Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Sign Unto You (Isaiah 7:6-10)

For many of the people I meet, one of the most common words associated with Christmas and the holiday season is "stress." Which is weird, because as I recall my Christmas carols, the word "stress" is not in them. Jesus is not the Prince of Stress and neither the angels nor Linus say, "And on earth, stress and good will to all."

Now, I understand that the whims of the modern travel industry can induce stress. Being required to hang out with family members may bring a special kind of stress all its own -- or more seriously, the absence of a family member can make the holiday a melancholy or even unpleasant one. But a bunch of the stress I hear talked about doesn't seem to center on those things as much as it does the busy-ness of preparing for Christmas.

And if I'm being honest, when I see an absence of peace during the celebration of Jesus' birth I have to wonder how much of the burden for that falls on me as a Christian person. The world's version of this celebration may center on stress and acquisition and materialism and spending, but our version is supposed to center on God's decision to enter the world as a child and bring about the redemption of all humanity. It's hard to blame the world for getting it wrong if we haven't done everything we could to show them what's right. Have they seen the real Christmas from us -- either in December or at other times of the year? Have we shown it to them? Maybe we have, and if so their choice of stress and materialism is on their own heads, but maybe we haven't. They may not even know how to have a holiday season without those things because they just haven't seen one be demonstrated.

Here, Ahaz the king of Judah has been confronted by the prophet Isaiah. Ahaz faces a dilemma. Two neighbor kings want him to join them in an attack on the mighty Assyrian empire, reasoning that together they can defeat the Assyrians. Ahaz doesn't think so, and in order to force him into their alliance, the other kings have been harassing his villages and towns. Just before this, Isaiah has told Ahaz that the other kings will not succeed and he shouldn't give in to them. Perhaps suspecting Ahaz's skepticism, God tells Isaiah to tell Ahaz to ask for any sign he wants, but Ahaz says no, he won't test the Lord. Now that sounds fine on the face, but it provokes God into saying something like "You wear me out! I'll give you a sign anyway!"

Why is God so disgusted with Ahaz? Well, it could be that the other things we read about Ahaz make it pretty clear that, even if he's sincere, this response is one of the few times he's paid attention to God. He reinstated the cult of the Canaanite Ba'als and not only revived the worship of Moloch but apparently even sacrificed his own first-born son to that idol's fiery furnace. It's pretty rich that such a man would now piously claim he won't test God. Now, while Ahaz is certainly to blame for his own choice to stray from worship of God and following the Law, there's also the reality that he hasn't really ever seen that modeled. His grandfather Uzziah started well, following a wise and godly counselor, but became consumed with pride at his successes and tried to take the role of priest as well as king. His father Jotham backed off of that sin but never effectively dealt with the corruption within the government and the oppression of the poor by Judah's elites. Hosea and Micah were two prophets who spoke out against the conditions during Jotham's reign.

The upshot is that Ahaz has never seen a Judean leader desire to fully follow God, so he doesn't know that God doesn't set traps with his words. God doesn't say, "Ask me for a sign" so he can then laugh at the foolish mortals and say, "I told you never to ask for a sign! Plague of boils and frogs all around!" God wants to show Ahaz he means what he says, about the enemy kings as well as other things. But Ahaz doesn't believe him.

Modern-day example: A friend of mine works at a special school for teen parents, with a day-care center on its campus. The students get their regular education as well as classes on how to be parents, while their own children are taken care of. She was talking about a conversation with another teacher, who had a class of some of the pre-schooler children. One day, they put shaving cream out for each child to play with, teaching them about textures and things while they played.

Now, of course the little kids smeared the stuff all over, like everyone expected them too. But the teacher said one thing they didn't do is something I bet we've all seen little kids do with shaving cream: Lather up their faces like dad does in the morning. Not even the kids living with both parents who saw their dads all the time. Why? Pretty simple. When dad's not old enough to shave, the kids never see him with shaving cream on his face and they never learn how to play that way.

As I said, once Ahaz became a king, he had the choice to follow God or not. He chose "not," and that's on him, but the burden is also shared by those who never showed him what a godly king looked like. Likewise, the world knows something about Christ, even if it's only that his name is a part of this holiday. For most people, the choice to center this holiday on material things is one that's on them. They could, if they wanted, learn something about why this day of Dec. 25 is special and they choose not to, so if that focus brings them stress instead of peace they have mostly themselves to thank.

