Sunday, December 19, 2010
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (December 19, 2010)
“The Sign of Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:10-17)
Outside these windows, you see a lot of signs. Subway. Sticky Fingers BBQ. Precision Tune Auto Care. Speed Limit 30. “Save Money: GEICO” and the famous green gecko. The familiar blue and white Community Transit bus stop sign. And then, right on the other side of this wall, our own sign declaring that this building is “Messiah Lutheran Church” and that we are a member congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Signs give you information. They point you in the right direction. They tell you what you will find inside. They attempt to sell you a product. Along the road, you will also see signs that give you a warning: “Road Work Ahead” … “Dead End” … “Slippery When Wet.” But then, there are also signs that tell you about the good things that are up ahead … food, gas, and lodging at the next offramp; a certain number of miles to your destination; “Disneyland – Next Exit.”
Do you ever wish God would give you a sign? We look for guidance in silly places like fortune cookies or horoscopes. We ask God to give us some indication what his will for us is. But he hasn’t promised that he will necessarily work this way. He may grant someone a sign to help their weak conscience. Gideon laid out a sheepskin and told God that if it was wet in the morning but the ground was dry, then this would assure Gideon of success in his battle against the Midianites. The next night he asked for a dry fleece and a wet ground. God patiently gave him both signs. But we must be careful in trying this kind of thing. After all, Scripture says in Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
In our Old Testament lesson today, Ahaz was the king of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel was in league with Syria against him. Their armies had surrounded Jerusalem. Ahaz and the people were fearful of defeat, but God promised that they would be kept safe. In fact, in a few years, both Israel and Syria would be completely defeated by the Assyrians.
To assure Ahaz of this, the Lord tells him to ask for a sign. “Anything you want, Ahaz! Make it as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven!” An incredible offer. Why would you not take God at his word for something so gracious?
But Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign. He puts on a pretense of piety and pretends to be religious, claiming to cling to the same words we quoted a few moments ago: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” But this was a sign from Ahaz that God could see right through (and we dare not think we can fool God by our outward show of religion when there’s unbelief in our hearts). Ahaz already had made up his mind to rely on Assyria to save him, not God. Or else he figured if God really did give him a miraculous sign, then this would prove that Yahweh was the true God, and Ahaz would have to give up his idolatry and repent of his sin … something he did not want to do.
Yahweh promises a sign nevertheless … the sign of Immanuel. A child would be born. His name will be Immanuel, which means “God With Us.” For Ahaz, the birth of this child would be a sign of both salvation and judgment. As a sign of salvation, it was a sign of good things up ahead … the coming destruction of Ahaz’ enemies, Syria and Israel and their kings whom Ahaz dreaded. As a sign of judgment, it was a warning sign … Jerusalem would soon be surrounded by the very same nation that Ahaz was relying on, the Assyrians. This was God’s judgment over Ahaz’ idolatry and refusal of God’s promises. Likewise, God’s judgment will be upon all who refuse his promises in unbelief.
So who was this child? Was there a child born whom Ahaz could see as the promised sign? Was there a young virgin in the royal court who became pregnant and named her child Immanuel? We’re not exactly told in Scripture, but it seems to indicate that there may have been a child born at that time who was a sign for Ahaz that God would do as he had promised.
But St. Matthew, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, makes it clear to us that the sign of Immanuel was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. And this sign is not just for Ahaz. The sign of Immanuel is for each and every one of us.
Immanuel. “God With Us.” This is the mystery of God becoming flesh. We like to talk about the “miracle of childbirth.” But childbirth is really not a miracle. It’s quite normal. This is the way God intends for babies to be made. But the birth of Immanuel was truly a miracle. The Virgin Mary conceived apart from the natural way … without the help of any man, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit. His name will be Jesus, because, as the angel told Joseph, “he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus … Joshua … Yeshua … means “The Lord Saves.” This was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. A divine Savior would be born. God is with us in the flesh of Jesus.
I was staring at my son the other day in one of the quieter moments in our household. He was on the floor in front of me putting a puzzle together. For a moment, I received … well, I’m not going to call it a sign … but let’s call it a glimpse into the home of Mary and Joseph. I looked at my boy, just like you can look at any one of these children among us today, and thought, “You know, Jesus was just like my son at his age … without sin, of course.” I don’t know why I’ve never been moved by this before, but I teared up a bit. The mystery of this struck me in a profound way. Jesus must have played on the floor of his home, too, with his parents staring in awe at him because they were looking at God.
Can you imagine Mary and Joseph wondering if they were up to the task? How do you raise the Son of God? But in all other ways except for his sinless human nature, he was just like all other children. He still had to have his diapers changed. He still had to be nursed at his mother’s breast. He had to learn his ABC’s…or should I say, rather, his Alephs, Beths, and Gimels. He was born a helpless, humble little baby.
The humility of Christ the Savior stands in stark contrast to the powers of the world … Ahaz, Syria, Israel, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece … then Rome when Jesus was born. In a little insignificant village under the thumb of the mighty Roman Empire, with their Caesars claiming divine rights, Immanuel was born.
The sign of Immanuel – the Baby in the manger of Bethlehem – was the sign of salvation for us. God is with us. He has come to save us. He came to destroy the kings we dread … King Sin, King Death, King Satan.
The sign of the cross marks the place where he shed his blood and died for us. He forgives us for our unbelief, for our refusal of God’s promises, for our foolish expectation of signs other than the ones he’s already given us.
Following the sign of the cross comes the sign of Jonah. Jesus said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40) The sign of Jonah reminds us that the grave could not hold him.
And today, God graciously gives us additional signs of Immanuel … signs that indicate to us that God is still with us. We have the sign of the Word of God, which Luther says is the crèche which contains Christ. We have the sign of Baptism, the water and the Word which washes our sins away and connects us to Immanuel. We have the sign of the Lord’s Supper, the meal that feeds us Immanuel’s body and blood. We have the promise that where two or three are gathered, Immanuel is among us (Matt. 18:20). We have the promise that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Immanuel, and that he is with us always (Matt. 28:18-20).
You have no need to ask for further signs. You have been given the sign of Immanuel. God is with you in Christ Jesus.