Sermon preached the Fourth Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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 young woman 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.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Throughout this Advent season, we have been looking at the visions of Isaiah, the Israelite prophet who saw light and new life in empty places. We’ve seen the holy mountain where people beat their swords into plowshares, and the lions and lambs laid down together, and the stump that bears new shoots, and the desert wilderness that blossoms with roses and rivers. These visions are utopias, fantasies, even, worlds of hope and peace and joy everlasting.
In comparison, today’s scripture seems rather bland.
We are early in the book of Isaiah today. This is the first time he is meddling with politics. The Lord has sent him to Ahaz, King of Judah. It is wartime—as it almost always is. The Assyrians have allied with the Babylonians to try and knock Ahaz off his throne, so they can put a puppet ruler in his place, someone who will help them in their wars against larger countries. Judah is tiny—half the size of New Jersey. Ahaz seems done for.
But the Lord sends Isaiah in with a message for the quaking King. “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, do not let your heart be faint.” Neither of these empires will succeed. Stand firm in faith.
The Lord talks to Ahaz, too. Ask for a sign, God says. Anything at all.
But Ahaz refuses. It’s a strange refusal, couched in the language of piety—I won’t put God to the test—but it seems to really stem from a lack of faith in God, a lack of faith that a sign from God means anything, in the face of the oncoming armies. What good are signs against swords?
Isaiah gives him a sign anyway. “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
It’s not actually that unusual of a prophecy, as prophecies go. The Old Testament is full of prophets talking about women who give their children meaningful names—it’s a favorite theme. And the name itself—Immanuel, God is with us—wouldn’t have been that odd either. There are lots of similar Hebrew names—Elijah means the Lord is my God, Ezekiel means God strengthens, Elizabeth means God is bountiful. For a child to be named Immanuel, God is with us, would remind Ahaz and his people what they had always known to be true: that the Lord God was on their side, and would not abandon them.
The prophecy continues: “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.”
Quite frankly, this makes no sense if we stop the reading here, as the lectionary does. But if you keep reading, the prophecy continues, and it talks about God, once the enemy countries fall, calling the bees back to Judah and turning the vineyards into pastures for sheep and cows. Then everyone will eat curds and honey, because that is the food the land will produce. So the prophecy is actually mostly about timing, measured against the lifespan of a child. Between the time the child is born and when he is old enough to know right from wrong, God will see Judah safe from its enemies. It’s a messy prophecy, but the gist is this: not long now. God is coming to help soon.
Of course, there’s a reason the lectionary doesn’t include the whole prophecy, with the bits about the bees and the cows. This time is year, most Christians are only interested in the one verse: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” That’s the verse Matthew picked up centuries later when writing his gospel account of Jesus’ birth. Many biblical scholars are, for lack of a better word, grumpy about that. They say it’s taking Isaiah’s words out of context, and to a degree it is. Isaiah never predicted God would come in the form of a baby; never thought of Immanuel literally. But the context is not so different as it first appears; like Ahaz, Joseph lived in a world where there were enemies on every side. In Joseph’s world, the war was long over, and his people had lost; Roman rulers and soldiers kept a brutal peace. Day-to-day life could seem calm, normal even; but violence was never far off.
So I think Matthew’s choice of Isaiah’s words was more than just a superficial connection of the ancient pregnant woman with Mary. I think he remembered the whole promise of God: that in a world of war and violence, in a world of fear and faithlessness, God is coming soon.
God was coming to be with the Judeans, even as the Assyrians and Babylonians marched forward. God was coming to be with the Jews, even as the Romans kept their watchful eye. God is coming to be with us, in all our mess and heartache. God, Emmanuel.
God rushes in to the dark places, the frightened places, the dangerous places.
And if that is not the result of love, I don’t know what is.
We are prone, in American culture, to think of love as something soft and gentle; most of us can quote Paul in saying Love is patient, Love is kind. But Love is also powerful and strong and brave. Love is fierce. Love rushes in where there is pain or fear or suffering. And the fact that God comes to us not where God will be most worshipped and adored and pampered, but where we are most in need of saving—that tells me that God truly is Love.
It has been an eerie week to study the wartime politics of ancient Judah—to read about the armies of Syria and Damascus some 2500 years ago. Eerie to plod through the alliances and campaign maps in my trusty commentaries, and then to turn on my television or scroll through the news on my computer to see the same places flash across my screen. If you have been paying attention to the war in Syria, this week has been heartbreaking. Difficult to reconcile the unspeakable atrocities, the indiscriminate murder of civilians, with talk of Love. Difficult to know that while I decorate for Christmas, others are fleeing for their lives—or prevented from doing so.
I found myself looking for hope, as I always do. And this week I found it—however slim a hope it might be—in the Syrian Civil Defense, also called the White Helmets. You may have heard of them; they’ve been active since 2013. The members of the group—almost all volunteers—are trained to rush in where others flee, to search out survivors in the rubble of bombed buildings. They are officially nonpartisan and nongovernmental, although they have been targeted by the Assad regime because of their funding from western donors, and because part of their mission is to spread the word about what is going on in Syria.
