4th of Advent — 23 December 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am
A: Isaiah 7:10-16 Ps 80:1-7,16-18 [Romans 1:1-7] Matthew 1:18-25
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?”
At this time of year we hear a lot about the “Spirit of Christmas.” Peace on earth, good will to all. The brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. All that sort of thing. Well, good! That’s fine. The world needs all the Spirit of Christmas we can get! But somehow, sometimes, this seems all kind of vague to me, very general. It’s not quite clear to me from all these TV shows and songs and holidays sentiments exactly what this “Spirit of Christmas” is, or where it comes from, or how we get it. But it’s a Good Thing, and somewhere behind the chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus coming to town, there’s the old story of the Baby, and peace and good will is something we devoutly wish everyone else would get on with.
But God does not work in vague generalities and pious platitudes. God works with and through particular people in particular places at particular times. Particularly and supremely, God worked in one person, in one place, at one time. That person’s name was — and is — Jesus; he was born in Bethlehem of Judea, he grew up in Nazareth of Galilee, and he died on a cross outside Jerusalem. And the third day he was raised from death. All this was two thousand years ago. We are now getting ready to celebrate his birthday. And the only reason we can talk about the Spirit of Christmas, the only reason that peace on earth, good will to all, is more than wishful thinking is because of this particular person whose birth we celebrate this week. This is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity.” It offends us that God does not work in Great Philosophical Principles. But God does not work so. God did not write a dissertation on the Metaphysical Grounds of Human Possibility. God came among us in person, and was born in a barn.
Today’s Scripture readings have to do with this particular way God works. In the first reading we hear about King Ahaz of Judah, about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Ahaz was not a very good king. He was not faithful to the Lord God, but worshipped the pagan Canaanite deities. Well, Ahaz King of Judah found himself at war with the King of Israel, and the King of Israel was making war in alliance with the King of Syria, from Damascus. Ahaz’s realm, and the throne of David, were in serious jeopardy. The Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to assure him that he would survive this crisis (although heaven knows he didn’t deserve to). And through Isaiah the Lord had told Ahaz, “Ask for a sign as proof that Isaiah is telling you the truth.” All of a sudden Ahaz got all religious, and said, “Oh, no, far be it from me that little old me should bother The Lord — I know the Lord is very busy — and besides, asking for a sign would be superstitious and tacky and Not High Minded.” To which the Lord replied through Isaiah, “Ahaz, you really are a royal pain. Are you trying to be more religious than God? Okay, whether you ask for it or not, here’s the sign: The young woman will have a son and will name him ‘God Is With Us’ [Immanu-El in Hebrew]. And before the boy is old enough to know right from wrong, your enemies Israel and Syria will be destroyed. The downside of that is that it will be the Assyrian Empire from Nineveh that will destroy them, and then they’ll charge you a pretty penny in tribute for the favor.”
It’s not completely clear exactly who the young woman in the prophecy originally was. Probably it was Ahaz’s young queen, in which case the son “God Is With Us” would have been Hezekiah, who succeeded his father on the throne of David in Jerusalem and turned out to be quite a good king, loyal to the Lord, successfully holding off the Assyrians from conquering Judah. But seven hundred years later, what Isaiah had said was remembered in connection with the birth of the Son who really was God Is With Us, Immanu-El, a descendent of Ahaz and Hezekiah, and of David before them.
Sometimes it seems like there sure is an awful lot of history in the Bible! And there sure is! Maybe you’ve never cared much for history. Get over it! God loves history. God invented history. God uses history and works through history all the time. We are much given to Inspiration and Great Spiritual Comfort and being Religious and having High Principles, which is quite admirable and quite safe. God, on the other hand, messes around in history — particular people, particular places, particular times. And if we are scandalized by all that particularity, well, that’s our problem. Without the particulars, the generalities are empty.
So God does not send us a Sermon on the Spirit of Christmas. God comes in person, in particular historical person, in a particular historical place, at a particular historical time. Jesus, born to Mary of Nazareth and her husband Joseph, in Bethlehem, at the end of the reign of King Herod the Great of Judea, about the twentieth year of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, approximately one thousand years after the accession of David son of Jesse to the throne of Judah.
That’s how God works. Particularly.
And that means that we can expect that God is still working particularly. Among us. You and me. Here. Now.
© 2007 William S J Moorhead