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.

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