The trailers on the video we have just hired suggest something else we had better not miss. Products are "new, improved" or "superior". Some even claim to be "the ultimate" - a dangerous term, since even that product will soon be superseded.
We entertain a certain euphoria, thinking that we have "come of age," that Utopia is just around the corner.
Then again we become sceptical, having second thoughts about the direction of world history at the moment. Perhaps Utopia was in the past - in "the good old days" which people mistakenly thought of as "these trying times." If only we could turn back the clock and regain the lost Eden.
I recently heard a song on radio with a refrain which went like this -
I was driving the car and could do little more than catch these lines. I have no clear knowledge of the other lyrics, no real idea of what the song-writer was saying. I can only reflect on these remembered words. Do they express faith, doubt or unbelief? Is God totally separated from humanity? Must we live in constant uncertainty? Or do the words express confident trust in God without anticipating divine outcomes ("nothing is certain" from our perception, but God is still in control)?
Isaiah was prophesying in the southern kingdom of Judah some 800 years before Christ. The opening verse says it was during the reigns of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah (Is. 1.1). According to tradition Isaiah was martyred under Manasseh, the wicked son of Hezekiah around 680BC.
Jotham is described in 1 Kings 5.34 as having done "what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Uzziah had done." His son Ahaz was a different story - "he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree" (16.2b-4).
The kings of Aram (Damascus) and Israel (the northern kingdom) came together to attack Jerusalem. They were unsuccessful, but Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-Pilezer, King of Assyria, for help. Assyria attacked and captured Damascus.
Ahaz went to Damascus to meet the king of Assyria. While there he was impressed by a pagan altar he saw. He had the bronze altar in the Temple in Jerusalem moved and a pagan altar erected in its place. He used the pagan altar for offerings and sacrifices, but still sought divine guidance at the bronze altar (vv. 10-16).
The situation in Judah was not good. But it was made considerably worse by an unbelieving king who was acting out of fear.
It was in the middle of the threat from Aram and Israel that the Lord sent Isaiah the prophet to King Ahaz. The message was to "be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid" (Is. 7.4). The threat wouldn't be fulfilled. Yet there was a warning, "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all" (v. 9b).
And there was another message for Ahaz, "Ask the Lord your God for a sign..." (v. 11). Ahaz replies, "I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test" (v. 12). Back in Deuteronomy 6.16, the people were instructed, "Do not test the Lord your God as you did at Massah" - words, in fact, which Jesus quoted back to the devil during his temptation (Mt. 4.7). The testing at Massah was a failure of the grumbling, complaining people to trust God and go forward. In refusing to ask for a sign, Ahaz wasn't expressing godly trust but unbelief.
So the sign is given anyway - "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (Is. 7.14).
The words seem to refer to something fairly immediate. The Hebrew word for "virgin" may refer to any young woman of marriageable age. "But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste" (v. 16).
Yet there was something unfulfilled in the words. Fulfilment means that something has been made complete. While there was an immediate reference in Isaiah 7.14, it hadn't all happened just then.
When the Greek translation of the Old Testament was made, the word parthenos was used here - a word that unmistakably refers to a "virgin." And the word "Immanuel" - "with-us God" - is a name that goes beyond any human child. Who might this virgin's son be? And what human being could possibly be called Immanuel, "God with us"? Here was yet another unfulfilled thread in the Old Testament which must be pointing to God's promised Messiah.
Joseph, son of Jacob, was pledged to be married to Mary. But the arrangements had come unstuck - she was pregnant. Not unusual, we think to ourselves. But betrothal lasted a full year before marriage and the rules were very specific - no sexual contact during this time. That hadn't happened, yet Mary was pregnant.
She must have been unfaithful with some other man. Joseph could come to no other conclusion. Mary's story of the visit of an angel, of the power of the Holy Spirit, of a holy child who would be called the Son of God... it just didn't add up. He would have to terminate the betrothal. Yet he loved Mary and didn't want to expose her to public disgrace. He would do it quietly.
As he was turning it all over in his mind, he had a dream in which an angel of the Lord told him, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1.20,21). (The footnote informs us that "Jesus" is the Greek form of "Joshua", which means "the Lord saves").
The gospel writer adds that "all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet" in Isaiah 7.14. At last the future component of the sign given to King Ahaz was fully coming to pass.
"Everything is possible in God's time, but nothing is certain"? 850 years is a very long time in human reckoning. But God was dealing with far more than the Kings of Aram and Israel. His action was far more significant than the fortunes of the rule of King Ahaz. The virgin's Son was truly and fully Immanuel, God with us. And he was named Jesus, because he came to "save his people from their sins."
It's Christmas time again. We are remembering the coming of Immanuel, God with us. He came for you. He came for me. He came to save us from our sins. Welcome him! Receive him! And rejoice with great joy!
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