Fourth in Advent: “A Sign Deep as Sheol and High as Heaven”

 

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

“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.” Why does Ahaz, King of Judah, who ruled from the Holy City of Jerusalem, refuse a sign from God?

We can answer the question about Ahaz historically, although if we treat this passage as a piece of history, there’s no reason to read it during Advent. Historically speaking, the young woman (which the church later interpreted as a “virgin”) who was with a child to be called Immanuel was probably the wife of Isaiah. Isaiah named several of his children as signs from God. (We can be glad that the child named “Immanuel” became the one associated with Christmas, as opposed to the child mentioned in chapter 8; his name was “Maher-shalal-hash-baz.”) Alternatively, the young woman is a wife of Ahaz. Scholars go either way.

Historically speaking, Isaiah is meddling in Ahaz’ political affairs. In 735 BC, the King of Damascus and the King of Northern Israel commenced an attack on Ahaz. They wanted him to join them in breaking away from the colossal Assyrian empire. Ahaz refused, so they sought to force him or replace him. Ahaz suffered losses and a siege of Jerusalem, and so he appealed to the Assyrian emperor for help. But he had to pay tribute to the emperor with riches taken from God’s temple, and later Ahaz erected a pagan altar to the Assyrian god and commands the priests to sacrifice to it. Isaiah in this passage, with the sign of Immanuel, is trying to persuade Ahaz to not join the rebellion, and later he will tell him not to rely on Assyria either. Isaiah wants Ahaz to hold firm and trust in God’s deliverance. Through Isaiah, God offers to let Ahaz pick his sign, as deep as the realm of death, as high as God’s abode. Ahaz declines, with what is evidently false piety. “I will not put the Lord to the test.” What Ahaz is really saying is, ‘Go away Isaiah, I do not want you or your God meddling in my affairs of state.’

So much for history. What we see in Isaiah, as we find elsewhere, is an important revelation from God coming through very political events; but that specific context of the war 735 does not give us an answer that speaks to us. So, once again, how is it that Ahaz can refuse a sign from God? A sign deep as Sheol or high as heaven—we cannot help thinking of Jesus the Christ as the fulfillment of that sign, he who descended from heaven all the way to the bowels of hell. Why would he say, “no thanks,” to this wonderful, undeserved gift of the magnitude of Jesus (a gift which he then gets anyway)? Have you ever done that? Ever refused a gift from God?

We have been preparing our hearts, making room for the Coming One. But how do you prepare for God to come, anyway? If God called and said, ‘I’d like to come for a visit. Can you put me up for the night? Please don’t go to any trouble.’ It’s hard to imagine saying no. You know God would see right through any excuse you might try to make. “Oh gosh. Tonight is bridge night.” “O come now,” replies God. “Bridge night hasn’t met since Sept. 1996. Now I know you were actually planning to binge watch Game of Thrones season 4 tonight. That’s ok, you can still do that. I’ll just join you for dinner and then I won’t bother you (if that’s really the way you want it).” / It’s hard to imagine saying no thanks, but on the other hand, can you imagine your house ever being adequately prepared for God to visit? Maybe your mind would race to all those crevices that you have dimly considered dusting but you never got around to it. Or all those little fixes and decorative touches that you never quite finished. Or maybe your house is a real mess; forget about the decorative touches. Or maybe your life is a mess. And you’d rather not have God see through it all, despite God’s protestations not to trouble yourself—“fear not,” God always says—because you prefer to hide it from yourself.

