Sermon: Tested by God's word and God's silence
Preached on 23rd December 2007
(Fourth Sunday of Advent)
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
I know you shouldn't use long words in sermons but I'm going to start with a six -syllable one today: Ahaz and Joseph were two men up against the inscrutability of God. One was a king whose rebellion exhausted God and led him to the brink of disaster so that his heart shook like a tree in the wind. One was a righteous man, soon to be married, whose carpentry business was all the excitement he expected in life. These were two men whose lives were thrown into turmoil when God came to them.
The Old Testament is normally heard by Christians in the context of Christmas carol services as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus but, although it can be read in that way, that is not its original purpose. In the Old Testament contex, it comes within an account of the history of the people of Judah over 700 years before the birth of Christ and it has an integrity of its own which is lost if we lift it out of that context and make it function purely as a Christian text. Instead we should read it as a text to do with international political shenanigans and the question of God's rule over all the nations.
Ahaz was the king of Judah at a time of political and milatary insecurity for the nation; King Tilgath-pilesar III of Assyria was busy conquering smaller nations that lay in the way of his march to Egypt and the wider Mediterranean trade routes. The kings of these smaller countries in Assyria's way formed a military alliance which Ahaz, new to the throne of Judah, declined to join. As a result these other kings threatened to invade Judah and, in a wonderfully vivid turn of phrase, we hear that the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind: in other words they were terrified. In the verses just before the passage we heard, Ahaz was inspecting the access to Jerusalem's water supply because the city relied on an aqueduct which could be threatened by these armies. The prophet Isaiah was told to go to Ahaz with the message that the king of Assyria was a tool in God's hands and if Ahaz will but trust God's promise then his reign will not be threatened by these smaller nations, but if Ahaz will not believe God's word then his nation will fall to Assyria. So Ahaz is faced by God with a crisis of trust.
Isaiah told Ahaz while they stood by the threatened aqueduct to take heed and not be afraid of his enemies because, under God, their threats would all come to nothing, and Isaiah was told by God to take his son with him as a sort of visual aid. The son's name, Shearjashub, is a mouthful to us but was very significant since it meant "A remnant shall return", a phrase some of you may recognise from elsewhere in the biblical prophecies.
The story of Ahaz's reign as it is told elsewhere in the bible, in the books of Kings and Chronicles, has no moment of potential redemption just the downward spiral of Ahaz's rebellious disobedience and God's resulting anger: simple cause and effect, it seems. But Isaiah's account throws a spanner into the works because here God offers Ahaz the opportunity for redemption, the opportunity to ask for a sign or a down payment on God's intervention in the situation. "Ask a sign of me and put me to the test", says God. Given the number of times the people of Israel had already been rebuked for testing God, Ahaz's refusal sounds wise but it masks a failure to distinguish between faithful and rebellious testing of God. Rebellious testing of God is the stretching of God's patience to breaking point whereas faithful testing of God is taking the risk of trusting in God and acting on the outcome. In contrast, Ahaz's pious answer is a rebellious refusal to risk belief in God, a refusal to experience the love God longs to lavish on the king.
Ahaz's refusal to show his trust exasperates God who says that, since Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, he will give him one anyway. The sign will be that a young woman - not necessarily a virgin, that is a much later version of the text once it was translated into Greek - is expecting a child and will call the boy Emmanuel, which means "God is with us". It is quite possible that Isaiah or Ahaz knew this young woman, she may even have been the wife of one of them.
