(Continuing in our pre-Christmas series through Matthew chapters 1 and 2, focusing on the Old Testament background. Read Matt 1:18-25.)
It’s Christmas afternoon. Things are quietening down after lunch. Everyone’s well fed and starting to get that glazed look in their eye. It’s about time for a nap. And then, probably from one of the older relatives in the room, you hear the dreaded phrase: ‘that reminds me of the time…’ And you all settle in for a long-winded story from the distant past. One that appears, at least on the surface, to have only the loosest of connections with what’s going on in the present. ‘That reminds me of the time when your father was a youngster…’
Or if you survive Christmas day intact, just tune in to channel 9 the next day. First day of the Boxing Day test. Guaranteed it won’t be long before something reminds Richie Benaud of a test match back about 50 years ago. Invariably involving a leg spinner. Again, the connection’s lost on most people. But at least in Richie’s mind, something in the present sparks a memory from the past, and away we go.
That’s kind of what the gospel writer, Matthew, was doing in today’s reading. He tells the story of an announcement made by a messenger of God. An angel. And this messenger announces that a young woman will give birth to a child. In fact, she’s to name him Jesus; or Yeshua in Hebrew, which means ‘God is our salvation’. For the birth of this child was to be a sign that God would be with his people; that he was going to rescue them.
And in telling this story, Matthew leans back and says: “you know, that reminds me of the time back in Isaiah’s day… Back in the days of King Ahaz. I see something similar going on. There’s a connection.” He comments in v22:Mt 1:22-23 ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
This story of Mary and the infant Jesus – it fulfils, it continues but in a far more profound way, the pattern of how God looked after his people in the Old Testament. There’s a connection between the rescue that’s about to take place through Jesus, and another rescue story that happened more than 700 years previously.
Now at first, the connection seems a little tenuous. (Like Richie Benaud’s ramblings.) Both stories involve a young maiden with a child… And God… But is that the extent of the connection?
To understand it, we need to go back and look at this story from Isaiah chapter 7, some seven centuries before Christ. And when we do, we’ll see that this story tells us something rather profound about Christmas. And reminds us that there’s more to Christmas than just a cute baby, a bunch of farm animals, and the most famous failure to pre-book holiday accommodation in history. Let’s take a look.
God with us: part one
Our story begins in the reign of Ahaz, king of Judah. In the eighth century before Christ. And King Ahaz finds himself in some political trouble. His arch enemy, the king of Samaria, has teamed up with one of the bigger power players in the region, Damascus. And they’re marching down to invade his country and remove him as king. That’s not good news. Quite understandably, King Ahaz freaks out. Deposed kings in the ancient world didn’t have a very long life expectancy.
But he doesn’t have to be scared. God sends him a messenger, the prophet Isaiah. And Isaiah tells Ahaz not to worry about Samaria and Damascus. Or any other nation for that matter. Why? Here’s the key: God will be with his people. He’ll look after them. That’s Isaiah’s message: trust God, because he’s with us.
But Ahaz still isn’t convinced. In his mind, his enemies look more powerful than some unseen God. He’s not ready to trust. Which frustrates God, as you can imagine. Speaking for God, Isaiah says:Isa 7:13-14a “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of human beings? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign:”
A sign that God will be with them. A pledge, or a guarantee that he’ll keep them safe. So what is this sign? Isaiah continues:Isa 7:14b The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
That’s the bit of the story Matthew quoted about Mary, you might remember. But what did this mean to Ahaz, back when Isaiah first said it?
Well it seems there was a young lady around at the time. The word translated ‘virgin’ is probably more like the old fashioned English word ‘maiden’, simply meaning an unmarried young woman. We’re not told precisely who she was, but clearly she was known to both Isaiah and King Ahaz. In fact, the next chapter of Isaiah suggests it might’ve been the young maiden Isaiah himself was going to marry.
So what he’s saying is this: your sign will be this young lady, who will shortly be married and give birth to son. And he’ll be symbolically named ‘Immanuel: God with us’. The sign continues, giving God’s promise something of a time-frame:Isa 7:16-17 ‘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 LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.’
In other words, early on in this child’s life – before he’s old enough to be morally accountable – the enemies of King Ahaz will be no more. God will bring the King of Assyria to destroy Samaria and Damacus. And he’ll be with his people, looking after them and prospering them.
Now the whole sign thing does sound a bit convoluted. But Old Testament prophets were into the odd bit of theatrics. Let’s face it, it wasn’t the most popular job in the world, so you’ve got to give them their bit of fun. But basically, Isaiah’s saying – in a few years’ time, it’ll be sweet. God will be with us. He’ll protect us from our enemies. He’ll save us from peril.
So why does that story remind the apostle Matthew of Jesus’ birth?
Well firstly, I suppose, God’s people were in trouble. Both in Isaiah’s day, and in Jesus’ day. Samaria and Damascus were no longer a problem; but it was the great imperial power of Rome. They’d conquered Israel, and to some extent, enslaved them. But that wasn’t really the kind of trouble Matthew had in mind.
He was thinking of a far greater peril: sin and death. He records the angel saying about Mary:Mt 1:21 “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus was going to rescue his people from a far greater danger than Samaria or Damascus – or even Rome. Far greater than the dangers we worry about: whether it be financial security, or our health as we get older, or something bad happening to our kids. Bigger than all of that is the danger faced by everyone. Because of our rebellion against God – because of our sin – we all stand guilty before God. Deserving of judgement. We humans told God that we didn’t want him around, and so one day God’s going to give us what we’ve chosen: an existence without him & his good gifts. Eternal separation from God. That’s what Hell is.
And that’s the peril from which Jesus was sent to rescue us. The sending of Jesus is a sign – just like the one back in Isaiah’s day – that God’s on our side in all this mess. He sends a child – a far more special child; it’s his own son, not merely the son of a prophet. The child is born not just to a young maiden, but miraculously, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to a virgin. He’s named ‘Jesus’, which means ‘God is our salvation’. And ‘Immanuel’, which means ‘God with us’.
And indeed, God does become one of us. To live as we do. To experience the sufferings that we do – the consequences of our rebellion against God. So we can’t shake our fist at God and say to him: ‘you don’t know what it’s like to be a human!’ He does, because he was.
But more than that. More than just becoming one of us, he died as one of us. Although he was innocent, he took our guilt upon himself. Died on the cross in our place; for our sin. And was raised again to new life, so that we could live forever. Not separated from God. But with him. Immanuel – God with us. That’s what we remember at Christmas.
Yet there’s another side to this God with us story, and it’s not quite so positive… but that’s for tomorrow.