Friday, 16 December 2016

Isaiah's Prophecy 7:14 and the Bible today

I was cutting it fine the other day when leaving the house and I put out my hand to pick up the keys from the kitchen counter only to find myself outside trying to lock the door with a teaspoon. 

The reason I bring this up is that our passages from Isaiah and Matthew this morning need thinking about. The background is that Ahaz the new young king of Judah is being attacked by his powerful neighbours, modern day Syria and Israel who have formed a strong alliance against him. Isaiah has received word from the Lord that these two enemies will not succeed to overturn the kingdom of Judah. “It shall not stand it shall not come to pass!” Ahaz is disbelieving so Isaiah says “Ask your God for a sign - anything you like.” Now we might recognise Ahaz’s response - we are sometimes very reluctant to ask questions especially when we fear an unwanted answer and this is especially the case where God is concerned - you have to be strong to ask God for something. Isaiah is a little exasperated with Ahaz, knowing that his people who had expected vigorous new policies from their young king to rescue the country from its difficulties were also weary of him, Isaiah says “is it too little that you weary mortals that you weary my God also?” Prophets frequently offered signs to accompany their foretelling so that their hearers would know that God will fulfil the prophesies that the prophet has made. Isaiah then decides to get on with it even if Ahaz will not ask himself:

“A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” (which means God with us)

Now the King James Bible is more explicit:

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel.”

So this verse when looked at in its context and in its place in history is very clearly concerned with the immediate future of Judah, the prophecy that Judah will survive the attacks of these powerful neighbours and indeed this survival was extraordinary – years later Ahaz was able to survive and place his son on the throne of a still intact kingdom. What seemed impossible by human measure was well within the power of God. Isaiah was spooning God’s words into Ahaz even if he did not want to hear.

But then we come to Matthew, who writing seven hundred years later found not a teaspoon but a key.

“All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel’”

The Messianic hope burned brightly in the first century Jewish Community and it was natural for Matthew to take this verse from the works of Isaiah and apply it to Jesus. You see, even if Isaiah was at the time talking only of the local situation he was speaking the words of God which have been handed down to Matthew and us as scripture.  Matthew accepted all scripture as prophecy and that it was intended to be interpreted in the time that it was being read. This kind of interpretation presumes that God moves in all ages mysteriously so that later ages may unravel the puzzle to determine God’s intention and direction. 

And I am very happy with that! It is perfectly right that God may have spoken in the 8th century BC about the situation then and about the birth of Jesus in the 1st century. It means that the Bible can and should be read with a view to understanding what it is saying to us today, about our times. Scripture is not like my 1920 Encyclopaedia Britannica which enshrines scientific thought and geography of that time only. Scripture is alive and God continually reveals his intentions to us by his presence in the world and by his holy word and our present day reading of it.

So I return to my idea that verse 7:14 of Isaiah may have been both a teaspoon of medicine for Ahaz but still is a key for us.


Saturday, 3 December 2016

Advent and Preparing: Isaiah 11:1-10

When still a Catholic boy I would go to church on Saturday morning to make my confession. It was dark and musty inside even before entering the confessional which was darker and mustier. Freshly absolved, emerging into the outside brightness and attractiveness of the day a boy was confronted with the problem of the coming twenty-four hours. The challenge of keeping sin free until the eleven o’clock mass the next day was considerable. In my defence I did have a little brother – who of course was very irritating. Nonetheless, the confession on Saturday was to prepare for Sunday. 

“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  

John the Baptist cries that we should repent with urgency for the axe is lying at the foot of the tree, the winnowing fork is to hand and one more powerful than he is coming. John’ heartfelt purpose is to prepare us to be in the presence of God, to be ready to receive him.

Isaiah foretells who we are waiting for he reminds us of the greatness of God. He does not shirk the humbleness of Jesus’ coming. A shoot, just a shot, a small tender and delicate product, from a stump a humble beginning the idea reinforced by Isaiah saying that this branch will come out of Jesse, not referring to King David, but Jesse who lived and died in meanness and obscurity, whose family was of little account.

But very quickly we hear of his greatness: The spirit of the Lord shall be upon him, Wisdom, Counsel, Might, and Knowledge. There will also be fear of the Lord for this fear comes from an appreciation and acknowledgement of his power. We need to imagine how we would feel if Jesus came in through the church door, that he walked down our aisle and is now standing there next to the front pews.

It is one thing to think about God, to believe in God, to hold onto an idea of God in our heart and mind but quite another to be in his presence. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see or his ears hear,” he will know us, each one of us perfectly, he will know our inmost selves. He will judge with righteousness and equity.

Isaiah then continues with extraordinary imagery to tell us what the result of all this will be: the Prince of Peace when he comes will usher in a new world, where men of the fiercest disposition who used to bite and devour all around them, making easy prey of the meek, will be transformed. They will live in love with all as if the wolf were lying with the lamb, the lion eating straw and the snakes rendered peaceable. If we are in doubt about the greatness of God, here is a wonderful description of his power, to rid the world of wickedness, evil, war, dissent, even the tiniest most venial sin.  

“Repent for the kingdom of God is near”

This is why when we come to church, the great cathedrals, the minsters, the parish churches, the mission huts we begin our services with the confession; for we have come to meet with God, to come into his presence and so we start by acknowledging that we have erred and strayed like lost sheep, that we have followed the devices and desires of our own hearts, we receive absolution and open ourselves up, prepared to receive – to receive the word of God in scripture and teaching, to receive Christ in the sacrament of bread and wine and then to depart in the peace of the Holy Spirit.