Isaiah Insights - The Gift of Goodness
This sermon, ‘The Gift of Goodness, was given by Geoff Pound at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 18 December 2016. It is the fourth in the Advent Series, ‘Insights from Isaiah’. Sermon scripts can be found at this link and the audio at this link.
Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
It’s just over a year since the death of Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author who wrote intriguing books like, “The Man who mistook his wife for a hat”. This British doctor who lived most of his professional life in the United States was painfully shy. He once said:
“I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago there was a lunar eclipse and I went outside to view it with my telescope. Everyone else on the busy footpath seemed oblivious to this extraordinary happening in the skies. So I stopped them. He said, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon.” He’d press his telescope into their hands. Some people were taken aback at being approached in this way. Most were intrigued by his enthusiasm. They raised his telescope to their eyes and said, “Wow! Hey man, thanks for letting me look at that. Thanks for showing me.”
In a real sense, this is what Isaiah and all true prophets do. Maybe this is what God is calling us to do: to press a telescope into the hands of busy people and invite them with infectious enthusiasm saying: “Look! Look what’s happening!”
It’s inviting them not to scan the skies but to peer into a sphere even more mysterious—the human landscape, the human mindscape, and even to experience a spiritual eclipse until people go “Wow! I’ve never seen that before.”
In the previous chapter (Is. 6) Isaiah reveals his secret. His powers of observation didn’t just happen. That penetrating insight that shaped him into such a Sherpa on the spiritual journey was trained through the study of scripture. It was tuned in the practice of regular worship.
He records one memorable day when his life went through what could only be described as a spiritual eclipse.
He said, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance…they called to one another, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory’…
And I said: “Woe is me. I’m lost… I’m a man of unclean lips…” The seraph touched my mouth with a live coal and said: “Now that this has touched your lips your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I, send me.” And he said, “Go…”
From this life-changing experience in the place of worship, we read in chapter 7 how Isaiah connects with his people in Judea and how God calls him to meet King Ahaz, especially to talk about the alliances with other nations.
I wonder if Isaiah was told by the priests that religion and politics shouldn’t mix because Isaiah gets involved up to his neck shining the light of faith on so many issues in the public square.
This is why as a church in Ashburton we’re concerned:
About racism as well as regeneration
About housing as well as heaven
About justice as well as justification
About ecology as well as evangelism.
God warned Isaiah at the outset (Is. 6: 9-13) that the people would be inattentive, deaf and unresponsive to the things of the Spirit. What a commission that was! In football we call this a hospital pass! And this is how it turned out to be, not the least in his conversations with the King.
In Isaiah 7: 10 we read:
10 Again the Lord spoke to [King] Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
What a gift! What an invitation!
12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.
Ahaz is being invited to engage with the spiritual realm.
To be serious in his search for God.
To ask and then seek for a sign that will convince him of God’s power and presence.
But he turns this down.
13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?
The Message translates this:
So Isaiah told him, “Then listen to this, government of David! It’s bad enough that you make people tired with your pious, timid hypocrisies, but now you’re making God tired.
It’s not violent opposition toward God. It’s apathy borne of busyness.
It’s as if Ahaz is being invited to see life in brilliant colour and with High Definition but Ahaz says to God, “I’m happy enough viewing the world in black and white.”
Looking at it another way, if Christmas is like a musical score, some people say,
“Just give me the basic line—the notes in the bass clef.” So they come to know about the census, the travel by Joseph and Mary, the crowded town, the accommodation in the barn, the birth of Jesus, the visitors and the gifts.
While at the same time the upper register is being ignored: The prophesies that are fulfilled, the light that dazzled the shepherds, the voice that announced the birth of a Saviour (who is the Messiah, the Lord), the sign of the child wrapped in cloth and lying in a cow’s lunchbox, the host of singers praising God, the guiding star.
Do you want the whole score or do you just want Christmas light?
Whether Ahaz wants a sign or not, Isaiah says:
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look [there he goes again with his telescope], the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
In this Hebrew text it says: “Look, the young woman is with child” but sometime between the third and second century before Christ when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek they rendered this phrase: “Look, a virgin is with child”.
Then when Matthew comes to write the Christmas story in his Gospel he says:
“All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matt. 1: 22-23)
Luke in his Christmas account elaborates on this, stating that Mary was engaged to Joseph when the divine visitor knocked on the door with the announcement that she’d have a son, to which she says: “How can this be, since I’m a virgin?” (Luke 1: 26-38)
It’s interesting that while Matthew and Luke highlight virginity, this miracle birth is never mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and John, the letters of Paul and the rest of the New Testament.
It’s worthwhile seeking out the significance of Isaiah’s foreshadowing and how Matthew and Luke write about God’s birthing into the human world.
Whatever we make of this special birth and special babe, think of what others are doing.
This month, there are nativity scenes set up in homes and churches and in shopping malls all around Australia.
