For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 4 – Isaiah 7:10-17
If ever there was a passage to set off the QI General Ignorance klaxon, it’s today’s lectionary reading. We all know it’s a prophetic prediction of the virgin birth, right? Well, no it isn’t, but fortunately we do know in great detail what it is about, so let’s unpack that, and we might find there’s something helpful for us as we move from Advent into the Christmas period.
The first thing to note is that our reading begins ‘Again the Lord spoke …’ We have come in part way through a conversation, so we need to look back a bit to get the gist of what’s going on. Ahaz is the king of Judah, in the Southern Kingdom, and this happens around the 730s BC. Assyria, the latest great empire to arise, from the north east of Israel, is casting aggressive eyes southwards, and has already conquered Israel and Syria, and made their kings Pekah and Rezin puppet monarchs. But these two kings have had enough, and plan to rebel against Tiglath Pileser, king of Assyria. So they have invited Ahaz and the army of Judah to join them. Ahaz, however, has refused, and so Rezin and Pekah respond aggressively, and invade Judah, in the hope that they might bully Ahaz into joining their rebellion. Their plan is to scare the king into action, and quite naturally he is worried. He meets Isaiah the prophet, who seeks to reassure him, by telling him that these two nasty kings will soon have disappeared, along with their threat. Then Isaiah speaks again, and our passage begins.
It appears that Ahaz had been unconvinced, so Isaiah tells him to ask God for a confirmatory sign. But Ahaz is reluctant: maybe he knows from his nation’s history that putting God to the test seldom ends well. Also, he has another plan of his own: he intends to approach Tiglath Pileser himself and pledge allegiance to him if he rescues Judah from these two rebellious kings. But Isaiah insists, and tells him that God will give him a sign whether he likes it or not. This is where a careful reading of the text is important. There’s a young woman (the word needn’t mean ‘virgin’ in the technical sense) who has conceived (not ‘will conceive’) and is pregnant. Some commentators believe Isaiah is referring to his own wife, and it’s almost as though he is inviting the king to be present to witness the birth. Before this child is weaned, he insists, by around two years’ time, the two kings will have vanished and Judah will be safe (although he then goes on to tell Ahaz that the king of Assyria himself will then attack and besiege Jerusalem, but we’ll tiptoe quietly past that for now).
So what Advent hopes does this passage bring to us? Two, I believe. First of all, it reassures us that God knows and understands our weaknesses and failures, our battles and struggles. As a penitential season, Advent invites us to focus on our sins and shortcomings, and leads us to repent. It is good to be reminded that God already knows, and that he longs to speak into our warring emotions, our fears and our powerlessness, to confirm his purposes for us. Sometimes he wants to challenge our human plans and reveal his own, possibly counter-intuitive, ways of behaving. Simply to sit and wait in quiet faith while the country of which you are king is being invaded is not often seen as positive leadership, but that is exactly what God calls Ahaz to do. Advent suggests to us that our human plans might not be the same as God’s purposes for us, but that he longs to speak and direct our ways.
But secondly, the name of this miracle child is to be Immanuel, God with us. It is when we feel most alone, most overwhelmed and most helpless that we need to know this name of God. Advent draws our eyes towards that future when God really will be with us, and we with him, but it also celebrates the fact that that is already true. Not yet in it’s fulness, but nevertheless in reality. God has not left us comfortless, and he has not forsaken us. Advent encourages us to wait patiently for that time which we believe by faith will be ‘God with us’ face to face.
So Isaiah had no idea he was writing a proof text for the virgin birth. Of course NT writers could easily see his writing in the light of what actually happened, and read Mary back into it, but we do him, and ourselves, a disservice if we limit our understanding to that interpretation.