A Word of Promise

Isaiah 7: 10-16 and 9: 2d-7 and Matthew 1: 18-24

Only a Baby Came

Setting. In times of peril, it is not easy to have a sense of hope for the future. The present takes all of our attention. Fear defeats hope much of the time. Looking for hope in a frightening and confusing world is the task of dreamers – and prophets.

In Isaiah’s time, Judah with its capital of Jerusalem, was in peril. Assyria was the overlord of the region, having the most power, the best army and weapons. Resentful of their overlord, Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) organized a rebellion. They pressured Judah’s King Ahaz to join them – but Ahaz declined, thinking that they had no chance of success. To pressure him, the kings of Israel and Syria were threatening war. Ahaz was afraid -- and as was the custom, the prophet came to advise him.

Isaiah tells him that the power of these two kings is as nothing. They will not overcome Jerusalem. God promises that by the time a babe about to the born learns to choose what is good and reject evil, these two kings will be gone, and their lands laid waste.

Ahaz will not ask God for a sign, but God gives one anyway. This child will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us,” and is a sign of promise. This sign of a child who would be born was both common – and wonderful. This child would be a sign of hope for the king and people – for all the nation – in this time of crisis. Both the pregnant mother and the child after his birth as visible signs and offer hope to the nation. Even in a frightening world, the child, whose name is a reminder: God with us, offers hope. This child of destiny will be a new leader for the nation. God’s presence is the key to the future. Otherwise, we are captured in despair.

Babies are always a sign of hope, a sign of love. Even what we think of as ordinary births are miraculous. Looking down at a newborn makes our hearts expand with love – so much love that it often overflows through our eyes. Looking at a newborn, we wonder what their lives will be – they carry us past the moment we’re in to a future we can only begin to imagine. Carl Sandburg famously said, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” They help us dream about just that – the future.

God with us – Immanuel – a reminder of God’s presence with us. Every baby carries some of God’s presence. We bring babies to God in baptism remembering that, and asking God to bless them, to be a blessing in their lives. They are already a blessing for us – every child is a reminder of God’s presence with us. Part of the answer for a broken world is love. Feeling love changes us- and babies, bless them, engender love. In a frightening and confusing world, babies are signs of hope.

VISION. We delight in our children. Not just the ones we raise ourselves – all these wonderful children in our congregation are a joy and a delight to us all. Their piercing questions help us re-think our assumptions. Their wonder helps us connect to our own childhood memories. Their enthusiasm brings us joy. And a child growing into God’s promise is a sign of the world being made right.

This too is the promise of God: for a nation in peril, God promises a child who will grow to be a leader who will make the wrong things right. This small and vulnerable child reveals the gap between what is and what the world ought to be.[i] And this child is how the world will change.

In Isaiah chapter 9 we get the visual of a changing world – wars will cease. ALL the boots or tramping warriors and ALL the bloody garments will be burned as fuel for the fire. This kind of imagery captures our imaginations.

Visit Trafalgar Square in London and you’ll find a statue of Captain Horatio Nelson, Vice-Admiral of the Battle of Trafalgar. At the base of his statue are four impressive bronze lions. They were cast from melted French cannons captured at the battle. Weapons becoming art – part of the vision of a world without war.

Mexican artist Pedro Reyes created an exhibition, Palas por Pistolas. At first, he asked people to give up their weapons, and over 1500 weapons were donated, from which he created the same number of shovels and planted the same number of trees. The city of Juarez asked him if he would like more weapons – and gave him 6700. He turned those into musical instruments.[ii] “Same as a shovel plants a tree, a musical instrument is also something that is alive," Reyes says. "Every time you use it, you generate a new sound, a new event and people can gather around the music and I believe that just instruments are kind of the diametrically opposite to what a gun is - like, the guns are the rule of fear and music is the rule of trust.” Weapons becoming art – part of the vision of a world without war.

In Isaiah 9 we have an image of the baby grown and sitting on the throne of the nation. It was probably a coronation song to celebrate the enthroning of King Hezekiah – one of the good kings of Judah. The celebration is a sign of hope for the nation with confidence in God’s planned future. The message is, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t give up. God is watching over us.”[iii]

Isaiah tells Judah that there will come a day when this fear and the siege of two nations will be a distant memory. The there will be a day when the nation is shaped by justice and righteousness, and blessed with peace. This child is the vision – this child will grow into righteousness and peace and will bring it to the nation. This child is the hope.

HOPE. The signs of “God with us” bring us hope. We dare to dream and let hope grow inside us because God is with us. Not in a sense of “anything we do is therefore right,” but in the “we are not alone” sense.

We have a promise from God not to abandon us – so we can look for light and the potential for light in places where we currently only see darkness. For light to come will indeed take an act of God.

The promised ruler has a marvelous lot of titles – a king who shares attributes of God. Like David, who was titled “Son of God,” meaning like God in some ways – majesty, strength, might.[iv] This good king will care for his people forever, bringing peace. They hoped for a ruler worthy of being King David’s successor. He would reflect God’s light to the nation, to God’s people.

And this would expand their influence. Their small nation would be a light to other nations. They will receive God’s light – to share it! Even, perhaps, sharing light that they can really only imagine – they haven’t seen it yet.

These texts from Isaiah are connected with prophecies of the Messiah. They are a part of the continuum of God’s salvation or rescue of humanity through the ages. Ultimately, the scriptures tell a love story between God and humanity. The prophets spoke, and people didn’t understand what they were trying to say. But both in the times of the prophets and later with the coming of Jesus, God chose to act through the gift of a child. Children are signs of God’s presence with us.

Children interrupt the mess of the world with a reminder of love. The love we feel for a child carries us out of the fear and chaos, into a time of holiness. Behold! A young woman will conceive and bear a child, whose name will be called Immanuel, God with us.[v]

At the time of his speaking, the prophet spoke of hope for a national renewal that he hoped to see in his lifetime. But also of a day, further down the road, that would lead to a leader of God’s people who would be much more. That one would say to his followers, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth…Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Mt. 28:18 CEB).[vi]

I will be with you….in the middle of Impeachment proceedings. In the middle of environmental crisis…. I will be with you …in the middle of illness and diagnoses we would rather not hear…in the middle of family life and struggles…I will be with you. In the middle of trying to figure out how in the world the budget can stretch enough…in the middle of news telling of children torn from their families and denied basic health care and provision… I will be with you. . In the middle of our chaos, in the middle of the world’s chaos, in the middle of history, I will be with you.[vii]

And there is our Hope. Isaiah shared it. Messiah offered it. Because God is with us, we have hope.

It is not easy to look for signs of hope in any time, but it’s harder in times of fear and conflict. Isaiah’s words echo through the years, breaking into times of desolation with the promise of hope. Hope may be hidden: in babies about to be born, in children growing into promise. Signs of God’s presence, of God with us, aren’t obvious. Even when we look for them, we may not see. But for those who dare to dream – for those willing to wait and watch, dream and hope – the promise softly comes. God is with us. We are not alone. Every day, Jesus the promised one is with us, even to the end of the present age.

[i] Every Valley, 22

[ii] https://wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/post/concert-art-exhibition-guns-turned-musical-instruments

[iii] Every Valley, 33.

[iv] Bullard, 39-40.

[v] Di Gangi, 21.

[vi] Bullard, 40.

[vii] Carol Hill, sermon for Advent 3.

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