But now a nativity scene has been created at Australian airports. Yes, it’s at the Virgin Terminal! See what we do with religion? Like Ahaz, many don’t want to get serious with the spiritual but they’ll use it for their advantage—to sell airline seats.
Like Mary and Joseph who were travelling at a busy, stressful time, they use the story to promote safety and the assurance that we’ll get to our destination on time—before our waters break. When there’s an airline strike, usually over Christmas season, they’re bound to bring out the sign, “And there was no room for them in the inn.”
We’re happy to have the cosy Christmas story, especially when it’s about lights in the darkness and gift giving but we baulk at the notion of God coming to me. God being born in my life with all the responsibility that comes with nurturing a new life.
And so many who speak of tighter border control miss the irony of setting up a nativity scene of a Middle Eastern couple seeking refuge in Bethlehem and then later fleeing their country and seeking asylum in Egypt because of the death threats of King Herod.
At our recent end of year Christmas lunch for those working in our church office, we got to be speaking about babies (because AL got the news while we ate, of another granddaughter and she returned to the table and announced her birth and her name). We got to be sharing about how and why we were given our names. It was fascinating!
Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
‘Immanuel’ What’s in a name? God with us.
As we think of Elizabeth and Zechariah struggling with childlessness. Immanuel. God with us.
As we ponder the joy of Joseph and Mary preparing for their wedding. Immanuel.
As we think of Mary receiving perplexing news, Immanuel.
As we consider the government’s inconvenient and untimely census. Immanuel.
As we think of pregnant Mary with Joseph having to travel to Joseph’s home town. Immanuel.
As we consider their unsuccessful search for accommodation. Immanuel.
A Christmas billboard declared this message to every passing motorist:
You think you’re having a bad hair day?
Let us tell you about this woman:
She’s a virgin!
She’s just given birth and now three kings have shown up!
Find out the happy ending at a church near you.
There’s a sign that’s creating a stir outside a church in Adelaide. It has two images of a pregnant woman and a man with a look of surprise. The caption reads: “You’re engaged, your fiancée is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!”
This is the truth and challenge of the God who is called Immanuel—to find God with us, in our busyness, in our struggles, in our joys, in our heartache, in our travels and in our frustrations. Immanuel. God with us.
Finally, Isaiah having spoken about the sign and the son, now speaks of the growth of this Saviour:
15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
Isaiah thinks ahead of the baby who will grow up to be a young boy and a man. He highlights his goodness: He will grow in goodness. He will develop good choices. He will do good things for us. He will turn water into good wine. He will teach good truth. He will share good stories like the one about the Good Samaritan. He will spend good quality time with his team. He will set a good example. He will be good even when people do him evil.
Isaiah’s word about the baby growing up to live a life of goodness is an apt word in our instant age of pills guaranteed to cure what ails you. Financial advice that's sure to double your stock overnight. Diets that’ll make you slim in days. Consultants who can transform your organization in one fell swoop. Tickets that’ll win you the jackpot. Technology that’ll revolutionise your business.
Deep within each of us is the yearning for the magic potion, the neck crack, the panacea, the formula that’ll fix everything in an instant.
Sometimes, it happens. And this rare occurrence serves to encourage our dreams that all of our problems have such a simple swift diagnosis and an even simpler remedy. Alas, it's not true.
The instant win is largely a myth.
Illnesses rarely respond in days to a treatment.
Culture takes years to create and years to change.
Habits beat instant miracles every time.
So the prophet commends not just a looking at a sign but a thorough persistent searching and study. He talks of a new birth into the spiritual that is wonderful but it doesn’t stop there. It cries out for a caring, a nurturing and a maturing of the spiritual life so that good habits are formed and a good culture and community is created.
We’ve been reflecting this morning on Isaiah’s truth that living starts with looking. The best way to look is the way we use a telescope—not by looking at it but by looking through it. We can look at the thing itself, or we can look at a world of wonder as we look through it. We never see a thing by looking at it; we only see a thing by looking through it”.
Whether we’ve been urged to look at a lunar eclipse.
Whether we’re responding to Jesus’ call to ‘Look at the lilies of the field’ or
Whether we’re heeding Isaiah’s Christmas call to Look at the baby named Immanuel,
“Life’s richest revelations come, not by looking at things, but by looking through them.”
Let’s look ourselves and pass the telescope so that others may look and wonder.
Save us from the quick fix, especially in relation to the spiritual and your life growing in us and among us.
Enable us to look for your divine life, especially in the everyday things, in the ordinary events and in the midst of our humanity.
Lead us to discover you in our joys and sorrows, our travelling and staying put, our shopping and our saving, our celebrating and our grief.
As we come to you in this special season, may we discover you coming near to us, to our loved ones, to those in need, to our crazy, busy world.
We offer our hopes and prayers to the One named Immanuel.
 Called the Septuagint or LXX for short.
 F W Boreham, The Tide Comes In (London: Epworth Press, 1958), 63-65.