Be on the Lookout

I bet Isaiah 7.14 sounds like Christmas to you. At least it does to me. I can almost hear carols in the background while reading it. It makes me feel like I am opening a Christmas card. I feel a twinge of excitement. I think I can smell Christmas while listening to it. And then, after Isaiah sings it, Matthew sings it again – a remix.

But unlike Matthew, Isaiah was not thinking about Christmas. He was thinking about politics. He was thinking about a clash between prophet and king. He was thinking about how different the world of faith is from the world of fear.

During this time the world power was Assyria. They made the rules and made sure the rules were followed.  The neighbor kings are tired of this and try to get King Ahaz and Judah to join forces to overthrow Assyria. Isaiah goes to the king with a message and a sign. But the king knows how the world works. He knows where the power is. He ignores the request of the neighbors and tries to snuggle up with Assyria. His worst decision, he ignored the message of the prophet. He refused the sign.

The sign that Ahaz ignored becomes important. A woman will be with child. She will have a son. His name shall be Immanuel. Immanuel means literally “God is with us.” A significant part of the sign for Isaiah is timing. Before the child is old enough to know right from wrong the lands of the kings will be forsaken. It seems the child will be living without fear, enjoying meals of curds and honey. In other words, the original sign is to alert the king that God truly is with his people. When this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. Unfortunately, Ahaz refused “God with us.”

Centuries later Matthew repeats the sign of the prophet and paints for us a picture. There is a woman with child. She will have a son. He shall be called Immanuel. Immanuel literally means “God is with us.” We are more familiar with this story. We know something about this child. We might feel a twinge of excitement. The sign is of great importance. When this sign occurs, when this child is born, when this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. This child is the visible physical evidence that God is with us.

Good News and Kingdom Come

We have become familiar with the message of Kingdom Come in the New Testament Gospels. We know that Jesus preached the Kingship of God, but it may surprise some to discover that Old Testament Isaiah preached that God is King. Good News is the language of the Kingdom Come. So the prophet takes us to a mountain top to announce good news “Your God is King.”

We celebrate that announcement here by singing our songs, praying our prayers, offering our gifts, opening our book, and lighting the candle of peace. These are not things we do to check them off our list. When we do these things we are making a bold statement. When we do these things we are disagreeing with the majority opinion and those who appear to hold the power. This is easy in the sanctuary surrounded by like-minded folk. It becomes more difficult later when we walk into the “real world.”

But the prophet wants us to know this is not a nickel and dime operation that is limited to one small gathering in one small town. This announcement proclaims that God reigns over all. God reigns over even those who trust in world powers and those who hold to majority opinion. The implication of Isaiah’s announcement is that the gods of the empire have been exposed as frauds and are sure to be defeated. Meanwhile the God of Israel is recognized as the dominant reigning force in all of creation.

When Babylon or any world power tries to convince us of a text that suggests they are in charge, Isaiah announces a counter text – “Your God is King.” When others try to convince us that “shopping days until Christmas” is a legitimate text, Isaiah counters with beautiful feet on a mountain top – “Your God is King.” When disagreement occurs in the car ride home – “Your God is King.” When arguments occur at the dinner table – “Your God is King.” When battling restlessness and inability to sleep – “Your God is King.” In the midst of anxiety, impatience, and distraction – “Your God is King.” When elected officials disappoint – “Your God is King.” When the majority tries to sway your opinion – “Your God is King.”

So we gather and sing and pray and give and read our texts and light the candle of peace to demonstrate Kingdom Come. In the face of majority opinion we echo the prophet “God is King.” Worship will conclude, we will utter benediction, and we will return to a world that insists its gods are in control. But we have heard the good news of the prophet and we know that life can never be the same, because “Your God is King.”

Harper Lee as a Watchman

I suspect that some have purchased a copy of Go Set a Watchman on account of the controversies. Did Harper Lee really want to release this book to the public? Is Atticus really a racist? Undoubtedly it would have sold a number of copies without added hype. Most of us simply have a soft spot for the Finch family and Maycomb, Alabama or at least the way that Harper Lee is able to talk about these things.

