Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 18, 2022
A thought at the beginning of worship:
You know, it’s tough being a Department Store Santa. Thankfully, most of the kids are good when they crawl up onto the chubby old man’s laps. Santa listens to their wants and desires for Christmas. But some lists breaks Santa’s hearts. Others, who come with a list that rivals the one their mom has for the grocery store, reminds Santa of how greedy some kids can be. And then, sometimes a kid pulls his beard to see if it’s real.
And then there is Scottie. At eleven, almost twelve, he feels he’s too old for Santa. But he’s his mom’s last kid and she wants one last photo of him on Santa’s lap. Scottie doesn’t like it when his mother orders him to climb up in the Old Man’s lap.
Santa doesn’t relish the thought much, either. Especially because Scottie was big for his age and had a few extra pounds to boot. But Santa has a job to do. He lets out a hearty “ho-ho-ho” and welcomes Scottie, asking the boy what he wants for Christmas. Instead of answering, Scottie looks Santa in the eye and says, “I-don’t-believe-in-you.” “That’s alright,” Santa says. “I believe in you.”
I believe in you
“I believe in you.” That’s what God says to us and to all humanity.
God believes in us even when we have our doubts. And when we least expect it, in the darkness of a depressed Palestine, God enters our world as a child. God believes in us, a truth that should empower our lives with meaning and conviction.
Before the reading of today’s scripture:
We’re again looking at hopeful passages found in the first half of Isaiah during this Advent season. Today’s passage is problematic. It seems odd for this passage to relate to this season. However, this reading (or verse 14 of the reading) is tied to the Christmas season thanks to the Matthew’s gospel. It’s made even more famous by the rousing singing of altos in Handel’s Messiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.” If God is with us, it sounds like God believes in us, doesn’t it? But it’s also a frightening thought. God being with us also brings judgment, as this chapter of Isaiah shows.
An odd passage for Advent?
As I said, the Isaiah passage from where this verse which brings so much meaning to Christmas seems quite odd for the season. After all, Isaiah deals with international politics and who’s aligned with whom. And we have a king, Ahaz, who fails to take God’s advice. If you read on to the end of the chapter, God judges the king for following his own way and not the ways of God.
Take time this afternoon to read this chapter. There are some hidden meanings behind the “hair cut” the king receives in verses 20. Again, in Isaiah, as we’ve seen all along in Isaiah, the prophet ties judgment and hope together. It seems an irony, but perhaps Matthew understood this for after telling of Jesus’ birth, he follows that hopeful story with that of another king. Herod finds the hope of a child too threatening and seeks to destroy him..
Hope and Judgment.
Hope and judgment? How do we respond to the hope that God is with us? Is it good news or do we fear the judge?
Read Isaiah 7:10-16.
Background info on Ahaz.
Ahaz, the king Isaiah confronts in today’s passage, isn’t a model of faithfulness. He’s remembered as one of the worst kings—one of the most idolatrous—in the history of the Hebrew people. His history is somewhat scattered. It must be pieced together from several books within scripture as well as from Assyrian sources.
World politics 2700 years ago
It seems Judah, some 700 years before Christ, found herself besieged by the combined forces of her northern cousins, Israel, and the Aramean or Syrian kingdom. Israel and Syria allied in an anti-Assyrian pact. Assyria was the unquestionable world power for several centuries during. Israel and Syria joined together to fight her dominance. Judah did not enter this pact; she was attacked because of this.
Ahaz, the king of Judah, calls on Assyria for help. The Assyrians attack Syria, which relieve Ahaz forces. After the capture of Syria, Ahaz meets with the king of Assyria in Damascus, and they set up a pact. The Assyrians would not conquer Judah, but the little state would become a vassal under the mighty Assyrians. Ahaz, the king, pledged his loyalty to the king of Assyria.Can you keep Syria or Aramean, Assyria, Israel, Judah straight? Complicated, isn’t it? World politics always is.
Ahaz’s real sins
Had Ahaz just forged an alliance with Assyria, he might have been okay. But his loyalty went beyond a military alliance. While in Damascus, Ahaz eyes an Assyrian altar. It must have been pretty fancy because he orders his chief cabinetmaker to build one to put into the Jerusalem temple. Furthermore, Ahaz robs the temple of some of its treasures to pay tribute to the Assyrians. Ahaz seems to have a thing for the idols of Judah’s neighbors, preferring them over the God of Abraham. Many of these idols he places in the temple, too, making it into a pagan shrine as opposed to a place focused only on the worship of Almighty God.
Now, with that background, let’s look at the text. The Lord tells Ahaz he should ask of the Lord whatever he needs. Ahaz refuses, telling Isaiah that he’s not going to put the Lord to the test. We’re told in Deuteronomy not to test God. If we just read this verse, it sounds as if Ahaz faithfully tries to live by God’s commands. But, as I have shown you, history tells us otherwise. Ahaz isn’t going to test the Lord, even when given permission, because he has a bunch of other gods upon whom he can call. Perhaps this resulted in Isaiah’s sarcastically response in verse 13, “Is it too little to weary mortals that you weary my God also?”
God with us through a child
Isaiah’s use of “my God,” points to Ahaz’s faithlessness in the God of his ancestors. But God is not going to be unfaithful, Isaiah proclaims. God will come to this people. A young woman is to give birth to a child named Immanuel. The Hebrew word translated as young woman means a girl or maiden, someone entering the age for marriage.
