Luke 19:11-28 – While You’re Waiting

Let me ask you folks a question: what are some things you like to do while you’re waiting?  Do you sit quietly with your thoughts?  Do you strike up conversations with the people around you?  Do you pull out your phone and start texting?  Do you call someone?  Which, incidentally, is kind of the same as talking to the people around you.  People seem to think some invisible sound shield surrounds them when they’re on their phone, but it doesn’t.  Everyone in the room knows all about your cyst or whatever you told your sister.

Most of the time, I read.  It used to be that I had to take a book with me everywhere I went, but thanks to technology, I have the Kindle app on my phone, which is great.  Now, if there’s a book I really want to read in ten-minute increments, I just fire up the app, and presto – five years later, I’ve read that book.

It’s a common part of our lives.  We show up for something, and then we have to wait.  Flights, doctor’s appointments – this is such a common phenomenon that we even have “waiting rooms.”  Isn’t that interesting?  That’s not very optimistic, is it?  We’re so confident that most people are going to have to wait that we built a special room for it.

In the military, we even had a special phrase for this.  Do you know what it is?  “Hurry up and wait.”  The idea is that it’s vitally important for you to arrive and be fully prepared as soon as you possibly can, but the military as a whole does not feel a similar obligation toward you, and you’re probably going to have to wait for the thing you were rushing to get to.  And then you play spades for the next three hours.

Our passage, today, is about something the disciples were sure was about to happen right away, but Jesus knew that they were going to have to wait, and how they spent that time was very important.

Please stand with me as we read the Word of God together:

As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.

He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’  And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ ”

And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Whenever Jesus talks in parables, he’s talking in a secret code.  Back in Luke chapter 8, when his disciples asked him why he didn’t speak more plainly, Jesus told them he taught the secrets of the kingdom in parables so that only the faithful would understand him and everyone else wouldn’t.

This is a very smart policy when you’re surrounded by the Roman Empire.  You can’t just walk around with a large group of people talking about a new kingdom overthrowing earthly kingdoms with yourself as the king.  Certain people will have feelings about that.  But if you’re walking around telling stories about seeds and sons and banquets and vineyards – nobody’s going to get into trouble for that.

But it’s a code.  It’s like those coded radio transmissions during World War II.  “The black cat sings by moonlight.  The turkey is on fire,” or whatever.  To the outside listener, that’s just someone saying random things about cats and turkeys.  To the people for whom the message is intended, however, secret and vital information is getting to them.

In fact, if you heard a spy say, “The black cat sings by moonlight,” and you went around looking for an actual cat, you would have missed the point, completely.  The message is not about cat noises.

In this parable, Jesus tells a story about a royal figure who is going away to receive a kingdom, but his own people don’t want him.  While he is away, he has servants invest some of his money.  When he comes back, he evaluates each of them on how well they did, and then destroys his enemies.

But this story is not about money management or the importance of investing or good ways to deal with your political opponents, and if we try to make this story about those literal things, then we’ve missed the point, just like the spy looking for a black cat.

So, I want to talk to you about the message that Jesus wanted his followers to hear, and then I want to talk about how that message might be useful for us, today.

First, what did Jesus want his followers to hear?

Luke tells us that Jesus has been traveling toward Jerusalem.  He’s just been through Jericho where the event happens with Zacchaeus.  A big crowd is around Jesus, Zacchaeus repents of how he’s cheated his fellow Israelites – and the repentance is not just him being sorry, but he works to repair the damage, which is important for understanding biblical repentance – and Jesus announces that he will be saved.

As he continues toward Jerusalem, the people around Jesus begin to think that the kingdom of God is about to fully happen right then and there.  All the ingredients are here.  The true descendant of David is here, the city of the king is here – time for the true king to overthrow the impostors and take the throne and usher in a new era.  If you’re a Tolkien nerd like I am, you might think of Aragorn coming to Gondor in The Return of the King.  It’s time for Isildur’s true descendant to reign in the city of the king.  Tolkien was a Christian, and it’s no accident that many parts of his stories sound very much like Bible stories.

Jesus wants to correct this idea, but he can’t just come out in front of everyone and spell out his plans for the kingdom.  This would be crazy dangerous and… well… just crazy in general, really.  Nobody stands in front of the gates of the enemy and announces their strategy and timetable to everyone who happens to be standing around at the time.  So, instead, Jesus tells a story in secret code.  But as we interpret the code, we have to keep in mind the context: the issue that Jesus is talking about is the expectation that he is going to bring the kingdom of God right then and there.

