And this Will Be a Sign: Emmanuel

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Isaiah 7:10-16

Have you seen the viral video on you tube? If you are connected at all, I bet you have. I shared it on my facebook and I still keep seeing it pop up now and then.

It’s that video which opens at a food court in a large mall. The crowd is eating and it is very noisy with some background Xmas music.  All of the sudden you hear organ music – and you recognize the tune – it is the intro to the Hallelujah chorus… and all of the sudden—the crowd grows quiet—there in the food court.

And a woman with a cell phone stands up and sings:  Hallelujah! …Then a tenor sings… Hallelujah! And before you know it… there is a choir of shoppers called together as a flash mob to sing the Hallelujah chorus. And for a moment in that mall, everyone stops talking… and everyone pauses what they are doing… except for people taking pictures with their cell phone cameras. It is fun, beautiful and has moved many to tears. 

This is not what you expect to see happening there in in the temple of consumerism. It is not a place where you would expect beauty or culture. A food court is all about efficiency—get your food quickly, eat just as quickly, and get on with your shopping… as you try to create a Merry Christmas for you and yours.

It is certainly not a place we expect to encounter the sacred… not a place where we expect a sign from God. And yet, thanks to this flash mob, those unsuspecting people in the food court (and we through the internet) are offered a gift… a sign of the holy. A sign for many of us of God speaking… offering a sign of his presence in this season.

Isaiah tried to offer Ahaz a sign. Lord knows he could use one. Ahaz is living under great stress… he’s trying to find and create peace. But it is hard. He is the king of a small Kingdom called Judah surrounded by enemies… Assyria, Israel and Syria are all breathing down his neck. Israel and Syria are pressuring him to join their alliance against Assyria—the world power. Assyria looks like a better ally. What is a king to do? You would not blame him if he felt stressed out, worried and alone.

Earlier, Isaiah tried to comfort him with a word from the Lord:

“Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint (because of Israel and Syria. I will take care of them)”

But Ahaz is not able to hear what the Lord is saying to him.

So here we are with a second word of the Lord trying to reach out to Ahaz assuring him that he is not alone– asking him to have a little faith in God—to depend upon God for security and a future.

   “Ask a sign of the Lord your God, let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

Oddly, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign which ticks Isaiah off. It appears that fear wins over faith:“Hear then, O house of David (derision) Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? (he’s trying to help you, don’t you see it?)  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”

And the name, as we know means this: “I am with you”.

When the child is born… named Emmanuel—you are to remember this promise. I am with you. Though you may not see me with your own eyes… believe me… I am with you. Though all you will hear is my word through the prophet—believe me—I am with you.Sadly, he will not believe the promise of God.

Maybe that is what fear does to us. It erodes or destroys our faith in God. Has fear ever eroded your faith? It can do that you know.

But not always.

Contrast the story of Ahaz with the story of Joseph as Matthew quotes this text from Isaiah. It was another time of fear for God’s people living under occupation. It was a time when there was political unrest. And personal stress.

Here we have Joseph and Mary in their own fearful bind. Under stress. At first he thinks she has been unfaithful and had an affair. He knows this is the death penalty for her if he makes a case of it. If he seeks revenge. Instead, he plans to let her go quietly. Still Joseph has a hard time sleeping… fearful for Mary… fearful for the scandal… a future with Mary now over…  Until an angel speaks to Joseph in a dream – and offers Joseph this sign:

     (Joseph) “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.”

Unlike Ahaz, Joseph responds in faith—he hears and holds on to this sign for dear life… that child Mary will bear will be the sign of God in our midst—in fact this child WILL be God in our midst… to be with us – to save us form our sins… to save us from ourselves.

And Joseph holds on to that sign in faith. Not knowing, not understanding… a sign offered in a dream– but accepted in faith. Faith in the sign that God is really with us. We are not alone. The sign that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Christ.

Emmanuel – God is with us—that is the sign God would give us…this and every Christmas.

The question the texts raise for me this last Sunday in Advent  is this: How will we respond? Will fear erode our faith or will faith lead us into our future?

Some days, I have to confess that fear seems to have the upper hand. Like Ahaz, you feel trapped by worry and uncertainty about life and the future and you want to give up on God—and take matters in your own hands. I pray that prayer, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief”  — please don’t let my unbelief take over.

But on my better days, I am able to have some measure of faith that God really is with us. Maybe not always in the way I hoped or expected… but God is with us.

I was touched by comments Elizabeth Edwards made about her faith before she died.Talk about someone who had a hard life. Who had every right to feel abandoned by God. When she talked about the death of their son Wade, she had to do some hard thinking about God. She said:

I had to think about a God who would not save my son….I had to think, “What kind of God do I have that doesn’t intervene—in fact, may even participate—in the death of this good boy?” …. I had to accept that my God was a God who promised enlightenment and salvation. And that’s all. Didn’t promise us protection.”

If I could add only one thing from today’s text to what she said it would be this:

God also promised to be with us…  to be with us… present in any and all circumstances. Through the valley of the shadow of death…

And in his presence, many have found the faith that has conquered fear… … even the fear that seeks to erode faith.

If you listen closely, I think this is one of the messages God keeps trying to get through to all of us—not only at Christmas—but for all of our lives:“Do not be afraid” (how often do we hear that)—I am here… or as the angels said, “Good news… Jesus Christ is born today… God is with us.”

This is the good news God would have us believe.

Years ago, in 1897-  a little girl was losing her faith in Santa Claus. You know the story. She wrote a now famous letter to the New York Sun newspaper:

  “Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “if you see it in THE SUN it’s so.”  Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa claus?”

            Virginia O’Hanlon; 115 W 95thSt.

The editor responded with great wisdom:

“VIRGINIA, Your little friends are wrong. They have been infected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. (and there was, you know—a bishop in the church from Turkey). He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Clause! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.

There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal life with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus?! ….

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, not even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view  and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else more real and abiding.”

You know what the letter is about, don’t you? It is not about Santa Claus. It is about faith. Faith that looks beyond what can be seen… to the reality of what we cannot seen. Faith that invites us to believe that in the coming of Jesus, Emmanuel… God is with us. God really is with us. Not only then… but now. Today and always.  Ready to cast out sin and enter in… to cast out fear and come in here… God is with us…

May God give us the gift of faith to believe in this good news this Christmas. Amen.

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