Wicked Kings and Empty Houses
Isaiah 7:10-17; Matthew 1:18-25
Midweek Advent 1
December 4, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The prophecies associated with Christmas have been the source of much great Christian art and music. I have fond memories of singing Mendelssohn’s “There shall a star come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Most Christians are all too familiar with the prophecies concerning the birth of the Messiah taking place in Bethlehem and his lineage in the house of David. Some of these prophecies, however, present a bit of a challenge to someone who is paying close attention. Take, for example, the prophecy read for you a few moments ago: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
On first glance, this seems straightforward enough. But let’s take a moment to remember the context into which this prophecy was first delivered. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was living in fear of the impending Assyrian invasion. The tension would make the cold war seem tame, for Assyria was already advancing on and conquering every other country in the region. They were fast becoming the global power, and they had a reputation for being particularly ruthless and violent. To make matters worse, 2 of Judah’s rivals, including the Northern Kingdom of Israel, were threatening to invade Jerusalem before the Assyrians got there. These rivals wanted to force Judah to join forces in an effort to fight of the larger threat of the Assyrians, but King Ahaz refused to join forces with his rival. The situation escalated to the point that these smaller rivals had already invaded once and captured Ahaz, but were forced to let him go. Now facing the smaller threat of these rivals and the much bigger threat of the Assyrian Empire, King Ahaz of Judah was faced with a choice: trust the Lord to protect and deliver the people of Judah, even though they had already been defeated by their rivals once? Or try to work out a political bargain to protect himself, his kingdom, and most importantly – his reputation and legacy as a ruler?
While Ahaz was mulling over his options, the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to him. Ahaz had already made several decisions during his reign that demonstrated a lack of trust in the Lord to provide guidance and protection. And yet God sent the prophet to tell Ahaz, “Be calm and at peace, for the threat of your rivals will be reduced to nothing.” This is where our reading picks up. Isaiah was told to offer Ahaz a sign, any sign – as high as the highest heaven or as low as the depths of hell itself – anything to give the king confidence that the Lord would protect and deliver his people in Jerusalem and Judah. Yet Ahaz refused. He did not want to trust in the Lord to deliver him, so he refused to receive a sign from God.
Isaiah then responds: “Hear then, O House of David. Why do you waste God’s time? Behold, since you will not ask a sign for yourself, you will get the one God chooses, and this is it: The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and you will call his name Immanuel. And within a few years from today, in roughly the time it takes a normal baby to learn how to walk and talk, in just that little bit of time your land and your people and your houses will experience a terror unlike any they have known before – they will be forced to deal with the wicked and ruthless king of Assyria.”
Wicked kings and empty houses. Usually when we see the words, “The virgin will conceive . . .” we see them on a Christmas card depicting a young mother gently cradling a softly sleeping baby. But these words were first uttered as a threat. Yes, they’re a promise of the Messiah, but they’re a promise that the actions of wicked King Ahaz will bring upon Judah the wicked king of Assyia, who will rape the land and pillage the villages so that Judah and Jerusalem are reduced to utter destruction, leaving their houses empty as the people are taken away in chains. The name of the child is Immanuel, which means God is with us. God was certainly with Ahaz’s kingdom, but he was with it bringing about its downfall.
So, dear Christians, behold, the virgin Mary has conceived. She has borne a son, and his name is called Immanuel, which means God with us. God is among us, as he was among Judah all those years ago. Should this promise bring us comfort? Or is it a threat of some devastation looming on our horizon?
Perhaps the answer to this question can be found by pondering for a moment what it means to have an Immanuel, a God who is with us in every way – yet without sin. Look at the state of his humanity. Up in heaven, angels praise him. Here on earth, a census ordered by a greedy emperor sets into motion a series of events that culminates in the Lord of Creation being born in a barn. Luther once said that “because the Son of God has done this, we should learn from him to gladly and humbly praise and glorify him and his word, suffering every kind of sorrow in imitation of him, and so follow his example. For what harm can befall us or why should we be ashamed of suffering?”[i]
This world is full of wicked kings and empty houses. We have not been promised anything different. In the history of our nation, not our kings but our presidents have made some good and godly decisions, as well as sinful decisions driven by greed or pride or fear or hatred, just as King Ahaz. We have seen as a nation times of great prosperity and economic growth, times when houses were full, and we have seen the Great Depression and various recessions that leave many homes vacant. In our personal lives, we have to deal with bosses and supervisors and authority figures who sometimes have a way of making life miserable. We have to deal with economic struggles, with pinching pennies together to try to celebrate the holidays that way we want. Wicked kings and empty houses rear their ugly heads in many different ways in this world of sin.
But what joy we have that our Lord was made man, that he came into this world of wicked kings and empty houses. He himself was made subject to wicked kings like Herod, who sought to kill him as a baby, and Herod’s offspring who sought to kill Jesus when he was grown. He himself knew the struggle of poverty, for the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. When he was born, he did not even have a bed, but was laid rather in a feed box. To quote Luther again, “Think of it . . . the King of all creation in heaven and on earth, and of all the creatures in them, lies there in such wretchedness! Shame on me! Why do I want to be so high and mighty that I never want to suffer anything? If the King of glory suffers, as he does, for my sake, who do I think I am, anyway? [ . . .] Here we see the humiliation and poverty in which our Lord Jesus lies for our sake, while we [expect to] get off with no [. . .] suffering at all!”[ii]
Wicked kings and empty houses are a way life in this fallen world. Jesus himself dealt with their consequences in his earthly life. But our Lord Jesus did not take on human flesh to offer us a comfortable deliverance from these worldly concerns. We can expect to have hardship in our lives. We can expect trials and tribulations. We can expect challenges. Our Lord himself endured them, why would we expect our lives to be any different? We are faced with the same challenge that presented itself to King Ahaz all those years ago: Will we trust our Lord for guidance and deliverance in the face of these hardships? Or will we look for a solution of our own devising? Will we believe Satan’s lie that the presence of these hardships is somehow an indication of God’s anger with us? Are we more concerned with our earthly status and experience? Or do we have an eye toward eternity? Will we allow these hardships to drive us back to our Lord in prayer?
Remember Immanuel. There is “no reason to live in constant fear, for [you] have a brother who has become a human being just like [you]. . . . [True,] all people can boast this honor. However, [we] Christians can boast of something that is even greater. [We are] able to boast of this birth to all eternity. Down here on earth all people have the honor that God’s Son has assumed their flesh and blood. But the spiritual and eternal fruit of this birth belongs only to Christians.”[iii]
So see past the wicked kings and empty houses of this world to the greater reality that is yours through Christ Jesus our Lord. As you were born into this world of heartache, so was he born into this world of heartache, so that as he is risen from the dead and lives unto all eternity, so also you will one day rise from the dead and live unto all eternity. Behold, the virgin has conceived and has borne a son. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to you, O Israel.
[i] Sermon for Holy Christmas Day – 1534. The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther: Volume 5 (p. 136)
[iii] Ibid. p 135-6