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Isaiah 7:10-16 "God with us"

Last month, one of the largest statues of Jesus ever erected, measuring 108 feet from head to toe, was raised in a Polish field near the small town of Zwiebodzin.  The video on Youtube is fascinating to watch as a crane raises first the outstretched arms and then the head is placed on the body.  The statue rivals the vast Christ the Redeemer statue that watches over Rio de Jenaro. Last Sunday’s New York Times interviewed the Catholic Priest who organized the project, who said “I hope this statue will become a remedy for this secularization,” said the Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, “I hope it will have a religious mission and not just bring tourists.”   The article goes on to say that in Poland, where 90 percent of the people say they are Roman Catholic, actual church attendance has dropped to 40 percent in rural areas and 20 percent in the metro areas.  When the non-church goers are interviewed about why they don’t attend, they say that the church is not relevant to modern times, being more focused on issues like contraception.  They see the church as hypocritical because of sex scandals and too involved in supporting the political party that just lost power in government.  As I read about these issues, I thought, it doesn’t matter how big that statue is, these folks are not coming back to mass.  It may be a reassuring and inspiring symbol to those who are engaged in the church, but the symbol doesn’t overcome the disassociation many Polish people feel.


There are times when we want tangible assurance about our faith.  We would like some sign about the reality of God to guide us when we are full of doubts.  What kind of things give you confidence when you want to know if God is real or not?  Do you ever wish you had a sign from God? 


I thought I had figured out how to get a sign from God.  I was feeling a great deal of uncertainty about something, and since I was a teenager, it was probably a relationship thing.  The cause of my great uncertainty is now long forgotten, but at the time it seemed all important.  So I got out my Bible and thought that I could get the answer from it.  The bible has all the answers, right?  So I got it into my head that I could let my bible fall open and if it fell open to the New Testament, the answer was “yes” and if it fell open to the Old Testament, the answer was “no.”  I think I wanted a “yes” answer, so since the Old Testament has twice and many pages, I was trying to give God a little leeway and not stack the deck in my favor.  So I  prayed and pledged myself to follow whatever answer I got from this test.  I carefully set up my Bible, trying to precisely balance it to give the Holy Spirit a fair shot, treating like a basketball referee getting ready to throw a jump ball up in the air, and I let go.  The bible fell sharply on its side – unopened!  I had not counted on that.  At first I was angry, then I felt stupid, but finally I decided it was truly a sign.  It was a sign that God trusted me to make some decisions myself, and that God had given me a brain for a reason, and that the only way to grow as a human being was to experience life.  And that maybe I should read the bible and learn something rather than using it like a magic hat.  William Sloan Coffin once said that many people use the bible like a drunk uses a lamp post, more for support than for illumination.  I fell into that trap.


This experience helps me understand our passage from Isaiah looking back three millennium.  King Ahaz was looking for a sign from the prophet Isaiah that God is looking out for his Kingdom.  Ahaz governed under the shadow of the powerful Assyrian was machine, and wanted a sign that God was with him.  If you were here two weeks ago, remember that Isaiah likened the reign of Ahaz to a stump, a cut off tree, but hoped that a shoot could come from the stump and renew the nation.  The only sign of prophecy Isaiah is willing to give is that the Davidic dynasty will continue, that the wife of Ahaz will bear a son, and he will be called Immanuel, God with us. 


This didn’t do much for Ahaz, so he continued to look for signs of God’s favor.  He consulted astrologers, soothsayers and fortune tellers and basically tried every religion available to him trying to find reassurance of God’s favor.  You may remember that he was the king who put an idol of a serpent in the temple and restarted the practice of human sacrifices to the gods.  That is going pretty far to appease his doubts.  None of this ever worked for Ahaz, mainly because he would not do what Isaiah constantly said, which was to govern with wisdom and justice and not let the powerful oppress the weak.  He was therefore constantly disappointed in his quest for the divine.


