Celebrating Christmas (and Advent, given where we are in this season) can seriously damage how you read the Bible. Passages from the Old Testament are raided by the Gospel writers and they are used to add depth to the story and its message. Unfortunately the way we tend to read them, and set them to music, can make them say things that they did not mean when written; their message gets distorted by a superficial reading. Today’s readings are a case in point. First we were given Isaiah, promising that a young woman, who is expecting a child, will give birth to a son and he will be a sign of salvation (Isaiah 7:10-16)). She will call him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’. Matthew seems to use this as a foretelling of Jesus’ birth, several centuries before even the Romans had come on the scene (Matthew 1:18-25). The two children share the same name: ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God is with us’.
Isaiah was not referring to Jesus. He was talking to King Ahaz in the 8th century BC, who was not surprisingly panicking that the Assyrian regime was threatening his northern neighbours of Ephraim and Syria. What we know as and tend to lump together as Israel was at this time split into two kingdoms: Israel or Ephraim in the north, with Samaria as its capital, and Judah in the south, with Jerusalem as its capital. It’s a split that went back to what happened after King Solomon died about a couple of hundred years previously. The northern kingdom wanted the king of Judah, Ahaz, to join forces with them and the king of Syria to rebut the Assyrian advances. For Ahaz there was no immediate strategic gain in this, so he wasn’t inclined to do so, but he did want to make sure that should the Assyrian’s end up knocking on his door he had the wherewithal to survive a siege. Israel and Syria decide to lean on him and force regime change to put someone more amendable to their plans on the throne in his place. Isaiah’s comment is to remind him that God will come to their aid and the sign of this will be that by the time a young woman’s yet unborn son has grown up to eat solid food and know what he likes and doesn’t like, the threat will pass. Keep the faith mate; we will pull through this.
Matthew found in this passage a connection with the story of Jesus. The young pregnant woman, in his version, has become a virgin, partly based on the Greek version of the Old Testament, and now it is the bearing of the son that brings salvation. God is with us in the child, not the child being weaned being the time it will take for the threat to pass and this being the sign that God is with us. This does rather beg the question of whether Matthew knew the Bible he was quoting.
Matthew does understand the Biblical reference he uses, in fact he understands it so well that there is a much deeper message at work here than merely an ancient prophecy taking 800 years to be fulfilled, which would be a cold comfort to Ahaz. Isaiah does not actually address Ahaz by name. Instead he says, “Hear O House of David”. This is not an insignificant nor accidental detail. Lineage from David matters to the whole concept of what it means to be the Messiah, which is the new David, the new liberator of the nation. Because Matthew reflects the view that Jesus’ conception is miraculous and so Joseph is not the biological father, then he’s got some work to do to make the case for Jesus being descended from the House of David, because biologically he was not. What brings him into the House of David is Joseph adopting him, giving him his name and going through with his marriage to Mary. Jesus thus becomes his son and so he gets into the Davidic line.
But the deeper point being proclaimed is that Joseph names Jesus with the Emmanuel title, ‘God is with us to save’. In being faithful to the message from the angelic dream Joseph brings to fulfillment the promise to the Davidic House that God would save and connects the promise of Isaiah with the birth of Jesus. This may appear a bit convoluted, but it does seem to be what Matthew is up to in giving us the long genealogy in the verses immediately preceding this passage ending with Joseph, who is merely described as the husband of Mary, who is the mother of Jesus, and not as his father. Joseph does not beget him, in the way that Isaac was the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Judah and so on. Without some linking to the House of David and the promise, that whole genealogy, with which he begins his gospel, is pointless and the key is found in the reference to Jesus, who is called the Messiah (Matthew 1:16).
This use of the quote from Isaiah is to emphasise that God’s plan to save has been fulfilled. It is linked to the Messianic hope for the House of David, promised by Isaiah and others, and just like Isaiah promised in the time of King Ahaz as the then current occupant of the House of David, so now in Jesus “God is with us”, saving, but in a very different way.
The Gospels are very sophisticated literary works of faith. They use Old Testament texts in an extremely advanced way. They don’t merely raid them for proof texts, but rather understand very deeply the threads and themes that run through them. So what looks like a strange reference from 800 years previously, nearly 3,000 years ago to us, to a future virgin birth, is something much more immediate and enduring. God is faithful to his people. He has a plan for the salvation of the creation he has made. We are made from a purpose and the love of that purpose that brings life brings new life in God being with us. The New Testament does not stand alone, but grows out of the Old Testament and to understand it more fully we have to know what was really going on in the thinking reflected in the Old Testament writings.
For Isaiah the immediate threat would pass and the people would escape the doom that would and indeed did befall the plotting, scheming northern neighbours. It didn’t save them for ever, because a century and a half later they too ended up in exile, this time to the Babylonian empire. So political salvation is not really a place to put our hope. The young woman of Isaiah’s time gives birth to a son who provides a limited hope. The child born to the young woman of Matthew’s gospel brings a more enduring hope. For his salvation is eternal and goes beyond the political fortunes of this age. The hope announced by Isaiah to the House of David was indeed fulfilled but in a way beyond all their expectations. Jesus does not conform to the expectations of what the Messiah will be like, but then the list of the House of David, with which Matthew begins his Gospel, contains a surprising mixture too. Jesus transforms the expectations, even challenges them, and extends them. He is not a political leader, for his kingdom is not of this world, and that is what he will tell Pontius Pilate when he stands before him on trial.
A young woman conceives and bears a son and his name is Emmanuel, God is with us. We have hope beyond the political changes and chances of this fleeting world. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in” him. That is something much more worthy of a celebration.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 4, Sunday 18th December 2016