Thursday, 15 December 2016 00:00

"The Witnesses", December 11, 2016

“The Witnesses”
Isaiah 7:10-16
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 11, 2016
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

As I said last week, during Advent we’re looking at Isaiah’s prophecy as if it were a trial. Isaiah gives the evidence and interrogates the witnesses.  He sends the case to the jury and seeks a fair judgment. The plaintiff is the people of Judah, wronged for centuries by the powers and principalities.  The defendants are the power brokers—the pillars of religion and government who have colluded to make the way things are the way things are.  The police and the military are the court officers and the prison guards—beholden to the power brokers.  The judge, of course is God. We are at times the witnesses, the courtroom observers and the jury. Last week, we looked at the evidence provided by the prosecutor Isaiah.  Next week, we’ll send the case to the jury and finally on Christmas Eve, hear God’s verdict. Through it all, we can’t help but see parallels with our current predicament.  

Today, we look at the witnesses.  In old-time Baptist churches, when God is active, people say, “Can I get a witness”? We have already seen this in Rachael’s testimony and Dylan’s affirmation of his faith.  We heard it last week as Kevin made his powerful statement of faith and searching. Did that move you? Can I get a witness?  

Witnesses recount the truth of details of the case.  In Isaiah’s time, the witnesses might confirm or illuminate the evidence already displayed. In this post-factual political climate, it is important to listen to real witnesses.  Discerning the real witnesses from the false ones is a topic for another sermon.

It’s not in the scripture directly, but I bet Isaiah was calling King Ahaz to the witness stand. And the question he will ask is “where is God?” Ahaz, you are the King. And this is a religious monarchy. So the King speaks for God, right? Well, give us your testimony. Where is God?

Now you have to understand a little about King Ahaz. He was King Uzziah’s grandson. He had the responsibility of keeping the country together, even though he was facing invasion from two nations from the north and east, Israel and Syria. He was tempted to collude with shaky Assyria (present day Iraq) in order to defeat his enemies from Israel and Syria. One wonders what favors Judah promised Assyria and vice-versa. Isaiah puts Ahaz on the witness stand and said, “the question I have for you is, do you want some proof of God’s priorities?”  If Ahaz squirmed, he kept it at bay because the world was watching. He said, “I don’t need to ask God for proof.  I don’t need any proof. I know what I am doing. How dare you question me?” It was a standoff between Ahaz and God. Ahaz needed to learn that when you stand up to God, you seldom win.

God then came down from the bench and decided asked to be sworn in. And he told Ahaz and the other people what would happen.

“Behold a young woman shall conceive and bare a son and shall call his name Immanuel…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.  You will have peace.  Free—as a gift.  I am offering you peace and continuation of your kingdom if you just get down off of your high horse.”  But I’m not sure that’s what Ahaz heard.  He heard, someone else is going to lead the country, not me. “You can call him what you want, but anyone who threatens the authority of the king is an enemy of the king, even if it’s his own offspring.”  

Who was the young woman?  Was it his wife, a concubine, we don’t know? But the child will be a sign of God’s presence. You would think a king would like this.  But God threatened a king’s authority. Machiavelli once said that in order to win a war, you must make your people think they are fighting on behalf of God.  But you must never see yourself as accountable to God. Ahaz was threatened from the north and the true north.  

Paranoid Ahaz didn’t take the gift and he threw his lot in with a northern Assyrian alliance.  He didn’t trust in God and the alliance with Assyria was a disaster.  Ahaz denied God’s presence.  Maybe he was concerned that the young girl was his wife or his concubine who was to conceive the heir to his throne.    

God gives the sign of Immanuel in order to get Ahaz to get rid of his absurd plans to commit idolatry and consort with his enemies.  The angels and Matthew himself uses this Immanuel passage to stop Joseph from divorcing and further shaming Mary.

This Immanuel, God-with-us puts us on witness stand every time and calls us to account for our actions.  God-with-us, might very well mean God-against-the rulers.  And that’s bad news for the rulers, and good news for the rest of us.

Too many people have felt that God is against them. Or they have been told that God is against them because of who they are or what they have done, or what they have or don’t have, or whom they love. Religious and political leaders love to tell people that God is against you, especially if you are calling them out on their lack of faithfulness.  But the scripture today says, put God on the witness stand, and then learn the truth. And God says, the truth is that I am always here, with you, especially when you are left out, excluded, hurting, poor, hungry, tired, worn out, beaten down, overwhelmed, or just plain confused.  God is with us then—in our confusion, in our vulnerability. That’s when God is most evident.

So, witnesses, how have you seen God?  Where has God been with you?

Former ABC President Don Ng spoke about the tragedy that hit the Bay Area this past week.

Heart-breaking tragedy hit the Bay Area last Friday. Thirty-six full-of-life people perished in the Oakland Ghost Ship in a fire that consumed them. You have seen the pictures and read the stories. In our local papers, we read the brief profiles of many of these aspiring artists who made a life by working in service jobs in the day and scrapping by to live in whatever affordable housing they can find. I grieve over these great losses of human life that will no longer grace and enrich our lives forevermore.

Sadly, we know that last Friday’s tragedy was not the first nor will it be the last when it comes to the death of innocent people. We lament. We recite, “walking through the shadow of the valley of death.” We think about Job’s undeserved calamities. We remembered how Jesus explained why the blind man was not like that as the result of what someone in his family did. As human beings, we cannot not feel some degree of loss to know that people like us have died. Jesus proclaimed that he came to give life and for us to live life abundantly. So why did 36 people die last Friday?

Already there’s much soul-searching. There will be investigations, litigations, and prayerfully reconciliations. There is just no acceptable answer to the question why good people die. In fact, there is also no acceptable answer to the question why less-than-good people die. In Ecclesiastes, we read, “There is a time to be born and a time to die.” As human creatures, there’s a rhythm in life that we have and we are called to live life as fully, as productively, as lovingly, as gently, and as faithfully as we possibly can. And whatever happens, we leave the rest in the hands of God. I believe the 36 people did just that. God be with them in this season of Advent.

At the beginning of my ministry over 40 years ago, I clipped out St. Patrick’s Christ Be With Me. It’s always been tucked into my Day-Timer that I have used throughout my career and perhaps has served as my prayer card especially when I traveled around the country. I offer St. Patrick’s prayer in such a tragic time.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me.
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me.
Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit up,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
As just a simple preacher, I am absolutely confident that God is all around us even when tragedy hits us.

My friends, we are called to the witness stand, and we are not like the king who is on the defensive.  We are on the stand and we area asked to give an account of God.  How have you seen God?  

    In the snowflakes.
    In Rachael, Dylan and Kevin’s witness
    In the gifts offered at the altar today
    In the patience that we share or strive to share
    In the rage that people feel over the state of our world, the seedbed of change.
    In the beauty of music
    In the testimonies of people offering hope and companionship
    In the warmth of a fire on a cold day
    In the blessing of a family in need.

Ahaz says, I will never ask God for proof.  But we see proof of God all around us.  God-with-us is a radical re-affirmation. It means that God is not far off. God is ever near.  We don’t need a king to find God.  A president is not God, even though one may act that way. God is with us, the people who are the recipients of the king’s proclamations and denunciations.  We are not of that kingdom.  We are citizens of a better monarchy.  And it’s started by the one who came as that outcast refugee called by the angels God with us.  Can I get a witness?

(singing) Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.