Fourth in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”
Isaiah 7:10-16 (ESV)
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”
People who want to show how the Old Testament predicts the coming of Jesus Christ often cite this prophecy, but without some background, it can be a little confusing.
In short, Ahaz, king of Judah, was being threatened with invasion by two other kingdoms, and being relatively weak and faithless, he was afraid. God had told the prophet Isaiah to go and reassure the king, and also told the prophet to take along his son, Shear-jashub. Through Isaiah, God went so far as to graciously offer Ahaz a clear sign he had nothing to fear.
Most of us would love to have a clear sign from God. Ahaz, however, rudely declined the offer in words masked in false politeness. Most likely, the king was concerned he would look too aligned with the God of his people as he tried to curry favor with surrounding kingdoms, particularly the powerful Assyrian empire.
In response, God did a surprising thing. He offered a sign pertinent not just to the immediate situation, but to all situations, to all problems in time.
A virgin shall conceive. The child shall be called Immanuel, an allusion to the fact that the child literally would be “God among us,” the meaning of the name. And despite the child’s glorious, divine status, he would eat not the food of angels, as Matthew Henry so eloquently put it, but the same milk products and honey on which the children around him would rely.
The last part of the prophecy, with its “before the boy” reference, can seem particularly confusing. We have to understand that God had moved back to the immediate situation, and was referencing not the messiah, but Isaiah’s boy, present in the room with the king of Judah. The land of the two kings who seemed so threatening would be deserted in just a few years, the short time it would take for the boy to begin to think and act like a man.
But back to that big-picture intervention, that strange prophecy of a virgin birth and God walking among us. It is as if God, having been insulted by the king, for just a moment caused the prophet to ecstatically anticipate the great power and control God would demonstrate one day. The prophecy was in some ways a most magnificent pearl cast before a most ignorant swine, but it was recorded in a way so that it has lasted to our very day.
In hearing this prophecy one week before Christmas Day, we as Christians are reminded just how strange our religion is.
We believe, we really believe, that the God who made all things—the one who stands outside space and time, the being who is infinitely larger than the universe we cannot even see in fulll—chose to come among us and live first inside a woman’s womb? God decided to reduce himself to a tiny fetus, then grow to the size of an infant, so he could be born to mewl and suckle and have his diaper changed?
And when God came among us, we believe he decided to do it as ingloriously as possible, arriving not in a royal household, but in one of the lowest, poorest places on earth? To a poor, unmarried mother, one more a girl than a woman?
The story only gets stranger. It appears this God in flesh, Jesus, started out working with his hands. And when he did finally go to preaching, he relied neither on royalty nor educated clergy to absorb and carry his message, but instead the working people of his day, many of them diseased or disreputable.
Really? That was God’s plan? To get down in the dirt?
We might as well look forward in the story even further. The child is born, becomes a man, and yes, he dies, suffering a most horrible public death. Do we recognize how strange it is to say that a holy, perfect God can not only die, but be humiliated in the process? Beaten, cursed, spat upon? That somehow in doing so, he took on all the punishment for sins we committed?
All that considered, resurrection of the messiah, as strange as it sounds, was the only logical occurrence in this chain of odd events. How could shame or even death expect to hold God? The badly unbalanced scales of the universe had to right themselves.
All of that strangeness results in blessings, of course. The Really Good News: Death can no longer expect to hold us now that we are reconciled with our holy maker.
Clearly, we believe in a special, strange kind of love, the remarkable unmerited grace poured out on us from God. I wonder if the vision puzzled Isaiah as he prophesied.
Never get used to the wonderful strangeness of what we believe. Let’s celebrate it today and in the coming weeks of Christmas with new eyes and a deep appreciation for the work God is doing through Jesus Christ.
The featured image is of a 17th-century Russian Orthodox icon, “Christ-Immanuel.”