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Sermon for December 23 2018

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16/Matthew 1:18-25

Title: “Fear No Evil”

Two bullies down the block are threatening you with a beating if you don’t link up with them in their rift with a third party.  Aware that non-aligned is not an option, and that this third party wields a bigger stick than the two other bullies combined, you decide to throw in your lot with the big guy. While neither the rock nor the hard place is an attractive option, you conclude that one or the other it must be.

It was the rock or the hard place for Judah’s king Ahaz.  The rock was represented by Damascus and Samaria, two bullies to the north who leaned on Ahaz to take arms with them against their enemy Assyria.  Ahaz didn’t comply. Instead, deeming Assyria to be a bigger threat, he sent a team of negotiators to that nation to make a deal. It was the best of bad options.

Our first lesson opens this morning with the king’s negotiating team in Assyria, a move that God sent his prophet Isaiah to condemn.  Ahaz, however, rejected that counsel for he feared the consequences of inaction more than the wrath of Isaiah.

Isaiah chided Ahaz for his foolishness, declaring, in so many words, “If you fail to listen to my counsel you will suffer greatly.”

Instead of listening to the counsel of Isaiah, Ahaz took the counsel of his fears. Could Ahaz reasonably be expected to stand by as his enemies threatened?  How could Isaiah fail to see that Ahaz faced clear and present danger?  Ahaz would be derelict if he stood by and did nothing. After all, the king of Judah reasoned, the three powers that surrounded him were all stronger than him.

Isaiah said, “stand firm in faith,” but what Ahaz heard was “do nothing.”

“Have faith,” we have been told.   “You need to have faith, everything will work out.”  Each one of us has received that counsel along the line, haven’t we?  Many of us have offered that counsel.  “Have faith, it’s going to work out.”  Words like that are meant to be reassuring.  Ahaz wasn’t reassured. His choice was action.

“You need to have faith, everything will work out.”  Don’t say that to someone when the stakes are high, and that person feels that he or she can do something on his or her own to alter an outcome.  “Have faith, Dr. Smith can treat you just as well as the specialist in the city.”  “Have faith, you will find a job.”  “Have faith, prosperity is just around the corner.”  “Have faith.”  Those words, meant to reassure, seldom have that effect when stress threatens to overwhelm.

“Have faith,” you say.  I say, “Faith is important, I know that.  I have faith, but I’m obliged to help myself as well, am I not.”

We have been taught that faith is foundational for the Christian. But what about reason? What about our capacity to problem solve, to think and act?  When facing a problem who among us throws up our hands and says, “God’s will be done.” No, we bring the counsel of the mind, a cherished gift from God, into the domain of the heart.

We all agree that God’s ways are mysterious. Did this event happen because God ordained it to be, or was it some action of mine that tipped the balance in this direction or that?  I was faithful, therefore the disease was cured.  I found the right doctor, therefore I was cured.  In my life, anyway, and probably in yours as well, the consequences of my faithful acts or my unfaithful acts do not really register in black or white categories.  Such was not the case in our lesson where Isaiah addressed Ahaz, “If you do not stand firm in faith, Ahaz, you shall not stand at all.”

Ahaz had been told to take no independent action to secure Judah’s future.  Isaiah had made it clear to Ahaz that the future of Judah was in God’s hands.  Ahaz, however, was not at all satisfied that that was the best available option.  After all, who knew his predicament better than he did?  Damascus, Samaria, and Assyria did not exist merely as map coordinates, nations with whom Judah shared common borders.  Those nations represented clear and present danger for Ahaz and every person who lived under his rule.  Ahaz was charged to stand firm in the faith, but he reasoned that he would stand longer if he helped himself.  And who was in a position to contradict him?  That’s where Isaiah comes in.

Isaiah came on the scene to prove that Judah’s destiny was in God’s hands, yet this was not something Ahaz would accept.  Better to have his hands on the wheel than to yield to someone else.  “Bad mistake, you are making a bad mistake, Ahaz,” Isaiah bluntly declared.  But old Ahaz turned a deaf ear, and gripped the steering wheel a little tighter.

