Sunday 22 December 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
“A young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanual.” These are famous words of the Prophet Isaiah, made famous largely because they are quoted by the Gospel of Matthew in relation to the birth of Jesus. For Matthew, it’s about the virgin birth of Jesus and Jesus’s status as God-with-Us. But these words were around long before Matthew, 800 years before, in fact. And before they were ever applied to Jesus, they meant something else.
The context for this pronouncement is given in the first part of chapter 7 of Isaiah. The dominant force at the time is the Assyrian Empire, headquartered in what is now the Kurdish territory of northern Iraq, not far from Mosel. The Hebrew people are divided into two different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Israel in the north with its capital in Samaria and the Kingdom of Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem. Both, to one degree or another, are under the influence of the Assyrian Empire. The northern Kingdom of Israel has made an alliance with the neighboring Kingdom of Aram, headquartered in Damascus in modern Syria. These two kingdoms want to launch a rebellion against the Assyrian Empire, but they don’t think they can succeed without the help of the Kingdom of Judah. However, King Ahaz of Judah does not want to join the rebellion, so the rebel alliance of Israel and Aram decide to attack Judah first, kill King Ahaz, and put someone else on the throne of Judah, someone who will go along with their rebellion.
King Ahaz is afraid. He does not think that his little kingdom can stand up to the combined military power of his two neighbors. And he is afraid for himself, that he will be deposed or killed and his kingdom taken away from him. Because he thinks that his kingdom cannot stand on its own, he is contemplating asking for help from a much larger entity. He is contemplating inviting the Assyrian Empire to come in and protect him from Israel and Aram. But, of course, this is a tremendous risk. Ahaz’s potential ally could be much more dangerous to him than his enemies. Asking Assyria to enter the conflict would be like a chicken asking a wolf to come protect it from a goose and a duck.
Isaiah advises patience and faith. Do not be afraid, he says. Have faith in God. Don’t put your trust in Assyria. God has promised to protect you, and God will fulfill that promise. Be calm. Face your enemies without fear, because God will be at your side. But King Ahaz is still afraid. He still thinks he needs to reach out to a powerful empire in order to protect himself.
At the beginning of our passage from Isaiah, Ahaz is preparing for the attack on Judah, and the Prophet Isaiah goes to King Ahaz of Judah in order to reassure him. God speaks to King Ahaz and says, “Ask for a sign from YHWH your God. Make it as deep as the underworld or as high as the heavens.” That’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? God offers to give Ahaz any sign that he wants. There are no limits to what God is willing to do to prove God’s point to Ahaz.
Imagine that for a moment. Have you ever had a situation where you asked God for a sign? You were trying to make a difficult decision or to face a truth that you didn’t want to face, and you asked God to give you a sign about it. I’m usually happy to get a beautiful sunset, or a bird in a tree, or just a certain sense of a feeling. Many times I don’t really get anything. Here God directly offers to give Ahaz any sign that he asks for, no limits.
Ahaz responds, “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord.” It sounds like it might be a very pious answer. It sounds a lot like what Jesus says to the devil when he is being tested in the wilderness. Ahaz doesn’t wanted to put God to the test. However, that’s probably not what is happening here. Ahaz isn’t too pious to ask God for a sign. Rather, Ahaz does not want to hear what God has to say. If he doesn’t get a sign, then he won’t have proof of what God is saying.
Which explains why Isaiah hits him with such a snide response: “Is it not enough for you to be tiresome for people that you must also be tiresome for my God?” Isaiah isn’t going to take it. God has offered to give the sign of Ahaz’s choosing, and he’s not going to get out of hearing God’s word just by refusing to name a sign. The king is going to get a sign anyway.
“Look! The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”
So here’s what’s happening. Isaiah is saying that there is already a young woman who is pregnant. The Hebrew doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s a virgin, just that she is young. She’s pregnant. She’s about to give birth to a son. She’s going to name the son Immanuel. It is not explicitly stated, but this young woman is probably Isaiah’s wife, and the son who will be born is his son. Prophets sometimes made a point by giving their children a meaningful name. Isaiah named his first son Shear-jashub, which means “a remnant shall return.” He named his youngest son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. This must have been a pretty tough name to live with. A lot of people complain about the names that their parents give them, but at least most of them weren’t named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. It means, “spoil quickly, plunder speedily.” Hopefully he used a nickname.
Isaiah’s middle son, though, he gave the name Immanuel. It’s a compound word. Im means with. Nu is a first-person plural suffix. So Immanu means with us. The last part of the name is the general semitic word for God. It gets used in lots of Hebrew names. Israel, Ishmael, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha. So all together, Immanuel means with-us God. But it can also be translated a little differently. In Hebrew, when you write a sentence without a verb, then the to-be verb is implied. So Immanuel would mean God is with us. Or if we were following the Hebrew word order, it would be “With us God is.”
So Isaiah’s own son, Immanuel, God-is-with-us, is supposed to be a sign for King Ahaz. But what is this sign? What is it supposed to mean? “Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.” Isaiah means that by the time his about-to-be-born son is able to do basic moral reasoning, the threat to Judah will be over. Both Israel and Aram will be defeated. By the time this child is 2 or 3 years old, Judah will no longer be in danger from its neighboring kingdoms. In other words, King Ahaz should trust God. Ahaz should trust that God is in fact with him, and with all of the people of Judah. He does not need to seek protection from somewhere else. He does not need to ask for help from Assyria or from Egypt. He should let go of his fear and have faith that God will provide, that God will protect. Only two or three more years, and it will all be over. God is with him. God will see him through. Do not be afraid. Trust in God. Do not be led by fear. Have faith in God’s love.
Nearly eight centuries later, the author of the Gospel of Matthew came to this text again and found new meaning in it. He wasn’t reading it in Hebrew, though. He was reading a Greek translation known as the Septuagint. And the Greek translation changed the meaning a bit. Rather than talking about a young woman who is currently pregnant the Septuagint speaks of a virgin who will become pregnant. Matthew saw that and immediately thought of Jesus. “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
The gift of Jesus as Emmanuel, God-with-us, is a gift of God’s love. God cares so much for us, and for our wellbeing, that God sends Jesus to live among us, to become one of us, to show divine solidarity with us fragile human beings.
And the gift of God’s love in Jesus, our Emmanuel, presents us with the same choice that King Ahaz faced. Will we choose fear, or will we choose faith? Will we live a life that is built on suspicion and anxiety, or will we live a life that is built on trust and compassion?
Where will we look for security? Will we look for it in the endless quest for more money and possessions? Will we look for it in a prejudice that separates us from those we see as enemies and outsiders? Will we look for it through membership in a tribe that promises to be superior to everyone else?
Or will we look for our security in the God who loves us enough to live with us? Will we look for it in the inner peace and assurance that comes from time spent with God in prayer, worship, and devotion? Will we look for it in the community of people in which we live and love and move. Will we look for it in our Emmanuel who crosses social boundaries and calls us to do the same?
That is choice for our lives: fear or faith. If we know that God is with us, if we experience God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, if we find that our lives expand when we choose love, then it is not a question at all. Emmanuel is here. We don’t need to be afraid. God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.