Rev. Erik Veerman
Immanuel, God with Us
We made it to Christmastime. With all that’s happened in 2020, last December seems like a decade ago. This year felt like that well known quote from CS Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia… “always winter never Christmas.” But we’ve had hope. Even with COVID, with the racial tension, with the political anger that’s divided families and friends and neighbors this year… we’ve had hope. Hope in Christmas. The long winter of 2020, so to speak, has finally brought us to Advent and Christmas. In which we hope.
Now, I don’t mean hope in the cultural sentimentality of Christmastime. What I mean is a hope that’s grounded in the promise of Christmas. The hope of Christ, the messiah, the promised one, who is, as these verses remind us, born of the virgin and who is Immanuel – God with us…
Since we’ve been studying Acts for the last couple of months, I thought it would be good for us to get a little dose of the Old Testament this Advent. And, of course, what better Old Testament focus during Advent than Isaiah. You probably recognize Isaiah 7 verse 14 this morning “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”, then next week, Isaiah 9, “For unto us a Child is born, a son is given…” That’s our memory verse for the month. The week after next Isaiah 11. “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit”
Now, we often think of these verses in isolation… but we don’t really appreciate what was going on around him as Isaiah is prophesying.
Honestly… Isaiah’s promise of the savior is not bound up in Christmas platitudes, he’s not standing in the city square with everyone holding candles, His prophecy is not grasped by the people with this wonder of anticipation.
No, rather quite the opposite. Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus birth, here in chapter 7… comes in the middle of sin and judgment, war and destruction… not peace and joy.
Our moment in history this year is not the same as Isaiah’s… but I think compared to other years, this year it’s easier to push aside the cultural niceties of Christmas. That’s what we need to do to grasp this Isaiah 7 promise. In these chapters, there’s a raw sense of reality. But it’s out of that reality that God promises a savior. In the middle of sin and instability, military threats, God gives this amazing sign. The virgin will conceive and you shall call his name Immanuel.
First though, who is Isaiah? Well, he’s a prophet. A prophet is kind of like God’s Press Secretary. Someone who speaks God’s word as God gives it. And God placed him in Judah. There used to be one nation of God’s people, Israel. But the tribes could not get along, so they split into two nations. The northern kingdom, called Israel, had forsaken God. Sometimes the northern kingdom is also called Ephraim, one of its main tribes. That’s important to understand in these verses. Specifically verse 17. The southern kingdom, also called Judah, is centered on Jerusalem. The kingship in the south is sometimes called “the house of David” King David. That’s also important to understand in these verses. Especially verse 12.
So, Isaiah is a prophet in Judah. He’s in Jerusalem. And here, Isaiah is prophesying to king Ahaz, the King of Judah. Ahaz is a direct descendant of King David.
What’s going on? A geo-political crisis… all throughout the middle east. Three separate nations are vying for power and are against Judah. The northern kingdom, Ephraim, The nation of Syria, and the growing power of Assyria. That may be confusing. Syria and Assyria. Two separate nations. Ephraim in the north is on the brink of war. A war that will take them down. But they don’t even know it. So Ephraim aligns itself with Syria.
Judah, the southern kingdom, is afraid! They are shaking in their boots! It says as much earlier in chapter 7. King Ahaz is afraid. Jerusalem is threatened. The line of his Kingship is exposed. There’s instability all around them. Threats of war.
When you are seemingly surrounded by enemies, where do you turn? Let’s not make this theoretical. When a destructive virus is all around. And when the very truth that you believe in is attacked by this growing cultural hostility to Christianity. Matters of identity. Life. Sin. Salvation. When there’s a political war around you. where do you turn? Where should the church turn?
Well, let me tell you what King Ahaz did. With the threat from the north… from Ephraim and Syria. Ahaz aligned Judah with Assyria! He made an agreement with the King of Assyria. A political pact. He didn’t turn to God, no, he turned to a wicked nation to protect them from other wicked nations.
It gets even worse.
Ahaz himself is a wicked king! You can read all about his wickedness in the book of 2 Kings chapter 16. Ahaz led Judah down the path of worshipping false gods. He took the gold of the temple, God’s temple, and gave it to the king of Assyria! He also defaced the rest of the temple. And he sacrificed his own son in fire to a false god.
Do you get the picture here? Sin and war all around. An evil king, aligning with an evil nation. Not the warm fuzzies of Christmastime.
But despite all this, God is merciful! Through Isaiah, God tells Ahaz that the kingdoms of Ephraim and Syria will not prevail. No, they’ll be defeated.
