Comments, Observations, and Questions
As an inspired apostle and evangelist, Matthew may make any biblical connection he wishes and no one else can call him or question him on it. He can unearth any nugget he wants from anywhere across the Hebrew Scriptures and if, having dug it out, Matthew then claims this verse was fulfilled in such-and-such a way in the life of Jesus, well then there it is: that settles it. That’s what it means. (Inspiration has its advantages!)
For years when I read Matthew 1 and Matthew’s invoking of the prophecy about a virgin bearing a son and calling him Immanuel, God with Us, I found it to be lovely and lyric and just right. And then I went to the source of that verse in Isaiah 7 and found myself powerfully confused. The whole chapter is about politics and warfare, about cowardice and various prophecies. The history is not known to most people in the church today (who is Ahaz and Rezin and Pekah?) even as the chapter itself concludes with plenty of odd imagery of flies and bees responding to a whistle from God as well as strange talk about shaving and cows and curds and briers and . . . Well goodness! It’s something of a mishmash if you read the entire chapter (and not just the 7 verses carved out in this particular Year A lection).
But nestled into the middle of it is a prophecy that obviously had some kind of fulfillment right then and there in the days of King Ahaz but that—as often happens with prophecy—also had a much larger fulfillment centuries later. As most commentators point out, “virgin” is probably not a proper or warranted translation of the Hebrew in Isaiah 7:14—it is likely just a reference to a Hebrew young woman who was of marrying age and who would have a child that would be a sign of “God with Us,” of God with his people and of God’s doing whatever God wanted.
As Elizabeth Achtemeier once pointed out, for Christians the name “Immanuel” is such a comfort. Each year during Advent we sing again and again for his coming: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” We like the idea of “God with Us” and the whole Season of Advent and Christmas is about the Joy this brings to the world and how all of us who are faithful must come and adore him.
But Isaiah 7, Achtemeier wisely notes, can remind us that “God with Us” is a two-edged sword and for all of us for whom the idea of God’s presence is a wonderful thing, there are always those who find it just east of wonderful. Ahaz in Isaiah 7 was one such person. He had refused Isaiah’s counsel to ask God for anything he needed. Ahaz had his own plans for how he was going to confront the military threat on his doorstep and he didn’t really want God or anyone else messing that up. Thus starting in verse 13 Isaiah’s tone of voice is not soothing or comforting the way we’d want to talk about “Immanuel” today.
No, Isaiah is ticked and when he tells old Ahaz that a child called Immanuel would be born and that before that child grew up much God was going to do what God was going to do . . . .well, this was not good news to the king. This messed up and threatened everything. “God with Us” means we cannot forever do things our own way. We cannot expect to lay out our own plans and have them all come together in neat and tidy ways. “God with Us” means that most anything could happen, and most anything will!
When you think about it, though, it’s no different in Matthew. No sooner does Matthew 1 conclude with the moniker of Immanuel getting applied to the son of Mary and all hell breaks loose in Palestine. Some bumblers from Baghdad tip off Herod about some new king born right there in Herod’s backyard and, the next thing you know, Mary and Joseph are on the run, leaving in their wake the cries of Rachel for her slain children. Immanuel shows up and a mini-Holocaust follows. Immediately.
One almost would dare say also, Inevitably.
For all the shouting and singing and festiveness and good cheer we manage during Advent in also our Christian church circles, the fact is that the utter truth of Immanuel remains upsetting to many in this world who are hell-bent on propagating their own programs of power. And just maybe Immanuel’s reality ought to be a bit more sobering for even us than it sometimes is.
Immanuel changes everything. Yes, it’s a grace (and then some!) to have our God be with us and it’s comforting beyond the telling of it. True enough. But its implications are radical, too, and we should not—even in the Church—assume that despite the reality of Immanuel we can just go on and do our own thing in our own ways and without ever having to expect we might just be surprised one day to find God pushing us in another direction.
The verse Matthew invokes in such a lovely way got dug out of the heart of a chapter with a lot of unhappiness in it. Isaiah knew and Ahaz knew that Immanuel changed everything because it meant God was on the loose. This is serious business!
Surely, this would not be a bad sensibility to recover as Advent 2022 comes to a close!
My former student and now professor Katrina Schaafsma once reminded us in a sermon of something vital–something that relates to what was written above in terms of understanding the true implications of Immanuel, God with Us. It’s easy to regard this as good news but there is another aspect to the reality of God’s being with us:
“In C.S. Lewis’ book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gumpas is governor of the Lone Islands. The islands are technically under Narnian rule, but no one from Narnia has been to these far-flung regions of the kingdom in a very long time. Caspian, the young King of Narnia, is sailing through these regions for the very first time when he stops off at one of the Lone Islands with the idea of stretching his legs a bit with a few of his friends. Not long into his hike, though, he realizes that it might not be the best idea he ever had. He begins to understand that things have gone their own way for a very long time, and while he is still technically ruler of the islands, his actual presence may not be all that welcome.
When Caspian finally finds someone he can trust, he asks if Governor Gumpas is even loyal to the Narnian kingdom.
“In words, yes. All is done in the King’s name. But [the governor] would not be pleased to find a real, live King of Narnia coming in upon him. And if your Majesty came before him alone and unarmed – well he would not deny his allegiance, but he would pretend to disbelieve you. Your Grace’s life would be in danger.” (p. 47).
You see, Gumpas was ok with the idea of the king of Narnia, as long as he was left to rule his kingdom in his own way. It was this real, live King of Narnia that he would have preferred to do away with. In the same way, the Jewish people and their leaders were fine with the idea of a Son of David coming to take the throne – in fact, they loved the idea. They were waiting for it most expectantly. However, the real Messiah was something quite different than they had imagined. Instead of challenging their political oppressors, he challenged them.
And I wonder if it is the same for us. We love our Messiah – at least we love the idea of him, because, mostly, we already have him packed away in a safe, little historical display box. And, with the benefit of two millennia of theology, we have him pretty well figured out.
But do we really know what kind of Messiah King we serve? What about the Jesus who, while he cares deeply about the struggles we face, does not necessarily intend to relieve us of them at this time or maybe never during our lives? What about a Jesus whose first order of business might be bursting into our place of worship to set things straight? A Jesus who is not willing to accept our outward allegiance without a radical reorientation of our lives?
No, if it’s a real, live King Jesus coming in upon us to stir things up, we might be just as likely to reject him as the Jewish leaders 2,000 years ago.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-16 Commentary