The men and women of the White Helmets held regular jobs before the war began—teachers and grocers and engineers. Now, they spend each day face to face with death and destruction. While numbers are difficult to verify, they claim to have saved over 70000 lives. Along with pulling people from the rubble, they also work to shore up infrastructure, so that further loss of life can be prevented. Also—and this part of their work gets far less publicity, but they value it highly—they provide dignified burials for those who have been killed. Their mission is based off a line in the Quran: “to save one life is to save all humanity.”
For this work, full-time volunteers receive $150 dollars a month. Over 140 of them have been killed during their rescue work.
The White Helmets first came to my attention in 2014. Khaled Omar Harrah had been a painter and decorator before the war, and was one of the earliest volunteers with the white helmets. In the summer of 2014, he was called to an apartment building in Aleppo that had been bombed. The white helmet team was able to dig three families out of the rubble, and was preparing to leave when one of the mothers told them she was missing her son, just ten days old. Still in shock, she couldn’t remember where he had been before the building fell. They searched for hours but found nothing. At 3:30, some nine hours after the bombing, Harrah laid down to rest, and with his ear on the concrete, heard the baby crying underneath. At first he thought he was delusional, but his teammates confirmed the sound and began to dig, slowly and carefully. Five hours later, in the dark, under the light of flashlights, they pulled the infant, Mahmoud, from the rubble, and returned him to his mother.
The White Helmets have saved hundreds of children, but the last few seconds of this rescue was caught on video, and quickly spread round the world. Mahmoud was dubbed the miracle baby. Even at just thirty seconds, the video is heartbreaking, but the powerful love of the rescuers—men and women who risk everything for the lives of people they do not know, without checking their credentials or affiliations—points the way to healing. This is fierce love, saving love, love that rushes in and goes toe to toe with hatred, day in and day out.
This past August, Harrah was on another site, pulling people from the rubble, when he himself was killed in an airstrike.
This is a hard story to tell–there is hope in it, but not as much as I would like. The bombs continue to fall, and even those who escape are flung into a world that is not always hospitable to refugees. This close to Christmas, I would rather be telling safe, warm, comfy stories. But God did not come into a safe, warm, comfy world; God came into a stable, into poverty, into Roman oppression. God came into a world that was afraid and exhausted. God rushed in, in the form of a tiny child, an infant like Mahmoud, to live with us and die like us, to be God with us, God with us through good times and bad. This is love: that God does not leave our side. That God rushes in where despair has taken hold. That God rushes in to Aleppo and Flint and Haiti. That God rushes in to our hearts when we begin to be overwhelmed. That God is always being born in this world, in every act of courage, in every act of faith, in every act of love.
In a few minutes we’ll be singing a well-known Christmas carol, What Child Is This. We’ve been singing the third stanza of it as our offertory response all Advent–or at least, I thought we were. I have a bit of confession–I typed those lyrics up from memory. They’re how I learned the song, and how most modern versions go. But when I was choosing music for this week, I actually took a look in our hymnal, and discovered that this hymnal has gone back to the original version, a poem written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. Dix worked as the manager of an insurance company in England when he was struck by a severe illness that left him bedridden and severely depressed. From the darkness of that experience, though, he experienced what he called a “spiritual renewal,” and while he recovered, read the Bible from cover to cover. He later authored several hymns, including What Child Is This.
In the original version, which we’ll sing today, Dix wrote the following lines:
Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be born, for me for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!
I wrestled with whether or not we should sing those words today. They are painful; cruel even. We do not want to look at any baby and imagine harm. But in the end I chose to use the new–that is, the old version, because it shows the depth of God’s love. That God would become flesh for us, flesh that feels hunger and tiredness and pain, so that we would not be alone in this world. That God would come into a dangerous world, so that we could know what it means to be loved beyond all limits.
The love that came down at Christmas as the infant Christ was soft and vulnerable at the beginning, as all babies are; but as he grew he learned to be fierce and brave, to live out God’s love by teaching and healing and casting out demons and breaking rules and ultimately, by dying for us and rising for us. This week, as we prepare the manger for its newest occupant, I pray that we will feel the strength of God’s love, love that rushes in wherever there is fear or sorrow or hatred. I pray that we will share that love, be that love in the world. The places where we spend our days may not be as harsh as Aleppo. But on every side there are people in need of love, in need of someone to come sit with them, to be Emmanuel, God with them.
God is coming soon. I have Saturday circled on the calendar. But we know, even as we prepare, that God is already here, and always has been, pumping Love into our hearts, into our lives, Love that lifts us from despair and points us to faith, Love that heals the broken places and manages to find joy in even the darkest times.
Emmanuel, God with us, always and forever.
Love, here, now.