For those of us who are treasure hunters, those who think it would be cool to unearth a time capsule – this is our lucky summer. History has fallen into our lap. A sixty year old treasure has been uncovered. Like archaeologists, we read this discovery and talk about its implications.

The reader should not forget that this book was written at about the time Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery bus. And was written prior the Civil Rights Act signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, prior to the Selma to Montgomery march where unarmed citizens were attacked on the day that has become known as “Bloody Sunday”, prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This does not give permission for characters to behave any way they want but it does add some perspective to the story.

I find it interesting that Watchman was released during this summer where race and religion had already made their way to the forefront. Where the way things are in the south and the appropriateness of the confederate flag have been news items. Perhaps it is a testimony to Lee’s writing skill that prompts us to be asking the same questions sixty years later. Watchman reminds us that though we think we are evolving and developing in conscience, we are still much the same in the ways we talk about things and rationalize our opinions.

Many of us were not around when this book was written, yet Harper Lee was. I suspect she created the character Atticus as a realistic man of his time, as a southern gentleman. Nevertheless, while Mockingbird showed he can be noble, Watchman reminds us he is not perfect. I believe that puts him in a group with the rest of us.

Mockingbird and Watchman are both honest about the human condition. Both reveal the complexity that comes with being a part of this race. The point is carried home by narrative in the first book and through dialogue in the latter. Both intend to make the reader think. That some could refer to someone as a hero on one occasion and others refer to the same person as a racist on another occasion is evidence of human complexity.

With all the questions I have heard about the book, the one I have not heard is “What happened to Scout?” While I agree with the position of grown Jean Louise, I find myself wishing for young Scout. What happened to the girl we got to know in Mockingbird? The spunky girl who showed herself in the flashback scenes of Watchman? In fact, these are my favorite scenes. They are almost Mark Twain like and are reminiscent of Mockingbird and a reminder of Lee’s ability to make characters come to life. My favorite is when the children reenact a revival meeting just for the fun of it. Jem plays the evangelist, Scout is a baptismal candidate, and Dill the Holy Ghost. The scene ends with the evangelist showing up for dinner that evening, choosing to reprimand the children during the pre-meal prayer, and Atticus “on the back porch laughin!”

I have daughters and have always considered them to have a little bit of Scout in them. It would be disappointing if they one day returned to Maycomb acting like Jean Louise. We get a glimpse of the old Scout while the rumor was spreading that she and Hank had gone skinny dipping. But these instances are few in Watchman. Instead, the grown Jean Louise comes across to me as a complainer. I want her to stand up for what she believes the way she once stood up for herself with Jem and Dill.

We would not want to see Huck Finn return home and begin complaining about things he failed to notice as a child. We want Huck to remain clever and confident about what he thinks and not allow the opinions of others to cause him to act differently. Likewise, I want a Scout who is playful and feisty as she responds to what others do, no matter how wrong they may be. Of course, Scout may think that I am not taking her situation seriously enough.

For all the Jean Louise’s out there who are complaining about the book, we do well to remind ourselves that Mockingbird would not have occurred without Watchman. I rather enjoyed the book. It is easy to read, moves at a good pace, and will cause me to reread Mockingbird differently.

We will reread Mockingbird differently because Watchman does to us what it does to Scout. (The emotional intensity makes me wonder how biographical this may be). It makes us think about Atticus and Maycomb in one way before taking us into secret meetings where we learn its dirty prejudices. Is Mockingbird more palatable because it views issues of race from a safer distance? Does Watchman leave a bad taste with us because we find out how the residents really feel about one another?

I love the title. “Go set a watchman” comes from the King James Version of Isaiah 21.6. Part of me wishes there were more obvious references to this text given one summer Sunday morning by a Methodist preacher. Jean Louise gives the reference that matters. “I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces… I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means… I need a watchman to go forth and proclaim to them all that twenty-six years is too long to play a joke on anybody.”  In recognizing the need for a lookout, i wonder if she is assigning herself the role as watchman for you and I?

