Advent, Christmas & the Nativity: Immanuel, God With Us, Is that good news?

Merry Christmas!

In Matthew’s Gospel, he states that the birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7:14.

Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:20-23

Fulfillment in Matthew:

Matthew employs the phrase “this was to fulfill” a number of times in his gospel before citing a passage from the Old Testament. While his fulfillment language can sometimes refer to a rather direct prediction, like the Messiah being born in Bethlehem, the city of David, this prediction/fulfillment scenario does not exhaust the phrase.

The phrase is better understood as meaning something more like “this (event) brings to completion” or “this (event) is the fullest expression of”. As far as we can tell, no Jews were expecting the Messiah or Messsiah(s) to be born of a virgin. Yet, both Matthew and Luke claim that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born and the Joseph was not Jesus’s biological father.

Isaiah 7:14 & the Young Woman

In its original historical context, Isaiah is informing the recalcitrant Judean King, Ahaz, that if he continues down his current path the Assyrians invasion is going to reach his door. However, if he trusts in the LORD rather than in his political alliances, he things can be different. Isaiah encourages Ahaz to ask the LORD for a sign, any sign. In a moment of false piety, Ahaz refuses to put the LORD to the test.

So, Isaiah gives him a sign.

Behold, the young woman 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. Isaiah 7:14-16

The two kings that Ahaz fears are the current kings of Israel (Ephraim) and of Syria. A young woman (presumably present for this conversation) will have a child that Isaiah is symbolically calling “God with us”. Before this child who eats royal food (according to some commentators) reaches the age of responsibility (around 13 according to some commentators), what Isaiah has said will come to pass. Assyria, God’s tool of judgement, will conquer Syria and the Northern Kingdom, Israel.

In this context, ‘God With Us’ can be good news or bad news depending on Ahaz’s response. Immanuel is like announcing Judgment Day, the Day of the LORD. The question is which side are you on when the LORD shows up to liberate his people (Exodus). Are you on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor?

Bad News for Herod

Now, remember that Mary and Joseph are already in Bethlehem obeying the will of Caesar and the current ruler of Syria. Now, they are going to flee from the will of King Herod, the ethnarch appointed by Caesar. As this so-called King of the Jews acts like Pharaoh of old, slaughtering children to secure his position.

Immanuel is bad news for Herod. His actions tell us that he sees it as bad news.

Even though it is good news for Mary and Joseph and to the wise foreigners, the magi, (how many are there?, maybe next year) this good news still has what most of us would see as bad immediate consequences. Mary and Joseph must become refugees, sojourner a in a foreign land, Egypt, until it safe for them to return home to Nazareth.

Both Christmas and Easter are bad news for tyrants. As N.T. Wright notes,

No tyrant is threatened by Jesus going to heaven, leaving his body in a tomb. No governments face the authentic Christian challenge when the church’s social preaching tries to base itself on Jesus’ teaching, detached from the central and energizing fact of his resurrection (or when, for that matter, the resurrection is affirmed simply as an example of a supernatural ‘happy ending’ which guarantees post-mortem bliss). from  Resurrection of the Son of God, p110.

Matthew’s gospel begins and ends with Jesus in conflict with the principalities and powers. With his victory, signified by the resurrection, a renewed promise of  Immanuel “God with us”.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Merry Christmas! He is risen indeed! Come Lord Jesus! Amen.

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