It is fascinating to me what has happened with this passage over time.  Matthew read this passage and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s hopes.  Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.  This phrase is profound to me.  One of my favorite hymns is “O come, O come Immanuel.”  I like its hope that the spirit of Christ will continue to come among us and free us, so that we can indeed rejoice. 


Matthew interpreted this passage in a way that has created much controversy for Christianity, pointing to the idea of the virgin birth.  To some the idea of the virgin birth is proof that Jesus is the Son of God and to others it is utter nonsense that makes Christianity less believable.  While Jesus and his teachings are the most important influence on my life, I have to be honest and say that the Virgin Birth doesn’t bolster my faith anymore than the 108 foot high statue in a Polish field.  I understand and agree with what the writer of Matthew was trying to do, but the notion of the Virgin Birth took on a life of its own which isn’t consistent with faith as I see it.  Augustine, who greatly shaped the theology of virgin birth, did so at a time when the church viewed bodies and the flesh, and especially women’s bodies, as evil and to be avoided.  I think Augustine misappropriated what Matthew was trying to say in a way that was very sexist and an unhealthy view of sexuality.  I don’t think Matthew would have recognized Augustine’s view of the virgin birth.


Matthew was trying to show God’s faithfulness over time, that what Jesus lived and did on earth was the fulfillment of the hopes of ancient prophets.  That is an important message.  God has been with us for a long time, and God is most profoundly with us through Jesus.  By introducing the idea of the virgin birth, Matthew was importing an idea from Greek and Roman mythology and applying it to Jesus.  Greeks and Romans often proclaimed great conquerors such as Alexander the Great and Julius Cesaer to be gods born of a virgin.  Matthew’s intent is to show that Jesus of Nazareth, a religious visionary put to death by Rome, would outlive and be greater than the Roman Empire and the great military conquerors who had forged the world they knew.  Matthew’s audience still lived in a world largely shaped by Alexander and Caesar Augustus.  Matthew was boldly telling the world that Jesus would be far greater in history than they, and today we may say that he won that argument.


It’s unlikely that the idea of virgin birth was important to the first generation of Christians.  Jesus himself never talks of it to prove his message, and Mark’s Gospel, the first written, does not have any birth narratives, nor do any of the letters of Paul the Apostle.  It is also interesting the last written piece of the New Testament, John’s Gospel, does not refer to the Virgin Birth either.  John goes a different direction in the first chapter, saying that Jesus is “the word” made flesh, he is the wisdom of God made real in human form. 


This leads us back to where we started, to Immanuel “God with us.”  We all want a sense that God is with us in some meaningful way, from Isaiah, to Ahaz, Matthew, Augustine, and you and I.  The resounding message of scriptures and Christian history is that if you take a deep and loving look within, you will find God with you.  Look within your soul and you will find Jesus looking back at you.  Listen deeply and you will hear the wisdom of Jesus for your own life.  Then you will know the meaning of Immanuel, God with us.  


Matthew 11:2-11 "Hope over Disappointment"

As Christmas draws near, hope abounds.  Stores offer discounts raising hopes of giving and getting what we want.  Family makes plans to get together, plane tickets are purchased, menus are planned, trees are raised, lights ablaze and our hearts are warmed at the thoughts of a joyful Christmas.  Working in a homeless shelter gives me a bitter sweet look at Christmas.  Generosity abounds.  We have enough cookies, mittens, scarves and coats to create a regiment.  We almost have more volunteers than shelter guests.  Wednesday night we had a busload of people from a church come in and decorate our halls and raise Christmas trees.  We gave the group a tour of the shelter and some people cried when they saw the bunk beds and thought of people being homeless.  One group gave out socks to everyone and even some of our grumpiest guests gushed with gratitude.  To top it all off the Dutchess County legislature had a moment of conscience and restored our funding cuts.  It is heartwarming to have good news, to see both generosity and gratitude. 