Is our church ready? Are we prepared to receive God? We are told Christmas is an occasion for joy. Why shouldn’t it be an occasion for terror? Fear runs all throughout the Christmas story. Joseph is told, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Terror is what grips the shepherds in Luke when the angels appear. Of course, God sends the message, over and over again: “Fear not.” The coming of Jesus is good news, even if it wasn’t exactly what you expected. (Take Joseph: he understandably did not expect his engagement to go the way it did. You can imagine the conversations: “O I see, Mary. It was the Holy Spirit, hmm?”) / Are we ready for God to upend all the rules? To come to us in a way that looks improper, even scandalous? In a way that feels imposing? How do you get ready for that? I’m not sure, but I know that the more firmly you are clinging on to what you have, the harder it is to open your arms to receive the Christ child. The shepherds are a good benchmark for us. Having so little to carry around, so little stuff to cling to, they greeted to coming one with open arms. But on the other side is Ahaz, who clung to his own power and authority. There must have been many like Ahaz when God put out his calls to come stay on December 24th. Lots of no-thank-yous. That’s why Jesus ends up in the cowshed, the manger. The cows took no offense, at least.

But after the birth, another king refused the sign, too. Herod had more stuff than just about anyone—royalty and wealth, a pretense of divine blessing, and the power of Rome at his back. God didn’t even bother calling up Herod directly, but when the wise men came and told Herod of the birth, we are told this: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened; and all Jerusalem with him.” There’s that scary Christmas again. / Herod does Ahaz one better. Rather than refusing the sign with false modesty, Herod tries to trick the Wise Men into giving up the secret of where this sign is born. He says, “When you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Herod prepares in his own way, through deceit and treachery, so that he can do away with the sign of God.

As it turns out, Ahaz and Herod had nothing to fear, really. Their fears about God’s coming were just a projection of their own mind. Just like our fears about God seeing our dirty corners, messy houses, lives, and churches. But the difference is that the more you have, the more you fear that you will lose; and so you greet any change, no matter how godly, with a polite or, in the extreme, murderous no-thank-you. Ahaz and Herod fearfully imagine God to be a threat, that God will come and take away all their power and royal freedom. They were right, in a sense: heeding the coming of God would have required them to repent utterly from the life of corrupt power that they clung to. But when the feared and unwelcome sign came to them anyway, there was no terrifying divine vengeance. I think God is done with smiting. Herod and Ahaz go on ruling as they wanted, leaving the world a worse place in their wake. God’s invitation refused, however politely or rudely, God simply passed by their lonely and unblessed houses. And the Wise Men quietly go back home and, like God, ignore Herod.

How do we prepare for the coming of God? How do we not only accept the sign from God when it is dumped on our laps despite our demurrals, but even seek it out, when it is harder to find, as it is in our day? It is a question that we need dwell on only for another week, because at Christmas we consider what to do with the gift now given. But like I said last week, this question of preparing for God’s coming stays with us, if only in the background, all year ‘round. How do we acknowledge, with the blessed fear of the shepherds, the momentous change God’s salvation brings upon the world, rather than turning away out of the selfish fear of Ahaz and Herod? How do we greet what feels like an uncomfortable, awkward conversation in the church as a way to prepare for the joy of God’s arrival? How do we prepare for a peace that, in the travails of its birth, threatens to turn the world upside down?

All our Advent preparations will, inevitably, fail to do justice to the coming of God. Our house will never be clean enough. Our church will never be together enough. Better to not worry about the dirt and the mess. Certainly, it is better not to sweep it under the rug. God doesn’t mind the dirty manger. And all our preparations are not what make God come. That happens by grace alone. There’s only so much you can do to prepare for grace. Sometimes it is best just to be quiet and still.

We are all in for a surprise on Christmas morning. So are you the kind of person that likes surprises? Or are you someone who prefers the predictable; are you more like Ahaz, someone who prefers your life, good or bad, to remain completely under your control.   Jesus comes like a thief in the night, like a sign unbidden, like a nightmare to those who cling madly to control, but like salvation to the poor and the wise. Perhaps the best we can do to prepare for the surprise is not to be too outraged when the unexpected gift comes. Perhaps that explains the perplexingly modest, unassuming words of Jesus that we heard last week, addressed to John the Baptist, the one who prepares: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

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