(Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18; Romans 1:1-7)
When we talk about Christmas, we normally quickly turn our bibles to Matthew and Luke the two Gospels that tell us (although in varied ways) the story of Jesus’ birth. But in order to see the larger scope and its far reaching implications, let us look briefly at Isaiah chapter seven since Matthew makes a reference to Isaiah in jesus’ story. In Isaiah 7 we come a cross a king who was facing a national security dilemma; Israel and Syria his neighboring countries threatened him and “his heart shook as the tree of the forest before the wind” (Isa. 7:2). In other words, the King was gripped by fear. In the midst of his fear, God sent Prophet Isaiah to tell Ahaz, the king of Judah that the threat posed by two of his neighbors would not come to fruition (Isa. 7:3-9) and that the king only needed to stand firm in faith.
The king of Judah refused the prophet’s call to radical faith in Yahweh. But despite his refusal, the Lord did not back down on his care for his people and implored the king to ask for a sign that would indicate God’s deliverance. The king refused to ask for a sign referring to scripture, which says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested God Massah” (Deut 6:16).
The test at Massah grew from Israel’s incapacity to trust in God’s plan, sustenance, and miraculous provision. Israel failed to believe in God’s saving presence among them (Exodus 17:7). Isaiah called Ahaz on his false piety. And told him that even though he refused to ask for a sign, God was going to give a sign anyway because God cares for his people and the refusal of their king would not stop God from showing his care for the people. So the sign was given; “A young woman will be with child and he shall be named “Immanuel” which means, “God with us.”
According to God, the threat posed by the two kings would be no more in two years; their lands would be empty (Isa.7:16) because they had chosen a wrong path. What path was the king of Judah to choose? He was told that If he wanted to see his kingdom stand, he needed to do one thing, have firm faith in God(7:9). The call to firm faith is hard to receive especially when your heart is filled with fear. God knows that and hence the call on Ahaz to ask for any sign he could imagine. Ahaz refused probably because he had his mind set on something else and but if he saw a sign from God, he not have been able to ignore it.
The impossible miracle of God’s saving power was to be evident in the birth Isaiah was telling the king about. In a moment there was to be a baby’s cry and in that moment of new life coming a forth and name would be pronounced; Immanuel, “God is with us.” Ahaz chose fear over radical faith, when faced with fear what do you choose?
Forward to Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus which we celebrate at Christmas. Matthew says, “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” Jesus’ story begins with a controversy. His mother was pledged to be married and was found to be pregnant, how? The text simply says by the Holy Spirit. Joseph found himself in a very unfamiliar and somehow occurred situation because he found out that his fiancé was pregnant and he had nothing to do with it. His immediate response was no different from the response of people who question the whole story today. But thanks to God that he does not abandon us to our unbelief.
Like in Ahaz’s situation God showed up this time through his angel and spoke the needed words to a struggling Joseph, “do not be afraid.” This is why Joseph was afraid; “But suppose the man’s accusations are true, and he can show that she was not a virgin. The woman must be taken to the door of her father’s home, and there the men of the town must stone her to death, for she has committed a disgraceful crime in Israel by being promiscuous while living in her parents’ home. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you (Dt. 22:13-21).
Given this background, Joseph knew the implications for what had just occurred and instead of exposing Mary to such a harsh punishment; he planned to divorce her in secret. But God intervened through his angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:0-21). We may once again ask how all this happened and how this unlikely story somehow applies to us? As we ponder that, the text says that while Joseph was still in his dilemma, the angel of the Lord addressed him and he heeded the words of the angel.
Like Joseph and unlike Ahaz, we should choose faith over fear. We who believe in miracles accept the story as it is told in the Gospels. Matthew reminds his readers that the story fits well with Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa.7: 14). This child accordingly was to be named “Jesus” which was the same as the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’ a leader who brought God’s people to the Promised Land.
Matthew sees Jesus as the one appointed to complete what the Law of Moses all along pointed to but could not fulfill. Jesus was to rescue his people from “sin” in the same manner that the Israelites were freed from the Egyptian slavery, Jesus was to free Israel from her sins. He was also named “Emmanuel” as in Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8, meaning ‘God with us.’
The two names “Jesus” and “Emmanuel” captures the story. God is always present with his people and sometimes intervenes in unusual ways. God’s intervention however, is for the purpose of rescuing his people from bondage. This is the story of Christmas. We may choose to focus on the prophecy of a birth (Isaiah) and its fulfillment (Matthew). But we must not stop there because the story does not end there. Christmas is more than just a story about a birth in a manger… though it is also and always that story. The child that was born in a manger was also the one that was later put to death brutally and thanks be to God, he was also raised from the dead. The resurrection is the ultimate declaration or seal that Jesus is indeed the sign that God is with us to save.
In (Rom. 1:1-7), we see the implication of both the Matthew and the Isaiah texts. The child named Immanuel announced by Isaiah to Ahaz and the house of David; the child, “God-is-with-us,” foretold to Joseph in a dream is the child who is born in the flesh died, and was resurrected from the dead. It is this child who met Saul, transformed him and named him Paul and set him apart for the gospel message. The gospel (good news) is that God in Jesus is saving the world. It is this child who also called the Romans and us into the same story; new birth, declared to be God’s child, died and was raised from the dead and thereby declared, “God’s son”. This resurrected Son of God sent his followers to go forth and embody the good news to all creation(Matt. 28:18-20).
The story of this child we celebrate at Christmas has a claim on our lives. He leads us continually to our neighbors, to seek the welfare of those whose lives are in shambles, to bring good news to those who only know bad news, to speak, “do not be afraid”! to those whose lives are held hostage to fear and brokenness. “Immanuel, Jesus”! Come Let us adore him Christ the Lord!