God With Us audio (5MB)
There are times when we find it hard to trust God to look after us. There are times when we think our situation is so bad there’s no way out. There are other times when we think we know the best solution to our problems so we don’t bother to ask God for help.
All three of those statements were true for Ahaz, as Jerusalem lay surrounded by the armies of Israel and Syria. It looked like Jerusalem was doomed. The people were starving and there didn’t seem to be much hope unless they were rescued by another nation. In fact Ahaz had it in his mind to form an alliance with Egypt or Assyria. Maybe that would solve their problems.
Unfortunately, too often when we make these sorts of short term decisions we overlook the long term consequences. If they formed an alliance with, say, Assyria, they’d lose their independence, The nation of Judea would be handed over to a pagan king. Jerusalem would become a secular city just like any other city in the world.
I wonder what you do when you’re faced with some impending disaster? Do you use your own political savvy, your own applied logic, to find a way out by yourself or do you ask God to intervene? It’s difficult isn’t it, because either may be appropriate. God promises to help us, but he also tells us to act to help ourselves.
In the case of Ahaz, God decides to help him out. He sends Isaiah to speak to him and say “Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood.” Ahaz could relax in the face of this threat, because God was with him. This was God’s city and he wasn’t going to let these almost burnt out enemies take it captive. In fact he tells him that Israel will be gone within 65 years. That’s what happens when you play politics with a greater military power. But in the meantime Ahaz should trust in the Lord and ask for his help.
That sounds good doesn’t it? What is there to worry about? Just get down on your knees and pray. God has already sent his prophet to assure him of his help. He tells him to ask for a sign. That’s what Gideon did when he wasn’t sure. And God gave him a sign - twice. It’s OK to ask for a sign. God understands our lack of confidence at times like this.
But did you see how Ahaz responds? He doesn’t want to put the Lord to the test! God has gone out of his way to help his people and their king doesn’t want to bother God. Perhaps he thinks this is a trap that Isaiah is setting for him. Or perhaps he’s just too scared to step out of his comfort zone and trust God rather than his own political manoeuvring.
Well, Isaiah isn’t going to let him get away with that. He may be the king but this is God’s city, God’s people. So he gives him a sign anyway. He speaks a word of prophecy: “A young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The naming of a child is a common technique in the prophets to bring a message to God’s people. Hosea uses it to warn them of God’s judgement, then to promise his restoration. Here the child is to be named Immanuel, that is, “God is with us”, to assure them that God is ready to stand with them against their enemies. And if God is with us who can stand against us.
In the end the words Isaiah spoke came true. Both Israel and Syria were taken over by Assyria. Even Jerusalem was threatened, but it wasn’t defeated because God protected them. That would happen later.
But of course the history of Israel isn’t actually our focus today. Today we’re interested in the way that prophecy had its outworking in the birth of Jesus. As we read in the passage from Matthew 1, Matthew identifies this child with that prophecy of Isaiah 7: “They shall name him Emmanuel," which means, ‘God is with us.’”
So what does it mean that with Jesus birth God is with us? Is this just to do with the incarnation. God has come in human form to live among us? Here is a child who is both human and divine at the same time? Well that’s certainly true. This is a unique event in human history. The word of God has become flesh and dwelt among us. But it’s clearly more than that. Matthew certainly thinks so. He tells us that this child is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Isaiah’s day. Jerusalem is no longer under attack from Syria, now it’s in the hands of the Romans. So things are even worse than they were then. If ever the people needed to know that God was with them, it was now. And they needed to know not just that he was with them but that he’d protect them, save them.
Here’s the interesting bit though. In Isaiah’s day the prophecy meant that God would save Jerusalem from it’s enemies who were camped outside the gates. But this saviour who appears in Bethlehem isn’t coming to save the nation or the city from its enemies. In fact in a mere 70 years time Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Jews driven out of it almost for good. He’s coming to save his people from their sins. The angel gives him the name Jesus for that reason.
Can you see what the name Immanuel has to do with that?
This child, as God with us, is a sign that the separation we experience from God is coming to an end. What separates us from God? It’s our sin isn’t it? Jesus has come to deal with our sin; to save us from it and to enable us to be restored to full communion with God. God is with us, not to make us feel safer, but because he’s about to save us from the reality of the judgement we deserve. God is with us in a new way, a way that allows us to be with God.
It’s a complex idea isn’t it? Jesus is both a sign of God’s protection and the means of that protection. Jesus both assures us that God is fulfilling his promise to restore the creation and is the means by which God brings about that restoration.
And what about right now? We look back on the events of the first century and we know them well. We know that God has brought about the salvation he promised in this young child. We know Jesus grew up and chose 12 disciples and in the end was killed but then rose again. And that might be all we get out of a passage like this. But that would be to miss, again, the deeper significance of this name, Immanuel. Because this baby Jesus continues to be a sign for us, doesn’t he? He continues to act as a reminder, as a token of God’s ongoing love and protection. When we look back to the birth of Jesus, and to his death and resurrection, we’re reminded again and again and again, that God is mighty to save.
We read about Ahaz hearing about the alliance of Syria and Israel and being afraid that they might come and defeat him and it all seems such a long time ago. But really, his situation isn’t that much different from what many of us experience from time to time. There are times when it seems like everything is stacked against us; when it feels like the weight of the world is on us. And as Christians we often feel like we’re on our own; pitted against forces beyond our ability to resist, let alone overcome. Each year around this time we see the forces of political correctness trying to limit the celebration of Christ’s birth and turn it into the holiday season instead. In various places Nativity scenes are banned, as are Christmas carols; carols by candlelight is turned into a festival of popular culture. Santa Clause is the focus of Christmas celebrations rather than Jesus, and I could go on.
Of course most people would wonder what’s the issue. It’s only us, a small minority of the population, who actually care. The rest of the world couldn’t care less. We’re just a small part of an increasingly secular world.
But here’s the good news of Christmas. We’re not alone. We’re not facing insurmountable opposition. God is with us. He came in the form of the baby Jesus. He lived as one of us. He died and rose again. And in his last few hours with the disciples before his death he promised them this: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.’”
Then before he ascended to the Father he gave this promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Immanuel is still with us. His Holy Spirit dwells within each and every Christian. He is with us so we need never be afraid.
Paul puts it like this in Rom 8: “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” God promises to remain with us. He’s given up his only Son for us. What more could we ask for that he wouldn’t give if that’s the level of his generosity towards us?
So let me encourage you today to have confidence, not in your own ability to overcome those who oppose the gospel, but in the God who sent his only Son as both a sign of his love for us and as the means by which that love could bring about its purpose for his people. Have confidence in the God who continues to be with us through all the trials of life.