Seeing the signs of the times - Advent 4 Year A 2016
The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman
In our Old Testament reading today we come read about Isaiah’s discussion with King Ahaz. Ahaz had become king at a very troubled time in Judah’s history, and, as a weak and vacillating king, did not fare well.
The states of Syria and (the Northern Kingdom of) Israel, for long years enemies, had now come together and wanted to throw off the yoke and threat of Assyria. They had recognised the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser but had to pay heavy tributes and taxes to him in exchange for his benign stance and they now wanted a change.
The Kings of Syria and Israel had already tried to replace Ahaz with a king of their own who shared their views and would join with them, but had failed.
Ahaz’s idea was to ask the Assyrians to help protest the now besieged Judah but Isaiah was convinced that God would overthrow the Syro-Israelite alliance through the Assyrians and Ahaz should therefore do nothing but trust in God to bring this about.
Ahaz would not believe this, so finally Isaiah comes to Ahaz with an offer of a sign, which Ahaz piously turns down. Resolute as ever, Isiah says to Ahaz that God will provide a sign anyway, which will confirm the doom of the Syro-Israelite alliance.
It will be the sign that ‘the young woman/maiden (Heb = al’mah) will give birth to a child who will be called Immanuel’. (Heb = ‘immanu, with us; el, God)
Was this the future Messiah that was being prophesised about, or something more immediate, or perhaps a double meaning? Shortly after Isaiah does speak in much more Messianic terms in passages we are familiar with from or Christmas readings.
In one sense what is described in an ordinary birth, and some think it could have been to a woman Ahaz knew. A specific woman seems to be referenced, the young woman/maiden’. Perhaps it could be Ahaz’s wife, in which case the son could be Hezekiah, who went on to be one of the great kings of Judah.
Whoever the chid is, and was to become, Ahaz, were told, shows no faith, compared to the child will be faithful. The child would share in the sufferings and desolation of the people of Judah but would also be with them at a time of new beginnings. Once the Assyrian yoke is removed the child will ascend to the throne as God’s agent on earth.
Whoever the child of the prophecy was, what Isaiah describes is a man of no faith who ignores the sign offered by God of a young child being born, and someone who choses political expediency and dependence in the powers and the armies of the world over God.
In our New Testament reading we see Joseph, a man who was also given a sign of a young woman, Mary, who will give birth to a child. Unlike Ahaz, Joseph hears God’s voice, listens to it. He is obedient to what God says.
We know relatively little about Joseph. He would seem to be a man of great character in that he was planning just to divorce Mary quietly, but he fades into the background quite quickly. In some ways a bit like the Duke of Edinburgh was portrayed in a programme bout him earlier this week, always there for the Queen but rarely taking centre stage.
If Joseph had thought about the prophecy from Isaiah he would perhaps have realised that obedience didn’t mean some kind of protected future. It would still involve uncertainty and risk, as we see as the story of the young Jesus unfolds.
But whatever is to happen, God, Emmanuel, will be with them.
In both Mary and Joseph we see people who are quietly obedient to God, however bizarre the things they are asked to do and believe, and people who, through their faith and obedience, change the course of history, destiny and eternity.
They also experience the reality of our faith today. Immanuel, God is with us. He is not remote, He’s not at a distance watching on, He is with us, involved in our humanity and in our world every day.
Only at Christmas we can sometimes be more like Ahaz than Mary or Joseph. We get consumed and subsumed in the ways of the world and the things our own wealth and independence can bring us rather than focusing on the sign which God gives, and continues to give day by day.
We overlook the eternal and cosmic significance of Christmas as we focus on the material and the immediate.
We so easily forget that God is indeed with us. The signs that He gives us are all around us in creation and in the way he intervenes in our lives.
But so often we don’t always see these, putting extraordinary events or times when God is working in extraordinary ways down to coincidence or perhaps happening just because of a course of action we’ve taken.
And, in many things, it is often a case of us working together with God, rather than God manipulating our lives like puppets on stings with no input from ourselves.
But it’s easy for us to overlook the signs that God is giving us. They are probably not as graphic as those that Joseph, Mary and their families witnessed, or Ahaz 700 years earlier, but they are present a God continues to reveal Himself to us in each of our lives.
Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and philosopher who died in 1955 said, ‘You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience’. In that sense he saw everyone as being a bit of a mystic.
So how might we be more open to the signs that God shows each one of us?
Perhaps we need to follow the path of Mary. Rather than trying to make things happen and manipulate circumstances for our own benefit, perhaps we just need to do nothing.
To take time to reflect on what we think God might be saying to us, give Him time and space to speak.
For 9 months Mary, we assume did nothing, or very little. Perhaps we should so the same, maybe not for 9 months, but over the Christmas and New Year break have a time where we create a bit of space and do nothing but rest and wait on God.
Both Mary and Joseph just waited for God’s plan to unfold. In one sense they had no choice once the die had been cast. But they waited with simple, childlike (they were both probably quite young) faith and obedience.
Perhaps that’s the route we should take more often, the route of Mary and Joseph rather than the route of Ahaz, take the route of doing less rather than doing more. Take the path of letting God be in control, seeing what He might surprisingly reveal to us in whatever way He chooses.
Advent itself is a time of waiting, Christmas too is a time for taking time out.
It’s a time of cosmic signs as God breaks through – and a time of celebration as we celebrate what this means for each one of us.
Sometimes we just need to give God the space and time He desires so that he can come to us again in the peace of the Christ Child, as Advent draws to a close and as we move to the season of Christmas where God Himself, Immanuel, is with us.