4th Sunday in Advent – 12/18/2022
The other night, my wife and I spent a few hours together watching one of the many movie versions of Charles Dickens' classic tale, "A Christmas Carol." In my opinion, it was one of the better productions, with George G. Scott playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Now, as far as Ebenezer Scrooge is concerned, Dickens has managed to capture the very essence of the corrupted heart of a sinful man as well as depict perfectly the deep-seated fears that plague us all. As you might recall, Ebenezer had a totally cold and calloused heart. There was not even any place in his heart for Christmas. As far as he was concerned, Christmas could just come and go without him. "Bah, humbug!" is his oft-repeated response to Christmas. Peace, joy, and cheer -- bye-bye!
Oh, Ebenezer knows that, as much as he might like to, he can't stop Christmas. This joyful Yuletide holiday comes with or without him. He would prefer that it continue without him. So while Bob Cratchet, his employee, and everyone else hurries off to their Christmas parties and dinners, he makes plans of his own: he goes home, eats his supper, and counts his money—all alone.
Well, you know the story. Quite against his will, Christmas would not leave him alone. Three ghosts of Christmas come to visit him on Christmas Eve, and by morning, remarkably, Christmas has come to him, too. Remember that the vision of the Christmas future is what finally turns things around for Ebenezer. It's the sight of his coffin in a deep grave!
Our text from Isaiah this day gives a vision of Christmas's future. At least it was in the future for Isaiah and King Ahaz. As Isaiah makes quite clear, however, Ahaz, the king, wanted nothing to do with it. God was not going to be deterred, though. God was coming to be with him, with him or without him. Whether Ahaz wanted it or not, whether he cooperated or not, God was coming to save him. Unfortunately, by resisting, Ahaz would cause himself to miss out on the full blessing of the Lord's coming.
Because Christmas did indeed come, God is just as surely with us. That's true whether we're on board with Him or not, for He doesn't want us to miss it. That's why, through His Word to us today, He lets us see what Isaiah saw.
Our text occurs at a time of severe crisis for God's people, Judah. Syria and her relatives, the northern kingdom of Israel, were attacking Jerusalem. The king of Judah, Ahaz, was deathly afraid. Judah was badly outnumbered.
Now, Ahaz was a very wicked king. He didn't routinely look to the Lord for help. But God sent Isaiah to encourage him. God was going to be present with Ahaz to deliver him—whether he liked it or not. Through Isaiah, God told Ahaz not to fear and not to be fainthearted. He promised to destroy these two adversaries.
"Moreover the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, "Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; ask it either in the depth or in the height above'"(vv10-11). As wicked as Ahaz had been, God was intent on being with him and having a relationship with him. The LORD even called Himself Ahaz's God. In an earlier verse and a later verse, he calls Ahaz "the house of David." That was a tremendous honor, a way of saying that Ahaz was included in the line from the great King David to the Messiah. Like it or not, God will be with Ahaz. God would deliver him to preserve the promise of the Savior.
What's more, God earnestly desired Ahaz to be with Him on this. So He offered to demonstrate to Ahaz that he would be saved. For proof of His sincerity, the LORD God requested that Ahaz ask for any miraculous sign he wanted, with no restrictions. "But," verse 12 reads, "Ahaz said, 'I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!'"
Sounds pious, doesn't it? However, what Ahaz was saying was "Bah, humbug!" He didn't want God to be with him. Ahaz had already made other plans. He was planning to hire a much mightier enemy to come and get Syria and Israel off his back. He was working out a deal with the king of Assyria. That, of course, was sinful—allying with a heathen nation. The last thing Ahaz wanted at this moment was to see a sign from God. Having the Lord around would just screw up his plans.
Fine. God was going to be there anyway. Verse 13: "Then (Isaiah) said, "Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel... "For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings" (Vv. 13–14, 16).
God was saying to Ahaz, "Ahaz, I'm going to save you whether you like it or not." Those two enemies of yours I will destroy. I'm going to be with you to deliver you, whether you're with me or not—with you or without you. "Very soon, you will see My powerful hand at work."
God is always present to deliver us—with us or without us, whether we're looking for Him or not. We've all planned and carried out things we'd rather God not see or ignore: things we've done with our friends or on a date; things done with our accounting when we were pretty sure we wouldn't be audited; things are done to a friend's reputation when he wasn't there to look us in the eye.
Yep, we didn't want God there, but He was. He was with us. And you know what? Most of the time, he didn't lower the boom on us either and let the consequences that could and should have happened happen. He didn't give us what we deserved. Time and time again, He's graciously delivered us from what should have been.