And at the same time, the shelter is filling up again as the days get colder.  Hopefully we will still have room at the inn come Christmas Day.  Our residents are more prone to relapse as this is also a season of anxiety.  Being together with family is not good news for everyone.  Some have no one to be with or have lost loved ones this year.  There is nothing worse than feeling alone and hopeless and penniless, when the rest of the world seems to be gushing joy, togetherness and cash.  The flip side of hope is disappointment.  Often as we prepare for a season of joy, we are plagued by fears of disappointing others.  Did you get gifts that will be meaningful?  Did you spend enough?  Did you spend way too much, trading temporary pleasure for later pain, so that you wouldn’t disappoint anyone? 


Disappointment is a powerful force, sometimes ruining a seemingly good situation.  I had to turn away a group of volunteers who wanted to come in a serve dinner to our residents, because we already had enough people on hand and I didn’t want more volunteers than residents.  They were disappointed and angry that they couldn’t give right on Christmas Day, and were not consoled much by my assurance that we needed volunteers all year round.  I wonder what hopes they had for the event and why they were so disappointed. 


Our Gospel lesson shows that people could even be disappointed with Jesus.  John the Baptist hears what Jesus has been doing and he sends a messenger to ask, “Are you the messiah or should we wait for another?”  It seems strange since John is the one who baptized Jesus and announced him as the messiah to everyone.  Did John fear that he had made a mistake?  What had he heard about Jesus that disappointed him?  And looked back at the previous chapters of Matthew’s Gospel to see what Jesus was doing, and he was busy teaching and preaching, and training his disciples to go out and preach and draw others in.  It looks good to me, but John is viewing all this in jail.  Perhaps he was expecting more of a military and political messiah who would lead a revolution, or who would more vigorously condemn and resist those in power.  Maybe he thought the messiah should get his mentor out of jail.  After all, what is a messiah for?


Its not like Jesus signed on to a tax cut deal with Republicans.  I couldn’t help but think of this Gospel lesson while watching Democrats attack President Obama this week.  Newsflash, Obama is not the messiah.  Democrats are dismayed that he is not Harry Truman, but Obama is being who he always said he was going to be.  His fame began at the 2004 Democratic Convention when his speech was about overcoming political division, working together and trying to be one America again.  Obama has always been a centrist, consensus builder, not a fiery prophet of progressive politics like Bernie Sanders, who took the Senate floor for 8 hours on Friday to filibuster against the President’s plan.  My feeling is that if the tax plan is so important to the liberal Democrats, then they should have voted on a suitable plan before the November elections.  Don’t blame Obama when you share the failure and lack courage yourselves.  Where was their resolve two months ago when it might have counted?  This scenario happens to nearly every President.  To get things done, sometimes even your supporters will be disappointed.  If Sarah Palin becomes President, she too will hit a moment when she has to disappoint her base in order to govern, just ask the people of Alaska. 


Obama responded to his critics by bringing in Bill Clinton to reassure people, while Jesus  responds to the messenger by getting some support from the prophet Isaiah, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus sees his mission as continuity with Isaiah 35 and the call to strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.  That sounds good to me, but remember John’s message last week was that one is coming who would baptize with fire and the chaff would be burned.  Maybe Jesus did not conform to John’s apocalyptic vision of a messiah.  Jesus follows up his message with a sermon that makes it clear he sees himself very much in continuity with John the Baptist’s prophecy and ministry.  But of course we know the rest of the story.  John never left prison and was beheaded.  Even messiahs have their limits.  If we read a few versus more in the gospel lesson, Jesus says that many people are not satisfied with either of them, noting that John came as an ascetic in the wilderness, fasting and wearing camel hair and people called him a demon. Then Jesus comes eating and drinking and they call him a glutton.  People are never quite satisfied with their prophets.



