I have shared a little about my growing up in the church. My parents were not raised in the church, nor were their parents, though officially all of them were members of the church. They were baptized, married, and buried in the church. Without much in between.
It was what we now call the days of Christendom, were it was assumed that culture and faith overlapped and serving God and king could be said in the same sentence and was assumed to mean the same thing.
And yet a community will only shape you if you are part of it, if you spend time in it, for better and for worse. Our families impact us because we are part of them. Hopefully, for most of us this is a good thing, and our families instill values and ground us in love. And people will say, “Hey, you’re Margaret’s kid,” not just because you look like your mom.
But it can also be that no matter how much you love your family, you have to get away from it because it’s painful to be there and you want to learn new and better ways.
My maternal grandparents were born in the late 19th century, my paternal grandparents at the beginning of the 20th. None of them were Nazis, and none of them were in opposition. They were neither heroes nor villains but they sort of went along with things, whatever they may have thought of it. Of course, I do not know what I would have done or whether I would have done better. But I believe that the fact that they were not part of the life of the Christian community meant that they had no alternate world view, and they had few resources to question what was going on, because the only communities they were part of were those of nation, workplace, and family.
Ahaz is the 8th century king of Judah who finds himself in the uncomfortable situation of two neighbours, Israel and Syria, planning to attack his borders. Ahaz is a king with little imagination. Though he lives in the holy city and his palace is by the temple his faith has no bearing on his decisions.
All he can think of is to call on the superpower of his day, Assyria, to come to his help. It is little surprise that Assyria is not interested in a partnership but only in occupation and domination. Ahaz rationalizes his fear to enter this pact. It’s what people do all the time. The Christian faith is all noble and good but this is the real world and the understanding is not that we must be bearers of God’s promise but that we must conform to the ways there are. These ways are no different in our day, they are mostly the existing economy and the distribution of power. “It does not work that way,” we may say. Or excuse a politician by saying, “One has to play certain games when one is in power,” which suggests that one leaves ones values at the door.
This Advent we heard three other readings from Isaiah. Perhaps we recall them:
+ We heard of God as judge between the nations. Of nations beating their swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. We heard that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Is 2)
+ We heard of the lion eating straw like the ox, the nursing child playing over the hole of the asp, and that people will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain. We heard of God’s anointed being a light unto the world and the nations seeking him. (Is 11)
+ We heard that the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame leaping like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless singing for joy, that waters shall break forth in the wilderness, that God’s salvation is near. (Is 35)
Today too is a day when we hear God’s promise to provide for God’s people. It is a promise against military alliances and military action, against inviting Assyria, the aggressor, but instead to trust God’s promises. It is a word of promise that is consistent with what we have heard over the last three weeks.
I imagine it was not easy, as it was never easy. But King Ahaz wants no sign from God, does not trust God’s promises. Ahaz wants predictability, he wants to think that he is in charge. And so he employs diplomats, drones, and intelligence, because trusting in God seems foolish to him.
Ahaz is too entrenched in his culture and in his position to consider that God may have another way. One would presume that Ahaz knows the biblical story but his politics show no sign of it.
In the midst of this crisis it is Isaiah through whom God provides a different vision and a different plan. Despite Ahaz’s refusal, God provides a sign, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
For us Christians this has become a prophecy about Jesus, but for Ahaz it was meant to be a sign of God’s presence and the woman and child likely were an ordinary woman and an ordinary child, it was about seeing signs of promise and hope, signs of life in the face of threat, reminders that God’s ways open new possibilities, if only we dare to see it and trust God.
I think that my grandparent’s worldview was somewhat shaped by Western Christianity. They would have said they believed in God and without wanting to judge their faith, it likely meant something like, “I believe that there is a God.”
My grandparents were not part of the life of the church, they were not nourished through Word and Sacrament, they were not shaped by the community of faith, and so they could not imagine there being another way.
Advent calls us pay attention to Isaiah, to see the signs of hope God has placed among us, to be part of the community of the church were we are fed and nourished and where we can practice what it means to follow the Prince of Peace, so that when we leave this place we have some proficiency, so that we will not easily be thrown off course but remember to beat our swords into ploughshares and bring release to the captives.