Sunday, December 19, 2010

A, Advent 4 - Isaiah 7:10-16 "The Rejection of Immanuel"

There are many quotes out there about history. Perhaps you’ve heard some of them.

Such as the anonymous quote, “History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.

Or from Karl Marx, the father of socialism, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

And from last century the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience.

These all hold certain elements of truth. When history repeats itself it demonstrates the foolishness of humanity, because we neither remember nor learn from what has happened in the past. When an event tragically repeats itself, so often we react in complete surprise at the occurrence unfolded before us.

Perhaps if we could hear and see those who’ve been before us we’d be laughed at and lamented over as a joke, for our inability to listen, our incapability to learn, and we’d be humiliated and embarrassed by our ridiculous repetitious behaviour.

Isaiah the prophet of the Lord is sent to Ahaz, the king of Judah, to encourage him to place his trust in the Lord, for the Lord was with them. In fact, recent history in Judah had been quite positive in reflecting God was indeed with them, in that the kings leading up to Ahaz had done mostly what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

Since the death of Elisha, about one hundred years before, the southern kingdom of Judah had kings who upheld temple worship. Over the border in Israel (aka Ephraim), the northern kingdom was in complete disarray. Their kings had led the people further and further away from God.

The northern kingdom had separated itself from the southern kingdom, Jerusalem, and therefore the temple of the Lord. And so in Samaria, Israel’s capital, the north continually committed evil practices and worshipped other gods as a result of excommunicating themselves from God’s presence in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem the southern kingdom of Judah still had access to God in the temple. And although the kings did right in the eyes of the Lord, many of the Judeans were still applying themselves to pagan worship, at certain high places and spreading trees which the kings had not destroy. However, because the kings preserved the ways of God, Judah lived under God’s favour, despite the many bad practices of the people.

Then Ahaz came to power as king of Judah in the southern kingdom. In one sense he didn’t repeat the recent history of Judean kings; instead he committed evil in the eyes of God. In fact, he was repeating the immediate history of the north; their wayward brothers in Israel. His evil practices had not been seen amongst the kings of Judah since the time of Elisha the prophet, a century before.

King Ahaz grieved God and tested his patience. Worshipping Molech and Chemosh, whom demanded child sacrifice, Ahaz burned his son as an offering to these gods of Moab and Ammon. He also joined his subjects in making sacrifices on altars at high places, hill tops, and under spreading trees.

So when Israel joined forces with Syria to attack Judah, God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz after he and the people were shaken at the thought of being attacked. Isaiah tells him, “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smouldering stumps of firebrands.” (Isaiah 7:4 ESV)

These two smouldering stumps were Syria and Ephraim (aka Israel), and Isaiah goes on to deliver God’s word to Ahaz, “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” (Isaiah 7:7–9 ESV)

Through Isaiah, God was giving Ahaz and Judah, the history before it happened. And in doing so God was calling Ahaz and Judah to return to the faithfulness of those righteous kings before him. If they were not firm in faith, they would not be firm at all. Instead they would be shattered as Israel was soon to be!

But things in Judah continued to go from bad to worse. Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “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.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? (Isaiah 7:10–13 ESV)

The Lord promised to give a sign of his faithfulness to Ahaz, but Ahaz rejects it. And in claiming he didn’t want to test the Lord, in fact, put God to the test, grieved him of his glory, and treated God as impotent in dealing with the attacking Syrians and Israelites from the north.

We are told in second Kings Chapter sixteen Ahaz sought an alliance with the Assyrians rather than trust in God. When Israel and Syria had besieged Jerusalem, Ahaz sent word to the Assyrian king and placed himself in submission to him. He sent silver and gold from the temple as a gift to the Assyrian leader. And on receiving Ahaz’s plea and gift, Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, marched on Syria’s capital, Damascus, and took it captive.

After the defeat of Damascus, the Syrian Israelite siege of Jerusalem disintegrated, and we can listen to what happens next from Second Kings…

When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus. (2 Kings 16:10–11 ESV)

After Ahaz arrived back in Jerusalem, he began to change the structure of the temple to accommodate the Assyrian worship he had observed while in Damascus. He placed the replica altar Uriah had built in the temple and moved the sanctioned bronze altar aside, as well as removed other sacred items placed in the temple at God’s command.

In doing these things Ahaz was rejecting God and years of sound worship in the place God had set aside through Moses, King David, and others faithful to the Law of God.

History was certainly repeating itself in Ahaz’s rebellion against God. He led the nation of Judah into the same sins as Israel; sins that had been absent from the king’s palace in Judah for over a century.

What was to happen to Judah, to King Ahaz, and the Judean-Assyrian alliance after the defeat of Israel and Syria? This is what Isaiah prophesied on behalf of the Lord…

The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim (Israel) departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” In that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the end of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures. In that day the Lord will shave with a razor that is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also. (Isaiah 7:17–20 ESV)

God was going to give Ahaz what he sought – the king of Assyria. Judah would become the battle ground between the Assyrians and the Egyptians, who would swarm over every part of the land like bees and flies. And as a result Judah would be shaved and left as a bare wasteland.

If only Ahaz had returned to the Lord and not relied on Assyria. If only he had listened to God who promised to be with Judah. If only Ahaz was firm in faith and followed the Heavenly Father.

But Ahaz who had wearied his own people by his disregard for the sanctity of life in the death of his own son, was to also weary God by not holding fast to the sanctity of God’s promise in his word. A holy word that would be a sign as deep as the greatest depths of Sheol and even as high as heaven itself! A word from God through Isaiah who said…

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:14–16 ESV)

Not long after, the Assyrians not only defeated Syria and Damascus, they also overran Ephraim and carted the Israelites into exile. As God had promised, the two kings were overcome and their land was deserted.

Yet a greater Immanuel was still to come. Not just a child born with a name as a sign to Judah in the days of Isaiah; but rather a child who was indeed Immanuel – God with us! But first Judah went the way of Israel and they lost their land to the Babylonians and were taken into exile too.

We hear this recount from God’s word today as a constant appeal from God that he is our Immanuel; he is God with us! Every year history repeats itself in our remembrance of Christmas, so in faith we might grab hold of the true gift that Jesus Christ is our God with us!

We hear of the moment in history where Jesus was born to a virgin, to be your God with you. This is a piece of history well worth listening to, hearing, and absorbing. This is a piece of history that saw Jesus on the cross, which some see as a tragedy, and others see as a farce, but we see as our salvation from the very sin that sees history repeating itself.

We can also learn from the history of Ahaz, Judah and Israel’s constant repetition of sin against God, that we indeed are incapable of learning from experience, as George Bernard Shaw said last century. And therefore turn to God who is with us not only as Father, and Son, but as Holy Spirit too. And the Holy Spirit, coming to us from the Father and the Son, is faithfully more powerful at returning us to Christ and his forgiveness than our own human spirit.

In these days of struggle, let the Spirit return you to the Christ child; let Jesus daily save you, from yourself, from temptation, and from all evil. Let him be your daily bread so his will is your will, and you yearn not for this land but for the fruit of faith; peace, hope, joy, and love. Be firm in this faith and you will be firm forever! Amen.

Let us pray… O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in: be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel! Amen.