Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon: Isaiah 7:1-17 God With Us

Have you ever found yourself asking: Is God really with us? Does he really care about us? Is he for us?

Perhaps you take a reflective approach. You see the images taken by the space telescopes; you think of the vastness of the universe; and you think - if there’s a God at all, then he must be too busy to be bothered about little old me and my concerns. He might be well-meaning, but mired down in running the universe.

Or perhaps he is distant, uncaring. It’s like that song by Bette Midler, ‘From a Distance.’ He’s a bit like your neighbours across the street or across the fields - watching you from a distance, but not really too bothered with how things are going. He got the whole thing started off, but now it’s ticking along nicely without him.

But maybe you wonder if God really cares about you when something terrible happens. Illness, or bereavement, unemployment or financial worries come along, and you’re not sure that God can help. Does he see but not bother? Does he not care?

For Ahaz, it wasn’t illness that got him wondering. It was an attack by the enemy. Ahaz was the King of Judah, a great-great-grandson of David. But now the armies of Aram and Israel appeared on the horizon ready to attack Jerusalem. [Just in case you’re confused about Israel being the baddies - after Solomon had died, the kingdom of the twelve tribes of Israel had divided into two nations - Judah the southern kingdom, with the sons of David as kings, and what is confusingly still known as ‘Israel’ the northern kingdom]

The word spreads about the advance of the enemy. The effect on the people is terror. They’re all over the place, they’re so frightened. As we’re told in verse 2: ‘the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.’ We’ve even had some practical demonstration of that this week - the storm and the trees blowing about.

Ahaz is the king, the leader of God’s people, yet his heart is all over the place. He’s like the guy in Dad’s Army shouting ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’ as he panics the most! Does God see? Does God care?

The LORD sends Isaiah the prophet with his son to meet Ahaz with a message. ‘Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.’ Do the opposite of what you’re doing right now. Stop being afraid, and instead trust. No matter what they’re plotting; no matter what appears to be happening, the LORD calls Ahaz to trust him.

In verses 7-9, he gives a little piece of prophecy in poetry. And it’s all about standing or not standing. First of all, their plans and plots ‘it shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.’ Then in the very middle of it, there’s a promise that Ephraim (another name for Israel) will be shattered, will no longer stand. But enough about their plans not standing, and Ephraim not standing - now comes the challenge: ‘If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.’

As God talks about the future and about his enemies, Ahaz can either refuse to listen and continue to worry and panic and not get anywhere because he’s trying to do things in how own strength; or he can hear what God is saying, take him at his word, and stand firm in faith. That’s what faith is - hearing God’s promises and taking him at his word.

As if even that wasn’t enough, God goes a step further. He invites Ahaz to ‘ask a sign of the LORD your God’. Just ask, and God will show you that he means it. But Ahaz says he won’t do it - he doesn’t want to put the Lord to the test. It sounds like the right answer - it’s scriptural - but in this case, God had told him to ask for a sign, it wasn’t testing God without reason.

Yet even with that, God gives him a sign anyway. ‘Look, the young woman (virgin) is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’ Now whenever we hear that verse our minds immediately jump to Jesus. But it must have meant something in the immediate context to Ahaz.

There was a young woman, a virgin he knew, perhaps a daughter or woman who lived in the palace. And what God promises here is that she will (by the normal, natural process) have a baby. By the time the baby knows the difference between evil and good, the lands of Aram and Israel will be defeated, the kings long gone, the enemy no longer a threat.

And the baby’s name will be a reminder for Ahaz of the truth of God’s promise, a reminder that he could have and should have stood firm in faith - Immanuel, God is with us. You can picture the scene. Ahaz is sitting at home watching the TV news. The Middle East is again centre stage. The cameras are showing the scenes as his great enemies are defeated, as the kings of Aram and Israel are captured, but he can’t hear the TV newsreader. The baby is gurgling. He calls out, Oh Immanuel, hush. Oh, God is with us, just as he promised.

God was with his people in the days of Ahaz. The word of God promising that a young woman (who was a virgin then, but would be married and) would have a baby was intended for him - but it had a double meaning. It was also a pointer to the future, when a virgin would indeed have a baby.

Joseph couldn’t get his head around the news. He was engaged to Mary, betrothed, but then she announced that she was pregnant? She tried saying something about angels and God, but he just couldn’t believe it. She had been unfaithful - she must have been. But then the angel spoke to Joseph.

The child is from the Holy Spirit; the special baby who will be called Jesus, because he is the God who saves. And Matthew, writing under the guidance of the Spirit, discovers that this also fulfils the old prophecy of Isaiah - that Jesus is truly Immanuel - not just a sign that God is with his people - but he is God with us.

Now we can know for certain that God is with us - he has stepped into the world he made. He has moved into the neighbourhood. God is not distant. God certainly does care. This is the heart of the Christmas message - God is with us to save us from our sins and bring us to himself.

And so as we baptise Ruby today, we pray that God will be with her, as she grows up, so that she finds rescue from her sins. It’s the gift that God gives us at Christmas - himself. But you don’t have to wait until Christmas Day to receive this present. He invites you to get to know him today.

It’s very simple. Come by faith. Trust in his word of promise - that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. That’s what makes someone a Christian - taking God at his word. standing firm in faith, not being blown about by worries. Because, as Isaiah told Ahaz: ‘If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.’ Stand firm today, with faith in the God who loves you, who is God with you, today and every day.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd December 2013.

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