By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate
Who in the world is King Ahaz and what does the prophet Isaiah want us to know about him that would be of any interest to us so close to Christmas?
Well…glad you asked that question! About 700 years before Jesus was even born, there were two kingdoms where the Israelites – God’s chosen people – lived: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
Israel had been threatened by the Assyrians for years and had finally been captured by them. Judah, however, was still independent. Its capital was Jerusalem and it was being ruled by a descendent of the great King David. His name was Ahaz.
The thing about the Assyrians is that they weren’t happy with just capturing Israel. They wanted to add to their empire and they set their sights south on Judah. King Ahaz was doing his best to hold them off, but it wasn’t easy. And he began to think that the best solution to the crisis was to make a deal with the Assyrians.
And that’s when Isaiah stepped in. He couldn’t help himself because like any prophet, Isaiah was God’s mouthpiece, and he needed to urge King Ahaz to have faith in the will of God instead of giving in to the will of the Assyrians. But Ahaz was scared and like anyone else, he wanted a sign that he and the kingdom of Judah would survive – but he wasn’t going to ask for one.
Isaiah was tired of how Ahaz was making God tired and weary. So, he gave him a sign anyway. “Look” Isaiah prophesied: “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” which means God with us.” And furthermore everything will be resolved before that child has grown up.
We have no idea who the young woman was, but in any language and at any time, the birth of a baby is a sign of hope and of new beginnings; and that’s what Ahaz needed to hear.
Seven hundred years later, Matthew also wrote about the birth of a baby. The contexts were different, but there were some similarities. Instead of being about a king, Matthew’s story was about a peasant man named Joseph. Like Ahaz, Joseph was feeling scared and in distress and in need of hope – not for the same reasons that Ahaz was, but because Mary, the woman he was to marry, was already with child – and it wasn’t his.
Joseph was planning to quietly leave Mary when the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a dream and told him that the child conceived within her was from the Holy Spirit. “This child will be a son”, said the angel, “and you will name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.”
And then Matthew weighed in when he wrote: All of this, is to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through a prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means ‘God is with us’.”
Was Isaiah’s power of prophecy that good – able to withstand the test of 700 years of time? It’s hard to imagine, but Matthew would have wanted anyone reading or hearing his gospel to think so. He was probably writing to a Jewish community that would have known about the story of King Ahaz and what the prophet Isaiah had predicted.
Fulfillment of that prediction would have set the birth of Jesus apart from any other birth and that was important to Matthew. Whether it was fulfilled prophecy or not, both references to a young woman with a baby on the way conveyed good news and hope at a time when both were needed – and maybe that’s all we need to know.
And maybe something else we need to know from any of God’s messengers is how to surrender. Isaiah told King Ahaz that he needed to surrender his fear to the will of God if he and the kingdom of Judah were to be spared from the Assyrians. The angel Gabriel told Joseph that he needed to surrender his fear and shame to the will of God so that he could be the husband Mary needed him to be.
Surrendering is never easy, especially when it means giving up something that has defined us – such as fear or anger or sadness or power – that has become so much a part of us that we don’t know who we’d be without it.
There’s a story that I read recently by writer and theologian Henri Nouen about the power of surrender. It’s about a little river which was determined to become a big river. It cut through rocks and walls and forests, carving deep canyons in its wake. And in time, it had become quite a large river. It was powerful and important and didn’t think anything could stop it from becoming even mightier – until it ran headlong into an enormous desert.
As the sun beat down on it, that once mighty river dried up to barely a trickle. Reduced to a “mud pool” and ready to give up, the river heard a voice from above, a voice saying “Just surrender. Let me lift you up. Let me take over.” As the river finally surrendered itself to the sun, it became a cloud, full of water which it used to enrich the soil of far away fields. (Adapted from Lectionary Homiletics, Vol XIX, Number 1, pg 29).
In this 4th Sunday of Advent, we are three days away from the birth of Jesus. Our days of preparing for this birth are drawing to a close. And thank goodness, because I don’t know how much more I can take of getting ready for retail Christmas. It seems that wherever I go I keep hearing the same question: Are you ready for Christmas?
What kind of a question is that? Is anyone ever ready? Isn’t there always something more to buy, wrap or hang by the chimney with care?
I always start the season with intentions of keeping things simple but then my fear of disappointing someone creeps in and I start making mental inventories of who’s getting what – is it enough or too much? What do I need to do to make it all fair? It’s enough to weary anyone, especially Go! And that’s when I know that I need to surrender my fear and realize that God’s will for me is so much bigger than my fear of disappointing anyone.
It’s not easy, though. But in just a few days, we’ll all get the chance to peer into a manger and see that tiny face of hope and love that says: “Let it go! Trust me. Surrender yourself to me. I am with you – always.” Amen.