I think the message this morning is that you cannot be disillusioned unless you had illusions to begin with.  Disappointment is often the result of false hopes and unrealistic attitudes.  The Gospel points to an important caution to our season of hope.  Beware of the trap that even John the Baptist falls into.  Make sure you are hoping for the right reasons.  When I read Jesus’ hopeful words quoted from Isaiah, it strikes me that they are words about empowerment.  Jesus wants to open our ears and eyes, to see and do the truth, he wants to strengthen us feeble knees and give us words to speak.  These great gifts are like water flowing through the wilderness, blossoms in the desert.  Jesus makes a way known to us where there seemed to be no way before; and at that point, we have to get involved in our own hope.  Jesus’ gifts of grace do not always make our lives easy, but it does make our lives possible.   Some of you here this morning have had surgery this year, a knee replacement so you can walk, a shoulder surgery that makes an arm useful again, some may have had cataract surgery so you can keep your sight, I’ve had my intestines reconnected so I can live.  The gifts of grace do the same thing for our souls.  Jesus is the Great physician, our true messiah, who knows what our soul needs to heal and move forward.  The next step is up to us.  The fulfillment of our hopes depends upon what we do once we can see and hear and walk and live the Good News.



Isaiah 11:1-10 "The Tree of Jesse"

Tree of Jesse  (This image is a German painting of the Tree of Jesse from Wurzberg from 1240 to 1250.)


When times get tough, people are inclined to hope in a greater power outside themselves to come and rescue them.  Some people hope that a good relationship with save them, that a knight in shining armor will sweep them up, or they will find the princess whose foot fits the glass slipper.  Relationships that start like this usually end badly.  As one of my case managers says to her woman clients who seem co-dependent with their significant other, “A man is not a plan.”   People are prone to looking for political leaders to save us.  When Barack Obama was inaugurated, I felt sorry for him, because there is no way he could live up to the hype and expectation placed on his head.  How quickly a golden crown can change to a crown of thorns.  On inauguration day, the satirical newspaper, The Onion, (which fits my warped sense of humor) ran the headline, “Black Man Given Worst Job in the United States.”  While half of Americans are arguing over whether Obama or Sarah Palin is the next messiah, the other half have given up on politics and don’t vote at all.


Other people look to gurus or apocalyptic preachers for answers and help.  Apocalyptic writings often spring up in turbulent times.  Hal Lindsey was popular in the wake of a nuclear arms race and oil embargo in the 70s, and predicted in the book, The Late Planet Earth, that the world would end by 1988.  Then he moved the date back to 2000, and now, still prophesying on TBN, he believes that Barack Obama is the anti-Christ and that the European Union will be the new Rome and rule the world as Anti-Christ.  Now if they could just have a stable currency!  My advice is to not listen to apocalyptic leaders unless they have at least stopped investing their royalty checks.   After all who needs money if the world is coming to an end.


Let’s face it, hopes that a human being, even a great one, has the answers we seek almost always leads to disappointment.  So how shall we understand the Prophet Isaiah, and his great hope for a king who will govern with wisdom and bring peace?  Or what of John the Baptist’s announcement that a messiah would come, judge the sinners and baptize the true believers with fire and the Holy Spirit?  Can we trust these words to be anything more than pale hopes for a great rescuer?  What makes these scriptures meaningful after nearly 2000 Advents?


Isaiah is my favorite prophet, because he is a pessimistic optimist like me.  You may wonder, “What is a pessimistic optimist?”  Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr coined the term to mean that while we may be greatly cynical about human nature and our propensity to sin, we can still be fundamentally optimistic because of the grace of God works in us and through us.  Isaiah fits this description, because he could equally chastise a king for a terrible foreign policy decision, and yet he gives us remarkable poetic images of peace and hope.  Let’s look at images in today’s text, his vision of natural enemies like a wolf and lamb making peace and a  shoot coming from the stump of Jesse, to  better understand Isaiah’s hopes.


