Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Be Not Afraid, Year A, Fourth Sunday of Advent

Year A, Advent IV, Dec. 22, 2019
Isaiah 7:1-4, 7-17
          In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. 2When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. 
          3Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field, 4and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.
          7Therefore thus says the Lord God:  It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.8 For the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.) 9The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.  If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
               10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
          12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.
          13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Matthew 1:18-25
            18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

          How many have seen my house?
          If you have, you know it sits up on a hill.  [Slide]  There are two sets of stairs to climb: from the street to the yard and the yard to the front porch.
          So last Monday, when we were home with Dominic enjoying a Snow Day, we were all out in the yard…trying—unsuccessfully—to build a snowman.  And Colleen, my lovely wife, looks down at the very steep hill and says, “I think he could ride his sled down the hill.”
          I don’t remember what I said, but it was basically some version of “Have you lost your mind?!”
          This is a dynamic which plays out occasionally in our life together as, now, a family of three.  She suggests something…and I point out that it is dangerous and crazy. 
          Exhibit B:  Colleen likes fireworks.  The kind you buy in a box and shoot off illegally in the vacant lot across the street.  I think incendiary devices belong in the hands of professionals. 
          For someone who takes some risks in public life, I am kind of a chicken in other parts of life, especially when it comes to Dominic.
          I like to think I am keeping our son safe from things like, you know, smashing into the cars parked at the curb on a sled.  [Slide]
          But the truth is that it is good that he has both of us.  Because while some fears keep us safe, living in fear is actually dangerous.  When we are operating out of fear, of, just to pick an example, immigrants…people of color…gay people…reading…
          …we make poor decisions.
          The examples from history are manifold.  As big as the Holocaust and as small as New Coke.  (Look it up.)
          As people of faith, we need look no further than our Bibles, which are full of exhortations to “Fear not!”  It is a phrase first spoken to Abram, even before God renames him and makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their children.
          [Slides] Genesis 15:  Fear not, Abram.  I am your shield; your reward will be great.”
          Exodus 14:  "And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD.’”
          First Kings 17:  “And Eli'jah said to the widow, ‘Fear not; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make for yourself and your son.’”  If you know that story, you know that the widow was preparing a last meal for herself and her son and she then expected them to starve to death.  Elijah asks her to have faith in God and in him, and God provides food for them all until the famine is over.
          “Fear not” is usually a marker for divine intervention in human lives.  An angel, a midwife, a prophet—someone with knowledge of God’s power—declares to a person or a people that when they set their aside their fear and trust in God…peace and goodwill will follow.
          Some form of the exhortation “fear not” occurs over two dozen times in the book of Isaiah, including in the expanded lesson before us this morning.  I added some verses to the lectionary text, because the lesson actually doesn’t make as much sense if you start at verse 10, as the lectionary suggests.
          In the complete form of the lesson before us, God summons the prophet, Isaiah, to go and collect King Ahaz of Judah, the antihero for all of our lessons this Advent, and speak a word of prophecy to him.
          “Say to that Ahaz guy,” God demands, “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands.”
          [Slide]  Quick review: the “smoldering stumps of firebrands” are the kings of Israel and Aram, who are gearing up to attack Ahaz’s kingdom, Judah.  The two of them together make a formidable opponent, so despite God’s reassurances that Judah will be protected, Ahaz is considering ill-advised alliances with nations like Egypt.  Those alliances will weaken, rather than strengthen, Judah, and leave it vulnerable to the Babylonian Empire which is, at this point, just a whisper in the wind.
          So the prophet goes to Ahaz and says what messengers from God say:
          Be Not Afraid. 
          If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”
          See, because fear—not doubt…this is important:  Fear is the opposite of faith.  We can be faithful, or we can be fearful.  It’s almost impossible to be both.  When I refuse to let my wife take our child down the hill in front of our house on a sled, I am displaying clear lack of faith in her judgment of hill angles and stopping distances.
          Now I have a lot of faith in her generally, so this is not a huge barrier in our relationship.
          The conversation Ahaz and Isaiah are having is a bit different.  Because the fear Ahaz is showing has leaked all over his relationship with God.
          Maybe you’ve been there.
          Ahaz is so fearful about the future that he has ceased to trust God at all.  Isaiah offers him the opportunity to trust in God, to ask God for a sign—anything.  And Ahaz declines. 
          If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
          Ahaz is firm in fear, and weak in faith, and that is a problem for him…and an even bigger problem for Judah.  Leaders whose primary motivator is fear are dangerous creatures.
          Because fear strips us of reason.
          Fear strips us of logic.
          Fear strips us of love.
          And that is where I want to finish up, as we consider prophecy about miraculous women and babies, which is what’s at the bottom of this particular exegetical sledding hill.
          This is, after all, the week of love. [Slide]
          Ahaz declines the sign which Isaiah offers, but the prophet gives it to him anyway.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.”
          Scholars have long debated what this particular prophecy means, with not a lot of clarity.  But Matthew inserted it into his telling of the nativity of Jesus, so it is forever connected to that miraculous birth for us.
          And that miraculous birth is all about…love.
          This miraculous week is all about…love.
          In the midst of all of the political intrigue, the interfering foreign powers, the neighbors who used to be our friends but now seem threatening…
          …in the midst of it all is this story, this sign.  “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” 
          And the second time the prophecy is offered, when an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him that his betrothed is to bear a miraculous child, and imploring him to “be not afraid,” … this second story has a different ending, doesn’t it?
          Because Joseph is a righteous man, and when presented with a choice between love and fear, he chooses…
          And as this story of miraculous birth, of God’s inbreaking into the world, as this Immanuel Tale comes to us anew again this year, in a world that looks a little too much like Ahaz’s Judah, we too have a choice:  fear or love?
          Will we go careening down the hill toward all of that innocence and light without a care?  Will we pick up that child and carry him within us everywhere we go, living his way, forgiving his way, loving his way?
          Can we carry hope, peace, joy, and love past Advent, into Christmas, and into the new year?
          Of course we can.  We are not afraid, are we?  God is with us.