Isaiah: A Child is Born

sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7

 

“Unto us a child is born.” If I asked you who this is talking about, you would say…? The occasion of remembering this event, then,  is the holiday of…? That sounded like a resoundingly unanimous “Jesus” and “Christmas!”

It’s almost like that standard church joke that the answer to every question must be Jesus. I’d say I’m really into Jesus and can hardly stop talking about the guy, but this does create an interesting conundrum. In this section of Isaiah, there are three spots that reference a little child: in chapter 7, here in chapter 9, and again in chapter 11.

Chapter 7 is used about Jesus. That’s where we pick up the term Immanuel, which means “God-with-us,” and which we reiterate in our creed today. I believe that’s exactly what Jesus came to embody, the sense that God is with us from birth to death, to know your joys and laughter and feasting celebrations, and is with you in sickness and weeping and when you’re left out and suffering injustice. All that about Jesus is quickly summarized by that term Immanuel.

So that Isaiah passage on Immanuel is referenced in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew really likes citations of Old Testament passages. He especially gives us the sense that old writings are fulfilled in Jesus, though again and again we reiterate that these weren’t only waiting for Jesus to be true. He may be a special embodiment of these writings, but we’ll also notice the validity they have apart from him.

At any rate, Matthew picks up Isaiah 7:14 and says, “All this took place to fulfill 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.’” Now, we’re not going to delve today into discussions of how “virgin” might be a mistranslation of what simply was “young woman,” and what that means about Mary and about the birth of Jesus.

Instead, we’ll move on to Isaiah 11, the third of the passages referring to a child. This one isn’t directly connected to Jesus anyplace in our Bibles, even though it’s nice imagery. It includes what’s typically called the Peaceable Kingdom: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and a little child shall lead them. I may be predisposed to like that one, since all the carnivores convert to become vegetarian, but it is also so beautiful as harmony among creation, that this vision of what God intends isn’t only about humans being nice to each other, much less something that happens up on a heavenly cloud, but involves all God’s creatures.

With one child passage, then, used for Jesus and one not, that brings us back to our own reading. This one is also directly applied by the Gospel of Matthew to Jesus, though probably not in the way you’d expect. It isn’t related to his birth. It has nothing to do with Jesus as the child who is born or naming him as the prince of peace.

The verse of our reading that is picked up actually just locates the start of Jesus’ ministry around the lake of Galilee, an explanation from Matthew for why something important would happen in a Podunk place, and it’s even phrased as if Jesus would go there just because he knew the Bible verse from Isaiah. Plus, it’s not so much that the verse is fulfilled from Jesus as that it is fulfilled for the people who happened to live around him, that they are the people who have sat in darkness and the region and shadow of death. They have been hurting and oppressed and left out, and the message is that God was mindful in saving them.

We’ll return to the importance of that, but let’s also pause with the sense of that “unto us a child is born” as a Christmas message in our minds and hearts and as a shape of our faith. That’s not a bad thing, by any means. It can be right and proper to perceive Jesus here. But it wasn’t what Isaiah intended. He wasn’t picturing Jesus, much less shepherds and oxen and a manger. Not that those don’t fit. That’s entirely correlated with the same God, and Jesus was an ideal (or the ideal?) embodiment of Isaiah’s words.

But Isaiah meant a different baby. It may have been Hezekiah, a future king and son of Ahaz. Maybe Isaiah was envisioning that Hezekiah would eventually be a good ruler and would bring different leadership to the nation. But it may just have been Isaiah was trying to turn faith away from military and human decisions and deficiencies and back to God, back to hope.

The war imagery in this reading is first about that. See, the Assyrian Empire were the baddest dudes around and the most ruthless conquerors of antiquity (Heschel, The Prophets p207). The newborn’s father, King Ahaz, was trying to strategize allegiances to avoid brutal defeat. But instead of the force of armed alliances, Isaiah says hope is in God. That is what will end the reign of terror, what will mean the burdensome yoke of submission and oppressive rod of intimidation will be broken, the stomping boots and bloody clothes destroyed and forgotten.

The shape of this hope is portrayed in the little phrase “as on the day of Midian,” referring to a story from the book of Judges (ch6-7). Midian had troops too many to count plundering the crops and impoverishing the people. The prophetic reminder then was that God is a God of liberation, from Exodus to that day and onward. Just as for Isaiah, that message restricts hope to the work of God, as thousands from the Israelite army were sent home and a small crew of 300 soldiers was all that remained, but they scared off the Midianites simply with trumpets and torches.

