Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
December 19, 2004
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Isaiah 7 10 ¶ Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Matthew 1 18 ¶ Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
You don’t meet a lot of people with good old fashioned Biblical names any more. Okay, there are a bunch of Matthews, Marks, Johns, Pauls, Peters, Joshuas, Josephs and Marys, etc. But not a lot of Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, Ezekiels, or Zechariahs. Certainly not a lot of Zerubbabels, Jehoiachins, Jedediahs, Hezekiahs and Jehoshaphats. Nor do you really meet a lot of Jesuses and Immanuels. (Unless of course you’re in a Hispanic culture where Jésuses and Mannys abound.)
But those names—Jesus and Immanuel—are the names that occupy center stage during Christmas.
II. ISAIAH’S PROPHECY
It is a little curious, however, how these names are supposed to relate to one another. This story of Jesus’ birth has confused a lot of people because of the way Matthew uses the Isaiah text. First he says that Joseph receives a message from an angel of God that Mary will bear a child and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.” Fair enough. But then Matthew goes on to editorialize and say, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Am I missing something? Didn’t the angel just tell Joseph the child would be named Jesus? So where does this Immanuel business come in? Maybe it’s one of those hidden puns in the Bible because we’re not reading it in Hebrew or Greek. Like the way that Isaac’s name means ‘laughter’ or Adam sounds like adamah, the earth out of which he was formed.
I wish it were. It’s not. Jesus is the Latin form of the Greek version of the Aramaic name Yeshua, which is short for the Hebrew name Yehoshua (Joshua), which means, Yahweh Saves. So, there is a pun there—he will be named Jesus because he will save people from their sins. But there’s not connection, seemingly between the names Jesus and Immanuel. And yet we are told that not only was Jesus to be called Jesus, but that the prophecy of the Immanuel is speaking about Jesus as well.
Well, there’s something about Isaiah’s prophecy that we need to be aware of: it is very unlikely that he was intending to talk about Jesus. The first thing that tips us off is the context of this prophecy. King Ahaz of Judah is in the middle of a war and is under threat by the kings of Israel to the north and the King of Syria. Isaiah gives him a sign, so that he will not lose faith.
Isaiah says, “Look, the young woman is with child and will bear a son.” Isaiah uses the present tense: he does not say “A young woman will conceive or will bear a child” he says “is with child.” (The whole issue of whether it says ‘virgin’ or ‘young woman’ I’ll leave aside for now, except to say that even if it does say ‘virgin’ that virgin would have been expected to have conceived the regular way.) But as regards the young woman, Isaiah is probably indicating someone that King Ahaz knows, or who maybe is even in the room with him. Further, by the time the child is old enough to tell right from wrong, the land of the two kings Ahaz now fears will be deserted. The child is therefore a sign that the threat from these two kings will not be long enduring. The king need only trust in God and everything will be fine. As a sign of this promise, the child is to be named “Immanuel” which means in Hebrew “God is with us.”
In fact, the events that are described by Isaiah come to pass. The two kings are no longer a threat, having been defeated by the Assyrians utterly. Judah is free from their threat.
It’s a reminder that God’s word is always relevant. And no less so to those who originally receive it. And so it’s not fair to suggest that for 700 years, no one knew what this prophecy was talking about. It doesn’t make sense to say that Ahaz was being given a sign about a birth that wouldn’t happen for another 7 centuries. “That’s very interesting, Isaiah, but could you answer my question?” It’s not as if people were reading this passage in Isaiah wondering when this would happen.
III. MATTHEW’S USE
So, let me ask you. Why did Matthew use this text? If it was about the birth of Hezekiah? Matthew was as smart as any of us. So, what’s going on?
The important thing to remember always about the Bible was that it was written backward. It was written with the ending in mind. The authors know the ending and work backward from there. They believed that God worked in largely the same way and that everything that came before could be understood in light of what came after. The past is interpreted by the present, so to speak.
The other thing to remember is that the early church had no Bible. When they would gather to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection every Sunday, when they would gather for study and prayer, they only had one source of scripture to read: the Hebrew Bible, what we think of as the Old Testament. The early church wanted to understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as part of the whole salvation history of Israel. And so they turned to the scriptures to mine them for meaning.
