Our Pious Disbelief in “God-With-Us”

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7:10-17
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

King Ahaz – the king in today’s prophecy from Isaiah – is a man standing in great fear. To understand why, we have to go back a few verses to get the context of this passage. Two of Ahaz’s nearest enemies have united against him: the Northern Kingdom of Israel (a Jewish nation that had, in previous days, been part of a united kingdom with Judah), and Aram, a non-Jewish nation. Ahaz fears the bloodshed and destruction that war inevitably brings.

We, today, can understand Ahaz’s fear. Surely we have all been in some kind of position like that where we have stood among enemies, where no help or hope seems to be found.

Our own enemies are probably not political foes who threaten to take away our land. In our context, perhaps we might name our enemies as consumer culture railing against us on one side, telling us and our children that we are never good enough because we don’t have the one special shining product we need to make our lives perfect – a never ending source of despair. Or, we might see our enemies in our culture of violence, which glorifies killing in movies, social media, and video games, and which also belittles or ignores actual violence and death via dictators, abortion clinics, and laws that promote assisted suicide. And, we might be fearful of these things, how they form us and our children, and what messages they send our neighbors.

God hears Ahaz’s fear. God himself asks the prophet Isaiah to go to Ahaz and do what prophets do best in times of terror, to offer a word of hope to the embattled king. In this case, God says, “do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands….” They might be smoldering but they are not a full-fledged fire – they won’t engulf you. (Isaiah 7:1-9)

Our contemporary fears, too, are hot to the touch. We need to be careful for how we approach consumerism or glorification of violence or any other number of things that might rightly make us fear. But these things need not engulf us. Indeed, God offers us hope and comfort in the midst of these fears.

Even more than offering words of hope, God goes one better in offering his words of comfort, and that is the point at which today’s reading begins. Ask me for a sign, any sign at all, he says (verse 11). God offers divine carte blanche to the king – the depths of Sheol, the heights of heaven – all the mysteries of heaven and earth. God does for Ahaz what we all hope God might do for us in our own places of fear. God offers some physical present sign of hope – hope that is broad and wide and deep and more than capable of feeling even the most fearful of hearts.

Yet Ahaz refuses, using what might seem to be a pious excuse: “I will not put the Lord to the test.” Christians might be reminded, in fact, of Jesus’ temptations, and how Jesus responds to Satan: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Ahaz is not a pious man, however. His words do not appease God. They make God very angry. In not speaking the words God commands, Ahaz is in fact demonstrating is disbelief in God and God’s saving actions. Ahaz’s words and actions are familiar to many of us, maybe especially in this land of America. In the face of fear, especially in the midst of real problems, tragedies, and violence, how often do we resort to disbelief as our answer? “If God really existed, God wouldn’t have allowed those children to be killed by drone warfare.”

Though Ahaz does not take God up on the offer, God imposes his own sign: all the mysteries of heaven and earth are in fact conveyed in these words: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (verse 14)

God offers Ahaz this sign precisely because of the king’s unbelief. This will be the incredible sign of hope amid a world wracked by political intrigue, war, violence, injustice and all the rest of the things that fill us with darkness and despair – a baby will be born and named “God With Us.”

I am sure this prophecy invited still more disbelief. As the years spun out past Ahaz’s failed reign, past the Assyrian, Persian, and Roman takeovers of Israel, surely there were others like Ahaz who despaired at the oppression, and political and economic turmoil of their world and disbelieved in God, too. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words – and where was God? Or, if one wanted to pretend belief in God, it was easy enough to offer pious nothings that sounded good but that didn’t mean much – especially in a world that equated political power with God’s own power and economic wealth with God’s own good fortune.

When God’s name is so misused, what happens to the poor and disempowered among us? We become unable to see exactly those signs God keeps placing in our midst anyway. (I am struck by the fact that throughout the first part of Isaiah, the prophet keeps using small and apparently weak children as ways of getting God’s message across – see Isaiah 7:3, for example.) God presents to us as innocence, childlikeness, meekness and a whole host of other very unlikely aspects of life. Indeed, these are precisely the kinds of things we are likely to dismiss as too “unrealistic.”

Yet innocence and littleness really exist, despite it all. So Matthew is stark raving glad to proclaim the moment when God does come to be with us (verse 23), this Jesus who will save us from our sins. Crazy as it is, a small baby came to speak words of comfort, forgiveness, and love to our hearts tired from greed, schemes, and troubles. Jesus the God-man will save us from Ahaz’s all-too-pious sin of disbelief and refusal to hope.

Our very real danger this Advent 2016 is that we, like Ahaz, might make way too much of the things that are hot to the touch – while ignoring the pious disbelief that exists in far less-well-known and more insidious ways, and which makes us forget that God-is-with-us. God demands to be with us, in fact, demands that we ask him for signs just he did of Ahaz.

As we live through this final week of Advent, let us prepare for God’s coming by doing two things:

1) acknowledging all the dangerous hot-to-handle stuff of our lives;

2) turning aside from those things, even just for a little bit, to embrace childlikeness and whatever else our usual atheistic piety won’t quite let us believe.

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