Isaiah ups the ante by not even having 300 soldiers left, but merely a baby. How will the Assyrian Empire, the most fearsome army ever, be overcome? Well, unto us a child is born! As the foremost author on the prophets, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, tells us:

A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding. What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes. The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor. The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment. (p83)

We, of course, proclaim something similar in the birth of Jesus. Just as those titles in Isaiah—wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace—were titles stolen away from foreign rulers, so also when an angel announced “to you is born this day a savior,” it was stealing the title from Caesar Augustus in Rome, who called himself lord and savior and bringer of peace. But no longer could the domineering commander of the largest empire be the one seen to control the fate of the world. Our wellbeing, our hope comes from God alone.

That returns us to today. We’ve said the words of the prophets were first for their own time, secondly applied to Jesus, and, third, continue to be alive for us. We, too, are the people who have walked in darkness and dwelt in the shadow of death. We know tramping warriors and roaring F-16s and nuclear threats. We know the rod of oppressors’ yokes that are debts holding us captive. We know garments that are threadbare with hunger and torn from crawling through barbed wire seeking refuge and bloodied from lack of healthcare, and life is never right with much too much sadness. If you don’t know those things, if you’re not seeing them around you, if you identify with the empire, then you’re ignoring the reality of your siblings, and Isaiah won’t stand for that, either. Our lives, our hurting world, the marginalized and imprisoned and outcast, all nations, the vastness of creation needs release from the terrible oppressive might that would seem to be undefeatable.

We need the hope of God who comes not to destroy the destroyer and cause larger fear, but comes persistently, everlastingly, for peace and joy and love. A God who will be made known and change the world even in the finite fragility of a birth.

Yes, of course, we proclaim that in Jesus. We proclaim that the heart of God, the soul of God, the very identity and image of God’s presence in our world was found in a manger, far from fortress might, homeless and surrounded by stink. That hope proved a different path for peace on earth, and even the threatening injustice that tried to execute and bury that hope could not prevail. Death lost its sting.

But we don’t only look back to Jesus. We continue to see that presence of Jesus and the with-us God now. This passage resonates not only for baby prince Hezekiah or newborn Jesus in a barn. With every birth, Isaiah’s message again and again is true. With the miracle of new life, with precious and tender beauty, within your own families, a child born is the hope that prevails beyond any catastrophe of violence. As the cliché reminds us, having a baby changes everything, including your worldview and sense of the future.

And that sacrament of God’s blessing for us in the vision of youth is with us this morning, as we are reminded the very children here in our midst are a sign of hope, surprising us by continuing to proclaim simply in their existence that death and violence are not what is important or definitive or ultimate, because our light and our exultation, liberation and unstoppable life itself come from God. That’s not just a Christmas message. That’s good news we need any day. So thank you, children, for proclaiming it for us today. Amen

 

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Traps and Captivation, of Empire and of God

Sermon for 19Oct14

Matthew 22:15-22; Isaiah 45:1-7

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Sneaky, evasive Jesus has a tendency to answer questions with a question, when opponents are trying to trap him, but also to make us think for ourselves. Today it’s not a question, but more of a riddle, and you have to say it just sounds better in the King James Version: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

They ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the empire. It’s a trap. If he says don’t pay, the Romans would arrest him for provoking rebellion. But if he says yes, pay, his people would be upset he’s encouraging the oppressive occupying powers. He can’t say yes and can’t say no. He’s trapped.

But sneaky Jesus flips the trap, catching them in their own snare. We’ll see more of that in a moment. First, though, we’ll try resolving the riddle. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s,” we’ve usually figured there are two separate categories, and Jesus leaves it to us to discern which goes in what box. So we start compartmentalizing, breaking it down, maybe first that ultimate devotion should go to God and not to our government or whatever.

Money comes in a second layer of the divisions, with less direct certainty. We have generally determined that it’s okay to pay taxes, that they don’t interfere too deeply with our faith. We may grumble, but also see them as worthwhile. In fact, we should recognize they may serve consistent with what we do in faith, for example in programs of social uplift and concern for the least—very clearly a biblical ethic. As an example, picture school lunches resolving hunger and caring for vulnerable children, a Jesus-y kind of project, which just so happens to be run well by government.

That’s an important reminder for us. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar or to God, it’s not just a matter of two columns on a budget sheet, one or the other. Some of it we simply cannot divide. Jesus is not drawing a distinction between sacred and secular. It’s not a separation of church and state. God is not relegated only to the realm of what happens at a church or with a religious logo affixed to it.

Obviously, God’s work is immensely bigger than those small categories. Our Isaiah reading declares that God’s work was being accomplished by the Persian king Cyrus, even though he didn’t know God and didn’t know he was doing serving that role. It even names this foreign ruler as God’s Messiah. Wow! Similarly today, God is not waiting for faith-based organizations with faith-healers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia, but is certainly striving through health care workers regardless of religion. So just because it’s government doesn’t mean it’s opposed to God’s good work.