A shoot from the stump of Jesse is a loaded image.  Jesse was the father of David, the same David who slew Goliath and became the first great king of Israel to establish the dynasty that still existed in Isaiah’s day.  When he suggests that a shoot will come from the stump, this sounds like a cynical view about the Davidic dynasty.  It’s a stump.  It is cut down and useless, seemingly at an end.  I was thinking about the image of stumps, and it occurred to me that we call a political speech a “stump speech.”  The dictionary says it stems from the 19th century practice of politicians standing on a stump to speak so people could hear, but I’m not so sure.   The word “stump” can mean “to baffle” and to “stump around” is to walk clumsily.  So beware of stump speeches.  Now you can see that within Isaiah’s hope there is a bit of satire as well.


Isaiah had good reason to be cynical.  His prophecies began in the reign of Ahaz, who was one of the worst kings ever.  He was immoral and he started following pagan idols, which he put in the Temple in Jerusalem, and worst of all, he lost his ill-conceived wars and he revived the practice of human sacrifice, even sacrificing one of his own children to the god Baal.  Stump indeed.  His son Hezekiah, seemed to learn from the mistakes of his father.  Hezekiah is praised in the Old Testament as a good king.  He took the idols out of the Temple and reformed worship.  The biblical books of Ecclessiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs, now known as Wisdom literature, were written during his kingship.  Hezekiah built the Broad Wall, which enclosed and protected the western suburbs of Jerusalem, and dug a 500 meter tunnel known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel (still there today) that brought spring water underground, ensuring a source of water to the city when it was besieged by the Assyrians.   Before attacking Jerusalme, the Assyrians had wiped out 46 cities in their campaign, but according to Herodotus, they lost 180,000 men due to a plague of mice and so retreated and Jerusalem was saved. 

 (Hezekiah's Tunnel)250px-Siloam81   

So it makes sense the Hezekiah is the shoot from the   stump.  He is wise and knowledgeable and secured the peace over against a great conqueror.  That’s an amazing record.  One would think he could make a wolf to lie down with a lamb, a leopard could sleep with a kid goat, the lions might just eat grass like an ox and a child could play next to the den of a poisonous asp.  All of creation should rejoice at what Hezekiah accomplished.  Maybe Isaiah is laying it on a little thick, but Isaiah was highly critical of Hezekiah for inciting Assyria’s wrath in the first place by not paying tribute, so if he saves the city its OK to go a little overboard.


When the early Gospel writers were trying to find the words for Jesus, it makes sense for them to return to the writings of Isaiah, and the praise of the good king Hezekiah.  Remember that Jesus too is of the line of David.  So he too is heralded as a Prince of Peace, but not merely on earth as a king, but as one who also lives and reigns in heaven with wisdom, righteousness and justice.  Now remember, there was no king of Israel in Jesus’ day who could rule with righteousness.  They were occupied and oppressed by Rome, so Jesus, rightly understood as the messiah by the Gospel writers, became the ruler of the human heart and soul, who could rule from heaven and for all eternity.  No matter how bad the current occupation by Rome, or indeed no matter how bad any political leader may be, Jesus commands our soul’s true allegiance.  The Apostle Paul picked up this theme, and it united people of many lands who felt oppressed by Rome, and gave them strength to endure and even resist Rome, and to create an alternative kingdom built upon love and grace rather than military might and coercive power.


We, who have gathered today on this second Sunday of Advent, are here to proclaim our allegiance, pledging our heart and soul to another shoot of hope, Jesus the Christ, springing from the stump of dead worldly power.  While we hope for wise and righteous leaders, we have something beyond political hope.  Something amazing has happened since the days of wise King Hezekiah, something even greater than holding off Assyria.  Just has Hezekiah was given gifts of the spirit; wisdom, counsel, knowledge, awe and fear of God, righteousness, concern for the meek; in these days Christ gives the same gifts of the Spirit to each of us.  The sustaining gifts of life are not just the divine right of kings, but are uncommon gifts for common people.  So prepare the way of the Lord, for one has come and is coming and will come again among us, who will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  As John the Baptist said, the fire may burn away what is not essential and prune what is unproductive, but it will not destroy the shoot that grows still today from the stumps of human insanity, ever expanding new branches which sustain and connect us to the Tree of Life.