And that bring us to verses 10 and 11 here… God basically says to Ahaz, “Do you want to know for sure that this will come true? Well, I’ll give you a sign. Ask anything you want… Anything. As deep as Sheol itself.” Sheol is the place of the dead… “or as high as heaven.” In other words, God is merciful. He’s giving Ahaz yet another chance to trust him.
And look how Ahaz responds in verse 12. “I will not put the Lord god to the test.” That sounds pious, doesn’t it? Well, in actually, it’s hollow words. Ahaz is again rejecting God here. He has already made his pact with the King of Assyria. He’s not really interested in God and not interested in God’s sign.
That’s why in verse 13. Isaiah responds with righteous anger. “Hear then, O house of David!” Reminding Ahaz of his lineage. “Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” He’s saying… Will you try to wear God out with empty words? With a heart that is far from him?
Well, Isaiah goes on… even with Ahaz’s rejection of God. God continues to display his great mercy. God gives him a sign, even though he didn’t want one. We see that well known prophecy in verse 14 an following. We’ll come back to the sign in a minute… but first, I want you to see where this prophecy is going.
Look down at Verse 17. It’s a dagger to Ahaz’s heart! Isaiah says to Ahaz… “The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah” Isaiah is prophesying about a judgement. A future judgment that will be as bad as when the tribes divided. And then, here it is, God names the very one who he will use to judge Judah. The end of verse 17. “the king of Assyria!” How’s that for poetic justice. Ahaz’s co-conspirator. The one whom Ahaz had given the gold of the temple! The very nation with whom he put his trust in will be the very instrument of God’s judgment.
Where should we turn when surrounded by enemies? When we fear like Ahaz and Judah feared. Fear of COVID. Fear of the consequences if we stand for the truth of God’s word.
Just like Ahaz, our temptation will be to run to the world. To align ourselves with movements or to trust in political agendas. And let me be specific… and I know that I’m going to step on some toes here. We believe in racial reconciliation that is Gospel centric – “Jesus is our peace… who has made us one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.” Ephesians 2. The Bible doesn’t teach a racial reconciliation that further classifies and categorizes. One that has no basis of confessing or forgiving, nor unity and peace.
Furthermore, justice in the Bible is a justice that centers on declaring Christ alone, that flows from hearts ministering in the name of Jesus …not a justice that is disconnected from the ministry of Christ, whose only goal is social wellness. Yet the church today has capitulated to these secular movements. Has aligned with worldly partners like Assyria. Movements that have no belief in the God of the Bible nor any sense of a need for reconciliation to Him.
Just like Assyria that turned on Judah, so when we, when the church enters into partnerships with groups and insititutions that deny the truth, make no mistake… those organizations will turn on us, on the church, seeking to destroy her witness and consume her people…. just like Assyria turned on Judah.
This is not new. This is the temptation of the church over the centuries.
And of course, the other temptation here is to deny the sign. To ignore God’s promise. Just like Ahaz didn’t even want a sign… so the church has even ignored the sign. What sign is that? “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The most amazing sign! A miracle of miracles. Yet, now and in the past, that very promise is denied. “It’s not possible. A virgin. Come, on. Let’s be intellectually honest.” They say. Well, Who is your God? Is he not the God of the universe? The creator of all things? Is he so small in your eyes that he cannot intervene into the very created order that he crafted? He formed every atom and molecule and cell. It’s not a matter of possibility. If God is God, he can do it. A virgin can give birth. Jesus himself said, “what is impossible with man is possible with God.” No, it’s a matter of belief.
Ahaz didn’t believe. Didn’t want a sign. Despite the chaos all around him. In his sin, he rejected God and God’s prophecy. but will you believe?
The promised messiah
Well this is the mess that was happening when this well-known prophecy was uttered. War, evil, sin, and judgment.
But do you see how amazing this promise is because of it? Despite Ahaz’s unholy alignment and false worship, despite even his rejection of a sign… yet God gives him, gives Judah a sign anyway. Despite Ahaz’s hypocrisy, God remembers his remnant and promises great mercy… the promise of a messiah, a savior.
I guess what I’m saying is this: The promise of Jesus in these verses… is not sugar-coated with Hot apple cider, eggnog, colored lights, and feel good songs… Rather, its reality. Threats and evil… temptation and judgment. But these realities, they don’t diminish the prophecy… no. they accentuate it.
The sign of Immanuel, of Jesus, is given with God’s judgment on Ahaz! And the sign is not just verse 14. In verse 16, we see that the sign includes that Ephriam and Syria will be destroyed... those 2 kingdoms that Ahaz fears. Look at the end of the verse… “the land of whose 2 kings you dread will be deserted.” God’s mercy in the midst of conflict and sin, evil and judgment.
