Isaiah 7:10-17 & Matthew 1:18-25
Ahaz and Isaiah
Let me retell you a story from the world of 2,700 years ago. It is a sad story. Hardly one for the Christmas season, and yet one that Matthew refers to when he introduces us to the birth of Jesus.
The year is 735 BC, that is, before the birth of the Christ child. King Ahaz has just become King of Judah. But instead of being happy about his new prospects, he is scared stiff. The two nations of Syria and Northern Israel are massing on his northern border. They are rattling their sabers, sending him threats, planning on war. He knows he doesn’t have a prayer.
Ahaz is faced with three choices.
- One, he can make peace with these two nations on their terms, or
- Two, he can go and fight them, and hope for the best, or
- Three, he can try to form a coalition with another nation that is bigger than both of the two northern nations put together.
He goes for door #3, and decides to ask for help from Assyria. Assyria is a growing menace in the East. Assyria seems to be a long way from Palestine, but it has its eye on building an empire throughout the Middle East. King Ahaz gathers together all the money he can find to offer as a gift to the King of Assyria, with a note attached. “If you will come and attack my enemies, I will be forever grateful, and there will be more money where this came from.”
But Isaiah the prophet hears of these plans, and on instructions from God, goes with his son to meet the King. The prophet says, “Hold on! There’s a fourth option! Don’t be afraid, don’t panic. Do not capitulate to the Northern demand, but whatever you do, do not join forces with Assyria. Instead trust God. God will help you deal with the threat from your northern neighbours. But again, whatever you do, do not trust Assyria.”
The response of King Ahaz is, “You’ve gotta be kidding. Trust God at a time like this?” Isaiah’s response is, “No, no, seriously. Ask a sign from God, right now. Anything at all. Ask him for anything, possible or impossible, and God will do it, just to demonstrate that he is prepared to help you in this terrible time. God is not aloof from your crisis. God in fact has just now sent me to say to you, ‘Trust me on this one!’”
But Ahaz responds in a sanctimonious way. “I will not put God to the test.”
But Isaiah will not be put off. “You not only weary your people; you are tiresome to God Himself. Look God Himself will offer you a sign then. A virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called “Emmanuel”. And before the child has been weaned, the enemies you fear will be gone. If you believe this, if you trust God in this matter, you and your kingdom will be established. But, if you don’t, you will bring judgment upon your own head.”
Now Ahaz and Isaiah and everyone else knew where babies come from. What Isaiah has promised is not possible. But God is saying, I will do the impossible, just to prove to you, that I am at your side and on your side.
But Ahaz refuses to trust God. He goes ahead with his bribe to Assyria and sets in motion the wheels of a disaster both for himself and for his people. And Isaiah leaves the premises. In spite of the offer of God, the young woman will not bear a child whose name was to be Emmanuel, which means God will not be with Judah in the events that will start to unravel.
Instead, Isaiah goes home to his wife, and he writes: “So I went home to the prophetess and she conceived and bore a son, and the Lord said to me, “Name him Masher-Shalal-Hash-baz,” which means “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.” The child that is born will no longer be Emmanuel which means “God is with us” but instead Masher-Shalal-Hash-baz, “destruction is upon us!”
What a tragedy! An offer was made of a birth that promised good news, but that offer was rejected. In its place, another child would to be born whose name was a prophecy of doom. The birth to a virgin did not take place.
The Virgin Birth of Jesus
But what does that have to do with Birth of Jesus and Christmas? Matthew picks up his pen to write to us about a new pregnancy. He wants to help us understand how significant was the birth of the Christ child.
Mary & Joseph are engaged to be married. Joseph hears that Mary his fiancée is pregnant.
He is scandalized. His fiancé is going to have a child, and he knows that he is not responsible. He is a good man, but he feels outraged. He has every reason to want justice. But he is a compassionate man. He decides not to make it a community issue. He simply resolves to break off the engagement as quietly as possible. But then Mary will carry the social stigma of being an unwed mother with an illegitimate child. Joseph is a man in turmoil.
