The sign of the virgin
The year is 734BC and life for the people of Judah is both difficult and threatening. Together with their king, Ahaz, they must decide where to place their confidence and in whom to place their trust.
The twelve tribes comprising the people of God have long since divided. Ten tribes have separated to form the nation of Israel in the north, sometimes called Ephraim, sometimes called Samaria. The remaining two tribes in the south are known as Judah. The two nations are constantly in tension, and periodically at war.
These are days when tensions are high.
Israel in the north has entered into an alliance with Syria and is threatening the small land of Judah. To whom will Judah turn? How will Ahaz lead his people? How will they survive against such overwhelming force from the north?
All is not lost. God in his goodness raises up a prophet to send to Ahaz, and to the people, with a word of reassurance and hope. ‘It will not happen, it will not take place.’ Your worst fears will not be realised. But that word of reassurance comes with a word of challenge: ‘If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all’ (Is 7:9b)
Tragically, Ahaz refuses to trust in God and instead enters into an alliance with the superpower of the time, Assyria, asking for help against Israel and Syria. It is a strategy fraught with danger. Ahaz trusts in the arm of the flesh and as the hymn says, the arm of flesh will fail us (‘Stand up, Stand up, for Jesus’).
The Lord God, in his goodness and grace, proposes to provide Ahaz with a sign of how trustworthy He is. A virgin will be with child: ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.’ (Isaiah 7:14)
Amidst their own helplessness and vulnerability, they are pointed to the sign of the virgin, who will be with child.
The year is 2010 and life for the people of God in Scotland is both difficult and threatening. The forces of secularism press in on the community of faith and seem to represent a tide of overwhelming intensity. Within the church there are divisions and disagreements which threaten to de-stabilise the work and witness of the church. Financial problems are having to be faced, which mean that the Church of Scotland can no longer afford to maintain as many churches around the land.
The problems are legion, yet the challenge in 2010 is the same as the challenge in 734BC: ‘If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.’ (Is 7:9b) We must decide where we shall place our confidence and in whom to place our trust.
To us, at this time of Advent, we are once again reminded of the sign of the virgin who was with child. The fact that Christ was conceived in the womb of a virgin exposes the helplessness of humanity in the face of our plight and fallenness. In the Christmas events, Joseph is powerless in the sense that his agency is not part of the pregnancy of Mary. This highlights our utter powerlessness and weakness when it comes to salvation. It is all of God and his wondrous grace. Our only role is expressed in the acquiescence of Mary: ‘I am the Lord’s servant,.. may it be to me as you have said.’ (Luke 1:38)
As one year folds into another and we navigate through the turmoil of these days, we find ourselves facing very different circumstances to those confronting Isaiah. Yet we are met by the same challenge: ‘If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all’ (Is 7:9b).
With warmest best wishes for Christmas and New Year,