December 19, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“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 prophet gives an utterance that no one can believe. But such is the way of the Lord. It is inconceivable that a virgin can conceive, even more so that she will have a Son named Emmanuel. There’s no way that her Child will live up to that name. A human being will be “God with us”? And yet, what is spoken through the mouth of the prophet comes to be: so the Gospel writer states quite matter-of-factly.
But to really understand what St. Matthew said was fulfilled, we need to go back to the day when the Prophet Isaiah spoke those words. The city of Jerusalem was in turmoil. It had withheld against attacks from the north during the previous battles in the war between Israel and Judah. But King Ahaz received word that the Israelites—the northern tribes—had allied with the powerful Aramean army, the Syrians from the next nation north. With its enemies allied against them, there would be no way that Jerusalem and its small army could withstand the next assault.
But walking into the king’s court comes Isaiah. He tells King Ahaz that nothing of the sort will happen: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.” He tells the king to take courage, the Lord—the Almighty God—is with him and his people. Have faith, the prophet says: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” And to show King Ahaz that all will be well, Isaiah tells him that the Lord desires to give him a sign of proof. Whatever you want to see to know that the Lord’s promises will come true, just ask for it, Isaiah says: “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’”
And yet, the king does nothing of the sort: “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’” The reason sounds pious, but it really isn’t. Lack of faith, lack of belief—that is all the King of Judah shows. He doesn’t trust the prophet’s words. Because King Ahaz doesn’t believe the message, he won’t ask for a sign to prove that the Lord’s promise is true. He will not ask for a sign of proof because he cannot believe that his army can stand against Syria and Israel. King Ahaz looks at himself, at all the resources he has, and completely ignores what the Lord is offering to him. He trusts what he sees, not what he hears, despite the fact that word comes from the Lord.
Because of that action, the nation of Judah would be severely punished. That is the fate of those who do not trust the promises of the Lord. The Lord’s messenger delivers the news: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? . . . 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.” The fate is worse than losing a war to the Syrians and Israelites. Instead, a different nation would arise and lay siege to Jerusalem, conquering it and looting its treasure.
Yet even in the midst of all this, the prophet tells the king that the Lord still will provide a sign. Something is going to happen to show that the Lord is trustworthy and reliable. But it won’t benefit King Ahaz and the unfaithful royal court of Judah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The prophet declares that something even more humanly impossible than Jerusalem defeating two great armies is going to occur. And for those who trust in the Lord and His promises, this sign will be the way to salvation from even greater enemies than the nations of Syria and Israel or even Assyria.
That is how the events of Bethlehem are connected to that day 700 years earlier in Jerusalem’s palace. It’s why the Church repeats the accounts of the prophet and the evangelist even now on this Last Sunday in Advent. The same promise extended to King Ahaz is given to you, because you are in the same situation. You know full well about the foes that you face, how you are powerless to withstand them. Like King Ahaz, all that you can envision is destruction and defeat. That is what the eyes behold and the mind considers.
This has nothing to do with the conflicts that America engages in. It’s something much more sinister. Your true foes aren’t great armies wanting to lay siege against the nation or terrorist cells who want to blow up buildings or airplanes. A former President talked about an Axis of Evil of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. In years past it was Germany, Italy, and Japan. But the true Axis of Evil that mankind faces is sin, death, the power of the devil. You see that alliance, and there is no hope. Victory is impossible. Righteousness is not found in your actions: every day you are experts of the law, finding new ways to transgress it. Death chases after you, running a marathon or sprint: no one eludes the casket and grave. Satan’s work is all around you: new plots and executions of evil are evident, while the old ways of temptation are just as effective.
You can count your resources and make the same calculations as King Ahaz and the people of Jerusalem: there is no escape, no way out. It is just a matter of time before your destruction. And yet, the Lord comes to you with a message: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.” He speaks to you that destruction is not your destiny, failure is not your fate. All has changed, and it has everything to do with the sign that was spoken by Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
For this sign is not just a proof of trustworthiness. It is a demonstration of the Lord’s ability—the ability to be with His people and to save them. That is what He speaks through the words of the angel to another man full of doubt: “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.”
The sign given is all about salvation. The virgin conceives and bears the Savior. Humanity needs deliverance from the greatest of enemies, so the Lord stands with them. Death and destruction is the destiny of all sinners, but the Lord says: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.” Victory is impossible, but the Lord gives a sign that turns all things on their head.
When it comes down to it, it wasn’t a 700-year wait, but a forward-looking hope from the days of the first humans for the Lord’s sign. But what the Lord promises, He delivers. The sign is given: the Serpent Crusher is born; the Virgin-Born has arrived; the Reuniter of God and Man lives as Emmanuel, “God with us.” It is a heritage that you all are a part of. You are connected to Adam, Isaiah, and Joseph, not necessarily in bloodline. No, the connection is found when you all look expectantly for divine action being done on your behalf.
What your souls long for, what you most need, is provided by the Lord. But there is one caveat: the benefit is for those who believe it, who trust in what the Lord says and does to fulfill His promises. That’s where King Ahaz fell short. Despite his unbelief, the sign was still given. Yet nothing was gained for him. But that is exactly the same place where Joseph acted out of faith, so his adopted Son, the One he named Jesus, became his Savior.
So it is for you. The other words of Isaiah spoken to Ahaz remain true, even for us: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” But the words spoken by Emmanuel are just as valid: “Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The Lord’s signs are meant for your benefit, for your salvation, for your deliverance from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Those signs include the ultimate sign of salvation seen in the Virgin-born Son. But they also are the signs and tokens which the Virgin-born Son instituted, which deliver His merits, which are distributed to you now: Holy Baptism, Absolution, the Sacrament of the Altar.
Both types of signs require your belief for them to benefit you. And both types of signs have a sense of impossibility. How can a virgin give birth? How can water carry the Holy Spirit? How can humanly-spoken words bring forgiveness? How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood? Yet, the words of the Lord stand, carrying a message of salvation with them: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.” But believe and stand, as you are given salvation. For through these signs, the Lord provides salvation for you and all His people. The assaults of the enemy alliance, the Axis of True Evil, will not prevail: “It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.”
That is what has been promised to you through the Lord’s signs. He has fulfilled them. Emmanuel has been born. The Lord is with you, His people. He has saved you from your sins. And His salvation is here for you now, delivered through the signs that He has instituted for you to trust until the time He returns in glory. Believe and receive them now, as the Lord helps you by His might, quickly lifting the sins which weigh you down by His grace and mercy, so that you may be saved.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.