I share that male thing about directions.  When I’m behind the wheel I don’t stop to ask for directions.  I don’t need, nor want, someone to tell me where to go, I will figure it out for myself, even if I burn some gas and time in doing it.  Ahaz knew where he was going, or so he thought.  Isaiah knew better.  “Ahaz, you are lost. Time to get out from behind that wheel.”  No way.  Wasn’t going to happen.  A stubborn man, Ahaz wouldn’t yield.  But God wouldn’t yield either.

God took pains to prove to Ahaz that bad things would result from his stubbornness. Bad things, however, were not what God wanted for Ahaz.  God loved him.  But how to get through to him?  Exasperated he sent Isaiah back to Ahaz with a message, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God, let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”    So committed was God to his stubborn son that Ahaz would have his sign whether he asked for it or not.

My doubt and your doubt constantly undermine our faith in God.  But suppose God showed his hand in some dramatic way? Suppose that in the blink of an eye he chose to cure all the patients in an entire hospital?  Or, suppose at his instigation the Congress jointly decided to put aside all partisan differences. What if God showed his hand in some dramatic way? I suspect that we would be very, very impressed.

God, acting through Isaiah, was prepared to do anything to prove to Ahaz that faith in God was the way to go.  But Ahaz begged off.  “Forget it, I will not ask and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  The words of Ahaz reeked piety, but it was a false piety, a thin veneer of faith talk to mask his faithlessness.  Ahaz was firmly set in what he was going to do, and he wasn’t going to budge.

Do you think that God really cares about our readiness to listen when he is ready to speak to us? God didn’t really care if Ahaz was prepared to listen or not. God was going to act. God was going to prove to Ahaz that he was in charge.  It was the future all laid out and tied off with a big bow.  Events were taking shape that would change Ahaz’ life and the future of Judah, and it didn’t matter if Ahaz was on board or not.

Vain Ahaz thought he had all his bases covered.  Work a deal with Assyria and everything will turn out alright.  Wrong.  The payment on Ahaz’ faithlessness was coming due.  The deal with Assyria was flawed and would soon explode in his face with consequences Ahaz couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Ahaz lived in fear, his life and kingdom hanging over a precipice.  Bold in action to preserve his standing among the nations, he lived life constantly looking over his shoulder.  He lived in an iron triangle, Damascus, Samaria, and Assyria breathing down his neck.  If he didn’t take matters into his own hands, all would be lost, or so he thought.  What Ahaz failed to understand was that he was lost already.

Faith doesn’t come easily for most of us.  Better to have our hands on the wheel to direct things then to submit and pass the wheel to someone else.  Faith takes us out of the driver’s seat. It is the recognition that God knows better than we do, even when we would like to believe that we have a better grasp on our situation, and what needs doing, then God does.

Ahaz would live to see all of his ambitious scheming with Assyria come to naught.  Judah fell, and fell hard, the prophesy of Isaiah, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” was fulfilled with brutal results.

Fear is a commanding presence in life.  Fear undermined the faith Ahaz might otherwise have brought to his circumstances.  He was left scrambling for some means to save his skin, even as Isaiah repeatedly appealed to him to trust the Lord.  Isaiah pointed Ahaz to the high ground, even gave him a ladder by which to get there, but Ahaz was so focused on what he could do to save himself that he had no time to consider what God might do to save him.  Fear was so dominant that he couldn’t see other options.

Fear debilitates, robbing us of our ability to think and reason clearly. We become reactive. Decisions are made without forethought.

Isaiah challenged Ahaz to calm down, reassuring him that God was in control.

Faith that God is in control is not easy to muster when adversity strikes, when fear and dread threaten to overwhelm us. Even Jesus himself succumbed to his fears in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, for you all thing are possible; remove this cup from me, yet, [then he added] not what I want, but what you want.

