Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25
May these words and our thoughts be acceptable to God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
There is a lot going on in the Isaiah reading today. Yes it’s very familiar to us but the background is deep. Ahaz was neither a good king nor a pious one. At the time Isaiah wrote the Northern Kingdom was being threatened by Assyria, under its king Tiglath Pileser III, and the North wanted to improve their chances of defending against the threat by forcing Ahaz, king of Judah, to join them. They did that by threatening Ahaz with civil war, a quid pro quo. In so doing the North would claim Jerusalem the symbolic centre of the united Israel under David, Ahaz saw through their scheme and looked elsewhere for help; an early form of Brexit, if you will, because he was accepting the complete break-up of the Old Kingdom. Jerusalem is still a contentious place for the same symbolic reason and Jews and Palestinians are contesting for it. The recent interference of a foreign power moving its embassy to Jerusalem doesn’t help in the least to ease the tensions, it actually increases them today. However instead of joining the Northern Kingdom against Assyria Ahaz asked Tiglath Pileser for help, that didn’t go well either because Judah became Assyria’s vassal.
Ahaz was faced with a big problem the North was assembling to invade Judah. So Isaiah told Ahaz to ask God for a sign of His support and God would give it to him. Isaiah in so doing alludes to the rebellion Moses faced from the Israelites described in Numbers 16, where the ground opened-up and swallowed those who rebelled against Moses – a sign as deep as Sheol, Hell that is. Isaiah also alludes to the day the Sun stood still when Joshua defeated the five Amorite kings see Joshua 10 – which is of course a sign as high as Heaven. But Ahaz in his impiety says to Isaiah that he will not ask for a sign because he does not want to test the Lord, but he in his false sanctimoniousness got it all wrong, God was offering a sign; never turn down an offer from God.
That was not the only thing Ahaz got wrong, he desecrated the Temple with Assyrian gods, imported its religion, including attempting the sacrifice of his own son Hezekiah, and forbade the teaching and the worship of Judaism. But not only that by not joining the Northern Kingdom and instead by humbling himself before Tigleth Pileser he allowed Assyria to invade the North and carry away its population to Assyria – the ethnic cleansing of the Ten Lost Tribes – and as Isaiah said the land was deserted within a year. The Psalmist today laments the loss of the North and is pleading to God to reinstate the lost tribes. Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son, when he ascended to the throne managed over time to remedy a lot of the damage his father had done. Our neighbours to the south will have a similar task after the present administration.
Who knows what sign God would have given if Ahaz had accepted His first offer. But God is never defeated He gave Ahaz and all of us a sign not to be ignored. A virgin will have a child called Immanuel, which as you know means ‘God with us’. And in that name is the fact that the Child will be both human and divine, a belief which we accept today without question, but one which Christians argued ardently over for centuries. And Isaiah says that the Child will eat milk and honey. Our translation reads ‘curds’ but a better one might be ‘butter’ or ‘milk’ indicating that He will be born in the land of milk and honey – the Promised Land.
It seems that Ahaz gave up a really good offer from God which would have kept Judah safe and maybe the Northern Kingdom too. Joseph on the other hand accepted a less than attractive offer; that is, that he marry a young woman who had let’s say at least a perceived questionable character and who was also pregnant by unusual circumstances; there would be questions. Mary you recall did what most girls who were in trouble they went away for a while, she visited her cousin Elizabeth in the countryside, where these things were less socially offensive. And when she got back she had the extraordinary good luck that the Romans had called for a census, so off she went again not to come back home for a couple of years when all this would be forgotten, blown over, and it appears it was because the Holy Family lived peacefully in Nazareth for more than twenty years following. God’s plan of course was working out all the time. The census got Mary to go to Bethlehem where Jesus would be born, so that all prophecy would be fulfilled. It’s neat the way it all works out but that’s God for you.
It’s easy to fault Ahaz, he couldn’t read the writing on the wall because he was not of the right faith, but because he messed up doesn’t mean that we get a pass. The people and prophets who speak to us from the Bible are the ones we should be listening to with hearing inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Emmanuel is God with us, truly with us. We find God with us working in our lives to guide us, help us, protect us. Consider carefully all your actions, follow the path that God has laid out for you, like Joseph it may not be the easiest path, like Ahaz it may be an offer you shouldn’t refuse, which ever kind it is follow it, wholeheartedly because salvation doesn’t come any other way. We know the Commandments – love God, love your neighbour – follow those in all your doings and God will reveal Himself to you, He may even stop the Sun in its path if you really need it to stop. The Lord can do wonderful things, let Him, and you will prosper and live long in the land. Amen. n