When Matthew searched his scriptures, he found this verse from Isaiah, about a child born of a virgin given a name that means “God is with us.” It was a no-brainer. The early Christians believed that in Jesus God was with them, and therefore, whoever else Isaiah wrote this about, Matthew saw it as speaking about Jesus.
A lot of Christians are scandalized by this, but there’s no reason to be. It was a very Jewish thing to do, to take a scripture out of its original context and to give it new life and new meaning. Paul does this all the time—sometimes interpreting the verse in the exact opposite of its meaning in context. But for Paul, and Matthew, and all the early Jewish Christians, their scriptures were part of their family history, they were familiar friends with whom one could play, which one could use and re-use, adapt and re-adapt. For Christians who had encountered God through Jesus, this text from Isaiah was one of those texts, and through early Christians like Matthew, it took on new meaning, and new power.
Matthew was not content to leave God’s promise of being with us in the past. He was not content to keep the fulfillment of hope in a bygone age and century. He reinterprets it and breaths life into what it means. For Ahaz, it meant that a child would be given a symbolic name to indicate God’s deliverance of Judah from an enemy. But for Matthew it was a text that spoke to the reality of Jesus in their midst. The disciples had encountered God in their encounter with Jesus. What better way to describe that then to refer to Jesus by a name that meant exactly that: “Immanuel”?
IV. OUR USE
We could learn something from Matthew. Because he challenges us not to leave the word of God in the past. That’s something we’re all too ready to do. It is easy for us to talk about God coming in the flesh, as a child born to working-class parents as an event that occurred 20 centuries ago. It’s harder to talk about that same idea today.
But in the same way, the early church might have been content to have left Immanuel in the past, as a sign to Ahaz in a time of trouble and nothing more. Matthew brings the Immanuel into his day, applying the name to Jesus in whom the church believed God was with them.
How can we continue to understand the Incarnation today? What relevance does the Incarnation have for us nearly 2,000 years after Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension? In what way can we still claim Immanu-el, God is with us?
When I think about the Incarnation, I come to believe that the incarnation was not as unique a method for encountering God as we might think. Indeed, as I reflect on it, I think that the majority of the times we encounter God, we do so through incarnations. That is, we encounter God most often through one another. Many people are touched by God in quiet mystical ways, some in dramatic spiritual encounters. But for most of us,
I would say that most people encounter God through flesh and blood human beings. A kindness offered. A loving embrace. A hand extended in help. An arm to shelter and protect. A mouth that speaks out for justice. Eyes that see the dignity of each and every human being. Ears that hear the cries of the needy. Hearts that are warmed with compassion. Shoulders that carry one another’s burdens. It is in these very real flesh and blood ways, that God is incarnate with us, that God is encountered through us.
It is not an accident that the Church is referred to as the Body of Christ. We are called to be Christ’s body in the world. We are called to Incarnate God for the world, to give continued life to the miracle of the incarnation. We give flesh to God in our world, so that people may look at the people of God and say Immanu-El, “God is with us.”
A few years ago, Joan Osborne asked the question What if God were one of us? What if God were one of us? Matthew and his contemporaries, Mark, Luke, and John, answer that question for us. The show us what it looks like to encounter God in the flesh, in a Son of God willing to go to the Cross for us and whose Resurrection prepares the way for our own.
But the question still has power. What would it look like if God were one of us? If one of us could be God’s presence in the world. As the church, as the Body of Christ, there is no reason we cannot be God’s presence in the world. And the question challenges us to see God’s presence in one another. God is with us in the people who reach out, but God is also with us in the people we reach out to.
So, here we are. The last Sunday in Advent.
We have talked a lot about patience and waiting, about preparation and being ready. But mostly we have talked about Hope.
It is as we approach Christmas that the source of our hope becomes clear for us. We do not hope simply because a child was born 2,000 years ago in a small town half-way around the world. We hope because God continues to be with us, incarnate among us in one another, in all the body of Christ. We hope because we have not only seen the wondrous things that God has already done, but because we continue to see God’s presence in our midst, and we can join with Isaiah and Matthew in saying: Immanu-El, “God is with us.”