A reading from the gospel according to Matthew
and also from the prophet Isaiah:
(Matthew 1:21-23) “She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
(Isaiah 7:14) There the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
I grew up going to church, and I heard these passages a lot around Christmas time.
And—lo and behold—Christmas is coming.
In the church calendar there are four weeks called “Advent”
that lead up to the celebration of Christmas.
Four weeks that anticipate the coming of messiah into the world—
the arrival and appearance of Jesus in the world.
Today is the first Sunday of advent.
(Hence our reading from Matthew and Isaiah.)
I’d like to walk us through a meditation on these verses
that will lead us to the table.
But, first, maybe we just quick word about the Church Calendar:
The Church has its own calendar.
The Church has its own way of telling time.
That’s pretty staggering.
On The Chapel’s Facebook page—
we posted a wonderful (short) article about the church calendar.
The pastor who wrote that article pointed out
that days, months, years are just measurements of motion through space.
“A day is the revolution of the earth.
A month is the revolution of the moon around the earth.
A year is the revolution of the earth around the sun.”
But those things are meaningless in themselves.
Time is meaningless by itself.
In the words of that article:
“To give time meaning we need a story.”
“How we tell time determines who we are. If you expect fireworks on the fourth day of the seventh month you are an American. Calendar creates culture.”
Century after century the Church has lived by its own rhythm—
and it’s a rhythm that is trying to ground us in life and story of the God revealed in Jesus.
Century after century the Church has lived slightly out of rhythm
with whatever culture it finds itself in.
We don’t tell time in the same way that the rest of the world does.
We tell time around Jesus.
Beginning in Advent—a season of watching and longing and looking—
followed by Christmas and Epiphany and Lent and Easter and Pentecost
and finally Kingdom Time or Ordinary Time.
Advent marks the end of that calendar
and the beginning of that calendar.
It’s the beginning of the calendar because
we’re watching and longing and looking for the coming of Jesus.
And it’s the end of the calendar for the exact same reason—
because we’re watching and longing and looking for the coming of Jesus.
We’re remembering the appearance of Jesus in a manger—
that moment when Jesus arrived to transform and remake the world.
And we’re continuing (to this day) to anticipate the appearance of Jesus—
that day when Jesus will transform and remake the world.
The Church’s life isn’t shaped by Hallmark or social media or fashions or trends.
In a culture that’s ever-changing, ever-shifting, ever-chasing-its-own-tail,
the Church’s has found solid ground.
The Church’s life is stable.
And that’s because the Church’s life is rooted in something deeper than itself.
The Church’s life is rooted and grounded
in the life and story of Jesus.
That’s why we have a calendar—
to tell the story of Jesus again and again and again.
To ground ourselves in solid ground.
The solid ground of the Church
comes from the story of Jesus.
I commend that article to you.
(And if you haven’t liked us on Facebook, like us.)
Back to our passage for today.
I heard these words a lot growing up.
Anytime Christmas got close.
The New Testament practically begins with these words—
these words are in first chapter of the first book.
But as I’ve gotten older,
I’ve wrestled with how does the arrival of Jesus fulfill the words of Isaiah?
Matthew says that the words of the prophet (v22) are “fulfilled” with Jesus.
But when you read Isaiah 7,
Isaiah’s words don’t seem to have anything to do with Jesus.
So we should probably turn there.
(It’s pgs 477-478 in the Blue Bibles.)
When you actually read Isaiah,
he’s not pointing forward into the cloudy future
and saying that Immanuel is coming in eight centuries.
For all the world he seems like he’s talking about a woman
about to give birth to a child right then—
in the 8th century BC.
A little bit of background is in order:
By the 8th century BC,
the people of God are in trouble.
There’s trouble brewing just north of them.
Their estranged cousins out of Samaria
have joined forces with a kingdom called Aram
and now they’re threatening to march on Jerusalem and conquer them.
War is about to break out—
and it’s a war that Judah’s going to lose.
And (v2) when the people of God find out,
they’re shaken—“as the trees of the forest are shaken by wind.”
