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A Sign

As we approach Christmas, I cannot help but reflect on our time in Holy Land last January. We got to spend time in Bethlehem. Our visits to the Church of the Nativity were moving. For me, they were precious opportunities of reflection and sharing with our fellow pilgrims. There also was the inevitable time walking through a busy, crowded, modern city on the way to the holy site. I can even remember a knock-off version of Starbucks that clamored for our attention. (It gave us a good laugh.) All this comes back to me as I head towards Christmas and hear songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The song was written by the famous Boston preacher Phillip Brooks on the occasion of his visit to Bethlehem at Christmas Eve in 1865. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!” (“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 230, verse 4). These words are a prayer which we and our wider world desperately need. We sing in response to God that the Lord might indeed “abide with us.” Such a song and such a sentiment puts us on equal footing with old Isaiah. Doggedly he haunts the footsteps of King Ahaz as the king goes on his rounds securing the safety of Jerusalem. We think this week has been tough on our country but take that week for King Ahaz and the people of Judah. Eight centuries before the birth of Christ, Israel and Syria had formed a coalition to attack Judah laying siege to Jerusalem. Verse two of the seventh chapter tells us “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). About this passage Dr. James Harnish wrote: “For Jerusalem, the military crisis on the outside provoked a theological crisis on the inside. . . . The king was called to lead the nation on the basis of his relationship with God, but Ahaz’s faith had been shattered by the circumstances surrounding him. Under siege by military forces without and spiritual forces anxiety within, Ahaz desperately needed the word he received from Isaiah [in verse four]: ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’ But God’s promise was more than Ahaz could believe” (James A. Harnish, Meet the Son of God, pp. 33-34). Thus the challenge is given. “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Isaiah 7:11). Put God to the test, see if God is real, ask for a sign, insist of the crusty prophet. I confess that I choke at such a thought. Putting God to a test seems incredibly presumptive to me. And yet, there is this deep belief in God’s fundamental trustworthiness to which the prophet challenges my timid trusting faith. We commonly think of a sign from God coming in spectacular form. Images of a flash of thunder or a blinding light come into our mind’s eye. If we’ve seen too much of Touched by an Angel or a similar television portrayal, then we are sure music needs to be present. Not so for Isaiah: the sign is so common, so everyday ordinary that it can’t be missed. “Ahaz,” writes Harnish, “responds with mock humility, which fails to hide his lack of faith. ‘Oh, not me! I’d never stoop so low as to put God to a test!’ Isaiah’s response reveals unmistakable frustration: ‘It’s bad enough for you to wear out the patience of men – do you have to wear out God’s patience too?’” (James A. Harnish, Meet the Son of God, p. 34; Isaiah 7:13 TEV). In confronting Ahaz the prophet confronts me. Isaiah assures King Ahaz that if he will trust God, he and his kingdom will be saved. The King, with his mind made up, ignores Isaiah. He prefers to trust his own political and diplomatic resources. All too often I too prefer to trust my own resources. Surely the parallels to our own day and time can be seen. How often we come to Christmas like Ahaz, not wrestling with the deeper issues of God’s presence, believing in God all the while living as common deists (those who believe God is absent from human affairs). Is Christmas real? Is God with us? We are tempted to hedge our bets. In the press of our casual doubt and fast-paced ignoring of God, Isaiah responds to the Ahaz in all of us. Whether we want to or not, we will receive a sign. “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). What could be more common than that? It is here I must pause and invite the reader to join me in a movement of quiet reflection. In the time of Isaiah it was common to give a child’s name certain meaning. One Old Testament scholar notes that “Isaiah’s [own] oddly-named sons are described collectively as ‘signs and portents’ in 8:18” (John F. A. Sawyer, Isaiah, Vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 81). Isaiah is saying to the untrusting King, there will be a kid running by and you’ll look around and realize that his name is “God is with us.” A smiling, laughing, crying face will zip around the corner or yell at a classmate and people will say, “Oh, it’s God-is-with-us.” It is a sign which will be a constant reminder of the very presence of God in your life and in the life of your nation. To us too is given a sign. In this day of super computers and mega debt, of life crammed to the brim with activities and yet often emptied of substance, in these times of war and political gridlock, a child will be born . . . again . . . “and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us” (Matthew 1:23).