Those texts from Isaiah and Matthew are familiar ones at Christmas time. Maybe too familiar. We tend to blur them together–because of that promise of Immanuel. There are some common themes of course, but also some differences.
The Isaiah text tells about King Ahaz of Judah. It’s around the year 732 BC. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, also referred to as Ephraim, became allies and rebelled against the dominant power in the region, the kingdom of Assyria. Ahaz refused to join them, and so they invaded Judah with the intent of laying siege to Jerusalem and overthrowing Ahaz and installing a king who would go along with them. The war was brutal. Judah lost 120,000 in a single battle. Other enemies took advantage of Judah’s weakness.
Ahaz was fearful and frantic. Should he join their rebellion? Or should he ask Assyria for help?
Isaiah tells him to just stop. Don’t join the rebellion. Don’t ask Assyria for help. Just wait it out. This will come to nothing. God will protect you. If you don’t believe God, the prophet says, then ask him for a sign.
Ahaz puts on a show of piety and refuses. “I’m not going to test God!”Isaiah angrily tells him that since he refused to ask for a sign, God will give him one.
The sign speaks to Ahaz’s situation right then and there. This is what we usually miss. An infant will be born to a young woman of Judah. He will be called Immanuel–“God is with us.”
The point of the promise is that God is indeed with them, and Isaiah tells Ahaz that before the child eats solid food the threat will disappear. The attack on Jerusalem will fail, and Israel itself will be destroyed in 65 years.
Fast forward 700 years. Matthew, writing the story of the birth of Jesus, and wanting to connect it to the promises of the Hebrew Scripture, uses this text as God’s response to Joseph’s fear. God is with you, the child is his–Do not be afraid.
How many times does that call appear in the Bible: “Don’t be afraid”? Some memes on Facebook say 365–no, only 103 times (in the KJV). But it is still important to hear. For fear is our natural reaction to the unknown, the unexplainable. But God’s constant response is to ask us, “Why are you afraid? I’m with you. I’ve been with you before in tough times. You saw I was faithful. Why are we back here again, talking about your fear?”
Think of all those stories in the Bible where God was with them. When Adam and Eve were ashamed of being naked, God was still there walking in the garden. When Noah heard God speak of rain, God assured him of protection. When Jacob feared his brother, God was with him as he wrestled. When Moses led Israel out of Egypt, God was there in the pillar of fire, the pillar of cloud, the Manna, and the tabernacle. When the three Hebrews were in the fiery furnace, a fourth individual was seen in the flames keeping them unharmed. When the disciples awoke in the boat during a storm, Jesus was there in the boat with them, asleep and unworried. When they huddled in fear in the upper room, the risen Jesus appeared in their midst.
In September, Joy and I went to Zurich, Switzerland, and Constance, Germany, two significant places in Church history. In Constance we followed in the footsteps of John Hus, the rector of the University of Prague. Hus continued some of the teachings of the English reformer, John Wycliffe of Oxford. Hus criticized the corruption of the papacy, split then between three rival popes. He called for the communion cup to be given to the laity. And a hundred years before Luther, he attacked the selling of indulgences.
An ecumenical council was held in Constance in 1414 to resolve the Great Schism, depose the three popes and elect a new one. Once that was done, they attended to Hus. We walked through the gate by which he entered the city. We toured the house he is said to have stayed in before his arrest. We saw the place where he was chained in a cell, and where he was tried. We stood in the cathedral where he was condemned, his priestly robes torn from him, and a paper hat decorated with devils placed upon his head. We walked down the street from the cathedral, back out the gate, and up the road a few modern blocks to an intersection where there is a boulder marking the spot where on July 6, 1415, he was burned at the stake. He was fearless, said the witnesses. As the flames began to climb around him he sang, “Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on me.”
We went to Zurich, too. We saw the houses where the reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, lived, and the homes of two of the students who followed him, Conrad Grebel and Feliz Manz. We explored the Grossmünster, the church where Zwingli preached. Zwingli started out as a courageous Reformer. Up to a point. When the city council reacted nervously to the pace, he slowed down.
He had taught and written that only believers should be baptized, not infants–but when the council rejected that, he backed down. Grebel and Manz and their friends pushed forward. They said the Bible alone should determine doctrine, not politicians. That we should follow the Bible even when unpopular.
There was a public debate, believer’s baptism was condemned, and they were told to shut up and baptize their babies. But they met in the home of Manz’s mother a couple of blocks from the Grossmünster. It was January 21, 1525. One of the group, a priest named George Blaurock (it means, “the guy in the blue coat”), suddenly said to Grebel, “Baptize me!” Conrad did, and then Blaurock baptized the others.
They went out to surrounding towns, including Zollikon, just on the outskirts of Zurich. We stood there, too, in front of that farmhouse in Zollikon that housed the first Anabaptist congregation, where other baptisms were soon performed.
In the weeks and months that followed, Zurich authorities hunted down the believers. Grebel died of plague at his sister’s home in Maienfeld in 1526. Felix Manz was captured, tortured, and on January 5, 1527, was taken out into the middle of the Limmat River in a boat, out to a little fishing hut in the middle of the river. He was bound, and then pulled into the river and drowned. Zwingli watched from the quay. Zurich in effect said, “If you want to be baptized, we’ll do it for you,” An especially cruel and cynical touch. There is a marker on the wall on the riverbank now. We stood there and reflected on that tragic scene.
On and on the stories go of the Anabaptist martyrs killed by fellow Christians, fellow reformers. Stories of the most horrible tortures–you can read the grisly details in the Martyr’s Mirror. Yet those Anabaptists, like the early Christians, were not discouraged. They went out without fear. Their lives, their ministries were short. But their faith and their passion led to a worldwide movement. They were the first to give voice to separation of church and state, and all who love religious liberty owe a debt to their courage.
Shortly before he died, Felix Manz wrote a song. It’s the first Anabaptist hymn. It’s in the new Mennonite Voices Together hymnal, #444.
It’s the song of a believer trusting God without fear.
I sing with exultation! All my heart’s delight
is God who brings salvation, frees from death’s dread might.
I praise you, Christ of heaven, whoever shall endure,
who takes away my sorrow, keeps me safe and secure.
How have you heard God calling this Advent season? What does God want you to do in the work of furthering his kingdom of justice and peace? Where are the broken relationships in our community that need healing? What fears keep people apart, and keep us from stepping with courage into the path God has set out for us?
It’s a fearful time. Right wing politicians stir up fear of those who are different, of migrants and those of other religions. In the name of “traditional values” they impose restrictions on healthcare for women, threaten LGBTQ individuals and couples, and fan the flames of anti-science and antisemitism. Fundamentalist Christianity that prizes political power over truth and justice is at the root as it was in Zurich 500 years ago, in Zwingli’s attempt to apply Old Testament law to his “Christian society.”
How do we respond to the tests of our day? Do we flee or do we fight?
The word of God continues to be the same as to Ahaz, the same as to Joseph, the same as to Wycliffe and Hus, Grebel, and Manz, Blaurock and Sattler and all those who have preceded us: “Do not be afraid. I am with you.”