Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

God's Word on Sunday: God indeed is always with us

  • December 18, 2022

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) Dec. 18 (Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24)

God, give me a sign! How often we may have wished and prayed fervently for a sign, especially when we were in a desperate situation. 

Ahaz was up against the wall. Around 734 B.C., Jerusalem was surrounded by enemies laying siege to the city. They were trying to force him to join a coalition against the Assyrians. Ahaz was desperate and was considering a questionable military alliance to allay the increasing danger. Speaking through the prophet, God forbade him to do any such thing. He was to sit tight and trust in the Lord. 

As a concession, the prophet offered him a confirming sign — any sign he wanted — in effect, a blank cheque. Whether out of timidity or piety, Ahaz refused the offer, not wanting to put God to the test. But Isaiah was adamant: Ahaz would have a sign whether he wanted one or not. A young woman would bear a son and they would name him Emmanuel — God is with us. This was to give comfort and courage to Ahaz and Jerusalem, and it was to take place at that time, otherwise it would have been scant comfort. Presumably, the child to be born would be known to Ahaz. 

The Hebrew text has the word almah, which means young woman. The Greek translation of the Old Testament used the word parthenos, meaning virgin, and would be a prooftext for the virgin birth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. This discrepancy would be the source of much polemical debate in the early life of the Church. 

But the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus is based on much more than that verse alone. 

All of this would have been nonsensical to Ahaz for he had the immediate danger to worry about. As it turned out, Jerusalem survived the siege, and although it became a vassal of Assyria, it was saved. If they had joined the alliance against the Assyrians, they would have suffered annihilation, as did so many other kingdoms that tried to resist. There is a recurrent theme in the Old Testament that the strength of a kingdom does not lie in weapons, troops and horses. This incident gives abundant support to that view.

Paul began his letter to the Romans with a rather convoluted description of his mission. He underlined his status as an apostle but one with a specific purpose: to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles. Paul believed that he had been entrusted with the fuller message of Jesus and that he was designated the apostle of this message by Christ Himself. Not all agreed with him at the time for it was striking out in new territory. 

We can be grateful for Paul’s perseverance and his sometimes-abrasive self-assurance. These are the sort of people that bring about huge changes in human history.

Matthew narrates a different version than Luke of the birth of Jesus. There is no annunciation, and Mary does not utter a word in the entire story. It begins in a very human way. Joseph discovers that his bride to be is pregnant and he has an understandable reaction. The marriage is off, and he plans to send her away quietly. Traditional societies can be very unforgiving, and he did not want to humiliate or endanger her. It is then that there is an annunciation of sorts — not to Mary, but to Joseph and by means of a dream. The angel reassured Joseph that the child was of divine origin and encouraged him to take Mary as his wife without any fear, which he did. Isaiah’s prophecy was repurposed in this Gospel, albeit from the Greek version. The angel also instructed Joseph to name the child Jesus — “Yeshua” — God saves. 

Why not Emmanuel, as in the prophecy? The mission of Jesus was to save the people from their sins. But in the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reassured His followers by proclaiming that He was with them always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Jesus then has a double mission — to save us from our sins, and to walk with us to the end of time. 

What began as Ahaz’s fearful indecision in the face of crisis resulted in salvation for all of humanity. God is indeed always with us.