Words on the Word
4. Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-14: The sign of Emmanuel.
Rm 1:1-7: To you all, may the Lord Jesus Christ send grace and peace.
Mt 1:18-24: She has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.
Each year, Ahaz, king of Judah, accompanies us through Advent. He is an unlikely evangelist. Reigning in the 30s and 40s of the eighth century, he was the fourteenth king in the line of David. He did not, however, ‘do what was right in the sight of the Lord, like David his father’.
What did he do? 2 Kings presents Ahaz as a fickle man, a belt-and-braces man so ridden with anxiety that he sought reassurance from every quarter. To his eternal shame, he made his sons ‘pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen’. He sacrificed them, that is, to Moloch, the Canaanite god, ‘besmeared with human sacrifice and parents’ tears’, whom the house of David, from Solomon onwards, was irresistibly drawn to placate. The cult of a devilish god leaves wounds. The valley of Gehenna, where Moloch’s pyres burnt, has become a synonym for hell.
Ahaz did more. He ‘sacrificed and burnt incense in the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree’. He mobilised the land’s slumbering idols, which stern judges had fought to destroy. Even that was not enough. He also imported foreigns cults. All the while, naturally, he kept making offering upon offering to the God of Israel.
What occasioned this furious syncretism? Ahaz was trying to ensure the survival of his throne, threatened by the breakaway Northern Kingdom of Israel. No one is a worse enemy than an estranged brother. King Pekah of Israel had formed a pact with others to annex Judah and wipe out David’s house. As Pekah’s armies progressed, Ahaz’s heart, we read in Isaiah, ‘shook like the trees of the wood are shaken by the wind’. In such a struggle, Judah needed allies. These Ahaz laboured to find.
We have seen him seeking friends in the supernatural sphere. He was no less active in earthly politics. When in today’s reading he refuses to ask a sign from the Lord, it is not humility that holds him back. Isaiah accosts him by the upper pool in Jerusalem. There, in the north-eastern corner of his capital, Ahaz scouts for a sign he himself has engineered: he waits to see dust clouds heralding the Assyrian army he had summoned. He had sold his soul to the mightiest of pagan emperors. What use to him was ‘a sign from the Lord’?
How familiar all this is! The destruction of a small nation by an ambitious neighbour; the call for intervention from superpowers; the relinquishing of ethical and religious standards in dirty alliances. We have grown so used to pragmatic policies that we take betrayals for granted. We need not look far afield for leaders incensing altars raised in honour, say, of ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’, yet patronise sanctuaries of other values, too, ‘in the high places, under every green tree’.
We may protest that at least children are not now being burnt. True, the bull-headed Moloch with his insatiable belly has become a museum piece. But children are sacrificed, in ways that correspond to the globalised efficiency of the 21st century. Have we not seen images just recently of children perishing in Congo, at Lampedusa, in the Bekaa Valley, in Ukraine. By whose fault? And for what?
Let me reassure you: I am not trying to preach some kind of ideological rant. I am just reminding you that the world of Ahaz and Isaiah is not so very different from ours, which seems to have gone off the rails. Theirs, too, was a world of compromises, cruelty, false promises, and greed. On such a world the sign of God-with-us was conferred. Ahaz received it despite himself. He did not listen. Yet Isaiah assured him: ‘The Lord himself will give a sign.’ God’s purposes cannot be thwarted even by outrageous human betrayal.
Of course, the Lord’s sign is the very antitype of Judah’s ruler’s hope. It involves no arms, no thundering horses. It does not impose itself with might. It is engendered secretly, in silence. Judah’s true hope is not a fierce slayer of men but an infant whose being manifests God’s care for us, who teaches us that we are not alone in our pain, not abandoned. For centuries Isaiah’s words resounded as a sublime, yet almost unbelievable promise. It does so no longer. For us, the sign of Emmanuel has assumed clear-cut features. It gives direction to our lives. It is alive and active. Indeed, in a few moments, we shall enact it here, at this altar.
Brothers and sisters, Advent enables us, each year, to rekindle hope. It reminds us that our faith is founded on fact; that what we believe to be true is truth. May neither wars nor rumours of war dampen our hope. The critical state of our world should make us hope more intensely. It should galvanise our resolve to live faithful, truthful lives, lives of service, worthy of the servant Lord we worship.
The virgin has conceived. What is in her is of the Spirit. She will give birth to a Son, who will save his people from their sins.
The question is: are we ready to receive him? Am I ready to let him recreate my life and make it his?