Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Advent, Year A: Isaiah 7:10-14, Luke 1:26-38.
Today’s reading from Isaiah can come across a bit odd. Not the bit about the future Emmanuel, but the bit about Ahaz being offered whatever kind of sign he wants. As a kid, I read a lot of fairy tales from around the world and this one smacks of an Arabian tale of finding a genie in a bottle: “The LORD spoke to Ahaz: Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” Sadly, the lectionary is giving us Isaiah’s prophecy of Emmanuel a bit out of context.
Ahaz, we have to recall, was a very wicked king whose father (Jotham) and son (Hezekiah) were both good kings. Ahaz’s story is an interesting dive into politics (which haven’t changed much since 740 BC!) and religious practices bowing to outside influences. The short version is that good King Jotham was deposed at the age of 41 when his son Ahaz became king at the tender age of 20. Why? you might ask; after all, Jotham didn’t die – he was deposed. The Wikipedia entry for Jotham states that he was “deposed by a pro-Assyrian faction,” presumably of Jews in his own increasingly beleaguered small-but-powerful kingdom of Judah. You see, Assyria was the reigning power in the middle East at this time, and the northern kingdoms of Samaria and Israel were super nervous about being overtaken. So, they came to Ahaz for an alliance, but, since Ahaz was backed by pro-Assyrian Judeans, he refused. Soon, the Israelite and Samarian armies were at Jerusalem’s doorstep, ready to depose Ahaz in favor of someone who would ally with them. Heady politics! Here’s where Isaiah comes in.
God sends Isaiah to Ahaz. His first message is that the kings of Israel and Samaria would not succeed in trying to attack Jerusalem: “thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (Is 7:7). And, just before the section we read in the lectionary, Isaiah relates that God says, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (Is 7:9b). God sent Isaiah to plead with Ahaz not to ally with foreign powers (that is, Assyria) and instead trust in the Lord.
Thus, we get to our lectionary excerpt, where God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sign “high as the sky” to show that God was with Israel and all they had to do was trust in Him. Note that what is being offered is a sign, not a wish. The sign means that God will honor His covenant and promises to His People, whereas a wish is something granted to a specific person outside of a broader plan for salvation. So, no genie here. Instead, this is the God who has always been happy to work wonders and signs for His People.
Let’s not confuse Ahaz’s response “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” for true modesty. We know from other books of the Bible that he was a rotten Jew: he set up idols and images of foreign gods and committed abominations by worshipping these gods (2 Chron. 28:2-3). He even worshipped the god Molech by offering his children in sacrifice (in Leviticus 20:1-5, God pronounced the death sentence against all who worshipped this god). As Ahaz’s fortunes decline in later years after Assyria turns against him, he shows his absolute degeneration as a child of God. He says, “‘Because the gods of the kings of Aram helped them, I will sacrifice to them so that they may help me.’ But they were the ruin of him, and of all Israel” (2 Chron 28:23b).
This makes it a little easier to understand Isaiah’s lack of patience with Ahaz’s demurring. For what it’s worth, I find Isaiah’s rejoinder to be a great moment of exasperation captured in scripture: “Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God?” I can just envision the fantastic eyeroll that accompanied this statement.
Isaiah goes on for quite some time about Emmanuel, that is, Jesus. But the lectionary today stops with a concise, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” The fact that it takes another 7 centuries for Emmanuel to be conceived unto Mary tells us that 1) God is truly looking out for his people as a group rather than an individual king or person, and 2) God is patient with His love, playing the long game and waiting until His People are ready for the child to be conceived unto Mary.
I have written 4 separate reflections on the wonderful gospel reading from Luke describing the Annunciation, so I don’t want to repeat myself here. I do encourage anyone reading this to consider diving into them.
- This one focuses on Mary’s fiat.
- This one focuses on Mary as the living House of God.
- This one focuses on Mary’s unique title of Kecharitōmenē and the exchange between her and the angel Gabriel.
- This one (from 12 days ago) focuses on Mary as the New Eve.
I simply want to reflect today on how God’s great plan to give His people (and all of humanity) Emmanuel, His Son, is way more fantastic than a genie granting wishes. Fantastic in all senses – unbelievable, supernatural, awesome, great, immensely pleasing. In fact, this story is too fantastic for a human to make it up. The threads of prophecy and fulfillment, the indescribable humility and selfless goodness of Christ, the centuries – no, millennia – of teaching that was perfected in Christ in an always surprising way … these things are absolutely the Greatest Story Ever Told. Fairy tales borrow from God’s entry into humanity, not the other way around. All that humans can come up with on their own is a genie or spirit who grants singular wishes to a selfish human (who often makes a terrible mistake, giving us some sort of moral tale). Of course, today we can find very sophisticated fantasy and science fiction book series and TV series, but all of this smacks of escapism, not reality.
That’s the ground truth that keeps us in church. Israel, Judah, Christ, the martyrs, the Church Fathers: these are all real history. We don’t have to look to another planet or a pretend reality to find the most fantastic story in our very midst. We have to have faith and embrace it, because our God was patient and loving and gave it to us in the form of an infant to be adored.