The truth is, inside each of us, there's always that sinful nature that looks anywhere but to God for help. We think our hard work will get us out of debt. We tell fibs—OK, lies—to get ourselves out of embarrassing situations. We scheme to get ahead in our careers.
It's pretty foolish, though, when God is always with us to bail us out or move us along in better ways. He puts food on our tables. He manages our finances and plots each new career challenge. He provides a better way out when we've gotten ourselves in trouble. It's called forgiveness. Whether we're with Him or not, He's always with us to deliver us from the messes we make. God is with us—with us or without us, whether we desire to see Him or not.
Unfortunately, when folks insist on doing it without God or when they refuse to see His gracious vision of the future, they ultimately miss seeing the real blessings He has in store for them. God was with Ahaz, but Ahaz insisted on God doing it without him. As a result, even though the enemies, Syria and Israel, were defeated, the king's nation of Judah would still suffer.
In verse 17, we read: "The Lord will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your people and your father's house—days that have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah."
The very ally Ahaz schemed with and was counting on would soon turn against him. Fourteen years after our text, during the reign of his son, Hezekiah, most of Judah would also be overrun.
If we force God to be with us without us, we will be punished. We dare not abuse His graciousness. No, He doesn't always bring upon us the consequences we deserve, but He is justified if He does so. And anyone who remains insistent on going it without God will find himself going it without God—alone—for all of eternity in hell, forever without any of the blessings God gives, where one can never see a gracious sign from God again.
That need not happen. God is always with us to deliver us—especially from eternal death. Despite our sinful inclination to live without Him, God is with us—yes, with us or without us.
and he wants us to see it. Every time He delivers us, it's because He once came to be with us in a way we couldn't miss seeing, quite without our help. That's the vision for Christmas's future. Again, verse 14: "The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and she shall call His name Immanuel."
Ahaz didn't want to see Isaiah's vision, so, you know what? He didn't. Since Ahaz refused to ask for a sign he could see, God instead gave a sign, a vision that only future generations would see.
Ahaz didn't get to see the sign, but we do. Remember what "Immanuel" means? Immanuel is the Hebrew word meaning "God with us." And God's presence became unmistakable when He appeared for us to see when God took on flesh and was born.
Can you see what Isaiah saw? Can you see the virgin, a tender young woman, more of a girl, holding that tiny baby? I know you can see the straw, the manger, and the animals. But can you see God there? Yes, I know you can. Because God, the totality of deity, is that tiny baby. What a miracle! God is wrapped in swaddling clothes, and God is present in our world.
Surely that—the birth of Immanuel, God with us—couldn't happen with us; it had to happen without us. Because of our sins, God couldn't come to us with any cooperation from us. If God were to be born in our human nature, it couldn't be through any ordinary descendancy. It couldn't be with someone like Ahaz or even David as the literal father. In that case, he would have inherited the sins of Ahaz, David, and Adam.
So instead, God devised a way of coming to be with us without us: the miracle of the virgin birth. Seven hundred years after Isaiah, quite without our help and without the help of any man, the Holy Spirit would come upon the young virgin Mary and cause her to be pregnant. In this way, the child was sinless. And by Himself being sinless, He could work the ultimate deliverance: "deliver us from sin."
The sinless Son of God came to live with us, to be one of us so that He could perfectly keep God's Law in our place. What we failed to do, He did for us. And then, as one of us, living with us, He took our place in damnation, bearing on the cross the punishment for all of our sins. That, too, he had to do without us, all alone.
This, then, is the reason we know God is with us now—because we see the miraculous sign God gave the old Scrooge, Ahaz! We see God with us in the miracle of the incarnation! We see Jesus' perfect life and death as our substitute. We see him rising from the grave to be with us again.
We see His death and resurrection as removing our sin: the sin that separated us from God and kept us from ever seeing Him; the sin that kept us from being with God or God from being with us. With that sin gone, our separation from God has been removed. We've been reconciled to Him. And for that reason, we do see His loving face! He is always with us—to deliver Judah from her enemies, to deliver us from everything we fear, and someday to deliver us safely to heaven, where our vision will be clear and where we'll be with Him forever.
Ready or not, with us or without us, another vision of Christmas's future is becoming reality. But I am confident that none of us is such a Scrooge or such an Ahaz that we want Christmas to happen without us. Not when we have the joy of seeing God with us. Amen.