a recent billboard over a New Jersey expressway
For Sunday, December 19, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Recently the American Atheists have put up this billboard along a New Jersey expressway. At first glance, it looks like a warm acknowledgement of Christmas, but as your eyes move from the manger to the message, the dissonance strikes: “You Know It’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON.”
The ‘it’ of course is the story of Immanuel, “God with us”, the baby born to a virgin Mary laying in a manger. It’s the story told in this week’s first reading, Isaiah 7:10-16. The context is interesting. The Kings of Aram and Israel get together and decided it would be mutually advantageous to approach Judah with a hostile takeover bid. The Lord then gives the prophet Isaiah a message for Judah, which is in so many words, “Not gonna happen.”
To underscore the point, the Lord then speaks directly to King Ahaz of Judah, saying, “Ask me for a sign . . . anything you like . . . so that I can prove to you that I am with you.” Ahaz’s response: “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” (v. 12). The Lord is unhappy. Why? Wasn’t Ahaz just being appropriately non-presumptuous before God? Well… outwardly, yes. But inwardly, what Ahaz was really saying was, “I don’t want real faith in my life. I’ll handle this on my own, thank you very much.”
The Lord then responds to Ahaz: “I’m going to give you a sign anyway. A young woman will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (v. 14). This of course is the very prophecy that the gospel writer Matthew sites in this week’s fourth reading, Matthew 1:18-25.
Yet, what’s really the connection? Was this sign intended for Ahaz around 730 B.C., or was it intended for the coming of Messiah 730 years later? The short answer is – yes. The immediate point was that a child would soon be born to someone close to Ahaz, and before this child would reach maturity, disastrous judgment would come upon the Kingdom of Judah. The ultimate point, however, which Isaiah brings out in his chapter 9, is that a child would come who would himself be Messiah, Christ the Lord.
The immediate sign was in fact fulfilled. The Kingdom of Judah fell to the Kingdom of Assyria in 723 B.C. What, then of the ultimate sign? Is the coming of Immanuel indeed just a myth?
Christians reject the idea that to believe in Christ is to suspend reason. The Apostle Paul himself staked everything on the historical fact of the incarnation and resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14).
So, how then might we Christians respond to the supposition that “You Know It’s a Myth”? One effective response might be a simple question: “What If It’s True?”.