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Ask for the Moon!
Dr. David Evans
December 21, 2016
There is way too much going on in the first few chapters of the prophet Isaiah for a short sermon. So by way of setting the context, let me just say this: nothing much has changed in three millennia. The events you are about to hear might as well be set in Aleppo. We are entering into the messy world of Middle Eastern politics. The security of King Ahaz and the tiny nation of Judah are being threatened by the powerful Assyrian armies. And King Ahaz is scared. He does not know where to turn. Then enters the prophet Isaiah. Hear the Word of God in Isaiah 7:
A Reading from Isaiah
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 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. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 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 as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’
Here we have King Ahaz asking God: “What are you asking of me and how can I know for sure this is what you want me to do?” Have you ever, in a moment of fear or uncertainty, asked God for a sign? A sign that will help you discern the way forward when the way forward is not at all clear?
In the late 70s, I was the pastor of a church in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Then one day I received a call from a seminary classmate here in Austin. Gary asked me to consider moving to Austin and to become the organizing pastor for a new church in a little community southwest of Austin called Oak Hill. The possibility of moving half-way across the country to a congregation with no land, no building, no people and no resources was frightening. And, I rationalized, I had much more work to do where I was. And, I really did not want a clear sign from God because then I would feel compelled to obey God rather than doing what I wanted to do with my own life. But…I decided to pray about it and to ask for discernment if this was indeed a call from God. And pray I did. But there was no answer. There was no sign. Then I went upstairs and discovered that Linda was packing! A clearer sign from God has never come my way either before or since.
In our text for this fourth Sunday in Advent we find an almost amusing dialogue going on between God Almighty and King Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah. In the Message the dialogue goes like this:
God says to Ahaz: “Ask for a sign from your God. Ask anything.
Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!”
But Ahaz replies to God: “I’d never do that.
I’d never make demands like that on God!”
Then Isaiah gets in on the act: “Well, then, listen to this: watch for this sign:
A girl who is a virgin will get pregnant.
She will bear a son and name him Immanuel.”
God says to King Ahaz: Ask for a sign. Ask anything. Be extravagant. Ask for the moon! But Ahaz is too frightened to ask for anything. Or, perhaps Ahaz does not want a sign because Ahaz wants to chart his own course. Or, perhaps Ahaz does not want a sign because he wants to be in charge of his life and a sign from God might send him in a different direction from the one he wants to go.
King Ahaz does not find his wife packing her bags to move home to Texas. But Isaiah offers this sign from God: a virgin will bear a son and his name will be Immanuel, which means “God-with-us.” The future of the world is in the hands of a child? Really, God? If this sounds familiar it is because these words of Isaiah are the words the gospel of Matthew quotes to Joseph when he learns the astounding news that his betrothed, Mary, is pregnant with the Son of God.
I think what is startling is that Isaiah says in no uncertain terms that we are to find our only hope, our only security, our only path through the darkness, in a child who is named Immanuel, God-with-us. Father Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest who was condemned as a traitor for his opposition to the Nazi’s during World War II. He wrote a meditation just before he was hanged in 1945 that he named “The Shaking Reality of Advent.” In it he writes:
“We may ask why God has sent us into this time, why he has sent this whirlwind over the earth, why he keeps us in this chaos where all appears hopeless and dark and why there seems to be no end to this in sight. The answer to this question is perhaps that we were living on earth in an utterly false and counterfeit security.”
(Watch For the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, December 5)
And that strikes me as precisely our predicament: we put our trust in that which provides only a “false and counterfeit security.” Yet we have been given a sign that points the way to God’s future whether we asked for it or not. It is not the sign we were expecting. The sign, you see, is a child. A child whose name is Immanuel. God with us. Can it be true? God is with us? Do we want, do we need, anything more? In the whirlwind and the chaos, when all appears hopeless and dark and there seems to be no end in sight, this is the promise. God is with us. AMEN