Faith like that is a work in progress for each of us.  Always has been, always will be.  Faith is not easy, simply because the problems that assail us in this life are not easy.  We deal with difficult personal issues.  We live in a troubled world.  But ultimately there is one reality upon which we can depend in life and in death, and that reality has a name, “Immanuel”—God with us.  “Immanuel”—hope with us.

“Immanuel,” the assurance of God’s abiding presence is announced in both our morning’s lessons.  But “Immanuel” is more than merely a name.  “Immanuel” is the assurance that the psalmist proclaimed in that most revered of all Psalms [Psalm 23], “Ye, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”  Immanuel is the assurance that God is with us in the valley when fear makes its most determined assault.  Immanuel is the assurance that God is with us when we have reached the end of the rope and are about to let go.

“We fear no evil” is an audacious claim to make, I know, but it is fully supportable in light of Jesus and the whole history that led up to his birth.

“I fear no evil,” may not be the kind of statement you and I can personally make right now.  That’s alright.  God is no less ready to hear our petition for more faith than to commend the faith already in our possession.  God pledges to will meet us where we are.  All God asks is that we tell him where we are, and trust him, trust him with all the faith we possess, trust him that he will meet us where you are, trust him that he IS where we are.

“We fear no evil,” [we fear no evil] for Immanuel has come. God incarnate, Jesus the Christ, is with us. AMEN

PRAYER

O God, eternal in the heavens, yet present with us here and now, we praise you for the life that Immanuel lived in our midst. You sent Jesus, your anointed to us, the world’s source of light and life. He established his name through acts of compassion, mercy, and unconditional love. He called disciples and entrusted them with his message of hope and reconciliation, a message that lives on through the Church he founded. He praise you, O God, that through your divine providence we have been privileged to hear your Good News proclaimed, and have been enlisted to take that News into the world in which we live today.

O God, fear continues to menace us. Yet through the gift of faith we see glimpses of that new heaven and new earth which you are even now preparing in our midst.

Help us, O Lord, to establish a substantial faith, a faith that is resilient enough to endure setbacks even as your light illumines our lives with greater and greater intensity.  And in our relationships with one another embolden us to speak from faith, to say that which your Spirit has given us say.  May the words we speak, but also the testimony of the lives we live, be for the world, the world beginning at our doorstep, an affirmation of “Immanuel,” God is with us.

Loving God, we pray for our world, a world stretched by the tension of conflict. As the clock ticks out the concluding days of this year which has seen so much tragedy and devastation, our hopes are lodged in the peacemakers of the world who strive against considerable odds to broker peace.  We pray for those who are meeting to negotiate an end to the war in Yemen.

O God, father of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the birthplace of our Lord is no longer the tranquil setting the Bible depicts.  Bethlehem is a divided city in a divided land.  We pray for Jew and Palestinian that the hatred and violence their confrontations has spawned may subside and peace may at long last sink roots and grow.

O God, we pray for families who will gather this holiday season in familiar setting to resume familiar traditions, but absent loved ones or friends separated from us by death, illness, or divorce.  Compassionate father, some feel your absence this season, feel it so acutely that they see no reason to live.  We pray for the depressed and despairing, those fighting inner battles, but also those who have surrendered and lack the stamina to continue their fight.  We pray for those who live with the depressed and the despairing that they may be equipped to manage the stress and the pain to which they are subject.

Lord, we are grateful for worship and this time we have together.  We thank you for the bonds of friendship that have been created here, and the many ways we have been blessed by the prayers exchanged with each other. Prosper us in our common ministry that day-by-day we acquire new understanding of where your Spirit is taking us and what you are equipping us to do.  May your peace descend on each person present today, and may that peace be carried with us in the living of our lives today, and into all the days to come. In gratitude and praise we offer our prayers strengthened and sustained by our Lord Jesus who taught us when praying to say…