Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-end : Advent 2019 – An Unexpected Sign

This Sermon was delivered at St Mary’s Diss at the Eucharist on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 22nd December 2019. This is the fourth and final part of the advent sermon series. Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-end.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week the curate stood before you robed in pink for Gaudete Sunday. It was a Sunday of Joy, a feast day to enliven a solemn season of sombre reflection.  And it was well timed joy for during this Advent you’ve joined me on a pilgrim themed series reflecting on our faith, where we have paid attention to the words of Isaiah which have surrounded us not just on Sunday mornings but also throughout morning and evening prayer. We began by being called to the mountain of God to learn his ways. We’ve considered whether or not we are prepared to meet with God face to face, when we die or when he shall come again. This brought us to the joy of our faith last week, to the conviction that we walk a path through life which changes us, a path which enlightens us with faith so that our sins and flaws may be forgiven and that we might grow to become the people whom God wants us to be – that is, his beloved people whom his Son Jesus Christ died for, whom his Son now lives for and to whom his Son shall return to lead us into everlasting life.

This week, however, the curate and the deacons are robed once again in purple. We should not forget the joy of last week as we come to our reflections today but we should notice that with our change in colour comes a change in the flavour of our reflections.

There is a very real sense of joy which comes with our faith, especially when we have those moments where God seems to have been vividly present in very meaningful ways. These moments can lend us a sense of liveliness, of urgency to our faith. And these moments are good.

Moments with God are Good and should be held onto and remembered as Good.

Yet with any journey or walk having set off ready to enjoy the scenery or to get to where we’re going after a while perhaps the clouds begin to roll in, the traffic slows down and the time keeps on passing as we continue on and on and on and on. 

We’ve all had these journeys haven’t we?

Whether it’s heading up north to Sheffield or Newcastle to visit family, or heading abroad to holiday in the sunshine or even, let’s be honest, simply trying to leave Diss along Victoria Road past the train station. Our journeys can be delayed and slowed down due to the weather, problems with vehicles, or even other people making things difficult for us.

We were pleased when we left and we will be pleased when we get there, but the in between can be a bit of a drag.

If we’re honest with one another this is something which can happen to us within our spiritual lives as well. We have come to believe in Jesus and to accept him as our Lord and Saviour. We have committed ourselves to confessing our failures, to receiving his forgiveness , to worshipping him and being sustained by the Eucharist. This not only gives our lives meaning but also becomes a steady and reassuring rhythm to our lives which keeps us moving on and along, Sunday by Sunday, as we pass from Christmas to Epiphany, through Ash Wednesday to Easter to Pentecost to Trinity Sunday to All Saints to Christmas through Easter, All Saints and Christmas once, twice and ten times again. 

Somewhere along the way the hymns become like that song which is played too often on the radio and the other people around us, nice and decent as they are, can become irrationally irritating. Church, which has been a source of encouragement can become for us something which we feel we should attend because it’s somehow beneficial and we still believe in God but… things are the way they are. We might feel somehow dissatisfied but unsure what could improve things. So we keep quiet. We’ll just wait and see what happens.

I’ll always remember a line from one of my favourite novels which I think is incredibly apt.

A mentor asks his protege:

“What happens if you do nothing? Nothing. There’s a terrible freedom and a great price in that.” 

Our reading from Isaiah presents us with Ahaz who is in a difficult situation. He was the king of Judah and is currently trapped in Jerusalem while two other kings and their armies are trying to figure out how to mount an attack. God says to Ahaz, through Isaiah, “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God; let it be as deep as sheol or as high as the heavens.” Basically, ask God for whatever sign it is that you would need to believe that God will deliver you. Nothing is too big or too small for God to do for you to demonstrate his presence with you. Ask for anything you can imagine. 

Ahaz ponders briefly and declines: “I will not ask, I will not put the Lord to the test,”  he says. 

What is he saying here? I will not put God to the test?

I will not put God to the test because… I don’t believe that God can or will do anything? Because the God of Abraham and Issac did great things for Moses but wouldn’t do anything like that for him now? Because I don’t think that I am important enough to matter to God?

What happens if you do nothing? Nothing.

Isaiah responds, is it too little for you to weary mortals that you must weary my God also? 

Therefore God himself will give you a sign. Now, this is not a sign which was chosen by Ahaz’s imagination and I’m willing to bet that none of us would have imagined this sign either.

“Look, the virgin is with Child and shall bear a son and shall call him Immanuel.”

I think that of all our Isaiah readings this is potentially the one which is the most mind blowing.

God says to Ahaz, look I’m with you. How can I prove it? Ask for any sign you can imagine from the depths of sheol to the heights of heaven and I will demonstrate it to you.

Ahaz says, No no no. I’m not going to test the Lord.

So God says okay then, I’ll prove it to you this way.

The virgin will be with child and have a son and call him Immanuel.

In Matthew’s Gospel which we heard read this morning we hear an angel of the Lord appear to Joseph in a dream, saying: Joseph do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

This is who our God is.

He’s the God who says to us, what can I do to show you that I am present with you? And we, in our wonderfully awkward Church of England way say, I’m not sure. I don’t want to put you to the test… 

He’s the God that says to us, well I’m going to prove to you that I love you and I’m going to do it in what you now call the story of Christmas.

For at Christmas in the promised sign of the virgin birth, God became one of us and lives amongst us. 

We might be inspired to head to the mountain of God, to come to Church, to find God. We might prepare ourselves to become good people so that we might be ready to meet God; when we die or when he comes again. And we might be filled with joy as we walk that path which changes us as we make our way from the misery of sin to eternal happiness. 

But this is the secret of the Christian Pilgrimage of Faith; God comes to us.

He personally draws near to us and desires to know us and be with us in our lives so that we might become the people he created us to be – so that we might know true love and by knowing that love, by loving him, might glory in him and praise him as our God. 

Any sense of the Christian faith which is articulated as something which ‘we’ do, even as a pilgrimage, is incomplete if we do not recognise that all we can do is respond to what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Perhaps we feel as though we’re trying our best. We’re coping, we’re managing and yet the journey seems long and not as we had anticipated it.

Let us remember this Christmastide that God is coming to save us. In the birth of Jesus we have that sign which shows that God is with us, in the Cross of Jesus we have the sign that God dies with us, and in the resurrection of Jesus we have the sign that we shall live with God; who was, who is, and who is to come. So let us keep our hearts open as we come to receive the bread and wine, that we may taste the promise of the body and blood of Christ and be reassured that as we draw near to God, God also draws near to us. 

For he is Jesus, Born of the Virgin Mary
and he is called Immanuel;
God with Us.