A Baby, A Manger, and the Ways of God

Isaiah the prophet begins with a mention of a manger and an implied question that “a donkey knows its master’s manger, will we?”  I can’t help but think that the prophet appears to have influenced the writer of the Gospel of Luke in some way.  It may be Isaiah’s reference to a manger that influences Luke to mention the manger.  Actually Luke does more than mention the manger.  He brings it up three times (chapter 2.7, 12, 16) in twenty verses as he wants to make sure that we know that it is there and this is where Jesus can be found.

Raymond Brown suggests that Luke is less interested in the details of birth than making sure we know where Mary laid the baby.  I remember many Christmas plays where the emphasis was on the heartless innkeeper.  But Luke may be trying to tell us that the manger was the plan all along.  Perhaps our Christmas plays should emphasize the innkeeper pointing toward the manger and saying “come on Joseph haven’t you read Isaiah?”  Luke may be suggesting that God sustains His people through the birth of this child born and laid in a manger.  If this is the case, perhaps an implied question is in order, “a donkey knows its master’s manger, will we?”

It is another point of interest that Isaiah (chapter seven) gives “a sign.”  This sign is a child.  A sign that reminds us that God is the One in control and that it is His desire to save.  This time of year especially we are reminded that Luke also gives us “a sign” (2.12).  We are well aware that this sign is also a child.  If nothing else we are aware that God chooses an unlikely way to communicate His desire to save.  While making connections with Luke’s Christmas narrative and Isaiah, we might mention that the “good news” of Luke 2.10 may echo the “good news” of Isaiah 52.7.  Maybe Isaiah was the first to use the term “gospel.”

The angel announcement also includes titles for the child (2.11).  Brown suggests that the primary background for this comes from Isaiah 9, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.”  He goes on to say that “in the Isaian context this child is the heir to the throne of David, and his royal titles follow: Wonderful Counselor, Divine Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Brown says that “Luke has taken over this Isaian birth announcement of the heir to the throne of David… but he has substituted three titles taken from the Christian kerygma; Savior, Messiah (Christ), Lord.”

What a strange God this is who announces his plan to deliver with the birth of a child who is laid in a manger.  Ever held a baby?  Cradled him in your arms?  Felt the heartbeat?  Breathed in the newborn smell?  Rubbed your lips over the top of his head?  Tasted his cheek with a kiss?  Listened to his cry?  Watched while he slept?  God thinks this is a good way to bring good news into the world.  Certainly there are more efficient, effective ways.  Certainly there are ways that may leave a greater impact.  Who comes up with these plans?  Does God need a public relations person?  Nevertheless, we get a child.

And at this time of year we celebrate God’s great plan to deliver by sending a baby.  And laying the baby in a manger.  The ways of God may seem strange, still – these are the ways of God.

Isaiah: Rethink the Ways of God

This morning, as expected, the sun rose.  I watched as pinks and oranges appeared on a background of blues and grays.  And then the sky turned to gold.  Yesterday’s snow will melt today but last night it looked like a seasonal decoration under the light of the Full Beaver Moon.  The bare trees along the highway reveal Red-Tailed Hawks perched anywhere they can find a seat.  From trees, telephone poles, fence posts and wires, they turn their attention toward the open ground in search of food.

At this time of year, many of us are turning our attention toward a night where a manger became the focus. A night where we are told that angels sang and shepherds waltzed.  In my imagination, even friendly beasts acknowledged that something great had taken place. Yet, long before this night came to pass, the prophet Isaiah wanted people to rethink the way that God works. He warned that the ways of God are not predictable.  He wanted to be sure that we knew to look for something different than the world was looking for.

It is no coincidence then that I have begun meeting with a group on Tuesday evenings to read and discuss portions from the prophet Isaiah.  Even though these words were written long ago, they always seem to work their way into conversation at this time of year.