And so (v3) God sends Isaiah and his son
out to meet Ahaz (the king of Judah) and give him some good news.
Isaiah is to tell him not to be worried about current events.
War is about to break out,
but don’t worry.
It’s not going to.
“It will not take place,
it will not happen.”
And then God gives Ahaz (the king of Judah) a sign.
A virgin is going to conceive and give birth to a son (v14),
and (v15) by the time that little boy is old enough to eat yogurt and honey
the threat of war is going to be gone.
(v15-16) He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.”
In others words,
in the time that it takes a young woman who isn’t married
to conceive and give birth to a son—
the threatening clouds of war are going to pass.
The two kings you dread, King Ahaz, are going to be laid waste.
You should call that kid “Immanuel”
because he will be a sign that God is with you.
And when you read Isaiah it seems all the world
like this child who is going to be born shows up in chapter 8.
If you keep reading in chapter 8,
the story seems to continue.
(8.1-4) The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”
So this is the kid who
before he grows up,
before he’s eating yogurt or honey
before he can even say “daddy” or “mommy”
this international crisis is going to be over.
The cities of Damascus and Samaria
are going to plundered by another king—
the king of Assyria.
When you just read Isaiah
it seems like this baby boy—Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz—
is going to be Immanuel.
is going to be the sign that
God is with his people.
I just like saying that name.
Another fine boy name from the Bible.
There’s a footnote in verse one, that tells you what the name means:
“Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.”
Why on earth would this child—
“Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil”—
why on earth would he be “God with us”?
How could he be a sign that God is with his people?
Well, it’s all in the name, isn’t it?
The enemies of Judah will be conquered and plundered and spoiled—
and it’s going to happen soon.
Isaiah is going to have a son
who will be a sign that God is with his people
and is sending the king of Assyria to conquer their enemies.
It’s going to happen soon—swiftly—toot sweet!
Near the end of chapter 8, Isaiah says:
(8.18) Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.
Before we ever get to Bethlehem or Christmas or Mary and Joseph,
the words of Isaiah 7 are about Isaiah and his strangely named-children.
Isaiah and his children
are the original signs
that God is with his people.
The scroll of Isaiah—the book of Isaiah—
doesn’t seem worried about anything beyond
Isaiah and his strangely-named children.
We’re reflecting on this for a couple of reasons this morning.
First is something about the way we understand the Bible.
Second is something about the way we understand God with us today.
First the Bible.
We want to be a community
really learning to listen to the Scriptures
as faithfully and honestly as we can.
If Isaiah is talking a young woman conceiving a child in the 8th century BC,
I want to faithfully and honestly understand that.
If there’s a really good chance
that Immanuel originally referred to Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz,
I want to faithfully and honestly accept that.
We want to listen to what the Bible is actually saying,
not just what we think it’s saying.
We want to watch what the Bible is actually doing,
not just what we think it’s doing.
The impression that I got of prophecy growing up
was that prophecies worked a lot like bottle rockets.
That somewhere in the 8th century BC, Isaiah lit the fuse of a prophecy—
this kind of verbal bottle rocket that went sailing through the centuries
until it finally popped with a flash over Bethlehem
at the beginning of the first century.
As a kid and a teenager and a young adult,
how preachers talked about the Bible here.
I would look at all the rest of the stuff in Isaiah 7—
all the rest of the story in Isaiah 7—
and just be confused how it could be prophecy.
Isaiah doesn’t seem to be lighting a fuse for Jesus here.
If this prophecy is a bottle rocket,
it only sails through the air for a year or two
before it pops with flash over a toddler and an Assyrian King.
How is Isaiah 7 about Jesus?
Because Matthew says that what happens with Jesus—
the unprecedented, never-before-seen event
where Mary gets pregnant while she’s still a literal virgin—
is a fulfillment of Isaiah.
But that sure doesn’t seem to be what Isaiah originally had in mind.
Well, if it helps, there actually isn’t a word in Greek for “fulfill.”
