Sunday 6th December 2020

Isaiah 7:13-17 and Matthew 1:18-23

Immanuel, God with us.

How well do you wait? How good are you at waiting in traffic on the Killaughey Road at school getting out time, or sitting at a traffic light on the Millisle Road that you think must surely be broken it’s been red for so long? Or what about queuing in the supermarket or in the doctor or dentist’s surgery, if you can still remember what it like to be in their waiting room! How well do you wait? This question of waiting is a good one for us as we move further into the season of Advent because that’s one of the things Advent is all about, waiting, expectant waiting…but Advent isn’t just about waiting, it’s about waiting well and for people of faith that is very important, why? Because we are people who live in times of waiting, the times of waiting between Christ’s first and second coming; we are a sort of faith version of ‘weight watchers’ – we’re waiting for Christ to return and all the while we’re watching for God at work as Scripture tells us to do:

  • Psalm 27:14 ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord’.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:7 ‘…patiently anticipate, wait for, the day our Lord Jesus is revealed…’

As people of faith we are called to be patient, to watch and wait, and today to help with our watching and waiting, we are going to focus on two familiar Biblical texts, Isaiah 7:13-17 and Matthew 1:18-23. You might find it helpful to pause and read both texts and then keep your Bible open in front of you.

So, firstly, from Isaiah Chapter 7 – this is one of the great and iconic readings of the Advent season, verse 14: ‘Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.’ [a name that means, ‘God with us’.]

What a Christmassy reading! You only have to hear those words and you can almost smell the mince pies and hear the tune of ‘Once in Royal David’s City…’ But you don’t have to read on very far before the Christmassy feeling may start to fade, for what else does the text go on to say? Verse 16: But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.’ So, what’s going on? And what might two kings and laying land to waste have to do with Advent and Christmas and our call to wait well? Good question! We will need to do a little digging and searching to find the answer but bear with me because it will be worth the effort…

Politics is often, as we know all too well in Northern Ireland, a complex matter and foolish mistakes can be made through panic measures, and the backdrop to this reading in Isaiah is a tangle of political intrigue from long ago and a panicking king who is about to make a terrible mistake. The king was called Ahaz, king of Judah, and he found himself under pressure with enemies all around. At the time of this reading he’s in a bit of a state and doesn’t know where to turn to for help. To this panicking king comes the Word of the LORD, spoken through the prophet Isaiah, and that word is, Calm yourself, Ahaz, don’t be afraid, don’t lose heart…keep calm…’ (Isaiah 7: 4).

The reference to a child in verse 14 has many layers of meaning, but one of those has simply to do with timing…In the length of time it takes for a woman to conceive, bear a son, and raise him to know the difference between right and wrong, within that timeframe says the Lord, everything you are afraid of, those enemies who seem so powerful, will be dealt with, they will be laid waste…So, Ahaz was called to wait and to trust God. God had a plan and Ahaz needed to sharpen his vision, to look to God and what God was doing, salvation would come, wait and see, that was the promise of God…

Matthew, in Chapter One of his gospel, picks up on these very words from Isaiah concerning a child, but this time Mathew applies them specifically to Jesus, and Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, was the recipient of this message. This Word from the Lord came to Joseph at a time when he was anxious and uncertain, reassuring him not to be afraid but to trust in God and God’s plan. And what a plan! Mary was carrying a child conceived of the Holy Spirit. She would give birth to a Son, they are to call him Jesus, His very name meaning, ‘the Lord saves’, because He will save His people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21) Again, God’s promise: salvation would come, wait and see, see the promises of God unfold…And Mary did give birth to a Son, Immanuel, God with us, and He would eventually die on a cruel cross to save us from our sins, all unfolding exactly as God said it would…The prophecy of Isaiah, finding its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus our Saviour.

Now, how can these words of the prophet Isaiah, later taken up by Matthew and spoken at the birth of Jesus, how can these words help and encourage us in our desire to be God’s people today? We are helped and encouraged when we too remember God is still at work, right here and right now, working out his plans, in Donaghadee and beyond. God very much with us, and so it is now our turn to be patient, to look to God, to trust and to wait well…And one of the ways we wait well is through sharpening our vision and looking out for God at work. So, what should we look out for? Where might we find God at work this week and in the weeks ahead, if we really look?

  • Might we catch a glimpse of Christ at work through something someone says or does? Something that causes us to stop in our tracks, something that perhaps takes us by surprise?
  • Or might God speak to you or to me when we’re least expecting it? Maybe as you walk on the Commons, or as you stroll round the lighthouse or on Ballvester beach – might a verse from Scripture or a line from a hymn suddenly ‘jump’ into your head? Is God using that to get our attention?
  • Or what about a coincidence that you just know has God behind it – more of a God-incidence!
  • Sometimes we only realise it later, it’s when we think back, and the penny drops, and we think God was there…that was God’s doing, that was a word from the Lord…
  • It’s a learning process, learning to see God at work, learning to tune into His voice…

Many years ago, Ahaz was encouraged not to panic, to wait, to sharpen his focus, to look to and for God, salvation would come…And hundreds of years later, Matthew would take the Word of the Lord from Isaiah’s time and use it to point to the Christ Child, in this context through a soothing word spoken to Joseph, betrothed to Mary…And all this, alerting us to the kind of waiting we are called to do: waiting with eyes open, waiting and looking for signs of God at work, trusting in God’s plan for you, for me, for this world. And so today, in this season of Advent, we thank God for His Word, for His promises and more than anything, for the gift of His Son, Immanuel, God with us. Let’s pray together:

Heavenly Father, in this Advent Season keep us watchful for You at work, keep us prayerful that we might stay close to You, keep us from becoming preoccupied with all the wrong things. Where anxiety might creep into our lives, help us to stay patient and to trust, for You are in control. Thank you for all Your blessings in our lives and may we, in our turn, be a blessing to others.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.