But how about us, Christians? Have we offered that alternative view? Have we focused on our King and his arrival, and the message that he brings? Have we cared more about a plastic baby Jesus in a city park than about the crucified and risen Lord in the hearts of the people? Have we hammered saying "Merry Christmas" more than we have worked to make a Merry Christmas, even for those who want to say "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings?"

God offered Ahaz a sign. Today, let us be the sign to which the world can look and see the true meaning of the birth of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us. If they can't see that meaning, let it not be because we people of God failed to show it to them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

One Kingdom, Hold the Conflict (Isaiah 35:10)

Isaiah the prophet gets a workout for Christmas. We lean heavily on his oracles about the coming Messiah and the Day of the Lord that his presence would bring into existence when we read Scripture during Advent. They tend to mesh nicely with the season of preparation for the birth of the King.

Some of those oracles describe the kind of world this new King would bring about. The general heading for these images is "the peaceable kingdom," as Isaiah describes at some length how even natural enemies such as predators and prey would live together in harmony. No longer would lions say, "I love oxen! They taste like chicken!" but instead both would graze together. For that matter, so would the chicken.

In this particular passage, Isaiah speaks of the physical and spiritual restoration of the people and of their homeland of Israel. Remember he kind of straddles the fall of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon, so some of his words came to people who had been uprooted from their ancestral homeland. They mourned now, lost without their land and their connection to God, but Isaiah predicts a time when both shall be restored. Verses 5 and 6, with images that Charles Wesley would adopt for his "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," may be some of the most familiar to us, speaking of blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped and the formerly lame leaping like deer with joy. But we also read of fountains gushing forth in the arid wilderness, streams in the desert and burning sands turned into pools.

Some of these visions can present problems for Christians. We say that one of the messages Jesus proclaimed was that the Kingdom of God was at hand. It was actually his earliest message, echoing the one John the Baptist preached. We understand that to mean that, in the very person of Christ, the Kingdom of God was no longer separated from our world, but had begun breaking into it. The only problem is that this presence of the kingdom seems to bring about none of the changes that Isaiah and others say accompany it.

How can this Kingdom be "at hand" when almost everything we see and hear suggests that if it is, it's pretty well hidden? In order to believe that, I think we have to remember again that Isaiah wrote to an exiled people whose homes had been destroyed and whose lands were laid waste. So he framed the idea of the Messiah's life-changing impact in terms of a restored land. We also remember that this was a time when people didn't understand blindness, deafness and physical disabilities like we do, and might even view them as signs of God's disfavor or punishment. At the very least, these conditions limited people's lives much more than they do today -- no laws guaranteeing access, no support system to make sure they were taken care of, no Braille alphabet or cochlear implants or wheelchairs. So he frames the Messiah's new world as one in which these things no longer diminished people's lives as they did around him.

If we were Isaiah, inspired by God today to bring a message of the incredible change brought about by the presence of God's Messiah, how would we describe those changes? What images would come to our minds, specific to our world? I suspect they would be similar to some of Isaiah's images, but our culture would have its impact on them and some of them would be different. We might speak of a world in which people's freedom isn't limited by the bad luck to be born with some tinpot thug as a national leader. Or where people determine each other's value not by skin color or age or gender or income, but by the worth inherent in them as children of God.

But those are all big-picture things, changes that may have to come about slowly if at all, and some of which might really require divine intervention to be made real. If we look for them as evidence that the Kingdom is at hand, we are almost certainly going to be disappointed. As Christians, we also say that living life God's way brings about changes in on a much smaller scale as well, the scale of our own lives, decisions, thoughts and words.

The Kingdom of God may be made manifest in a world free of hate and racism, for example, but it's also made manifest in a people who continue to show God's love in what they say and do to each other and to the people they meet. Maybe we don't see a world free of hate, but if the world looks at us, can they see people who are free of hate, or at least making an effort to be? Do we demonstrate love to our enemies, or do we seek vengeance on people who done us wrong?

I'll freely confess to Christianity's detractors that our proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand could use some more evidence when you look at it on the macro, big-picture troubles-of-the-world scale. But on the scale of the individual believer, the Christian who proclaims Christ has changed his or her heart and who says God has made a new creation in the place of the the Kingdom at hand there?

You tell me.