We tend to think of “fulfill” like this:
[slide showing puzzle piece]
There’s a piece missing from a puzzle
but the right piece would “fill” the hole and “fulfill” the puzzle.
I think that’s we think of when we hear the English word “fulfill.”
But Greek doesn’t have a word like that—
there isn’t a word for “fulfill.”
That’s the way we commonly translate the word into English,
but I think it might be more helpful to translate it more literally.
What Matthew literally says is that
all this took place to “fill up” or “fill out” or “overflow”
what the Lord has said through the prophet.
That’s literally what the Greek means.
It’s about a filling up… about a filling out… to overflowing.
The season of Advent is
less like a tiny bottle rocket flashing over Bethlehem,
less like prophetic puzzle pieces fitting into place in the first century
and it’s more like a tropical storm or a hurricane making landfall.
When a hurricane makes landfall,
it changes the world.
The beach and the trees and the landscape are never going to look the same.
And you better duct-tape your doors and plywood your windows
because its wind and its rain aren’t just going to alter the landscape—
they’re going to flood and fill every crack and crevice,
every nook and cranny imaginable.
When the early church reflected on Jesus,
they thought of him in those kinds of terms.
The arrival of Jesus into the world
was like hurricane that changed the landscape of the world.
The world would never be the same—
he rose from the dead for crying out loud.
The resurrection of Jesus is first-and-foremost
why Matthew is writing the story of Jesus.
That’s why the early church even started.
Not because there were a checklist of prophecies
that Jesus and Jesus alone fulfilled.
Not even because something unique and miraculous happened at Jesus’ birth.
The church started—Matthew is writing—because the resurrection of Jesus
had rocked the worlds of the earliest Christians so profoundly, so deeply,
that every conceivable crack and crevice had been filled up
with his life, with his meaning, with his presence.
They read a story like Isaiah 7 and 8 and realized
“Hey!—the story of Jesus is like that but even more.”
“Isaiah said that thing about the young woman conceiving.
Isaiah said that thing about the toddler and the yogurt.
Isaiah said that thing about the arrival of a plundering king.
“But now what has happened in Jesus
is something like that but even more.”
In Jesus, a literal, no-joke, virgin conceived.
In Jesus, a king is arriving—
not the king of Assyria but the king of heaven itself.
In Jesus, this king is plundering the enemy—
the great enemy, the last enemy—
death itself has been spoiled and conquered.
And in Jesus—this is the deep mystery—
God himself is actually becoming a child.
The Immanuel child.
The God with us child.
Joseph is told to him Jesus—“Yeshua,” “God saves.”
because that’s who this child is—God.
and that’s what child always does—saves.
Matthew begins his gospel—the New Testament begins—by recognizing how
every nook and cranny of the world and human history and even Israel’s Scripture
has begun to overflow with the life and presence of Jesus.
The arrival of Jesus is a hurricane.
The life of Jesus floods Isaiah 7—
he fills it up, he fills it out, he overflows it.
Isaiah could never be understood in quite the same way again.
And neither can anything else.
Jesus doesn’t just fill up and flood
the Scripture or the prophets or religious things.
Jesus fills up and fills out and overflows everything (cf. Eph 1:23)
That’s what the season of Advent is about.
We’re waiting and watching for arrival of a storm.
Waiting and watching for the healing storm of God’s love
and learning to fling open our windows and doors and shutters.
It takes practice.
It takes patience.
It takes persistence.
We’re really good at bracing ourselves against God—
boarding ourselves up with doubt and pride and selfishness.
But Advent is a season where we remember
that Love has made landfall,
that the sustained winds of Love surround us even today,
and that this Love will one day remake the world,
We’re invited to tear off the duct-tape and plywood
and doubt and pride and selfishness,
and allow the life of Jesus to flood us.
From how we understand Scripture to how we tell time.
From our morals and spirituality to our politics and economics.
From our greatest moments to our darkest sins.
We are invited to fling open our lives
and entrust every emotion, every decision, every darkness—
every bit of life to Immanuel—to the God who is always with us.
The God who saves us.