But it is then that an angel appears to him in a dream. The angel assures Joseph that this conception is due to no dark deed on the part of his fiancé, but instead is part of a unique intervention of God in human affairs. Joseph believes the message and so goes ahead with plans for the marriage.
But Matthew our interpreter adds a footnote, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means God is with us.”
The people of Israel had long felt that God had abandoned them. They were surrounded by Roman armies and they long lived under the thumb of a totalitarian government. They were pretty sure that God was not interested in them. He seemed to be an absentee landlord who could not be reached by phone, fax or email.
But Matthew says, “God has not been aloof. God has not been oblivious to the terrible conditions you’ve gotten yourselves into. Already he has started something which will change the future, not only for Israel but for all humanity.”
God has re-issued an ancient promise. In the days of Ahaz, God had made a solemn pledge to that ancient king, who thumbed his nose at it, and instead reaped the judgment that came from the absence of God’s intervention.
Now God has offered his presence once again to Israel and to the world. He is giving us the impossible sign once more. A child has already been conceived in miracle, and is ready to enter into our life. With King Ahaz it had been an offer that could come true, if only Ahaz would trust God. But now it was more than an offer. It is a fait accompli. For if God waited for our faith to respond, it would take another 700 years. So God sent the sign, regardless of our lack of faith, to help us believe.
If the people of Judea would accept this new gift of God, they too will be established. If they open their lives to this new beginning, as did shepherds and foreign magicians, then the future will be radically different than the past had been. But if the people refuse the new offer of God, the doom that already loomed on the horizon will come to full and fatal fruition.
We know the tragic story. The nation encountered the baby turned man. John says, “He came unto his own, but his own did not welcome him.” And on a Friday afternoon, 30 years later, Jesus was crucified, as his people rejected him and the hope he represented. The offer of help from God was turned down. And the terrible consequences, all over again, was that the dominating empire of the day, Rome, did what the Assyrian and Babylonian empires had done centuries before: they destroyed the nation of Israel in an act of ethnic cleansing of horrific proportions.
But it was all so unnecessary. In the fullness of time, God had sent His son to serve as their Saviour from the terrible fate of a nation’s destruction, of a terrible genocide. The coming of Jesus was a word of promise to a people that they could count on God, and if they did, they would be established. But if they didn’t, God would have no choice left except to say, “Have it your way then.”
“He came unto his own, and his own people did not welcome him.” But John adds a postscript, “But to as many as did receive him, to those who believed in him, he gave the power to become the children of God.” In the lives of those that allied themselves with Jesus Christ, a new energy and a new hope began to flow into their lives to renew and redeem the world.
But there are other events that can be just as devastating. Things can happen in our personal lives, in our marriages, with our children, with our work colleagues, in our congregation and in our nation that cause great devastation. Death, disease, divorce, unemployment or bankruptcy can occur at any moment to any of us. When those crisis moments happen in our lives, what do we do in such moments?
Well we too get a choice.
- Like King Ahaz, we can live in fear of the future. As difficult moments occur we can simply cringe before the events and hope the worst isn’t too terrible. We can hunker down in discouragement, and in effect, write our own obituary column. That is one choice we can make.
- Or, like King Ahaz, we can try to solve the problem by creating solutions that are worse than the problems we already face. Do you remember the childhood story of the man that wanted to get rid of mice so he brought in the cats, then he couldn’t get rid of the cats, so he brought in the dogs, then he couldn’t get rid of the dogs, and so he brought in the tigers, and so on and so on. We who are members of the human race have this inordinate capacity for solving problems by creating more complex ones as a result.
- But there is always another choice. We can trust God, who in His own time makes all things well. We can wait on the Lord to bring good outcomes out of troubled times. I know it sounds naive. It did to Ahaz. It does to me. It sounds like hoakey advice! But it is the only way to stop being tyrannized by our fears or working in a panic only to making bad things worse.
A Saviour has been given to us because we could not save ourselves. God has offered Himself to be the solution to the things that damage our lives. That is the good news of this marvellous season of the year.
God is for us.
God is with us.
God is willing to actively work with us, so that all things do work together for good.
It is that truth alone that gives us hope in a dark season. Can we trust in God?
It is that kind of trust alone that can restore peace and purpose back to our lives.