Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80
December 18, 2016 – The 4th Sunday of Advent
A Homily for Beloved Community
Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. According to 2 Kings chapter 16, “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done, but walked in the way of the kings of Israel.”
When Ahaz was king, the people of Israel had divided themselves into two separate kingdoms. Israel to the north, and Judah, the home of the holy city of Jerusalem, to the south. In our lectionary text today, Ahaz is weary because of the approaching threat of the invasion of two nations – Israel from the north, and Aram from the east – who are displeased with Judah and King Ahaz because Ahaz had refused to join with them in a military coalition against Assyrians and their leader Tiglath-Pileser.
By the time that our text picks up, Ahaz is trying to make a decision about what to do. Does he form some kind of a treaty with these two neighboring nations to the north and east, or with the powerful Assyrians from Damascus?
Ahaz receives an “intel briefing” from the prophet Isaiah who assures him that the threat from Israel and Aram will end soon. However, if Ahaz does something crazy and goes out and forms an alliance with Assyria, Judah will someday suffer attack by those same forces.
Unfortunately, for Ahaz, Isaiah’s words do come to pass. Ahaz decides to form a treaty with Tigleth-Pileser and the Assyrians. The Assyrians destroy Israel and Aram taking control of the region, and maintain a peaceful puppet-king relationship with Judah for a couple of decades before they decide to destroy all of Judah and Jerusalem as well, sending the people of Israel into exile.
There are all kinds of political/foreign policy lessons to be learned from this interaction, and we can leave those sitting on the table, but as I think about Ahaz as a literary character, and his sort of psycho-spiritual character development, I’m drawn into his opening line from this text, which reveals what lies beneath the surface and underwrites his politics- or the way that he chooses to show up in the world.
When commanded to ask a sign, any sign, from God around this difficult decision, Ahaz says, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord my God to the test.”
Some commentators upon this text want to let Ahaz off the hook, so to speak, and argue that actually Ahaz, was being quite faithful and in line with Torah teaching, quoting the same text from Deuteronomy here as Jesus did when tempted in the desert, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord my God to the test.”
I think there is something to that argument. But, when I read 2 Kings account of Ahaz’s kingdom, and read about Ahaz taking silver and gold out of the temple and sending them as a peace offering to the King of Assyria, I can’t help but think that Ahaz wasn’t overly concerned with maintaining religious tradition. He sort of knew the right words to say, he sort of knew the language that would tug at the hearts of the people and make it appear as though he were taking the right steps, but it’s difficult to imagine that this were the true intention of Ahaz’s heart.
What I read in those lines is more of an avoidance strategy, and not just an avoidance of the wisdom that Isaiah wants to impart upon Ahaz, but most poignantly an avoidance on Ahaz’s part of the yearnings of his very own heart.
By this point in the story, Ahaz is desperate and what he won’t admit to himself is that he’s scared. And there it is – there is the element that lies beneath the surface, that so often undergirds the ways in which so many of us show up in the world – fear.
If we assume the best about Ahaz, we can trust that he truly loves the people of Judah and wants what is best for them. But instead of reaching down within his own soul, and the power of his own community, instead of being honest about his fears, Ahaz reaches out for protection from this powerful, wealthy, political force promising security and stability.
Like a kid struggling in the deep end of a pool, he struggles against the water and thrashes to get to the side, instead of gently sinking below the surface until his feet hit the bottom where he can firmly push off and return to the surface.
Instead of reaching down within his own soul, and the community that brought him forth, he reaches out to wealth and power and the promise of immediate protection.
And that’s got me thinking a bit about how difficult it can be to be honest with myself about who I really am and what I really fear. It’s truly amazing how much courage it requires to be honest with myself about where I’m most vulnerable. At times I’ll have these moments of honesty, but I brush them off, I run from them. Instead of leaning into them and experiencing them, I reach out immediately, thrashing out for the side of the pool to save me. But I don’t believe that I’m alone in this.
Sometimes we do summon up the courage to know our fear personally. And then, it requires a whole new struggle, and a whole new portion of courage to bring that fear out into the open and share it with our community.
What begins as a gentle knowing in your own heart, becomes a gentle whisper to your spouse as you lie there in bed in the dark of the night after the reading lamps have been turned off, “I’m scared.”
“I’m scared about the difficulties that our children are facing.”
“I’m confused because the thing that I spend so much time on at work feels empty to me.”
“I’m scared that I can’t do the job that I’ve been elected to do.”
“I’m scared because life feels like it’s slipping away from me.”
“Oh, yeah, me too.”
And suddenly there is a bit of connection and community, strength and solidarity within our honesty and vulnerability.
Psalm 80 is considered to be a communal lament, it’s the prayer of a community that has taken one another’s fears and insecurities and held them together in community, and it’s a communal lament that must have been written as a song. Every three of four verses, the community returns to a chorus, “Restore us, O God, cause thy face to shine on us. Restore us, O God, that we may be saved.”
It’s not always easy to summon up the courage required to be honest with yourself about what you truly fear. When you do summon up that courage, it requires a whole new bit of courage to bring that fear out into the open and share it with the community. But when the community responds to your need, and takes your need upon their shoulders as their own, it is quite a powerful thing.
We’re not all wrestling with exactly the same things. Many of us are in different life stages, and face different challenges, but we all face this struggle of being honest with ourselves about our own fears, and we all need that extra portion of courage to share those fears with the ones that we love.
I’m not exactly sure what I fear most in these dark days just before the winter solstice… quite honestly, I haven’t made enough time lately with all my running about to come to terms with those fears… I’m certainly not sure what you fear, what you’re running from or coming to terms with in the dark of night… But as I consider my fears and my vulnerability, I find solace in the ancient words that our forbearers have prayed throughout history, “Come, Immanuel.”
In these dark days, filled with much tension, “Come, Immanuel.” In these nights when fear surrounds us, and we become aware of its presence within our own hearts, “Come, Immanuel.” In these days of vulnerability and openness in the presence of our community, “Come, Immanuel.” In these days when we take one another’s fears and spread them like a lightened load across our communal shoulders, “Come, Immanuel.”
God with us, be with us, and restore us to be the deepest, truest, most authentic and courageous versions of ourselves so that we may show up in the world full or courage and free of our fears.
There is power in praying that prayer together. Amen.