The Problem of Prophecy

The fourth Sunday of Advent presented us with the chance to wrestle with some of the most familiar scriptures of this season.  What does it mean to say “a virgin will conceive”?  We looked at Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.

Somewhere in the 8th century BC, Ahaz, the king of Judah, found himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  For some reason, there is a bit of a power vacuum in the Middle East.  Perennial bullies Egypt and Assyria have their own problems, and that is allowing some of the smaller states to become a little more independent and, in some cases, a little more feisty.

Rezin, the king of Syria, checks in with Pekah, the king of Israel, and as they share some tea with hummus, they get to talking about the fact that they’ve never seen Jerusalem and wouldn’t it be nice to go there someday.  Since neither of their armies was concerned with fighting Egypt or Assyria, well, why not just take the boys out and conquer Judah while they have a little time on their hands?

The beginning of Isaiah 7 tells us that the attack fails, but that these kings begin to lay siege to the city, and Ahaz, the descendant of King David, and in fact all of Judah, are shaking like trees in the forest.

  Maarten van Heemskerck, Detail from Prophet Isaiah predicts the return of the Jews from exile (c. 1560)

Maarten van Heemskerck, Detail from Prophet Isaiah predicts the return of the Jews from exile (c. 1560)

At this moment, the prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz and says, “Look, don’t be afraid.  This will pass.  This plan cannot stand.” And then the prophet goes on to remind King Ahaz of his own weak faith, and says, “You know, King, if you don’t have faith in God, you won’t last either.  Ask God, and he’ll show you.”

Ahaz, who is not at all interested in being faithful, decides that he ought to say something that at least sounds religious, and so he says “Oh, heavens! I don’t need a sign from God.  I’ll be fine.  Thanks for everything, though…”

Isaiah, who has heard about every lame excuse in the book from this king, finally snaps and says, “Listen, the Lord is going to give you a sign.  You see that woman over there?  She will conceive.  And she will have a baby.  And by the time that kid is potty-trained, the world will be a different place.  By the time that Jr is old enough for school, that alliance that has you shaking in your boots will be a distant memory.  And because you just can’t believe the promises of God, well, you will fail as a leader.  That’s your sign.”

Not many months afterwards, Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, is born.  When he gets a little older, the Assyrians stop by the area and demolish the Syrian army and the nation of Israel.  Hezekiah continues to grow and eventually takes over from his father, and when he does, he leads a return to religious faithfulness and rebirth.  And people throughout Jerusalem looked at Isaiah and said, “The man is a prophet.  He said it, and it was!”

JosephdreamingScene II.  About eight hundred years later, give or take, there’s a fellow named Joseph.  Unlike Ahaz, he is a deeply religious and faithful man.  Like Ahaz, he finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

Joseph is a mature and God-fearing man.  He has become engaged to a young woman who recently revealed the fact that she is unexpectedly pregnant. Joseph doesn’t know everything, but he knows that he had nothing to do with making this baby.

He also knows what the Law – the law that he follows, the law that he loves, the law that has shaped him – says.  The Law says that those who commit sexual sins should be shamed, driven out of the community, and even stoned to death.  If he is to be true to the religion that shaped him, he must facilitate these things.

Yet in addition to being a deeply religious and moral man, Joseph is a good man, and he doesn’t want to see Mary shamed, driven out of the community, or stoned.

Now let me just pause for a moment and allow this to sink in – that 2000 years ago, there was a conflict, at least in this case, between being a “deeply religious man” and being “a good man”.  Even then, it would appear, there was a lot of gray space in which God’s people wrestled.

So Joseph is caught between a rock and a hard place, and he’s unsure what to do…until God speaks to him in a dream and says, just as Isaiah said to Ahaz, “Don’t be afraid.  This needs to happen.  God is in this thing.  And the only way you can get through this is if you have faith.”

And he does.  And Jesus is born.

St. Matthew, Frans Hals (Dutch), c. 1625

St. Matthew, Frans Hals (Dutch), c. 1625

Scene III.  About seventy years later, give or take, the first generation of people who we know to be “Christians” are dying out.  The original twelve apostles, the ones who knew and loved and traveled with and followed and served Jesus, have begun to be killed for their faith.  Age is taking its toll.  A generation is being born who has never known Jesus in the flesh.  And the church looks to its elders and says, “Please, write this stuff down.  We can’t forget it.”  And so Mark, and then Matthew, and Luke, and John, write their accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.

