Thursday, December 9, 2010

Peace Sign

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.
This verse is well-known to anyone familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus, yet it doesn’t come from any of the Gospels, and it’s not about Jesus.
The verse is Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah is the speaker and he is speaking to Ahaz, King of Judah, who has received word that the king of the northern kingdom, Israel, and the king of Syria are forming an alliance to attack Jerusalem.  It shall not happen, Isaiah tells Ahaz.  The head of Syria is King Rezin, and the head of Israel is King Pekah…and just leaves that thought hanging.  The implication is “…and the head of Judah is…God.”  But then Isaiah issues a warning to Ahaz: “If you stand firm in faith.  If you don’t stand firm in faith, you won’t stand at all.”  Isaiah isn’t telling Ahaz to be true to his doctrinal positions regarding the nature of God.  He’s not telling him be believe certain facts about God without compromise.  That’s nothing.  Isaiah is telling Ahaz not to go to war and defend himself, but to trust that God will take care of things.  That’s fairly easy to do in theory, but when your enemies are gathering armies, joining forces and heading your way, that’s another story.
We don’t know whether Ahaz believed Isaiah—believed God—or not, but he readied his army.  If that would seem to indicate unbelief, one might say he was just being prudent.  “I believe God, but I have a responsibility as king to protect the people and to be prepared for any situation.”  What he believed is ultimately irrelevant; it’s what he did that matters.  If he went against his instincts, his deep belief in what was going to happen if he didn’t defend himself, and then didn’t ready his army—now that’s faith.
So God sent Isaiah to Ahaz a second time.  Isaiah tells him to ask God for a sign,  any sign, as assurance to God is serious about protecting him.  But Ahaz’s mind is made up, and he refuses to ask for a sign.  With false piety he says, “I will not put the LORD to the test.”
You know, if God tells you to put him to the test, you better put him to the test.
But Ahaz refuses, and Isaiah responds:
"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.
The birth of this child would be a sign that God was on the side of Judah in this conflict and wouldn’t allow the invasion to take place.  Sure enough, a few months later Pekah and Rezin were dead and Assyria had deported a large section of the populations of their kingdoms.  It’s unclear from the context who the child was whose birth was to be a sign to Ahaz, but the best scholarly consensus points to Hezekiah, who would succeed Ahaz as King of Judah.  (Hezekiah was one of the few kings of the divided kingdom to receive a favorable evaluation in the book of Kings.)  But the ambiguity of the text allowed later generations after the Exile to look to this passage and see the coming of a future king whose birth would signal that God had forgiven the unfaithfulness that led to the exile of both halves of the divided kingdom.  Through this king God would establish an eternal kingdom, and there would be peace.
Matthew tapped into this understanding when he applied this verse to Mary and Jesus.  This eschatological interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy was based on the conviction of the early Christians (even before Matthew wrote his gospel) that in Jesus God is actually present with his people.
One wonders if, in the expectation that there would be peace in this kingdom, the people understood that it would be a peace that comes not from having mighty armies readied to defend against all others, but rather from trusting that God would protect them.  Apparently not, because many who believed in his lifetime that Jesus was indeed this king still carried swords in anticipation of the ultimate and final conflict. 
But Jesus understood, and told Peter—and the rest of us—to put his sword away.  The Kingdom of God operates differently from the kingdoms of the world.
During Advent, Christians are called to radical faith.  In the midst of all the uncertainties of life, when we are confronted with the outbursts of war and violence, faith and trust in God anchors our lives and helps us stand firm and not fall.

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