In this story, the nobleman does not receive his kingdom right away – he has to travel far away, leaving his servants to manage things in his absence.  He receives his kingdom after his journey.

This is the first thing Jesus wants his true followers to know: the kingdom isn’t going to appear right this second.  It will come, and Jesus will receive it, but it will not be at that moment while he is with his disciples.  He will have to go away to receive it.

The disciples, by the way, never really do get keen on the idea that Jesus has to leave them in order for this kingdom plan to work.  They keep expecting and insisting that Jesus will stay with them, be victorious right then, and set them on thrones and so on.  This is an ongoing obstacle with Jesus’ disciples until after his resurrection and ascension.  At one point, Peter even rebukes Jesus for saying things like this, which is pretty gutsy, if you ask me.

The next thing the nobleman does in the story is give his servants some money and command them to conduct business for him while he’s away.

So, the second thing Jesus wants them to know is that, while he is gone, they will have to manage without him, and he expects they will take what he has given them and multiply it.  At the time, they don’t know what this will look like, but on this side of the book of Acts, we do.  The sharing of the gospel, the performing of Jesus’ miracles, the establishment of believing communities taking care of one another – these are things Jesus’ followers do in the days after he leaves them.

Then, in the story, our nobleman runs into a snag.  Some of his own people begin to subvert him.  They start telling these new kingdom people that they don’t want this man to be their king.

Jesus is telling his followers that this will happen to him as well.  Some of the very people who should be rejoicing that their king has come will be the same people who work to stop it, namely the political and religious leaders of Israel at that time, and they will seek to turn the people who would enter the kingdom against their prospective king.

We might expect, then, that this nobleman in the story is in a bad spot.  He’s away from his servants and some of his own people are working to turn everyone against him.  But that’s not at all what happens.  The nobleman receives his kingdom and comes back!  Safe and sound!  No trouble at all.  He’s got the kingdom, and he’s back with his servants.

Jesus wants his followers to know that even though he has to go away, and even though there will be opposition, that this cannot stop his plans.  It doesn’t hold them up at all, and these efforts to stop them amount to something like a bug trying to stop a van.  Jesus wants his followers to have hope and be comforted during that time.  He will receive his kingdom, and he will come back to them.

Then the nobleman asks how each of them did with his money, and the first couple of servants report successes.  Note that, in the story, he rewards them with authority over cities.  He has a kingdom, now, and can do these sorts of things.  The little of his money that they were entrusted with shows him that they can be trusted with much greater power and authority.  Because they were faithful with what they had been given, their lord can trust them with much, much more.

Jesus wants his followers to know that, when he returns, their faithfulness in his absence will show that they are worthy of receiving authority in his kingdom.  He expects that they will obey him while he is gone and do the things that he did in the world, and this will result in more and more people turning their hearts to him.  Because they are faithful with a little, great will be their reward.  Their stewardship of the gifts of the gospel and their spiritual gifts and the people under their care and leadership will result in them ruling the kingdom with Jesus.

And then we get to the next servant, and, I’m not going to lie, things get a little awkward.

This servant has done absolutely nothing with his lord’s investment.  He’s hidden it.  And why?  Because he was afraid.  He knew his master was a savvy investor, a hard-driving businessman, and a strict evaluator.  He was afraid that, if he did something with his master’s money, he would lose what he had and the master would be angry with him.

Makes some sense, right?  We’ve probably all had bosses like this.  Maybe you are a boss like this; I don’t know.

And if the lord’s instruction had been, “Make sure I don’t lose any money,” this line of reasoning might have worked out.  If he had said, “Please do what you can to hold on to what I gave you,” this plan might have been all right.  Unfortunately, the lord had asked his servants to risk the money – to put it out there like he did and see what happened.  This is the irony of this servant: by trying to protect his lord’s interests, he ended up completely disobeying him.

Let that sink in for a minute.  He tried to protect his lord’s interests, and he ended up not doing what the lord said he wanted.

The nobleman in the story does not take this well.  He tells the servant that, if he knew all those things about him, then he should have been motivated to multiply the money.  If he was so worried about losing the money, he could have at least put it in the bank to gather interest.  That at least would have been something!  That at least would have been obedient, even if it was in a cautious, small way.  His return may have been small, and perhaps his reward would not have been as great as the others, but he would have done what his master said to do.  Just putting out the barest amount of thought and effort on his part to do something – anything – that would have increased what the master entrusted to him.