The invitation to Ahaz to ask for a sign is actually double-edged; he thinks he is being invited to test God, to prove God true, but he himself is being tested by God's word (Ps. 105:19). In a good mystery novel, clues are scattered throughout the book. Seemingly inconsequential details are deliberately added by the author, who makes sense of them all at the end. That is what God is doing with Ahaz. A clue here, "ask me for a sign"; a clue there, "a child's name." But Ahaz, conditioned by a lifetime of rebelliously ignoring God, cannot or will not seize this moment of grace. God is asking Ahaz to pay attention to the names of the children, which is where the name of Isaiah's son becomes important: can Ahaz hear the promise that "A remnant shall return"?. The answer is "no" and so the story sets up a contrast between Ahaz's lack of faith and the woman's great faith in naming her child "God is with us". If Ahaz cannot hear the subtext of Isaiah's son's name, "A remnant shall return," God will spell it out more clearly through another child's name: "God is with us." The king's actions tell us he does not believe this, but a young woman can and does.
Ahaz's whole life has been based on the assumption that God won't come to him, won't be with him. So, given his refractory history, why is Ahaz offered a sign of God's presence and power while Joseph is not? The gospel takes the trouble to tell us that Joseph was a righteous man and so why is he not given the opportunity that Ahaz is given? It would seem to be so easy for the angels, already working overtime in the Nazareth and Bethlehem area, to put in an appearance to Joseph and make it all clear from the beginning. It would spare him, as well as Mary and her parents, a lot of agony. Instead, God leaves Joseph with the dilemma of what to do when a lifetime of fidelity to God is suddenly rewarded with seeming disaster. And, to make matters worse, God appears to be silent. How is Joseph going to risk belief in God and act faithfully? How will Joseph put God to the test?
Being a righteous man, Joseph tries to put the pieces of his jigsaw puzzle together using the template of the law of God and his own compassion for Mary and when we are in doubt about something it is helpful to go back over our past history and what we know of God and try to make sense of it. But we must also be prepared for the unexpected, for God to do something new thing, and here Joseph is working with the wrong picture for his jigsaw puzzle, because God is at this very minute putting the finishing touches on a new one. The God who in last week's Old Testament reading was a highway engineer making new ways through the wilderness, a gardener turning deserts into flower gardens, is now the artist painting a new perspective of the age-old promise of the Messiah. Hope in God cannot stand still, because - as Isaiah reminds us elsewhere - we hope in a God who is constantly doing a new thing.
The initial silence of God to Joseph was just as demanding for him as the clarity of God's words was for Ahaz. In both situations God is testing the man: Are you going to act faithfully? Does your hope in God hold fast in the face of chaos and confusion in your life? Rebellious Ahaz, can you live with the clear word of God? Righteous Joseph, can you live with the silence of God?
Joseph's fidelity should remind us that often the times of silence or awkward questions are the prelude to new works of God in our lives. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God, a time to pay attention to the clues that God is active, to notice the meaning of things we might take for granted, a time to practise the scales of fidelity that will enable us to play the new music when God puts it in front of us. Music which, to borrow an idea from W.H. Auden in his Christmas Oratorio, "For the Time Being", will require that after Christmas we practice the scales of rejoicing because we will need them, too, to play and sing God's music in the everydayness of life as well as in its heightened moments. As we come to the end of Advent it is important to remember that sometimes it is only people who have learned to maintain their hope during God's silences who can be trusted with hearing God's word spoken to their situation; so do not despair in the times of seeming silence, they are the times to practise the scales of faithful hope.
So we should pray for people who have lost hope, people who live with the silence of God without hope - the refugees of Darfur; the flood victims of Bangladesh and Mexico; the women and children who are trafficked around the world including, to our shame, in this country; the lonely and the fearful in our own neighbourhoods. If we are people who practice the scales of faithful hope we are called to prayer and action for people like this, to live as people of hope in a hopeless world. Locally we can give thanks for people who put their hope into action to oppose successfully the lap dancing club in North Road, but we need to continue to pray and to hope actively for women caught up against their will in such trade in human dignity. Advent is a time to practise our scales very vigorously for other people's sake as well as for our own.
As we come to the end of Advent remember that very often it is the people who have been tested by God's word who can embrace without hesitation the unanticipated presence of God when he comes among us, when suddenly our night sky is torn apart by angels singing "Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth."
Emmanuel, God is with us. Thanks be to God.