There’s a lot of confusion around this word. As I said, in the Hebrew, the word is for a young woman of marriageable age, but when the Isaiah was translated into the Greek, the words used was for a virgin. And that’s what is in our mind as Matthew quotes, not the Hebrew text but the Greek Septuagint. This led to the veneration of Mary in the medieval world. And thanks to Matthew, along with Handel’s wonderful oratorio, becomes entrenched in our mind with Christmas.
The real miracle in this prophecy
But the real miracle here is not with the woman. I suggest the scandalous miracle is with the child. God comes to us in an infant. That’s the meaning of Immanuel. God is present, in person, in this child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manager.
You know, God could have washed his hands of Judah because of Ahaz. If God would be like us, the king’s unfaithfulness would be enough to find some new folks for the chosen people. But God doesn’t work that way. God remains faithful. As I said at the beginning of today’s worship, God believes in us. God believes in us so much that he sent his only Son. God’s desire to be in relationship with us is so great that we’re given chance after change to get it right. God was willing to give Ahaz another chance. He didn’t take God up on the offer, but that was his decision. And in Jesus Christ, God offers the world a new way of being.
Where do we see God’s presence?
During the Advent season, we should think about where we see God’s presence in our lives and in history. Are we looking in the right places? Who’d expect an infant from a young mother to make such a difference?
In the 1975 movie, “Love and Death,” Woody Allen’s character says, “If God would only speak to me—just once. If He would only cough. If I could just see a miracle. If I could see a burning bush or the sea’s part. Of my Uncle Sasha pick up the check.” If only… We understand these feelings. An unambiguous sign from God would certainly be appreciated. Instead, we’re to take hope form the birth of a child.
The season of expectant waiting.
This is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. We now have four candles burning in our wreath. Advent is the season of expectant waiting. In Isaiah’s day, they longed for safety from invaders, someone strong and bold, yet Isaiah promises hope in a child. A child doesn’t come with armor and a spear. One must wait, as God’s people waited for a Messiah and as we wait for his return.
Prison and Advent
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis just a few weeks before the end of World War Two, wrote in prison shortly before Christmas 1944, his last: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”
Bonhoeffer is right. Only God can come to us. Our sinful natures are unable to transcend the divine. We must depend on God to open the door… But don’t despair. Remember, God still believes in us. That’s the good news. God enters our world through Jesus Christ and ushers in his kingdom which is demonstrated when one of us accepts his rule over our lives. Christ has come and we should see evidence of his presence in one another as we gather to worship and to do the work to which we’re called.
And Christ will come again. Until then, the question we need to ask is, “Will we be ready?” Or will we be like Ahaz and, in the meantime, run off after other gods? God believes in us. Will we believe in God? Amen.
 This story came from an the old ECUNET internet bulletin board. I first told it on December 20, 1998, changing the kid’s name to Scottie to pick on Scott Burns, one of the great jokesters in the congregation I served at the time (Community Presbyterian Church, Cedar City, Utah). A year earlier, we had moved into the new church. When the building was dedicated, we hung in a hall 8”x10” photos of pastors who had served the church. At the unveiling of these photos, Scott created a special “photo” of me. It was poster sized. He’d taken a rather unflattering picture of me, at church camp that summer, sleeping in a hammock. It seemed only right to name the kid after him.
 Matthew 1:23
 See the footnote for this verse in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003). Dehairing describes destruction as in Ezekiel 5:1-4.
 See Matthew 2. See also Scott Hoezee, “Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2022: Isaiah 7:10-16” at https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-12-12/isaiah-710-16-3/.
 Background information on Ahaz from the Anchor Bible Dictionary and John Bright, A History of Israel (1959, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 291f.
 Deuteronomy 6:6.
 Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library, 2nd Edition, John Bowden, translator (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 154. See also Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah Updated Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 145ff.
 Luke 2:12.
 John 3:16.
 Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1995), 119.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (NY: Collier, 1953), 135.
12 Replies to “God Believes in Us”
What a great response from that Santa—I believe in you. And a great tie-in to your sermon!
Have a very Merry Christmas! Wishing you all the best in 2023!
Thanks, Sherry. Have a Merry Christmas and enjoy the new year!
A very moving sermon, Jeff. So, the word virgin came from Greek translation. That makes sense now.
Bonhoeffer’s comparison of his prison cell to advent was powerful. Made me laugh that Scottie put up a picture of you sleeping in a hammock to add to the pastors’ photos.
Lovely sunset photo!
Merry Christmas to you and your family.
I am not sure what happened to that picture of me sleeping with my mouth open in the hammock. It was kind of funny and they did put another picture up of me. The next church I served for nearly 11 years and helped them through a relocation/building campaign commissioned an oil painting of me that hangs in their new building.
Thank you for sharing the beautiful sunset photograph.
Sending good wishes Christmas.
All the best Jan
Merry Christmas to you and your family, Jan.
The Sunset picture is so beautiful. Wow.
It must be hard at times for the Mall Santa who must hear some heartbreaking wishes.
I’m sure there are good and bad times being a Santa! Maybe when I retire, I’ll grow my beard out so I can play Santa.
The Bonhoeffer quotation is quite poignant given it was his last Advent.
Gorgeous sunset photo!
You are right, he didn’t know what the next year would bring, which makes the quote even more powerful.
It’s a big week. Merry Christmas, Rev!
Yep, but I am almost ready for it. Have a blessed season!
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