Now, before we move on, let me briefly comment about how prophecy works in the Bible. In most cases, prophecy has an immediate fulfillment followed by a future or spiritual fulfillment. Well, in the next chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah has a son. God tells Isaiah to give him this long name… Maher-shalal-hash-baz. You know, it’s long name like that children’s story. “ricki ticki tembo no sarembo sorry barry ruchy pip berry pembo.” Some of you will know that. Well, Maher-shalal-hash-baz means… “making speed to the spoil; he hastens to the prey” This boy’s name alludes to our text, verses 15 and 16. Before the boy was able to say “mommy” and “daddy.” Assyria destroyed both Ephraim and Syria. And so, part of this prophecy has been fulfilled.
But what about verse 14? What about the sign of the virgin and of Immanuel? Some have speculated various answers to the immediate fulfillment. But none of them fulfills this amazing prophecy. No, Jesus is the first and ultimate fulfillment.
This promise is the hope of Christ. And as verse 14 says, we are to “Behold” it. That denotes the greatness of the coming sign. Then it says, “the virgin will conceive” An amazing miraculous prophecy as we’ve considered.
It goes on… “and shall call his name Immanuel.” In Matthew chapter 1, which we read earlier in our service. Matthew quotes this verse in Isaiah 7. He declares that Jesus has fulfilled this prophecy. He is the sign. They called him Jesus, which means deliverer and savior, because he was Immanuel. Matthew even translates for us what Immanuel means “God with us.”
What a tremendous promise for Judah which has now been fulfilled in Jesus. That God himself will come to them. Even though Ahaz rejected God, even though Judah will be judged. God promised Immanuel, himself. And Christ has come. He’s come to them and he’s come to us. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
Let’s spend a few minutes considering why Jesus is “Immanuel…”
Jesus is Immanuel because of his eternal nature as God. “God with us” He’s sent from the father… and as he, himself said, “I and the father are one.” Jesus is in every way eternally God. He possesses the same glory and power as God the Father and as God the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is Immanuel because God has become man. “God with us” Colossians 2:9 says... “For in Him the whole deity of God dwells bodily.” He became flesh and dwelt among us. He was born of a virgin. “Incarnate” is the word we use. It means God became man. Born as a baby. He is fully man, body and soul.
Jesus is Immanuel because he is with us. When Jesus was born, God presence was with us. He understands our weakness, knows our temptations. He’s able to comfort his people in any circumstance because of his presence. Jesus is the fulfillment of Psalm 46 … God is “our ever present help in time of trouble.” God has always been with his people, but with Jesus, God’s presence entered into to time and space… He became with us in the flesh. And because he is with us, understands us and we need not fear… as Psalm 46 goes on “though the earth give way, though the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”
And Jesus promises he’ll always be with us. In Matthew 28 before Jesus ascended to heaven, he said, “surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” We’ve seen that theme in our study of Acts. Jesus’ continued presence with his people through His Spirt.
And let me say this, there is no other religion in the world where God himself is personal, knows his creatures because he took on their very nature, God with us. And as Immanuel, Jesus is able to save. He’s the only savior because he is Immanuel. Able to offer his life for us, as one of us, but with the full nature of God.
For the remnant of God’s people in Judah… this prophecy is the perfect sign for them, the perfect hope for them. God’s presence with them… the perfect savior. This sign is greater than any sign that Ahaz could have asked for, if he believed. Because it is the sign of Jesus, the messiah, the Christ, Immanuel.
Judah was vulnerable with a godless king on the throne… and a prophecy of judgment looming over their head. Yet, even with Ahaz’s sin and God’s judgment, with war and destruction all around them, those who believed in God could rest in the coming Immanuel.
And this sign of the virgin and Immanuel… it’s a sign for us. …giving comfort to us.
With all the turmoil of 2020, sickness and conflict and fear… we have Immanuel, God with us, and he is Jesus. There is no other hope or salvation apart from him…, who was born of the virgin mary, he did suffer unto death, but as Immanuel, he rose and is ever present with us.
So, where do you turn for deliverance? Will you be like Ahaz, turning to the world for help, ignoring God and his sign. Will you acquiesce to the temptation and threats... seeking to be rescued by false promises, false beliefs, seeking any other way to be saved than by faith in the God who alone can save.
Or will you look to God’s promise through Isaiah… and stand up for truth, and believe in His promises. And look to the one who was born of a virgin, who is Immanuel.
Do not put your faith in anything else, but Christ alone… and the sign that God gave to Judah… will be the sign for you, too. The sign of Immanuel – of Jesus. He is the one true deliverer from sin and evil and judgment. Believe in the promise.