4th Sunday of Advent
Dec. 21, 1986
Is 7: 10-14
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.
At Holy Cross in Champaign, it was the deacons' turn to preach this weekend. Here's a homily from the other Holy Cross in my life.
“The young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Immanuel” (Is 7:14).
In the 1st reading this morning, we heard the 1st messianic prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah delivers a message from God to King Ahaz, a message reinforced by a sign.
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The 1st two verses of Is 7 tell us that when Ahaz heard of the invasion, his heart and the hearts of the people “trembled, as the trees of the forest tremble in the wind.” So Ahaz wants to ask for help from his friendly local superpower, pagan Assyria. But Isaiah tells him not to, he should rely on God instead, because God will deliver Jerusalem and the house of David.
While Isaiah is telling the king all this, Ahaz is busy inspecting his forts, and he doesn’t want to listen. So the Lord offers to give him a sign, a proof that he means what he says, that Isaiah is telling the truth: “Let it be as deep as the underworld, or as high as the sky!” (7:11); ask for anything you can imagine!
Ahaz refuses the sign, and he sounds very pious. But he’s already decided what he’ll do: He will not listen to the word of the Lord. He’ll do what he’d planned to do all along; he’ll rely on human salvation rather than divine.
Isaiah gives the king a sign anyway, just in case it might help change his mind: “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14). “Immanuel” means “God is with us”; it’s a pretty strong hint to Ahaz that he should be trusting in the Lord rather than in the Assyrians.
The Hebrew word almah, which is used here, means a young woman of marriageable age. We presume that some young lady in the royal family fulfilled the sign of Isaiah. Perhaps it was Ahaz’s wife; maybe the son was his eventual successor, Hezekiah, who continued the line of King David and was a good king, tangible proof that God was still with his chosen people and his holy city. It was only 800 years later that St. Matthew connected the Emmanuel sign to the birth of Jesus, with the help of the Greek word for “young woman of marriageable age,” the word parthenos, which also means “virgin.”
In the meantime, King Ahaz didn’t change his mind. He called up Assyria for help, and the Assyrians came gladly: to crunch the Syrians and the Israelites, to demand a bundle in tribute from Ahaz, and to make Judah part of their empire. Ahaz’ plan backfired on him and Judah.
God doesn’t usually send prophets into our lives to show us what he wants us to do. But he does send us lots of messages: we have his word in the Bible; he uses our bishop and Holy Father, sometimes our friends and neighbors, even things that happen around us. Like Ahaz, we’re left free to decide for ourselves whether to listen to the Lord or not. Like Ahaz, we may find some unpleasant consequences to choosing our own wisdom rather than the divine wisdom, the wisdom of Jesus Christ, the wisdom handed on to us by Christ’s Church.
We certainly don’t have to be like King Ahaz. The gospel this morning shows us how one man did listen carefully to what the angel told him. The message was even harder to believe than what Isaiah told the king. But St. Joseph, the son of David, listened and believed and acted. He accepted the divine word that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit, that God himself was wondrously intervening in our sinful human history; and he took her into his home as his wife (Matt 1:18-25). Thus did Joseph become a member of God’s own family. Thus was the ancient promise to King David fulfilled. Thus did Isaiah’s ancient sign take on a wonderful new meaning.
As Christians we’re members of God’s family. That’s what St. Paul means in the 2nd reading when he calls us “God’s beloved, called to holiness,” to be saints (Rom 1:7). That means we have to imitate Joseph rather than Ahaz. We have to listen attentively to the ways by which God speaks to us today, pray over what we hear, and consider how God wants us to act.
Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you (Rom 1:7).