Of course, the reverse may be true, too. Tax dollars may also get used contradictory to our beliefs. It’s in the debates about how abortion services are or aren’t funded. It could be in a question of subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is in centuries of Christian conscientious objection to paying the portion of federal taxes which funds violence and military and war, by some measures almost 50% of the total.

That points also to the sneaky Jesus reversing the trap to ensnare those malicious, conniving opponents. It begins when Jesus says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” See, this tax was due from everybody under the empire and it had to be paid with Roman money. But notice Jesus doesn’t rifle through the loose change in his pockets to pull one out. He asks them for it, and they produce a denarius. And Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that, and whose title?”

If they were onto him at this point, there’d be a long, dumb pause: “uhhhhh…the emperor.” See, simply using this coin was forcing you to swear allegiance to the emperor, to Caesar. Right on its face, it gave him the title “son of god.” By using that coin, by having it to show off, the so-called religious authorities demonstrate their hypocrisy. They claim to be devoted to God. Daily in worship and prayer they would’ve proclaimed, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6). Well, they might have had those words in their hearts, but in their pockets they were holding onto a second so-called god, his face engraved on the coin.

That shows the shape of the debate is not about politics so much as theological worldview. In telling them to render to Caesar, Jesus might mean “purge yourself of that filthy heretical coin.” In some regard, while bearing that image, it is dominating their lives, that is their lord, and so they aren’t bearing the image of the Lord their God. It highlights their bondage to their enemy, the occupying army, that we can’t escape the systems that ensnare our lives. Again, rather than a question of religion versus government, a larger issue here is two competing powers, for the empire’s kind of control or God’s kingdom in this world.

Even though our bills don’t call George Washington the son of god, this makes it hit home. If our dollars claim that “in God we trust,” how much do they really do that, and when do they render us captive to another force?

For us, we may figure it’s appropriate to begin trying to resolve the riddle by making this word from Jesus into a lesson on how you use money, especially as we prepare to share our financial pledges next Sunday, encouraging you to give more to church, that you should render more to God, return more of what you’ve been given. Yet what does that mean? Is it giving 2% of your income instead of 1%? Or giving 10% and reaching a tithe, can you think you’ve done enough?

After all, God has given you 100%.   It may be right and good to ask what you give at church, yet if we’re working with this passage that tells you to render to God what is God’s, how do you pay back 100% of all that you have and are? Putting tokens in the offering plate wouldn’t cut it. Maybe we return gratitude and praise, that if we’re given a beautiful autumn day, we remember constantly to thank God. Maybe we ask about our vocations, of how we’re using our time and skills to press toward the goals of Jesus. Yet as vital as those efforts are, they also reveal it’s not just the hypocritical opponents in the reading today who fall short in their loyalty and devotion. It’s all of us.

One more example: We hear about foreign Cyrus doing the work of God without even knowing it. The opposite comes on Good Friday, when Jesus has a conversation with the Governor Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar. The conversation emphasizes our point, that not just his property or palace, but even his position of power has come from God. If he’d rendered to God and not to Caesar, Pilate would’ve pursued very different path. Maybe he would’ve stopped the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yet even in that, God’s work was done. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the fullness of God’s compassion and God’s abundant and amazing forgiveness and the work of God for life that just will not stop.

I’m going to conclude by suggesting you are hypocrites, but you are faithful hypocrites. You are sinners, but you are simultaneously saints and sinners. You render to God, but you also render to Caesar and the corrupt powers of this world. Even more, you are rendered by those powers. They render you helpless or trapped, in bondage, captive to sin. You are stuck supporting systems you’d prefer not to, trapped by taxes you don’t want to pay, ensnared by a consumer lifestyle, captive to carbon emissions by which you cause climate change, to prejudices and racisms you may not even always realize exist. For your life and for the good of others, it is indeed a terribly important choice to struggle against those oppressive forces that are rendering you an agent of evil, or of Caesar, opposing God.

But also know you are rendered an agent of God. The God who has given you 100% of your blessings and sustains you through every breath will continue striving for you, and with you. God doesn’t wait for you to perfect yourself, won’t repay you for your actions, never renders evil for evil, but always will be the God of life. You don’t get more just when you’ve proven you can do the right thing. It’s not taken away from you when you do wrong. God in Christ receives when you’re at your most considerate and devoted and doing your best, but God in Christ will just as much pursue blessing when you’re malicious and miserable and selfish and broke and broken.

Even when you’ve squandered 100% and given it to exactly the wrong place, the God of our whole universe is still working with that total. You can’t take anything away from God. God recycles and recreates you from the ashes of your past, from dead ends and even rising out of death. This is the true power. You are entrapped by Jesus, held captive and kept tightly in God’s love. It doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. When God looks at your face, all that shows is the image of Jesus.

Hymn: Take My Life, That I May Be (ELW #583)

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