By Wesley Hill

Our Old Testament lesson this morning takes us right to the heart of a terrifying and dismaying moment in the life of the kingdom of Judah.

More than 200 years after David, Israel’s greatest king, had died, the dynasty of David is hanging by a thread. The once-great kingdom of Israel is now divided. Pekah son of Remaliah reigns in the northern part of the territory God had originally promised to Abraham and his ancestors. And Ahaz, the son of Jotham son of Uzziah, is enthroned at Jerusalem. But he is in a precarious spot, to say the least. The empire of Syria, whose capital was Damascus, forged an alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel. And their hope is to descend on Jerusalem and eject Ahaz from his throne and bring an end to the reign of the house of David.

At the opening of our reading today, Jerusalem is surrounded by foreign armies. And Ahaz is trembling in his palace, having seen from the ramparts the soldiers that are now encamped around his royal city.

I find myself thinking of those scenes from the final film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy in which Denethor, the weak and stubborn steward of the royal city of Gondor, cowers in willful ignorance and terror as the minions of Sauron, the dark Lord, march on his domain. The film was released around Christmas in 2003, which is maybe why it comes to mind now.

Anyone who remembers the gaunt and cowardly face of actor John Noble’s Denethor can picture Ahaz from our reading today. He represents the lordly line of King David, but he is a pitiful excuse for a ruler in Judah, a pale shadow of his heroic forebear. And he inspires no trust from his subjects: “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

And suddenly, in the middle of all this fear and uncertainty, comes a word from God. The Lord of Israel comes to Ahaz through his prophet Isaiah and says: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Imagine this! You are facing the direst, most upsetting situation of your life. You are completely exposed, vulnerable, under threat and duress. You have no earthly chance left.

If you are Ahaz in that moment, you are feeling the way you would feel if your credit has tanked, your spouse has announced she’s leaving you, the secret of which you’re most ashamed is about to be exposed, and your savings for retirement has vanished. Your stomach is queasy, your knees are like jelly, your mouth is dry. And suddenly you receive an offer of consolation from God. What do you do?

Ahaz does this: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” He thumbs his nose at the only One who can help him, in other words. He turns his back on God’s gracious offer. He is so enclosed in his pride and despair and terror that he cannot even recognize a gift when it is given to him.

And that might well have been the end of the story.

But what boggles the mind about the God of Israel is that he does not allow Ahaz’s stubbornness and obtuseness to deter him from showing mercy. In the face of Ahaz’s refusal to accept God’s gift, this is how God acts: “Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 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.’”

The Lord’s spokesman, Isaiah, stands in front of pitiable, self-absorbed Ahaz and says, “You don’t want to receive mercy from God? No matter. I am still determined to bestow it. A baby is about to be born. And this baby’s birth will bring new hope. And the baby’s name, ‘Immanuel,’ means ‘God with us.’” God is determined to show mercy even — especially — to those who will not and cannot receive it. God chooses to be “with” those who spurn him.

A baby will be born, says God’s prophet. And this baby will be a sign of hope, a ray of light in the gathering gloom.

Last weekend I was visiting some dear friends, Jamie and Gretchen, in South Carolina. A handful of years ago, on a very different visit, I was sitting with them beside a tiny casket. Just before he was due to be born, their son died in his mother’s womb. I remember watching Aidan and my friend Jamie shovel dirt onto that tiny casket after it was lowered into the ground. And I remember the miraculous joy when their daughter Ella — my goddaughter — was born to them soon thereafter. “Look, the young woman is with child.” A baby born! A token of new hope. A symbol of mercy, of life after and beyond death.

Isaiah the prophet says to Ahaz, king of Judah, as the besieging armies encamp around Jerusalem: “The child … shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” In other words, in a short time, before this baby, Immanuel, is a young boy, he won’t be eating the dry bread of wartime, the unsatisfying morsels that can be smuggled through the besieging armies. No, he’ll be feasting on cheese and sweets. He’ll be dancing in the streets of Jerusalem. He’ll be laughing as he smears his face with sugary delights. “For 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.”

Parents often talk about how fast time flies. It seems like only yesterday that a baby was tasting her first solid foods, and now she’s learning the alphabet. Just blink, says Isaiah, and the baby Immanuel will be eating curds and honey, and the kings of Syria and Israel whom you, Ahaz, dread so much will have disappeared entirely. The siege of Jerusalem will be a distant memory. God is with you. You have nothing to fear.

Friends, as we near the end of Advent, which is a dark and penitential season of the Christian calendar, you may feel that you’re like Ahaz. You’re holed up somewhere in your castle of despair. You’re wondering how the bills are going to be paid. The family members you’re unreconciled with may feel like a gathering army encircling your city. The tyrants of depression and envy and lust and pride may feel like they’re setting up their cannons to destroy your peace and joy this season. The powers of sin and death may feel as though they’re lurking at your gate, ready to wait you out, ready to make you starve and grovel and beg for mercy.

But the word of the prophet is for you too today:

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The child Immanuel is Jesus. He is God — the Lord of Israel, the Lord of mercy, the Lord who refuses to let our cowardice and stubbornness prevent him from showing us his grace and forgiveness and love — he is God come to live with us and touch us and feed us and make us whole. We are Ahaz, stumbling around in our dark rooms, bowed low with nervousness and helplessness and hopelessness. And when we are at our worst, when we are weakest and most fearful and convinced that we are beyond help and healing, a child is born to us. We hold a baby in our arms, and as we wipe away our tears, we smile for the first time in a long time. There is hope after all. God is with us. God has not abandoned us.

Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Rev. Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh.


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