It was a time of crisis as the southern kingdom of Judah was caught up in the changing politics of the Near Easten world. The Assyrian Empire, with its capital in what is today northern Iraq, was clearly the ascendant superpower. There was no doubt about its intentions. It would seek to conquer all the surrounding nations, and certainly it would have Egypt as its target.
The nation of Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel saw the threat, and they formed an alliance in order to defend against Assyria. They wanted the southern kingdom of Judah to be part of the alliance as well. But Ahaz, the king of Judah had refused. So Syria and Israel attacked Judah during the years 735 to 733 B.C. They defeated Ahaz in battles, and took fortified cities in Judah. They had not yet been able to take Jerusalem. But clearly, a siege was coming. Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the king of Israel planned on taking Jerusalem, and then replacing Ahaz with a puppet ruler who would do their bidding.
Ahaz knew that he could not stand against Syria and Israel. He had formed a plan, and perhaps was already setting it into motion. He would ask Assyria for help against Syria and Israel. Now this was not simply a matter of politics. To enter into a covenant with Assyria would be to submit to her gods.
It was in this setting that Yahweh told Isaiah to take his son and go meet Ahaz where he was inspecting the water supply that would be critical in the upcoming siege. Yahweh’s message to King Ahaz was simple: “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.”
Yahweh told Ahaz not to fear. He described the kings of Syria and Israel as smoldering sticks – not threatening fire. And then in the most direct way possible, he said through Isaiah, “thus says the Lord GOD: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.’” Yahweh announced through his prophet that Syria and Israel would never take Jerusalem. In fact, quite the opposite, these nations would cease to be any kind of threat at all. And then the Lord said, “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.”
God called Ahaz to trust in him. He declared that Syria and Israel would never be successful against Judah. Ahaz needed to believe and trust the word of Yahweh. The way of faith was the only way that could bring safety to Jerusalem and Judah. Any other attempt by Ahaz to solve the problem would result in failure.
This is the same basic question that faces us in life all the time. Do we believe and trust in God or not? In the face of circumstances that threaten us, do we trust in God to care for us? Ahaz had sized up the situation, and had already decided that it was foolish to trust in Yahweh. The forces of Syria and Israel were just too strong. Instead, he would solve the problem by asking Assyria for help. How do we respond to bad news about our health or job? How do we respond to developments that affect our family and friends? Do we trust and believe in God fully? Or does doubt creep in about whether God really is in control? Do we begin to wounder about whether God really does care?
We hear in our text that again Yahweh spoke to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah. He said: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” God invited Ahaz to act in faith. He told Ahaz to ask for a sign – something God would do - by which Yahweh would demonstrate the truth of his promise. But Ahaz was not a man of faith. He pretended to be pious and humble as he said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” Yet the reality was that he didn’t want anything to do with faith in Yahweh. He was going to act on the basis of his own plans. He was going to count on Assyria and not Yahweh.
So Isaiah responded: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin 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. 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--the king of Assyria.”
Yahweh announced that he would give Ahaz a sign. A virgin would conceive and bear a son. And before that boy had matured, the land of the kings whom Ahaz feared – those of Syria and Israel – would be conquered and deserted. They would be, because Yahweh was bringing something so traumatic that nothing like it had occurred since the days when God’s people split into the northern and southern kingdoms. God was bringing the king of Assyria and his mighty empire. This is what Ahaz wanted, but Assyria wouldn’t stop with Syria and Israel. It would bring destruction upon Judah as well.
Now for Isaiah’s words to have any meaning for the people living in the eighth century B.C., it had to have a fulfilment at that time. God has announcing that a maiden of that time – someone who was naturally a virgin and perhaps of the royal house – would give birth to a son. The key feature was not how the child would be conceived, because when she conceived she would have a husband. Instead, it was the fact that God was providing a child at that time – a child named Immanuel, God with us – as a sign of what was going to happen.
Yet if that was all that Isaiah’s words meant, then they wouldn’t have any meaning for us. And as we continue reading in this portion of Isaiah we learn that these events that Israel and Judah were experiencing were part of something much bigger. They were events that pointed forward to a much greater action by God.
We again here about a child in chapter nine, and this is clearly no ordinary baby. Isaiah says: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” This child is the Davidic king. But he is mysteriously more. He is Mighty God.
The fulfillment of this action by God occurred in the first century A.D. In this case a virgin did conceive – and yet there was no human father involved. We hear about this in our reading from Luke chapter one as the angel Gabriel announces what will happen to Mary. But I want to focus on Matthew’s account which tells about Joseph’s experience because it quotes our text.
Joseph and Mary were betrothed – a legal arrangement that led to marriage. However, it was discovered that Mary was pregnant. Joseph wasn’t going to marry a woman who had been unfaithful before they had even had a wedding night. He was going to divorce her – end the betrothal. Yet we learn that as he considered these things an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “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.”
Then Matthew tells us: “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).” The “how” of the Messiah – the Christ sent by God – is that the Holy Spirit caused Mary to conceive. And this is no ordinary child – he truly is Immanuel – God with us. He is the Son of God in the flesh. He is true God and true man.
His name is Jesus, which means “the Lord saves” because he is the One who has saved us from our sins. He did this, not by some victory that drew the praise and awe of all. Instead, he did it by suffering and dying on the cross for us. He did it as he was forsaken by God, so that we will never will be.
But Jesus the Christ is the One through whom the Lord saves. On the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. Our Lord has won the forgiveness of sins for us. He has conquered death. He is the risen and ascended Lord who is still Immanuel – God with us – as he comes to us through his Means of Grace. During Advent we prepare to celebrate that the Son of God entered into our world – conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary - in order to save us. And we look with eager expectation to the day of his return when he will be God with us in glory.