Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Sign of the Times - Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1

The country is in crises! The people don't know if their country will still be able to function in a few months time. The government and the rulers don't know either! Ordinary folk, business leaders, those in power - all are tearing their hair out. Other neighbouring countries have formed alliances which wields huge power. The country is hoping it might form new alliances to help out ...

Is this the UK in 2019 AD! Or the kingdom of Judah in the year 733BC? Back then neighbouring Aram and Israel were attacking Judah, on the march to overthrow causing the people of Judah to shake. But a guy called Isaiah hears from God and speaks into the whole area geopolitical situation. "Keep calm, don't be afraid, do not lose heart' is the word to Ahaz, king of Judah. It goes on: "King of Aram, of Israel? They are just stubs of smouldering firewood - they are nothing! They think they will overrun your country? It's not going to happen! Their kings are just puppets and within 65 years will be gone".

Isaiah gives another word to Ahaz: "Trust God - ask for a sign". Now Ahaz thinks he can be clever and refuses, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 'Do not put the Lord to the test". God's answer to this is "Don't try my patience - ask for a sign!". This is because the basic issue for Ahaz is unbelief. Ahaz was big on unbelieving and unbelief tests God's patience - just as the Israelites had done in their exodus desert trek where they didn't believe that God would provide necessities like water to see them through. Interestingly Jesus quoted 6:16 as well - in Matthew 4:7 in the incident where the devil tempts Jesus to jump off a high point, suggesting a stunt to prove God. But Jesus knows he doesn't need stunts - he just needs simple underlying belief & trust. And so do we - asking God to give just enough for us to take our next step of faith.

So Isaiah then tells Ahaz: "God will give a sign - the young woman will conceive and give birth to a son who will be called 'Immanuel - God with us'. From that you will know that God is in control".

History tells us that Israel didn't overrun Judah - they were overrun themselves. In fact the Assyrians took over everybody, then the Babylonians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. Using 2 Kings 16 - 17 we can deduce that the 65 years was optimistic: Israel was effectively done for within just 20.

But it is in the time of the Romans, when Judah was now just an awkward outcrop of their empire, that a woman gets pregnant in unusual circumstances and gives birth to a son. He grows and starts a new ministry, both announcing and demonstrating the Kingdom of God. Incredible things happen and the people declare 'Immanuel - God with us!'. A follower of this movement called Matthew writes up these events, noting in his account 'this took place to fulfil ...' (Matthew 1:22). This is the basis of our new series "Predictive Txt" - looking at the words of the prophets and Matthew writing up how they came to be fulfilled in Jesus, Son of God, God with us.

Now a technical point in Isaiah's word to Ahaz. "Young woman" is not necessarily a virgin. We don't know who that original young woman was - it could be pretty much any young first-time mother from that time. The whole passage in Isaiah with Ahaz is a sign of things happening on the geopolitical stage - the immediate threat would be removed but Ahaz himself would not last. This is no surprise given his terrible record (see 2 Kings 16 - 17). The fact is that these Isaiah (and other prophetic) passages have double fulfilment - at the time and then years later on a whole different level. Matthew and others were inspired to see these words re-applied to Jesus and his life.

But whether Ahaz in his crises, or Jesus in the time of the Romans, the message is God is up to something! The fact is God works on a bigger canvas and timescales to us, spanning decades or even centuries. We focus on our own snippet, but we should always remember that God is trustworthy. So if our nation is in turbulent times, our job is the same as King Ahaz was supposed to be: to be faithful and point to God.

This is appropriate because as well as national turmoil our inherited churches are undergoing significant upheaval too. Put simply that which used to work is not working any more. We see that in the demise of small village churches, with chapels closing and the Anglican church facing difficult decisions. Yet outside of buildings we also see encouragements - people taking Spirit-led initiative that yields fruit. We should not think we can say what the church will look like in decades to come, but we can trust that the Spirit of God has things in hand!

Key Qn: [IN] What is God up to among us?
Challenge: Ask that question for your family, your ministry, and for church

The question is one to pray into, to discern, to ponder - and not necessarily find a simple answer. Start by asking what God is doing among you and your family. Extend that to your ministry (remember we are all ministers), and then ponder it for our whole church. Don't leave the latter to the leadership team - yes they should be on it, but so should all of us! Especially as we look as the Countess Church to pioneer outwards across new parts of Ely, asking how God is preparing us. A leader in a new housing pioneering work didn't ask before Christmas 'What date/time should we have a carol service?', but instead asked 'What is God up to in the new estate?' and took his cue from those deliberations.

I am certain that for us we are not called to simply sit on our hands, assuming new people will magically come to us - that old school thinking is no longer working. Yet neither need we panic -- we are called to be faithful and look to God for our direction. For God is up to something - at work in His timescales. For Isaiah/Ahaz those timescales spanned 700 years, yet it for sure led to the birth of a son - God's Son - whose name was Jesus, the one to usher in the Kingdom of God.

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