King Ahaz paced nervously back and forth across the floor of his royal palace in Jerusalem, to the point where the carpet was becoming threadbare. It looked as though he was headed for the worst day of his reign, which had been disastrous from the start. With each passing year his tiny kingdom of Judah had become smaller, gnawed and chipped away by enemies on every side. Even the nation of Israel, their ancestral kith and kin, had been among the aggressors. In a single battle against Israel he had suffered the loss of 120,000 soldiers, with a further 200,000 women and children dragged away into captivity. Among those lost in battle had been his own son, the commander of the palace guard and the prime minister.
In addition there were the Arameans, centered in Damascus, once the dominant power in the region and still a force to be reckoned with—not to mention the Edomites, and also the Philistines, who had taken village after village, so that now the little nation of Judah was reduced to a fraction of what it once had been. Things had reached the point where Ahaz did not know where to turn.
Tragically, the one direction Ahaz never did turn was to the Lord. Quite the opposite: with each successive disaster he became increasingly faithless. At one point he began offering sacrifices to the gods of the Arameans. “After all,” he reasoned, “if they helped the kings of Aram, perhaps they will help me also.” Yet the situation only got worse—and even this did not turn Ahaz to the Lord. Instead, he confiscated the sacred vessels of the Temple and had them destroyed. Then he ordered the doors of the Temple itself to be locked up. At the same time he had shrines to false gods erected throughout the towns and villages that still remained to him as well as in every corner of Jerusalem, right under the shadow of the Temple.
The cause of the current crisis was that Aram and Israel, his two of his most powerful adversaries, had joined forces and put Jerusalem under siege. Up until this point the city had appeared to be unassailable. Surrounded by steep hills and a seemingly impregnable city wall, Ahab had thought himself safe. Now the specter of defeat loomed large, as it never had before. The prospect of utter ruin, of losing everything, was more than a possibility: it was virtually inevitable. In the verses just prior to the passage we have read this morning, Isaiah writes that when they heard the news of the alliance, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:2).
Enter the prophet Isaiah, who brings a challenging message of encouragement: “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands… Thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass… If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.’ ”
As though these prophetic words were not enough, Ahaz would not believe what Isaiah said; and it is at this point that we arrive at the beginning of this morning’s Old Testament reading. As the passage opens we find the Lord giving a further word to Ahaz to confirm that what Isaiah had told him was true. Whether it was through Isaiah or by some other means we do not know, but the word was this: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be in the depths of hell or in the heights of heaven.” Eugene Peterson in The Message renders this, “Ask anything. Be extravagant. Ask for the moon!”
Now Ahaz’ response is intriguing. On the surface it seems very pious. After all, the Bible warns us that we are not to put the Lord to the test. You may recall how some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus to give them a sign. His reply was curt: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” Yet on the other hand God again and again graciously offers his people signs to confirm their faith in him and in his promises. Think of Gideon and the fleece, for example. Centuries later God would give a sign to shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem that the Messiah had been born: they would find him wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
Ahaz was so fixed in his opinion, however, that he refused to ask for a sign (“Don’t confuse me with the facts”)—and all under the guise of a false piety. Instead of turning to the Lord for help, he turned instead to an alliance with the powerful empire of Assyria. This was simply one in a series of flagrant acts of disobedience towards the Lord, which had included not only encouraging the worship of false gods throughout the nation, but even placing an altar to an Assyrian god within the Temple.
To this Isaiah gives his telling response: A young woman will give birth to a son and she will be inspired to call him Immanuel, “God is with us”. The reason for this was that Judah’s two enemies, Aram and Israel, were busy defending themselves against Assyria and the nation was enjoying a period of tranquility. However, Judah’s days of peace and prosperity were no more than a temporary respite. The time would come when Jerusalem would fall, its king and citizens forced into vassalage.
Who exactly this child was Isaiah does not reveal to us. Was he a royal prince to be born into the house of Ahaz? There are some who think so—that it may have been Hezekiah, the pious and just king who succeeded Ahaz. The Bible speaks of him in glowing terms: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:3,5).
On the other hand, some ask, may Isaiah have been prophesying about a child who was to be born into his own family? This theory also has its proponents, particularly since Isaiah describes the birth of his son in the very next chapter. Still others suggest that the young woman of verse 14 was not an individual at all but a metaphor for the whole nation of Judah. Elsewhere we find Amos speaking of “the virgin Israel” (5:2) and Isaiah himself addressing the city of Jerusalem as “virgin daughter Zion” (37:22). In the final outcome, I am not sure that I find any of these arguments convincing. My own sense is that the wisest course may be to leave the identity of Isaiah’s Immanuel shrouded in mystery.
Now fast forward ahead nearly eight hundred years. A man named Matthew sets out to write an account of Jesus for the Jewish-Christian community of which he was a member. For some reason, as he muses about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, this passage from the prophet Isaiah keeps popping into his mind: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel.” Could it be, Matthew asks himself, that in the amazing story of Jesus’ coming into the world, here was the true fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy? It was not in the political machinations of Ahaz, who sought security through military alliances and worldly power. No, it was in a helpless child, born to a working-class couple far from their home, that was to be found the true Immanuel, God with us, God come to us in human flesh!
Again and again that had been the experience of Matthew and the other disciples—as they had first set eyes on Jesus at the bank of the Jordan and heard John cry out, “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”; as they had mended their nets on the lakeside and Jesus had come to them with the irresistible invitation, “Come, follow me”; as they had struggled to keep their little boat afloat amid a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus had stood up and commanded, “Peace! Be still”; as they had stood breathless at the top of a mountain and seen Jesus transfigured before them in the presence of Moses and Elijah; as they looked back on a seven-mile walk with a stranger from Jerusalem to Emmaus and asked, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”… As they looked back on these and countless other incidents, they recognized that they had been in the presence of Immanuel, God with us.
I do not believe it is a coincidence that Matthew concludes his gospel with these same words: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This is the good news that the whole world longs to hear: that on this tiny speck at the edge of a galaxy which is itself only a speck in the vastness of the universe, God is with us. In a world that with each passing day seems to be spinning more and more out of control, God is with us.
Professor Mark Buchanan points to another obscure passage in the Old Testament prophets, this time in Zechariah. It pictures people coming from all over the world to Jerusalem to seek the blessing of the Lord. “In those days,” Zechariah declares, “ten men from nations of every language will take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you…’ ” And what is their reason for behaving in such a manner? “We have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:20-23).
Good News [Buchanan writes] the gospel is for all nations. It embraces and welcomes all languages—Urdu speakers and Inuit and Norwegians and remote tribes tucked in the folds of Burmese mountain jungles. It’s for the homeless under the bridges of Los Angeles, the untouchables in the streets of Calcutta, the drug addicted in sweaty apartments not far from where you live. It’s for rich people who live atop hills and poor people who live in ditches. It’s for the old man in his lonely room, and the teenage girl struggling to find her identity, the single mom wondering where the next meal’s coming from. It’s for the discouraged dentist, the confused mill-worker, the weary postman. It’s for everyone, everywhere.
God with us.
This is the dream of every church [writes Buchanan again] for God’s life among us to be so obvious, so fragrant, so magnetic, so contagious, that all peoples clamor for the privilege of joining. Rather than us grabbing hold of people, people grab hold of us. Rather than us telling anyone, “God is with us,” they tell one another that.
As we celebrate Emmanuel, God-with-us, this Christmas, may Isaiah’s words be fulfilled in us once again. May they inspire us to be a community where the Lord is truly present—not only in our worship, but in our meetings and decisions, in our homes and in our relationships—and not only on Sunday or on Christmas but every day.