More than a "Good Story" (Sermon from 12-9)

In light of the weather-related cancelation of worship last Sunday, I wanted to still give you the meat of what would have been Sunday’s sermon. I’m posting on Wednesday to give you a mid-week devotional thought. Use it personally or talk as a family:

My ninth grade English teacher had our class interact with a story most of us had not heard of before that point. It was one of her favorites, and through it we observed the influential nature of a good story. It was a story of heroism, adventure, camaraderie, villains, and (of course) true love. Maybe you’ve heard of it… One of the story’s valuable lessons is avoiding a “classic blunder:” “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” (only slightly less well known that the most famous blunder: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”) The Princess Bride is a great story, one of those that grows on you the more you watch it (this turned out to be the go-to movie for my class during holidays or to kill time toward the end of the school year!). In the movie you see the impact the story begins to have on various characters… growth in the heroes, the softening heart of the once-bad-guy to comrade, even the reluctant grandson who was sick in bed and forced to listen: he can’t stop listening and he wants more!

That’s the power of a great story. Inspiration, smiles and tears, even influence upon a person if the story is really good. 

I wonder if that is how the Christmas story feels to you? We focus on it every year, so the repetition can make it feel old. In addition, our culture embraces the holiday season with strong emphasis on service, family time, and simple traditions—the Christmas story in that light is accepted as a good story for the motivation of joyful generosity. Although generosity is a good response to what we celebrate in Advent, we cannot forget that we celebrate more than a good story—we celebrate fulfilled promises. This is significant because the former can only motivate for a season, but the latter has the power and permanence to sustain for a lifetime. Tim Keller says it well: 

“Christmas is not ‘once upon a time a story happened that shows us how we should live better lives.’ No! [God] broke into the world to save us. Christ the Savior is born!” (Hidden Christmas)

Read Isaiah 7:1-14 and Matthew 1:18-25 and we will quickly walk through the power and permanence of God’s promise after we consider, first, the context of that promise.

1. The Context of God’s Promise: A Hopeless Heart

Reading the seventh chapter of Isaiah places you on the verge of another great war between Judah and an allied Israel and Syria. Ahaz is the current king of Judah, and he is the grandson of Uzziah, a key transitional figure in Judah’s historic relationship to God from “maybe faithful” to “definitely unfaithful.” Ahaz is terrified because of the threat before him, shaking like a leaf we might say (v2). The other two kings are making their own preparation to defend against the eventual Assyrian attack by creating (forcing) a growing army. The current plan is to remove Ahaz from the throne and replace him with a puppet king, the son of Tabeel (v6). War is coming!

The combined forces approaching Jerusalem are definitely too much for the army of Judah, but the king is at the upper pool making preparations for siege anyway (v3). What choice does he have? What hope is there? You get the feel of utter distress. It is why Isaiah’s later prophecies (the content of last week’s sermon) talks about deep darkness and a dawning light (9:2). 

I can’t imagine looking out across the land and seeing clouds of dust in the distance and knowing that the cloud is a result of thousands of marching soldiers… I might feel hopeless, even panic. Maybe both…

Ahaz was hopeless. 

Have you felt this before? Crisis can bring this sensation; it reveals what is out of our control or it makes you feel like what was in your hand has now been taken from you… The mundane can do this as well: the daily grind of overload and stress, or monotonous boredom, again and again and again. On repeat. One more time. Both realities can be crushing. Both can bring hopelessness. Both need the power of a sustaining help. 

The question is: what fills that need? What provides that strength? 

Personal question: Where do you turn when you begin feeling this pinch? Think about it…

God knew what the heart of Ahaz felt. And God sent His prophet

Actually, God sent His prophet and the son of His prophet: Isaiah, “you and Shear-jashub your son” (v3) go and meet Ahaz.  God always has a purpose, and the Bible often displays purpose (or significance) in names. This is particularly true in the way He worked in and through His prophets. Often the children were pictures of future events or potential outcomes of coming choices.

Here we get a picture of two choices approaching Ahaz in the two people: Shear-jashub, if you check your footnotes, means “a remnant will return,” and Isaiah, whose name means “Jehovah’s Salvation.” In essence, what is about to be offered is a way of salvation or a way of destruction that will require a remnant (but even that option holds promise! Did you catch that?). 

God speaks to Ahaz and tells him that none of the plans of his enemies will stand (v7), God’s people will not be crushed as he fears, and that to stand firm he must stand by faith (v9)—otherwise he will not stand (i.e., he and Jerusalem will be overtaken). BUT God is more kind and generous that even a story of salvation—He attempts to meet Ahaz where this struggling king is and then strengthen his failing faith: verse 11- “Ask a sign of the LORD your God, let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” In other words, God says He will grant any sign under heaven and on earth, some particular evidence that God’s Word is sure and trustworthy. Some visible support that Ahaz (and God’s people) will in fact be delivered. 

