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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 8: Watch Out for Immanuel

Isaiah 7:14-17, 23

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  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.  The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria. . . . On that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns.

Isaiah 8:5-8

The Lord spoke to me again:  Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before Rezin and the son of Remaliah; therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.

Isaiah 8:9-10

Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed;
     listen, all you far countries;
gird yourselves and be dismayed;
     gird yourselves and be dismayed!
Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;
     speak a word, but it will not stand,
     for God is with us.

Isaiah 8:13-14

But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.  He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Isaiah 8:17-18

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.  See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.

Chapters 7 and 8 revolve around the fear of impending war and the sign of Immanuel.  All the way back to the canon of scripture, Christians have read the Immanuel saying in 7:14 as a promise of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  There are many intertextual reasons to read it that way, and I would not want to disagree with that reading.

However, when we overlay the Christological interpretation of Isaiah with sugary sweet images of a sanitized and quiet baby Jesus ("no crying he makes"), we are likely to forget that there are multiple levels of meaning in a text.  Attentive reading of chapters 7 and 8 within the whole range of the opening chapters of Isaiah ought to stir up more than the "Aaaaawwwww" that a newborn baby elicits from us.

First of all, before the coming of Jesus and the theological interpretation of his life by the church, people who read these chapters did not apply them to Christmas.  There was no Christmas during those half a dozen centuries.  I do not doubt that the text can take on Messianic significance, but Jesus' behavior and words depicted in the Gospels ought to make clear to readers that there was a great variety of opinion concerning just what the Messiah would be, how the Messiah would come, and what the Messiah would do.

Second, the identity of the sign of Immanuel in these passages remains ambiguous.  One vector of interpretation can move toward a figure who by God's power would restore justice.  These sayings about the child seem to indicate a delay.  This is what the early Christians saw in this text as a Christological foreshadowing.  Yet the abundance of meaning in the text is striking.  It goes on to indicate that God will send a leader to deal with the rumors of war between Syria, Israel, and Judah.  It seems to be saying that the King of Assyria is this leader.  God with us can mean the devastating invasion of the Assyrian army.

It is not a prosperity gospel text.  It says that when God is with us, the result can be the destruction and disappearance of massive wealth, to be replaced by weeds: briers and thorns.  This judgment is not only for Judah, but also for Israel, Syria, and all the nations.  Continuing in their injustice, their warmaking, their pillaging of one another, their greed--these ways will lead to their destruction.  They can scheme, plan, gird up, and pronounce, but God is with us and nothing they do will stand.

God is with us, but we are apparently mistaken if we expect that God's presence entitles us to blessings.  God may turn away from us in disgust at our unjust, uncaring use of possessions.  As Jeremiah says, just because the Temple is in Jerusalem does not mean that corrupt people are protected by some sort of high-tech force field.  The God who is with us is the one we ought to dread when we have trampled the poor, put their spoils in our houses, taken their dwellings, and built idols of opulence.

Getting back to the Christological and Messianic reading of the text, we have to remember that Jesus' birth was not in the Mayo Clinic Obstetrics wing.  It was in a cattle barn.  He started out in a refugee family, living among people as an immigrant.  The king tried to kill him before he could grow up.  And even when he had grown up into his Messianic calling, the people in power quickly figured out that he was not what they wanted as a Messiah.  He had too much critical to say about oppression.  He wanted people with excess to realize that it did not belong to them, but to the poor.  He talked about instating the Jubilee practices.  So all the Gospels tell us that very early in his ministry, the powerful began to plot to kill him.

What I'm getting at is that God with us was not good news to Herod.  It was not good news to the rich young man.  It was not good news to scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Herodians.  It was not good news to Rome.  Zaccheus saw and understood this good news.  So did Matthew, Peter, and Mary.  But when the council, the rulers, the wealthy, the powerful, the clergy, politicians, and the high and mighty got their national guard and army to arrest and execute him, the ones who saw hope in the sign of Immanuel had to have patience and wait to see what would come.

So if you hear Immanuel is going to be in town, you'd best watch out.

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