And as Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth, he connects the dots, and draws a line between the words of Isaiah and the reality of Joseph and Mary’s experience.  He remembers what Isaiah said about the young woman having a baby and about that baby being a sign of God’s presence.  And he says to his community, “Listen: that prophecy was true for Ahaz and Hezekiah.  And it was true for Joseph and Mary.  And look – it is true for us, too.  The prophecy is fulfilled!”

Scene IV.  Almost two thousand years later.  A group of folks wanders into a church building and hears a couple of friends stand up and read some ancient documents.  In so doing, that group of people has to face the question, “What is prophecy?”

Are we here to listen to a foretelling of one event by another person, and to marvel at the fact that a specific truth was foreseen hundreds of years previous?

To put it another way, is prophecy like a laser beam? A pinprick of light that reaches from one specific point in time to another specific point in time, but is barely visible at any other point along the way?

Maybe.  Maybe in the 8th century BC, a man named Isaiah had a vision of a child who would be born.  Maybe God gave Isaiah a word that indicated that in that very spot, or close to it, nearly a millennium later, one specific child would be born and after all those years, someone would remember Isaiah’s words and exclaim “Ha!  Yes! There is truth!  God’s word has come to pass!”

But maybe prophecy is like a search light that illumines the landscape in front of us – the here and now – but also reaches into the future.  A light that is visible here, and visible there, but that also helps the folk along the points in between.

So maybe in 730 BC or somewhere around then, Isaiah is sent to speak to Ahaz and the people who were around then heard him and saw what happened and said, “Yeah, I get it.  Truth is like this.  God is here!”

And maybe – I don’t know, but maybe – somewhere three or four hundred years after that fact, there is another man who is facing a difficult time and he doesn’t know how he can make it, and he comes in from the fields after planting his seeds and wonders if life gets any easier.  And maybe that night, his wife tells him that they are expecting a child.  And maybe the next day, that peasant farmer goes to the local synagogue and happens to hear the words of Isaiah being read and it occurs to him, “You know, maybe God is with me after all.  Maybe I can get through this.”  And maybe he does.  And maybe Isaiah’s prophecy is illuminating for him.

And maybe another four hundred years later, Jesus arrives on the scene, and the people around that story remember what old Isaiah said and it occurs to them that yeah, this really is true.  Imanuel.  God is with us.  The prophecy has been fulfilled.  Still.  Again.  Whatever.

And maybe now, two thousand years after that, someone is saying, “You see, Carver, that’s why I don’t get involved with all of this.  This is so confusing, and I just don’t see how it connects with my life.”

I get that.  After all, nobody here, so far as I know, is the commander of a city that is currently being besieged by a couple of rival kings.  Probably, not even your neighbors are conspiring against you, hoping your house will fall so they can claim your property.

And I would doubt that we have anyone in the room who is engaged to a woman who says she’s pregnant, but don’t worry about what people will say because it’s the son of God and these things always have a way of working themselves out.

So maybe this scripture is just an old story and doesn’t apply to anyone.

Or maybe everyone here knows what it’s like to be caught between a rock and a hard place.  Maybe everyone has wondered what to do when none of the options seemed like good ones.  Maybe you have faced a decision and found yourself hoping and wishing that somehow, somewhere, there would be a sign.  Maybe you know what it’s like to raise your eyes up to heaven and say, “A little help here?  Can you please show me what to do?”

Friends, if the Word of God is like a laser that goes from point A to point B, then mostly, well, we’re out of luck.  If all the Bible is is a series of little red dots that go from one absolute speaker to another specific situation, well, we’ll know where we’ve screwed up, probably.  We’ll know what it feels like to be targeted as those who have fallen short of where we are supposed to be. If we’re lucky, I suppose, there will be a specific scripture that points right to what we need. But mostly, we won’t get much guidance from a laser.

But if scripture is more like a floodlight, well, then we can see where God has been.  We can see what has happened.  We can hope that God knows where we are now.  And we can trust that God will be with and for us in the days that are yet to come.

December 22.  The shortest day of the year.  Are you stuck?  Feeling like you have no options but bad ones?  Then come to the God who gives signs, even to people who say that they don’t want them.  Rest in a God who is willing to speak in dreams.

If you are fearing the darkness and tired of the cold, then ask God to direct and guide you in this moment.  Look in scripture.  Approach in prayer.  Worship with joy.  Work hard to do your best.  Rest when you need to.

The Good News of Advent is Immanuel.  God with us.

Immanuel with Isaiah, Ahaz and Hezekiah?  You bet.

Immanuel with Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men?  Of course.

Immanuel with the earliest Christians who were called into an unknown future?  Yes.

Immanuel here and now, with you, with me.  God with us? Bank on it.  Thanks be to God, who has spoken and still speaks, Amen.

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