Text: Isaiah 7:10-17; Matthew 1:18-25
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Series A
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever asked God to give you a sign? What circumstances might cause you to ask God for a sign? Usually, when we ask God to give us a sign, it’s because we need to make a major choice or decision. We have several options available to us and we are not sure which road to take. So, we hope that the Lord will provide some sort of sign which will indicate which way he wants us to take. What if God came to you and told you to ask him for a sign? What if God gave you a blank cheque for any sign in the world? Would you take him up on that offer? What kind of sign would you ask for? This was the position that King Ahaz was in. And his answer might surprise you.
A Sign to Dispel Doubt
Judah was not in a very good political position and this was making King Ahaz nervous. He was shaking in his boots. The northern kingdom of Israel had formed a military alliance with Syria in order to defend themselves against the rising Assyrian Empire. Ahaz and Judah didn’t join in their alliance, so Syria and Israel attacked Judah. So, Ahaz is in a particularly difficult spot. King Ahaz was busy inspecting the aqueduct. Water is everything when it comes to national security. He was contemplating cutting a deal with Assyria, and submitting to the foreign empire instead of resisting it.
The Lord sends Isaiah the prophet to give confidence to this very nervous king. The message from God through his prophet is quote simple: “Listen, be quiet, and do not be afraid of those two kings. Instead, trust in God. Those two kingdoms will be destroyed.” This is quite the claim, and the Lord knows it. So, the Lord is willing to strengthen Ahaz’s faith with a sign. Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from God, and the sky is the limit.
Ahaz did not trust in God. He did not believe. He instead trusted in his own ingenuity and political manoeuvring. So, he hid his unbelief beneath a religious veneer. “I can’t put the Lord to the test!” But Ahaz already has a plan. He doesn’t need God. He wanted neither sign nor Word. Many today are similar to Ahaz. They don’t want to believe in God, but instead they make the opposite challenge: “Seeing is believing. If God exists, then he should prove it. I will not believe in God unless he gives me some miraculous proof.” If someone asks for a sign like this, it is proof that they don’t believe. It treats God as if he were a dog performing tricks, and faith becomes the treat which rewards the trick. But, for Ahaz it’s a bit worse. When God himself wants you to ask for a sign, refusal is proof that you does not want to believe. God hands him a blank cheque and he refuses to cash it. Pious though his words sound, Ahaz has demonstrated that he is a wilfully unbelieving man. He knows that if he lets God in, that means God will take control. And using God’s strategies to get through the crisis would not lead to the glory which Ahaz wants.
Isaiah tells Ahaz that he is making God tired, wearying him with his stubborn refusal to trust God and to listen to his Word. God had been steadfast in addressing the house of David, the Kings of Judah, both with promises and warnings. But Ahaz had refused to believe. God now offers Ahaz a sign of his own choosing, and even this is refused. “Behold, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
That’s how Ahaz heard it. In the time it takes for a young woman to conceive and bear a son, in nine months, you will know “Immanuel” – God is with us. Nine months, Ahaz. Don’t do anything for nine months, and you will see that God is with us. And in twelve short years, before “Immanuel” knows the difference between good and evil, those two kings you worry so much about will be gone. Trust, O King. Hear the Word of the Lord and trust.
God stood by his promise to Ahaz that the two menacing nations would fall. The birth of Isaiah’s son was tied to the fall of the Syria and Israel coalition. God was present with his people during the crisis. But Ahaz’s unbelief was costly. Ahaz did not trust. He did not believe. He engineered his own salvation and failed. He refused the sign of Immanuel, God with us, and so he got the opposite. Reject God’s salvation and there is only one alternative. Isaiah and his wife would have a son shortly after this incident. They didn’t name him Immanuel, God with us. They named him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means “the spoil speeds, the destruction hastens.” In other words, your destruction is at hand. Yes, those two kingdoms of Israel and Syria will be destroyed. But, their destruction brings with it an entirely new problem, the King of Assyria and his hoard of armies. Refuse Immanuel, and you wind up Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Refuse salvation and condemnation is all that’s left.
A Sign Which Identifies the Saviour
And then this Word of the Lord spoken through the prophet sat quietly like seed buried in the soil of history. For 700 years it lay there silently fallow, waiting for the fulness of time, the perfect moment, when the stump of David’s family tree would sprout a righteous Shoot. The Word of the Lord came to a young woman named Mary in Nazareth who was in the process of getting married to a man named Joseph. She was a virgin. Their marriage had not yet been consummated. And now she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and the Word. With God nothing is impossible. A virgin conceives a son. God is with us. Immanuel.
The word to Ahaz through Isaiah now takes on its fullest meaning. Its fulfillment. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us. God is with us. He is one with us and one of us. And He became one with us by way of a virgin mother. Eve heard the promise in her virginity, that through her seed would come a Promised One who would crush the head of the liar who had deceived her. And now Mary in her virginity hears the Word that fulfills all things – “you will be with child by the Holy Spirit.” Immanuel. God is with us.
Then the Word of the Lord came to Joseph. It’s always the Word. To Ahaz, to Mary, to Joseph. The power of God is in the Word – to create, to destroy, to save. The Word of the Gospel is the “power of God for salvation” Paul says. The Word comes to Joseph in a dream. An angel in a dream says to Joseph what Isaiah once said to Ahaz, “Don’t be afraid.”
Don’t be afraid to take Mary into your home as your wife. Things are not as they appear. Her child is not from another man by from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you, as his surrogate father, will call Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. And Matthew adds the verse (or did the angel?) – Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel. The prophesy is sharpened and focused: Not just a “young woman” but “virgin;” not only “she” but “they” shall call Him Immanuel – God with us.
There are two great miracles in the Christmas story. The first, of course, is that a virgin conceives. It’s biologically impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. The second is that Joseph believed it. That is the miracle of faith. Joseph heard the Word and the Word worked faith and the obedience of faith. And unlike King Ahaz, Joseph didn’t reject the sign but received it. He took Mary to be his lawfully wedded wife. And he did not consummate that marriage. After the child was born he called His name Jesus, as he was told. Joseph heard and believed, and out of faith he obeyed. He did what the Lord asked of him.
Matthew saw in Isaiah’s prophecy of the sign of the Immanuel child a picture of our salvation. Like Ahaz faced a coalition of enemies, we face a coalition of hostile powers far worse than Syria or Israel of old. We face the alliance of Satan, Sin, and Death, they never go away, and we are no match for them. But God goes for us into battle against the enemies that threaten to conquer and oppress us forever. God is with us, because God became one of us. The question before us is: Am I trusting God right now,? If we welcome God as our ally and trust in his Messiah, he will fight for us. And we will have no regrets. He never lets faith go unmet. But if we set our own terms, if he reject the signs he does offer, we will fight alone. Jesus said, “According to your faith be it unto you” (Matthew 9:29, KJV).
The Word creates and enlivens faith, the faith of Mary and Joseph, the faith of you and me. The Word became Flesh in the womb of a Virgin to embrace our humanity from conception to death, literally from the womb to the tomb, and to raise it up from the dead and seat our humanity in glory at the right hand of the Father. This is the backstory of Christmas – the prophetic Word is fulfilled; a Virgin conceives by the Word, a troubled husband-to-be is consoled by the Word and believes it. This child, the heir to the throne of David, will truly and finally defeat our enemies and save the people, from their sins.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.