10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 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. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 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. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
Today’s sermon is about prophecy in the Book of Isaiah, and particularly the “Sign of Immanuel” that is commonly read during the Advent/Christmas season, and is often interpreted by Christians as a prophecy about the coming birth of Jesus Christ.
Of course, the problem with signs is that they are always subject to interpretation.
Centuries ago, the pope decreed that Jews in Italy had to convert or leave. There was an outcry from the Jewish community, so the pope offered a deal: He would have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy. If the pope won, they would have to convert or leave.
The Jewish people picked an aged, wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the pope did not speak Hebrew, they agreed that it would be a ‘silent’ debate.
On the chosen day the pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The pope raised three fingers. The rabbi looked back and raised one finger. Next, the pope waved his finger around his head. The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat. The pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. The rabbi pulled out an apple.With that the pope stood and declared that he was beaten. The rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay.
Later the cardinals met with the pope and asked him what had happened. The pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me there is still only one God common to both our beliefs. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer, to show that God absolves us of all our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He had beaten me at every move and I could not continue.”
Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he had won. “I haven’t a clue,” said the rabbi. “First, he said to me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews and I said to him that we were staying right here.”
“And then what?” asked a woman. “Who knows?” said the Rabbi. “He took out his lunch, so I took out mine.”
Clearly that is not a true story, although it makes a good point. But the next story is true:
In the year 480 BC, Xerxes, the king of Persia invaded Greece with the largest army ever to be assembled. Xerxes defeated Sparta, the most powerful city in Greece, and then began marching toward the city of Athens. The Athenians, terrified, debated what they should do for several days in their assembly, but (as is often the case in democracies) could not come to an agreement. So then they did something entirely normal and understandable: They turned to their god for help. Specifically, the Greek God Apollo, and his earthly spokesperson. The Athenians sent messengers to the famous Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to ask what they might do to avoid being slaughtered by the Persians.
The Oracle (as Oracles always do) gave them a cryptic reply: “Only a wooden wall shall not fail.” Okay, that seems obvious enough, right? Build a wooden wall around the city. But the Athenians knew instinctively that this wasn’t going to hold back the greatest Army in the land, at least not for long, and so they continued to debate the meaning of the Oracle’s words. Eventually, someone suggested that the “wooden wall” might actually refer to the Athenian navy — the wooden ships they had been building for several years.
The Athenians abandoned their city for the ships, lured the Persian navy into the narrow straights of Salamis, where they were able to form a wooden wall of ships, and ultimately defeat the Persians and protect their city.
My question is this: Did the divine words of the oracle predict the future…or did the Oracle simply focus their debate and inspire them to a more creative solution to the problem at hand?
That’s a relevant question as we consider today’s scripture passage, the “prophecy” from Isaiah and the “sign” of Immanuel. First a little context:
Ahaz was the king of Judah in the 8th century BC. Judah was a small country that lived in the shadow of much larger and more powerful countries, like Israel to the North, and Damascus to the Northeast. And the kings of those two countries had recently joined together to launch an invasion into Judah. When King Ahaz learned of this alliance against him, we read in Isaiah 7:2 that “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”
What to do?
The Greeks went to the Oracle at Delphi, but in Judah, the voice of God at the time was the prophet Isaiah — and he made house calls. So Isaiah goes to King Ahaz, and this is where our scripture passage today begins. Isaiah says to the king, “Ask God for a sign.” Ahaz politely declines, saying, I don’t want to put God to the test, but Isaiah says, Well, you’re going to get a sign anyhow, and it’s this:
A young woman is going to give birth to a son, and will name him Immanuel (God-Is-With-Us).
As famous as these words are to us, 3000 years later at Christmastime, that’s not the most pertinent part of the sign. Young women give birth to sons all the time, and almost all Hebrew names included the name of God in some way (MichaEL – Who is like God? Gabriel – God is my strength. DaniEL – God is my judge. SamuEL – God has heard us). Immanuel (God is with us) as a name wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows in Judah–at least not any more than if I told you that a young woman is going to give birth here in El Paso in the near future, and she will name her son Manny.
That’s not the most important part of the sign. It’s the next part, in verse 15: “He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”
Allow me to put that in more colloquial modern English: By the time this child is old enough to tell right from wrong, he’ll be eating four course steak dinners with cake for dessert. Why? Verse 16-17:
“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. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days (good days!) as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
Wait a minute! Who is the king of Assyria? I said that to the North and North East of Judah were the two more powerful countries of Israel and Damascus. But to the North East of THOSE countries is the great Assyrian Empire…which is about to wipe Israel and Damascus off the face of the map, ushering in a golden age of peace and prosperity for the kingdom of Judah, for Ahaz and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Of course, then Assyria gets wiped out by Babylon, which wipes out Judah, and then finally Persia (remember Xerxes?) wipes out all of them. There is always a bigger fish in the sea, about to eat the big fish that’s about to eat you.
