Yesterday, we saw the Old Testament background to the famous “sign of Immanuel” in Matthew 1:22-23. You need to read that post for today to make sense. Because in it, we saw that just like God was with Ahaz for his good, so God is with us in Jesus for our good. And yet, there’s another side to this sign.
God with us: part two
Because that wasn’t the end of the story back in Isaiah’s day. It’s not the end of the connections that Matthew spotted with the sign of Immanuel. Remember the sign given to King Ahaz? A young maiden was to have a child. And before he’s grown up, God would show that he was with his people, by rescuing them. God used the nation of Assyria to come and defeat the threats of Samaria & Damascus. Immanuel: God with us.
But the idea of ‘God with us’ isn’t necessarily reassuring. The idea of being ‘with’ can cut both ways. Think about it. If you walk into an office and the receptionist is on the phone – and they look up and say ‘I’ll be with you in a minute’ – that’s a good thing, right? But if you’re a schoolkid walking in to the principal’s office, and the receptionist says ‘the principal will be with you in a minute, young man’ – well, that’s not so good. If someone says ‘the police’ll be here any minute’ – whether that’s good news or bad news depends on what side of the law you’re on. So ‘God with us’ – is that really a good thing?
For Ahaz, initially, it was. God was with him in rescuing him from his enemies. That was the good news. But Ahaz refused to trust God completely. He seemed more worried about Samaria and Damascus than the creator of the universe. In fact, it looked like he was trying to make an alliance with Assyria to protect him. Meaning he’d be placing himself under the protection of a human king and their idols, rather than the one true God.
And so because Ahaz refused to trust God – there was also some bad news. A few years later, God was going to be with him alright. Again in the form of Assyria. Who would come and take over the land and carry some of the people off as slaves. God would be with Ahaz – but with him in judgement.
Isa 7:18 In that day the LORD will whistle for flies from the Nile delta in Egypt and for bees from the land of Assyria… (20) In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the Euphrates River – the king of Assyria – to shave your head and the hair of your legs, and to take off your beards also… (23) In that day, in every place where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand silver shekels, there will be only briers and thorns.
God with us. It cuts both ways. If King Ahaz had trusted in God rather than another nation, God would have been with him for good, not for judgement.
It cuts both ways with Jesus, too. Which is, I think, what the Matthew was wanting to remind us. God with us – for those who trust Jesus, for those who acknowledge him as the son of God, it’s good news. Good news for the simple shepherds, who were the first to hear. Good news for the Magi, those outside the people of God, who were seeking a saviour. And as we read in the gospels about Jesus ministry, it was indeed good news for the poor, for the outcast, for the meek, for the broken. Those who have given up trusting in themselves, or in other people. Those who fall upon the mercy of God. God is with them – for good.
But for those who reject Jesus, it’s bad news. Bad news for King Herod, who tried to kill him. Bad news for the religious leaders of the day, who tried to shut him up and when that didn’t work, put him to death. God will also be with them – in judgement.
And it’s the same for us today. God with us – it cuts both ways. Matthew’s little trip down memory lane – it isn’t an irrelevant digression. It forces us to see the whole picture. Christmas isn’t just a feel-good story about God doing a photo-op in a stable. It’s a choice. A choice as to how we respond.
God’s given us the sign. The sign of Immanuel. God will be with us – that’s guaranteed. But how will he be with us? For good or for ill? That’s our choice.
Will we accept him as our rescuer – his death in our place? Will we put our trust in him to make right the mess we’ve created, confident that his death and resurrection has made it possible for us to be with him forever?
Or will we choose to reject him – continue to keep him out of our life. To put our confidence in the things of this world, in other people, in ourselves. Because if we do, God will also be with us. With us in judgement.
This Christmas, God will indeed be with us in Jesus. But our response to Jesus will decide how.