God is truly with us

  • December 8, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) Dec. 19 (Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24)

What kind of sign would we like from God to reassure us when things are tough? King Ahaz wanted one but was afraid to ask. About 730 years BC Jerusalem was besieged by a coalition of Syrians and Israelites from the Northern Kingdom. They were trying to force Ahaz into joining their rebellion against the Assyrians. He was faced with a bitter dilemma: either join their rebellion and risk destruction or submit to Assyria as a vassal state. Definitely a lose-lose choice!

But Isaiah gives him a third option: sit tight and trust in God — don’t go with either side. And to give credence to the promise he offers a sign, any sign. But Ahaz is afraid to ask so Isaiah makes the choice for him: a young woman will bear a child, a son named Emmanuel. It is clear that in its original context this is not a prophecy concerning Jesus. It was clearly intended as a sign of encouragement for Ahaz and an event 700 years in the future would have been meaningless. Later in the narrative Isaiah implied that this birth would take place in the immediate future. The child in question would not even have reached the age of reason before the fulfilment of the prophecy concerning the downfall of Jerusalem’s enemies.

The mother and child were clearly known to both Isaiah and Ahaz, and there is even evidence that it may have been Isaiah’s child since the narrative describes the birth of several of his sons to whom he gives theologically meaningful names. But the name says everything: God is with us. That is the message that Isaiah wanted Ahaz to hear, and it is the message that all of us need to hear. People facing frightening situations often make desperate and sometimes foolish decisions.  Fear takes over and God is quickly factored out of the equation.

Paul’s theological prose is often hard to decipher and the opening lines of Romans is a good example. The exact meaning of the declaration of Jesus’ status as "Son of God with power" is unclear — did He not have that status before the Resurrection? Son of God He was, but with the Resurrection He also becomes the source of life-giving and sanctifying power for all. This will be evident as Paul continues his introduction with an indication of what the whole letter is about — the inclusion of the gentiles by means of that power. The Christ event is universal and it affects all of humanity and the created order.

That same power at times must push the limits of cultural norms and religious traditions. This is clear in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus — had these norms and traditions been followed, the story of Jesus might have taken a different turn. Only angelic reassurance insures that the divine plan remains on course. God’s instruments sometimes must stand at the cutting edge. Matthew’s theological goal was to anchor Jesus firmly within Israel’s salvation history and he therefore portrays Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. This is a second use or a reappropriation of these prophetic passages that reads them through eyes that already believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Jewish interpreters are absolutely correct in Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy given to Ahaz and fulfilled in his own time. And Christians are also correct in believing that the passage illuminates the life of Jesus. There can be more than one correct reading and they need not be antagonistic — one does not cancel out the other. Prophetic passages can have a second, third or fourth "life" in the history of interpretation — Scripture is a bottomless well.

If the birth of Jesus was a fulfilment of the passage from Isaiah, why was He not named Emmanuel? He was named Yeshua — God saves — because that was His role and mission. But He was also a sign of hope and of God’s continuous presence. At the end of the Gospel Jesus reassured His followers that He would be with them always until the end of the ages. God is truly with us.