But for now though, God, through Isaiah, is telling King Ahaz “don’t worry. Your enemies have bigger fish to fry.”
When is all this going to happen? About as long as it will take for a young woman to have a child, name him Manny, and watch him grow up enough to make good decisions. So, probably anywhere from about 5 to 15 years, depending on which child psychologist you adhere to.
Ahaz is briefly referenced one more time in the book of Isaiah, and that’s it. He went home happy, raised his children, governed his country, and died. The end.
And then several centuries later, a funny thing happened. Assyria conquered Israel, Babylon conquered Assyria, Persia conquered Babylon, and Alexander the Great conquered Persia…and everything else. Alexander spoke Greek, which became the lingua franca of the civilized world. The Hebrew scriptures (including the Book of Isaiah) were translated into Greek, and the Greek language continued to evolve while Hebrew was, for a time, lost even to most Jews.
The “young woman” Isaiah spoke of–in Hebrew עַלְמָה (almah)–becomes παρθένος (parthenos) in Greek, which means a young unmarried woman, and this word in time evolves to mean specifically a young unmarried woman who has never engaged in sexual intercourse.
So when the author of the gospel known as Matthew reads Isaiah, in Greek, the most astounding “sign” that stands out to him is the idea that a parthenos–a virgin–could actually give birth to a child (presumably while still remaining a virgin). This would be nothing short of a miracle, and is exactly the kind of sign Matthew is looking for to add to his list, his story about the miraculous man named Jesus whom Matthew had come to believe was the Messiah Israel had been waiting for.
The man named Jesus. Not, of course, the man named Immanuel, because that wasn’t Jesus’ name. Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which actually means (appropriately) God saves us. By the time Jesus was old enough to know right from wrong (which was presumably at a pretty young age) his people were certainly not living it up, eating curds and honey and enjoying peace and prosperity.
To Isaiah and King Ahaz, Immanuel (God with us) was probably just a symbolic name implying that God is with US, as opposed to with THEM (our enemies in Israel and Damascus).
But to the early Christians, largely because of Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah, Immanuel becomes not so much a name, as a title, a role, a description of who Jesus was. The emphasis shifts from God is with US, to God is WITH us, right here, right now, on earth. And, in the decades after Jesus’ death, his followers begin to develop the idea (again, pointing to this verse in Isaiah) that not only was Jesus the long-awaited Messiah, he was also none other than God made flesh, walking among us, God-WITH-us. That’s how they interpreted the sign of Immanuel in a new millennium, in a new way.
So how should we interpret that sign today, in our millennium? We do not live in the time of Isaiah or King Ahaz, and are not bound by their interpretation, although I think it is important for us to understand and recognize it. Nor are we living in the early days of Christianity, bound by Matthew’s interpretation–though here again, it is important for us to study it and understand how it came about.
If the scriptures teach us anything, it’s that the interpretations of signs and prophecies (like this one) evolve and change through the years as we do. Like those who came before, it is up to us to interpret it in the light of our own context and the challenges we face.
So here’s my attempt at that.
When the forces of opposition are amassing against us–sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively;
When, like the Athenians, like King Ahaz and the people of Judah, our hearts are shaking in the wind;
When we are out of options, out of ideas, and running out of hope;
That’s when we know it’s time to turn to God, to listen for the prophet, the oracle, the still small voice inside of us.
Sometimes what God says to us is cryptic, hard to understand, requiring thought and conversation with others. Other times, what God says to us is simple enough, though not always easy to live up to.
But in any case, God is always WITH us in our midst–in voice, in flesh, in spirit.
Like the young woman in our sign, God is constantly giving birth…to hope in the midst of our desperation, to light in the midst of our darkness, to courage in the midst of our fear, and to love in the midst of our apathy.
God is constantly working through the most unlikely and humble people in our midst–a young woman, a child, a Galilean carpenter, fishermen, tax collectors, immigrants, teachers, home-makers…
And when we see God at work in our midst…better yet, when we become God’s hands and God’s feet, doing God’s work in the midst of God’s people, then we recognize what all of this means. We know the sign, especially this time of year. It is the sign of Immanuel. God with us…and God within us.