But in v12 Ahaz turns God down through a display of false piety: “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” 

At first glance, Ahaz is a holy man! He’s using the same Deuteronomy citation as our Lord Jesus in His own temptations! Ahaz is humble here, right?? Wrong. Testing God is  definitely condemned when the requester demands that God prove Himself as trustworthy. Here, though, God is offering Ahaz a particular gift to strengthen his faith. Here God is gently and generously meeting Ahaz where he is in his own despair. 

That in itself is a wonderful scene of God’s tender care. Meeting him where he was. 

And yet Ahaz responds ONLY to the prophet, a denial of God’s real presence in His Word; and in that denial a picture of Ahaz's refusal to believe God’s Word, confirming his lack of faith and dependance upon God. Oh no. 

Here’s a practical summary:

In the eyes of Ahaz, the Word of God through His prophet is no more than a nice sentiment. “It sounds really good, and if God (if He’s even there, Ahaz might add) wants to act in that way, wonderful. But your offer of a ‘sign’ means nothing… I have fortification work to do.” The words of the prophet bear no real and practical significance. They have lost their weight. 

We should ask ourselves again: is this what Christmas has become in our hearts? A good story, but deep down we consider it to be of little or no significance. If it hasn’t, the temptation of both our human flesh and the devil is to make it so. The plan of Satan is always to turn the Word of God into nothing more than a nice thing… with no real and practical strength. Losing all its weight. 

Ahaz was crushed under his hopeless situation and displayed a lack of true heart trust in God as a result. He did not take God up on His offer, actually refusing the kindness of the LORD. Isaiah knew this as he said “Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” Weary or “use up” here presents the idea that Ahaz has rejected the last of God’s offers for deliverance before temporary judgment comes; not that God was actually out of patience. We know He is not out of patience or run dry of gracious deliverance because God still gives His promise and a sign to affirm it’s fulfillment: 

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (v14)

God made a promise that His people will not be destroyed, instead there would be a remnant (Isaiah’s son’s name) and through the most unlikely, actually impossible, of events there would be deliverance and new life. Immanuel, which means “God with us,” will come. Let’s now briefly consider the power and permanence of this promise.

2. The Power of God’s Promise: Strong as the Promise Maker

If you flip over to Matthew 1 and start reading at verse 18 (through 25), we get to see this promise being fulfilled! Joseph discovers that his young fiancé is now with child, and because of the honorable man that he is he (a) needs to break off the engagement [so firm a commitment in their time that the word “divorce” is used!], and (b) do it quietly because he doesn’t want to publicly shame her. Side note: this is a very honorable way to interact with the sin of a loved one, in private and with gentleness (although Mary wasn’t actually sinning).

BUT Joseph is informed by an angel through a dream that Mary has not transgressed; instead the opposite! She has acted in faith, trusting what God has said (more on this next Sunday, btw!). 

Let’s pause, and think about what I said before that summary: Reading vv18-25 we get to see God’s promise fulfilled! Meaning, God kept His Word. What He said was true. All that He said He would do, He did! 

This can’t be overlooked, because it means that God’s Word has POWER. The promise He makes does not come without a sustaining weight. Though all of life is falling down (or feels like it!), though all our flesh and the efforts of the devil are telling us that His Word was “for another time” or “for a different purpose” or “not practically applicable.” Or whatever else. Because we have both Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:18-25, we get to see the power of God’s Word… the power of His promise: that it shall come to pass.

It is strong enough to outlast the coming and going of world powers. At this point, Assyria rose into power, and fell. Babylon rose into power, and fell. Persia rose into power, and fell. Then the Roman Empire grew until the “fullness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4), and God fulfilled His promise!

Second here, we see that God’s Word is strong enough to overcome human obstacles. When God offered Ahaz to pick the sign that would affirm His Word as trustworthy and true, I don’t think Ahaz would have picked what God gave…. What would you have picked? Speak to me audibly? (God was kind of already doing that!) Give me insight and wisdom beyond all men (like Solomon)? What would convince? 

God chose something seemingly ordinary yet miraculous. Two points about God’s power concerning Mary bearing God’s Son, Jesus. First, the time that passed between Isaiah and Jesus was roughly 700 years! We mentioned the kingdoms that rose and fell. But pertaining to God’s people, this is long enough for a royal line (the kingly line of David) to pitter down to a poor nobody carpenter in a nobody town. Hope of a Davidic king was waning. God was outlasting the human obstacle of time, and in so doing actually fulfilling aspects of His promise (Is. 7:15 refers to a position of poverty as “curds and honey” were known to be the most affordable and simple food). Second, and the more obvious, God chose to use the natural means of human production in a supernatural way: without “knowing a man” (Bible terms) Mary was bearing a son “by the power of the Holy Spirit” not the power of man. Because this Son was of the Father above. God overcame the human limitation of conception.

