Signs of presence – Isaiah 7:14 – Living by the Word – Column

Mary Donovan Turner

“Therefore Yahweh will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”–Isaiah 7.14

As the seventh chapter of Isaiah begins, the king of Judah is in a precarious and potentially dangerous position. He has just heard that two nations to the north, Aram an Israel, have joined forces against him. As the leader and protector of the nation, he is alarmed. How will his small country survive and sustain itself against two allied nations? Perhaps it’s not possible. Isaiah tells us that the heart of Ahaz and the heart of the people of Judah shook like the trees of the forest, which shake before the wind. We know that kind of fear. The heart flutters and the knees shake. We feel powerless and vulnerable, like a small tree caught in a rush of violent, restless wind.

It is often God’s job to calm the fearful soul; we repeatedly read, “Do not fear. I will be with you.” God speaks these words when he calls a fearful Moses to deliver the Israelites from their oppression in Egypt. “I will be with you” (Exod. 3:12). God speaks them through Isaiah to an exiled community, to people who fear that they have no future. “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isa. 41:10). Later, the same message is given to trembling shepherds keeping watch over the flocks. “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news” (Luke 2:10). The women standing at the entrance of the empty tomb hear the words too. “Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said” (Matt. 27:4).

Yahweh offers to provide, a sign of presence to quell the fears of Ahaz. “Therefore Yahweh himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Who is this child? A future king, a child of the prophet, or simply a child born to a Judean woman? We do not know, and perhaps we do not need to know. The child is simply a reminder that in a frightening and confusing world there are visible signs of hope from a God who is present with us. Immanuel!

As we hear these words read during the Advent and Christmas seasons, it would be well for us to remember that those who first heard them were living in dangerous and confusing times. Nations faced difficult choices; chaos and turmoil abounded. They were afraid, just as we are afraid when we realize how much hatred and misunderstanding there is in our world, or when we wonder what kind of fractured world our children will inherit.

The sign is not enough for Ahaz; he doesn’t believe that God is really with him. His fear prompts a desperate search for something or someone in which he can place his hope. Fear is so debilitating and powerful that it can lead us to place our confidences in the most unsatisfying places. Ahaz is not willing to rely on the spiritual to fight the threat of a foreign army. Though he is privy to the counsel of Isaiah, prophet of Yahweh, he wants something more tangible–the might and power of the Assyrian army.

We find it difficult to believe he could make such an uniwise choice, yet we too place our own hopes in hopeless places. We close our eyes to the signs of God’s comforting and secure presence. The young woman gives birth to hope, and we do not see. We are afraid. We cry out, “Is God with us?” Our eyes are blinded by our tears for our lost children, for empty dreams. “Is God with us?” Our ears are filled with sounds of gunfire on our streets, of threats and words of contempt. “Is God with us?”

With trembling, fearful hands and hearts shaking like leaves, we journey together in Advent toward the birthplace of hope and reassurance. And we wonder–is there a word more powerful than our fears? In a world where the sources of our fear are not likely to disappear, is there a word that can enable us, encourage us to move?

We wait for that word. During Advent we just may hear it again. When we hear it, we will recognize the voice and remember that we have heard it before.

The author is Mary Donovan Turner, assistant professor of homiletics at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. She is also an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

COPYRIGHT 1995 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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