This is an important truth for Jesus’ disciples.  The days are coming when they will have to risk what they’ve got, perhaps even their own lives.  The command is not to hide.  The command is not to keep safe until Jesus returns with the kingdom.  The command is to risk and grow what they have been given; even the smallest effort will be worth something.

In the story, what has been given to the servant is taken away and given to the one who had made a lot of money.  Not all the servants were ok with this, but the master reminded them of the principle: the one who is faithful with what they have been given will be rewarded accordingly.  If someone is unfaithful, even what they have been given will be taken away and, in this case, given to the servant who showed they could do something profitable with it.

Jesus wanted his followers to know that some who would call him Lord, today, would do absolutely zero about it.  They would blend into a pagan Roman Empire and live safe lives.  When people asked about following Jesus, they would say, “Well, yes, Jesus was pretty great, but the Emperor is pretty great, too.  Thank goodness he’s still in charge.  I’m voting for him next time, too.”  When sick people came to them, they would say, “You know, I’m not sure God still works in that way.  I hope you feel better!”  When poor people came to them, they wouldn’t give of their food or clothing, but they would say, “I hope God clothes you and feeds you!” and send them on their way.

In other words, they would hide their advance share of the kingdom, and when Jesus returned, he would take it from them and give it to those who were, frankly, more like him.

Now, some of you may wonder if I’m aware this is a Protestant church.  We believe in justification by faith alone, and not faith plus works.  That’s certainly true.  And it may be noteworthy in the story that the unfaithful servant does not suffer the same fate that the lord’s enemies do.

But let’s not theologize the teeth out of Jesus’ story, here.  The servant doesn’t get cities because he believed the right things about his lord (which he clearly did), and he doesn’t get cities for the intent of his heart being in the right place.  He doesn’t get cities because he didn’t do what the lord asked him to do with what he had been given.

And then we have the end of the parable: the nobleman’s enemies are brought before him to be executed.

And now we see why Jesus might be telling a parable, here, instead of speaking plainly.  He wants his disciples to know that everyone who subverts him, now, will get their comeuppance when he returns.  I admit, this is a side of Jesus that makes us uncomfortable, but it’s part of his story.  When the disciples don’t see the kingdom occurring right in front of them the way they want it to, Jesus wants them to know that it will not be put off forever.  They will have to wait, and there are expectations of what they do while they’re waiting, but their waiting will have an end.

And when that day comes, the opponents of king Jesus will receive a judgement from him, and on that day, the judgement will be their destruction.

We know from history, church, that this story is what played out.

Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the kingdom did not appear.  He was killed.  Then, God raised him from the dead and exalted him to His right hand.  The faithful followers of Jesus were given his Spirit, and they said the things he said and did the things he did, and the fire spread throughout the ancient world.

And those who subverted Jesus?  Herod?  The power structure of the Temple?  The high priest?  The Sanhedrin?  In 70 AD, they were destroyed by the Roman Empire while the followers of Jesus had left the city.  And the Roman Empire?  The gospel spread and spread until Christians brought the pagan powers of Rome to a close, put a stop to persecution, and declared that Jesus Christ was the Lord over the Empire.

This is not the end of the story, of course.  And that brings me to my closing point: what message does Jesus’ story have for us?

Well, at the personal level, this may have challenged you to think about what you’ve been given and what you’re doing with it.  What spiritual gifts do you have?  What resources have you been given?  What are you doing with your house or your car in Jesus’ name?  Your money?  Your time?  Your skills?

If you’re thinking about these things, don’t shut that down.  That’s likely the Spirit.  And the Spirit is not a spirit of shame.

But like a loving Father, we want to hear God’s encouragement to move from strength to strength, and maybe this is an area the Spirit is urging you to grow in.  Don’t shut that off!

And I will tell you this is a huge area for me.  When it comes to spending my time and money and skills on dumb stuff to make myself feel better, I’m not just in the boat with you, I’m the captain of that boat.  I am the captain of the S.S. Waste o’ Resources.

Along with however the Spirit is speaking to you personally, I also want us to give attention to how we might hear this story as the people of God in the world, collectively.  As a group.  That’s how the Bible was written, after all.

Christianity in the West is at a point it hasn’t been for a very long time.  For literally centuries, we have been used to being on top.  Political aspirants needed our approval.  Cultures and even laws were dictated by our practices and values.  Did you know you can’t buy alcohol in Kansas before noon?  Let’s not talk about how I know that.

We have had a very long run of dictating the pace of politics, education, laws, media, culture, public morality.  Not everyone has let this go unchallenged, and I’m not saying everything has always pandered to Christians, because that’s not true.  But our culturally dominant place in Western society is something that has just gone without saying for a long time.

