United States thought this might happen with Russia. There’s even a movie about it called “Red Dawn,” which I understand they remade. I guess Hollywood felt this was a timeless tale that future generations needed to experience. But that didn’t pan out, and we couldn’t really think of who else might have the manpower to invade us, so we went to zombies, I guess. All our apocalyptic movies of America being overrun are about zombies, now, and if that helps you to imagine how these people felt, then go with it. Imagine looking out your bedroom window to find that you are surrounded by a horde of the living dead. It’s only a matter of time for you. It’s inexorable. You can’t stop it. In one of these movies, one of those zombies is going to figure out how to use a doorknob or a gun, and then we’re really in trouble!
I’ve taken a long time to set this up, but that’s because this is the part we don’t hear about. These people are staring at their own very real, very imminent destruction. The only thing that can quite literally save them is their God, and where is He? Prayer and obedience seem like a very thin shield against the very real spears and the very real people who wield them making their way to your gates.
I want to say right now that it is common for a good, faithful follower of God to be faced with very real and terrible circumstances and feel like God is not there for you. Let me say that again: it is common for a good, faithful follower of God to be faced with very real and terrible circumstances and feel like God is not there for you. It does not mean you do not have faith or are a bad Christian to survey the terrible realities around you and feel as though you are on your own and are about to get steamrolled.
One man who understands this better than anyone is Jesus, himself. Jesus, who prayed about his upcoming execution for hours. Hours! He did not get a sense of peace about the situation. An angel did not visit him. He kept at this for hours, at one point telling his disciples that he was distressed even to death. He was staring at his own torture and death and praying his guts out to God into that night sky and got back… nothing, as far as we know, just like Israel had experienced before him at times.
And in that moment, he had a decision to make. All he had to do was abandon ship. “I’m sorry I gave anyone the idea that I was actually the king of the Jews and that the kingdom of God had come in the midst of the Roman Empire. I’m sorry I let anyone think I was the promised Messiah. None of that is true. I’m sorry for the confusion, and I think we should all get back to our families and shows, and I’m just want to say how glad I am that I live in an Empire like Rome with a Caesar who is so great and lets us have our own Temple and everything.” All he had to do was stop. That’s it. And all these real crosses with real wood and real nails would go away.
In that moment, when he was pouring out his anguish and not getting any response back, he said, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” He decided he would be faithful, anyway, regardless of what did or did not happen. We can look at a lot of episodes from Jesus’ life that seem godlike to us, but that moment seems very godlike to me. No matter what anyone else will or won’t do, I will be faithful. I will see this through to the end.
The story of faith, beloved, is the story of people being surrounded by terrible circumstances that constantly preach the anti-sermon that God is not there, and if He is, He obviously can’t do what He said or He doesn’t care. And there is very little evidence that steps in to counter that message. We are the counter to that message. We have a choice. We continue by faith, regardless of the outcome, and it is those moments that the God who was there the entire time will use in ways that we may not even be able to anticipate.
In this case of our text this morning, although not in all cases, God will give a sign that He is with His people. Immanuel – God with us. The “el” is God’s name, and “immanu” is a weird Hebrew word from which we derive words like “immanent” – something that is right there on your doorstep. A child will be born to a girl who would not normally have a child, and the birth of this special boy will be a broadcast to God’s people that He is not done with Judah. He is about to do a great thing that will change Isaiah’s world forever – he will sweep away the northern kingdom and her allies with Assyria. And when this has happened, God will raise up a mighty, righteous king of Israel. This disaster that she faces, now, is the stepping stone to a victory that, at the moment, seems unlikely. But God has said it, He will do it, and the birth of little Immanuel is the sign! God is not absent. He is not uncaring. He is not unable. He is here, and amazing things are about to happen!
Hundreds of years later, long after this situation is a matter of ancient history even to Israel, she will find that she is also surrounded by those kinds of circumstances we talked about. The Promised Land is ruled by Rome – a nation of pagans who worship other gods and their own leader. Israel’s religious leaders, for the most part, have sold out to this regime so they can keep their jobs. The High Priest is on the government’s payroll, and the position gets passed down to whoever is rich and socially mobile. Israel is not prosperous, but is ground under by taxes to pay for buildings and statues, such that most of them barely eke out a survival. Many of them are sharecroppers on land that used to belong to their family, but now belongs to a soldier or a governor or the Sanhedrin. This once great nation that God had made so many glowing promises to was in captivity. The nation of kings and priests was the flotsam and jetsam in the backwaters of a far superior Empire whose strength knew no bounds.
But there was a man who went among those people and stirred their hearts. He reminded them of their God who loved them, showed them how to turn away from their lives to new lives of faithfulness. He healed their sick and cast out spirits. He brought a new kingdom to them in the midst of the one that held them down, and he showed them that for those who were steadfastly faithful, even in the face of a cross, that not even death could end them. And that kingdom grew, and generations later, the Caesar of Rome would declare that Jesus Christ was Lord of the Empire. You and I are here, today, because of this man, Jesus Christ, and I proclaim to you that He is lord, and though it is not without hardship and setbacks, his kingdom continues to roll out to all corners of the world, pushing back the darkness in favor of a people who live with compassion, justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
And it started with the sign – the sign that dropped right in the middle of a waiting Israel, ground under the thumb of the nations around her. The birth of a special baby, the Immanuel of the first century AD. Jesus, whose special birth told the world that God was not silent, that He was there, and that He was for and with His people. And no matter how it might appear to you, He still very much is.