It's A Wonderful Life - Trust In It!

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16            Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 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. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 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.

Matthew 1:18-25       Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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The Old Testament reading and the New Testament reading are connected by one sentence today: the virgin (or young woman) shall bear a son and he shall be called Immanuel.  But that is really the only thing that connects them.

The political, historical, and religious context of this little passage from Isaiah is really complex.  The Israelites were living in a divided kingdom – the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  They warred with each other and everyone else. 

The prophet Isaiah comes to King Ahaz of Judah, trying to give him guidance in a very tense political climate.  I tried to explain the context to the sermon roundtable this week and only ended up confusing things even more.  They all listened politely, until one person said, “So what is the point?  What is this sign Isaiah is referring to?”  It was a good thing she asked that question.  I was in one of my oh-isn’t all-this-stuff-fascinating moods, where the more complex it gets the more interested I get.  Where I tend to get bogged down in the details, and I sometimes miss the point, the beautifully simple point.  But I’ll get back to that later. 

Today we are going to backtrack a bit in the story of George Bailey.  We will go back to George and Mary’s wedding day, and see how on this particular day they were confronted with a big challenge – which was also a chance to practice trust.

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I think one of the most impressive things in this scene is Mary’s trust in George.  How disappointed she must have been to have the building and loan once again intrude on their hopes and dreams.  Their entire honeymoon fund gone!  She actually gave it away.

And George’s trust in his neighbors!  Again and again, as he handed them the money they asked for, he reiterated, “This is a loan; I know you’re good for it.”  

George’s trust, Mary’s trust – trust in the power of good, or we might say, God.  This is the hinge on which it all turns at this point.  This is a true crisis; make no mistake – a run on the banks, and the risk of the building and loan going under.  Without trust, all is lost.

It would have been very nice for George and Mary to have a honeymoon trip; that is, before havoc broke loose on the economic scene.  Then, at that point, it would have been nice to have a little cash, maybe to stuff under the mattress – just in case.

It would have been a good idea for George to get signed receipts from all the scared folks who took his cash that day, just in case they “forgot” about it later.  

But holding on to her money, Mary knew, would only have guaranteed that the building and loan failed that day.  She would still have her stack of bills but so many people would be hurt.

And demanding receipts from his customers on this particular day would have conveyed a message much different than the one George wanted to give them.  Every word and action that day was intended to send the message that goodness would prevail and all would be well.  Trust in the goodness of your friends and neighbors, the goodness of God at work amongst us, and all will be well.  As the angels might have said, do not be afraid.

In the Isaiah passage, King Ahaz is contemplating his precarious situation, surrounded by enemies.  He is afraid.  And he is considering allying himself with the king of Assyria – sort of like the Bedford Falls folks are considering allying themselves with Potter.  Assyria was a sort of superpower of the region – not a benevolent one.  Again, much like Mr. Potter. 

The prophet Isaiah is sent to him to convince him that he should not fear the enemies at his borders; that the greater danger will come from the nation he is hoping to make an alliance with.  Assyria, the prophet wants King Ahaz to know, is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

But an immediate danger is more frightening than a hypothetical one, and King Ahaz is not convinced.  Some kind of sign is going to be necessary.  And this is where we were at the roundtable this week when someone asked the question, cutting off my long, boring lecture on ancient middle eastern politics – 

What is the point?  What is the sign?

I admit, for a moment I was speechless.  And someone else at the table answered:  the sign is the child’s name. Immanuel. God with us.

All this talk in Isaiah’s prophecy about a woman and a son, curds and honey, the evil and the good – what is the sign?  The sign, my friends, is in the name of the child.

How important names can be.  In traditional cultures where names hold power, and in a culture of prophecy where names carry meaning for a whole people, how important it is to hear this:  He shall be called Immanuel – God with us.

For us, it comes down to trusting in this word.

Ahaz, as it turned out, was unable to trust in the word of the Lord.  He went ahead and made an alignment with Assyria.  After Assyria had handily crushed their mutual enemies, it set its malign focus on Judah.  Judah suffered under the powerful thumb of Assyria for many years, until a bigger, badder power took over and crushed them all – every one of them.  Would things have turned out differently if Ahaz had trusted in the word of the Lord?  That is the viewpoint of the scriptures.

Thankfully, for all of us, Joseph trusted.  He heard the promises of the Lord – that the child in Mary’s womb would be Jesus, the one who saves.  He recalled the promise put forth through Isaiah – he shall be called Immanuel, God will be with us.  

So Joseph swallowed his pride.  He took Mary as his wife, he cared for her and protected her, and when she gave birth, he named the child Jesus – the one who saves.

You see how that works?  Good things come when we trust in goodness, because goodness is from God.

God is good.  All the time.

 

 

 

Verses

“From the manna in the desert to the breaking of the bread, from the hunger of the ages to our hunger to be fed, you are our hope, loving God."
Shirley Erena Murray, from In Every Corner Sing.
 
Scriptures to Focus:
Exodus 17:1-7  
 
A Prayer of Reflection
Dear God, thank you for this day. Guide my mind in your way and help me to do your will.
All praise, honor, and glory is yours. Amen.
 
 
 

Shirley Erena Murray