Isaiah speaks and writes to people who are accustomed to hearing about a God who promised a land of milk and honey.  One who rescues his people from slavery.  A God who opens up the sea as an escape route and provides food in the wilderness.  One who works for them and looks out for them.  For these people the ways of Isaiah’s God may sound strange.

Sometimes I like a big picture look at things.  I like to stand back and try to see how all the pieces fit together.  Other times I try to get as close as possible and just listen.  On Tuesday evenings, we seem to do both.  We sit with the prophet.  We listen as he brings his vision and history together.  Watch him call for witnesses.  Hear hear! as he heralds the message of Yahweh.  And we cannot help but notice that he has been influenced by some and has influenced others.

From the first chapter the prophet is calling us to recognize who we belong to.  After giving us the particulars of history he calls witnesses to observe the messy relationship between God and His people “Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth”.  I wonder if the heavens and the earth are yet off duty.  Are they still witnesses of our rebellious behavior?  When I look at the sunrise, the full moon, the snow-covered ground and the Red-Tailed Hawk, am I the one being watched?

The testimony is clear.  “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand.”  This is not the first time that a donkey appeared more perceptive than people (think Balaam).  And I cannot help but recall another manger.  While it may not be the first place we might think to look for the activity of God we are reminded again that God does not always work in the way that we might expect.  After all these years, the question of Isaiah remains, “will we recognize God at work?”

Isaiah: A Sign That God is With Us

We will soon be hearing some very familiar phrases.  “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus.”  “All were proceeding to register for the census.”  “Jesus was born… in the days of Herod the king.”  “Where is He… born King of the Jews?”  These phrases may all be familiar to us – they are also very political.  Hauerwas and Willimon insist that Christianity is mostly a matter of politics.  This is nothing new, every year these readings remind us that this is a political situation.  Hauerwas and Willimon go on to say that “the challenge of Jesus is the political dilemma of how to be faithful to a strange community, which is shaped by a story of how God is with us.”

Long before Caesar decreed, Isaiah preached.  Isaiah’s sermon is as political as Caesar’s decree.  This is a war-time sermon.  Judah was about to be attacked from three sides.  The future of the nation was threatened and his congregation was full of some who trusted the promises of God without regard for their own behavior.  And others who had no apparent confidence in the promises of God at all.  King Ahaz appeared to be in this second group since he attempted to save Judah by sending an enormous gift to Assyria.

Isaiah preached an alternative response.  He believed the promises of God and preached of a child “Immanuel” who would be born as a sign that “God is with us.”  It is of interest that by the time the child is old enough to make decisions, the present crisis will no longer be a crisis, the threat will be no more.  It is of further interest that the nation survives the threat.  What seems to be an overwhelming threat today may not even be a mild concern tomorrow.  What would have been impossible by human effort was obviously well within the power of God.

In the Gospel of Matthew, this verse takes on even greater significance.  Matthew announces that a child will be born.  His name will be called “Immanuel” and he will be a sign that “God is with us.”  The message of Isaiah and of Matthew remind us that God is capable of a miracle.

Every Christmas, John Lennon sings “war is over” but it is untrue.  Advent may instead be the reminder that war is on.  Christmas is less like Lennon’s song for peace and more like Lewis’s campaign of sabotage.

C. S. Lewis claims that the universe is at war.  “A civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.  Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

We find ourselves in the town square singing around a Christmas tree.  And we sing words of sabotage.  “Glory to the new-born King.”  “Let earth receive her King.”  “Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn King.”  These are political songs, for political times.  We are part of a political story.  It is not only political – but it is always political.  We sing that the rightful King has landed.  We participate in sabotage at the square.

Isaiah reminds us that God (not nations, not armies, not politicians) rules the world.  And that God is with us.  Hauerwas and Willimon remind us that faithfulness is a political challenge.  And that God is with us.  Lewis reminds us that the rightful King has landed.  And we sing glory to the King.  For God is with us.  And we open Matthew’s Gospel and find “that all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled”  For God is with us.