Fourth Sunday of Advent

The difficulty of today’s text is perhaps also its genius: God is with us-and the consequences are altogether ambiguous. Properly understood, is that not the ambiguity of Advent itself? God is coming: Rejoice! Or, God is coming: Beware!

December 23, 2007

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16

The difficulty of today’s text is perhaps also its genius: God is with us-and the consequences are altogether ambiguous. Properly understood, is that not the ambiguity of Advent itself? God is coming: Rejoice! Or, God is coming: Beware!

Both responses are appropriate and true, and both mark the observance of Advent. God is coming, says Isaiah in our series of Advent readings, bringing a kingdom of peace and prosperity, equality and justice, where all creation joins humanity’s voice in songs of praise. Rejoice! But, God is coming, says John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).

God is coming, and we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Are we eager to meet God? Of course! Are we ready to meet God? Never! A healthy tension between the two will be the hallmark of an Advent that pays attention to the biblical texts.

Now, with Christmas right around the corner, it will be hard to hear the dark side of this text. Things are all so clear. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel” (v. 14 KJV). And it happened! Matthew says so directly: “‘[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us'” (Matthew 1:21-23).

Neat! But, then, not so neat, for, as we have learned, Isaiah says “young woman” rather than “virgin”-and they didn’t name the baby Immanuel after all, they named him Jesus. What does this mean?

The text itself is lodged firmly in the eighth century B.C.E. Syria and Israel (Ephraim) are in league against Judah, and Judah’s King Ahaz is afraid. Unwilling to trust in God’s protection, he seeks an alliance with Assyria; this will eventually come back to bite him, making Judah a vassal state of the Assyrian empire. The mice invite the protection of the cat at their peril. Ah, if only Ahaz could have believed the promise! God had warned him (and us) through Isaiah: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9)-though, of course, the warning is also a promise: in faith, you will indeed stand firm!

But Ahaz cannot. Can we? It’s so much easier to trust in alliances and arms and investments and securities than in God. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus will say (Matthew 6:25)-but that’s easier said than done. So Ahaz refuses God’s offer of a sign, feigning piety (as little faith often does), only to be given a sign anyway from an exasperated Isaiah. The exasperation shows in the ambiguity of the sign. On the one hand, by the time a child born now to an already pregnant woman is fully weaned, the threat from Syria and Israel will fade away (v. 16). But then, in the verses just beyond today’s reading, things turn darker: the king of Assyria will come as invited, but bringing violence and destruction (vv. 17-20). And, of course, both things are “Immanuel” (God with us), for when God comes it will always mean both judgment and promise. God comes always to bring life and salvation; but God comes always to expose human sin and purge everything that stands in the way of justice and liberty.

The Septuagint, for its own reasons, understood Isaiah’s “young woman” (Hebrew ‘almah) to be a “virgin” (Greek parthenos), thereby delivering the text to Matthew as a ready-made vehicle for his birth story. Did Isaiah have Jesus in mind when he spoke? Hardly, for the text itself gives its own eighth-century explanation. But Isaiah also makes clear that God’s word, once spoken, stays out there accomplishing new things in new days (Isaiah 55:10-11). Still, it takes a daring reinterpretation to make this one work. The word of God is not a simple prediction that will “come true” in a latter day or an equation to be solved to get one final answer-it is a living word that kills and makes alive in every generation, always needing to be proclaimed anew, always carrying both continuity and surprise: continuity in God’s steadfast love and mercy, which never change; surprise in God’s enduring penchant to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), which always stirs things up. And now, says Matthew, Jesus is that unexpected new thing: Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, even if they didn’t get his name right. The details are not the point; the promise is.

But Jesus, too, will be an ambiguous “sign.” Yes, said Simeon to God, he is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32), but to Mary he continued, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). The preacher should help the hearers be clear about the ambiguity: Christmas promises peace and joy and love and nostalgia and hope and wonder; but Christmas brings God to earth in human form (Immanuel), which will change everything we thought about God and challenge everything we thought about ourselves. Do we want our inner thoughts revealed? Only if we want them cleansed-but that’s a hard thing. Do we want a God in diapers? Only if we are prepared to see him go to the cross. For that, too, is Immanuel.

Jesus is God with us, bringing both the wonder and the worry of that reality. God is in Christ-so close we can touch him and taste him; so real he can forgive and make us new. God is in Christ-so close we cannot escape his scrutiny; so real he cannot escape the world’s suffering. Jesus is God with us, and every day we are amazed.