The point:

What God says, He does. What God says will happen, will happen. What God promises, He will bring to pass. Perhaps not exactly in the way you expect… but there is power in God’s promise—Because the Promise Maker, God Himself, never breaks His promise. Wow. And Amen!

Take in that last bit slowly: In Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1 God has proven that His Word is trustworthy; God’s power cannot be thwarted by anything. What does this mean for you and me? That God is just as trustworthy as He was then, and that His Word is just as powerfully sure. And His Word’s impact is received and experienced through the same means… the means Ahaz refused and the means Mary displayed: by faith

What God has said is trustworthy, and our call is to trust Him by faith. Trust that His provision is what we need (again, maybe not what we expect or what we want at the time). Trust that His timing is what is good. Trust that His Word truly feeds the soul, produces wisdom, brings about a steadiness not our own… actually gives LIFE.

God fulfilled His promise to enter the world through the miraculous, yet ordinary, means of child birth… BUT that’s not the end goal of His fulfilled promise of the sign. Remember, God was offering a sign to mark (a) that His promise was true and (b) when his activity was beginning.

It is the reality of God’s promised activity that completes the picture of our non-expiring hope… and presents for us the Permanence of God’s Promise. 

3. The Permanence of God’s Promise: Hope that Doesn’t Expire

Is. 7:10-11 present God offering to Ahaz the chance to request a sign. Why would God offer a sign to Ahaz? The sign was going to affirm the faithfulness of God’s promise to deliver. The sign itself was not going to be the final act of God, it was going to be a distinct pointer to His activity.  Again, it was merely to affirm the trustworthiness and the strength of God’s promise. 

Therefore, being able to observe the sign is a gift to His people that what He promised was happening—but again, what did He promise would happen?  To Ahaz, He promised that He would not allow the growing enemy to have victory over God’s people. Take this promise in conjunction with God’s overarching, big picture promises throughout the OT to deliver, atone for, and restore His people (Is. 9, 53, Jer. 31 and others) we are now looking at the beginnings of God restoring ALL THINGS! Saving all things. Crushing the head of the serpent, fulfilling the signs of the covenant and all the rest! And HOW? By coming Himself… which is what is in our text: “…and shall call his name Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’.” (Is. 7:14; Matt. 1:23)

Quick Illustration: Mere presence is enough to shape an outcome… We see the power of presence in stories. In Lord of the Rings it is the presence of Gandalf that rids the fellowship of fear. In the Chronicles of Narnia it is Aslan that strengthens the hearts of the heroes and ensures victory. In Harry Potter it is Dumbledore who produces a security in times of hardship. All of these are mere pictures… simple displays of a greater presence, a deeper security, a stronger strength.

I will be with you! His name means it, His actions display it, and His continued promise affirms that it will NEVER BE UNTRUE. Jesus is IMMANUEL; really and truly, God has made His place intimately with His people… with you. Think about what the presence of God means for us in struggle, in hardship, in sadness. 

The book of Matthew is beautifully bookended with this covenantal promise. Here, at the start of Jesus’ human life, God is stepping into the picture as Immanuel, God with us. He would dwell with us (Jn 1:14), know our struggle personally and experience victory on our behalf (Heb. 4:15-16), bear our sin and be rejected in or place (Is. 53:3-4), finally be put to death instead of us, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet. 3:18). 

In this respect, God with us is to give us life and rescue us from death—his promised activity accomplished! 

Flip to the end of Matthew and Jesus gives another promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). The promise of His presence is extended to the end of time itself and beyond… Here, God with us is to assure us of His continued work (in and through us!) that will be one day be completed; all things new (Rev. 21:5).

The POWER of God’s promise to restore has not run dry, instead He is powerfully at work through us and in us. It is a promise that is PERMANENT. With this in mind, our fight is to follow the example of faith Mary gives and avoid the pitfalls of Ahaz.

Through faith, the Christmas story is a story that surpasses merely being “good.” It becomes what it is supposed to be: a promise that fortifies our hearts in the midst of hardship, trial, and the mundane alike. GOD is with you. And if God is with you, Life itself is with you… in you.

May we walk in faith, following our God who is trustworthy in His promise, powerful in His effectiveness, and permanent in His faithfulness to be near, present and at work. And may the life that results be naturally displayed, in this season and every season. Amen.