But today is somewhat different, isn’t it?

We feel like we are losing our grasp everywhere and at an alarming pace.  For lack of a better word, secularism is on the rise in virtually every social institution you can imagine, and Christianity is seen as irrelevant at best and actively harmful to society at worst.  It’s a fairy tale.  It’s something that has no place in a world that should be run by empiricism and rationality.

And you can see every aspect of the culture throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity.  Heck, you can even see Christianity throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity, sometimes.

And, you know, not all of this is necessarily bad.  Love rules the world, and where Christians impede it, we should move out of the way.  We’re not growing as the people of God, or even being the people of God in new contexts, if we look exactly the same as we did in the first or fifth or fifteenth century.

When we see this happening around us, it’s a natural instinct to panic.  And panic we have.  There is a full court press in America to try to reclaim the social influence and power we used to have, and we’ve been very indiscriminate about whom we ally with to get it.

But maybe instead of asking ourselves what we can do to get back on top, maybe we should ask ourselves: what did we do when we were on top?  Were we a model of compassion, justice, and mercy for the rest of the world?  Were we a blessing to the nations?

Maybe, just maybe, the reason we’ve lost our status in the world is because we proved irresponsible with it.  Maybe we used our power for our own benefit.  Maybe we used it to get our way.  Maybe we didn’t think about anyone’s welfare but our own.

Were we Jesus in the world?  Did people in all nations marvel at how sacrificially Christians loved?  Or did we look like something very different?

You know, the whole reason Israel was under Roman rule in the first place was that, instead of being a model for the rest of the nations – instead of doing justice, being merciful, spreading compassion, dispensing wisdom, promoting peace and healing and forgiveness and restoration – instead of doing those things, her leaders oppressed the poor and the outsider, they forgot the widow and the orphan and the prisoner, they chased money and allied themselves with the political powers of their day.

And God through His prophets warned them.  He told them that their religious obedience was offensive to Him, because they had neglected the weightier matters of the Law.  He wanted them to be merciful, not their sacrifices.  Eventually, what they had was taken away from them.

It is because of Scripture that I can tell you that Sundays being sacred and singing worship songs and fighting for our moral values is all offensive to God if we are not being Jesus to each other and to the world.

If someone in a congregation is having trouble buying enough food and someone else is trying to decide what wood their new entertainment center should be made of.  If we cover up sexual abuse to avoid looking bad.  If people of color try to tell us their experiences and we tell them they are wrong and their feelings don’t matter.  We cannot expect to be prominent in the world if this is what we have to offer the world.  If we are not leading with love, justice, compassion, wisdom, and peace – incarnating those precious fruits of the Spirit – then what we have will be taken away from us.

God does not care about our numbers, our buildings, or our programs if we are not going to be what His people are supposed to be.  He does not care what legislation we defeat or what politicians we get elected if we are just another group looking for power in the world like every other group.  We are supposed to be a light.  We are supposed to be a new heavens and a new earth right now.  We are supposed to be a vision of Spirit-filled community that is so full of love and restoration and hope that people should be beating our doors down to get in.

Have we been that?  What did we do with power and influence when we had it?  What did we do with the resources the master gave us?  Did we do what he would have done?  What he asked us to do?

Well, none of us want to see the Church lose influence or credibility, but maybe there is a blessing to be found, here.  Maybe when we have lost our influence, we won’t invest so much in trying to secure it at all costs.  Maybe this period will turn our eyes back to who our Lord is and what he asked us to do in his name.  Maybe this is our chance to wait well and not waste this time.

This is how we begin to turn the ship around.  Get into healing hurts, both physical and emotional.  Get into bringing forgiveness to those tormented by their sins.  Get into bringing safety and care to people who live lives at risk.  Seek ways to increase the well-being of this city.  Bring family to people who don’t know what true family is like.  Know each other fully and love each other sacrificially.

And who knows?  With efforts like this that grow over time, who knows what the returns on that investment will be?  Who knows how the Church will be seen by the world ten, fifty, a hundred, or five hundred years from now?  Who knows what God will entrust to our care if we dedicate ourselves to being good stewards of the gospel and the Spirit?

I can tell you, from how God has dealt with His people in the past, that the road to victory is faithful obedience – being who we’re supposed to be no matter what our circumstances are.  Someday, this road will come to an end, and what wonders will wait for us in God’s hands when we turn over to Him what we have done with His gifts?

Sermon: “A Sign from the Lord” – Isaiah 7:10-17

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.

Let’s pray.