Isaiah 7:1-16 & Matthew 1:18-25

Pregnant Advent

Waiting. Those of you who were here last week will have heard me say that I don’t really like waiting, I’m not very good at it. We’d just sung a song, after the sermon, with the line “waiting here for you”, and I suggested that we should do a bit of waiting. If you were here, I wonder how you found that. If you weren’t here, maybe imagine how you would have felt being asked to sit and wait on God.

As we’ve gone through the week, this idea has kept recurring for me. In some of the Morning Prayer readings this idea of waiting for God, and how important that is have been repeated. But also, on the same days we’ve had other readings, particularly from the Psalms which have included lines like “Wake up God” and “Do not delay Lord”. It feels like all week I’ve been faced by this tension between faithful and patient waiting on God, and honest and heartfelt pleading with God to act to bring about the peace and justice of the promised Kingdom.

It seems to me that this is a tension, a dynamic, that we live with the whole time in our lives, but it comes into particular focus at this time of year, in Advent, when we are thinking about being ready for Jesus’ return. When we are encouraged to pray for Jesus’ return. When we actively look forward to Jesus’ return. As I was reflecting on this during the week, and looking at the Bible readings for this morning I was drawn to the references to pregnancy and wondered if that might give us a way of exploring some of these ideas around waiting and living in the light of a hoped for future.

I am a little hesitant about this, as I am not, have never been, and never will be pregnant. I am married to someone who has been pregnant, and have seen experienced some of the joys and difficulties of pregnancy, but all second hand, a close second hand, but second hand none the less. I am also aware that the whole subject of pregnancy can be a painful one for many. For those who have longed for a pregnancy that has never come, for those whose pregnancies have ended in grief. So, I aim to tread gently.

Let’s begin with our reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. This is one of those situations in the prophetic books where we have a really good idea what was going on in the historical context. The situation that the people of God are in is very clearly described, both earlier in chapter 7, and in 2 Kings 16.

King Ahaz is the King of Judah, with his capital in Jerusalem. The two northern neighbours, the Kings of Israel and of Aram had joined forces to invade Judah, and to attack Jerusalem. In response Ahaz is considering asking one of the two superpowers in the region – Assyria and Egypt, to come to Jerusalem’s defence. If he did this it would mean that whoever he turned to would expect Judah to pay tribute.

In the midst of all this, God sends Isaiah to the King to encourage him to have faith, to trust in God, that the invasion would fail, and he would not need to turn to one of these other nations to save Jerusalem. With this call to courage comes a challenge, at the end of verse 9, God says to Ahaz, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”

This is where we picked up the story in our reading this morning, with God offering Ahaz a sign to confirm what was being said. Ahaz refuses, because, as the writer of Kings puts it “He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God.” Ahaz wasn’t interested in knowing if God was speaking the truth, he had his own plans for getting out of this situation, and didn’t want God getting involved.

And so God offers a sign anyway. “the young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel … before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”

The important question here is “what was the sign?” In the Hebrew that this was written in the word for “young woman” means exactly that – it carries no particular sense of whether or not she was sexually active. So, for the original hearers, the sign was not a miraculous conception of a child. For them it was all about timing. It was all about the length of a pregnancy and the time it takes for a child to be weaned. This is Isaiah saying, very poetically, within 3-4 years the two Kings threatening you will be gone, so trust God.

And what happened? Well, Ahaz didn’t trust God – he sent huge amounts of gold and silver to the King of Assyria who invaded Aram and put that king to death. Before long the King of Israel had been assassinated in a palace coup. So, in some senses the prophecy did come true, but not in the way that God intended, and because Ahaz had turned to Assyria, he invited their interest, and it wasn’t many decades before both Israel and Judah had both been invaded, and the people shipped into exile.

So, this pregnancy in Isaiah wasn’t a supernatural one, it was a normal, everyday one. It was the reliable length of a healthy pregnancy that was the point. The King and the people were being encouraged to wait, but it was a wait with a known end point, and a promise of what was to happen at that end. The question was, would they wait in faith?

In many ways Mary’s pregnancy was completely different. It wasn’t normal or everyday, it did begin supernaturally. Not in the usual way, but by the creative work of the Holy Spirit in her womb. It was so unusual that it led Joseph to consider divorcing Mary – he knew that he wasn’t the father, and it took great faith on his part to trust Mary and the word that the angel brought from God.

Despite the unusual start, we do get the sense that this pregnancy was a cause for celebration. In Luke’s historical account of the life of Jesus, we see Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant, and when they see each other, they praise God and Mary sings, “The mighty one has done great things for me.”

As the pregnancy went on it is likely that Joseph and Mary completed their betrothal and got married, and prepared to move to Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem. Alongside this would have been the normal preparations for the birth of a baby, getting in the swaddling cloths etc. It seems that these preparations were disrupted somewhat by all the extra people coming to town for the census, but despite that, the end of the pregnancy was a day of joy, of celebration, and of wonder.

For Mary the waiting didn’t end when her pregnancy ended. Throughout Jesus’ life we hear of her pondering what is happening. She was carrying the words of the angels, that her Son would be Immanuel: God with us. Jesus: God saves. What did that mean, how would it work out. She pondered these things as she watched and waited.

So, with these reflections in mind, I wonder what insights it might give us to consider this time, between Jesus’ first appearance on earth and his return to earth, as a pregnancy.

The new age has begun, the Kingdom of God has broken through, a new life is formed, but not yet seen. We can feel the kicks, the turns. We might catch a glimpse of what it looks like in sonograms, but we can’t see it clearly yet.

It is a time of preparing, of getting things ready. In his teaching Jesus repeatedly commanded his followers to be awake, to be alert, to be ready for his return. For a baby that includes getting clothes, painting the nursery, going to antenatal classes. For us it includes living each day in the light of his soon return, keeping short accounts with God and with each other. Treating each other with love, gentleness, and compassion. Not holding grudges, but forgiving and being open to the possibility that we might need forgiving.

And what about waiting? This is, perhaps one of the places where the parallel breaks down. As we know, most pregnancies last for about nine months. We have no idea how long it’s going to be before Jesus will return, we are waiting for something, but we don’t know how long the wait will be.

Towards the end of most pregnancies most women I’ve known have been thoroughly fed up with being pregnant and want the baby born as soon as possible. They want the pregnancy to go on long enough for the baby to be born safely and healthily, but are also impatient to meet baby.

This seems to take me back to where I started this morning. This tension, this dynamic, between trusting God’s timing, and being impatient to see the full glory of the Kingdom. The more I’ve thought about this, the less I think that it’s something we need to resolve. As long as our impatience doesn’t lead us to try and take the place of God, or drive us to depend on other powers, as Ahaz did, then we can continue to pray and cry out to God, and ask God to move soon.

It seems to me that the second to last verse of the Bible, in Revelation chapter 22, gives us this permission.

“He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

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