“Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.” When I hear those words on Christmas Eve, I immediately think of Jesus. Christ is the one whose birth we celebrate tonight, the Saviour who came to us from God more than 2000 years ago. He was born to a poor family, in a difficult time, suddenly, while they were travelling far from home.
But the words of the Prophet Isaiah were not spoken in reference to Jesus – at least, not at first. Isaiah lived about 800 years before the time of Jesus, and he was speaking to King Ahaz of Judah with a message of hope and joy. As is often the case, learning about the original context can help us to appreciate the message of this Scripture as it relates to Jesus so many centuries later, and to our lives in this time.
King Ahaz was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps you know what that feels like – when you feel like you have no control over what is happening in your life, when it seems like you have to choose between two terrible possibilities, and you don’t know what to do.
In Ahaz’s case, it was political problems. The major political power at the time was Assyria, which was threatening all the other kingdoms in the area. Two other kingdoms to the North of Judah (Israel and Syria) were forming a coalition to rise up against Assyrian control. King Pekah of Israel and King Rezin of Syria wanted King Ahaz of Judah to join the coalition too. With the armies of their three kingdoms, maybe they would have a chance to prevail.
But this was no gentle invitation to work together, and when Ahaz hesitates to team up with the other two leaders, they decide to attack Judah, trying to depose Ahaz and replace him with a compliant partner. Now Ahaz is surrounded by enemies – the great power of Assyria on the one side, and Israel and Syria that have now turned against him. What should he do?
Well, I am sure that King Ahaz had political advisors, but he also had a spiritual advisor that we know as the Prophet Isaiah. And Isaiah’s advice was to trust God and not to be afraid. “Sure, the soldiers of Rezin and Pekah are on their way to Jerusalem, but this is no threat, Isaiah assures him.
“These two little ‘smoldering stumps’ are not in charge of Judah,” he tells them. “God is. And God has made promises to Jerusalem and to God’s people, and God will keep them. Stand firm in your faith. Their plans will not come to pass.”
Isaiah adds, “If you doubt God’s promise, ask God for a sign. Make it as big as you need. As high as heaven or as deep as the underworld. Just ask.”
But Ahaz was not too interested in trusting God to help him with his political decisions. The stakes were high with the possibility of being conquered by Assyria or removed from power by the others. He didn’t want to HAVE to hold firm as the prophet was suggesting. What if he wanted to change his mind later? So he answers with fake piety: “Oh no, I would never put God to the test by asking for a sign!”
Ahaz didn’t want to trust God, but God still wanted to help him. So God gave him a sign anyway. And what was this sign that was higher than heaven and deeper than the deepest pit? A baby.
“Look,” said the prophet, “a young woman is with child, shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” In a world of politics, power struggles, and kingdoms on the brink of war and destruction, the sign of God’s promise of peace is that most fragile and vulnerable of human realities, a pregnant woman and her soon-to-be-born child.
“Look at the child,” God says to the king through the prophet, “The child called Immanuel will remind you that no matter what is happening, I am with you.” And before the child knows good from evil, the lands of the two other kings will be deserted.
After that, the prophecy comes to pass. The woman gives birth to a son. But Ahaz and his people still do not trust God. They are more afraid of the conquering armies. They are more worried about the power of the King of Assyria.
Ahaz turns his back on the God of life, and the hope that only God can give drains out of society. Panicked about security, food, and the economy, the people see only misery around them. For wisdom, they desperately reach out to false prophets, while the darkness descends all around them.
Preacher Thomas Long suggests that the darkness in this text is the power of death, disease, and destruction. “This power has shown up in the reign of Ahaz, but it keeps showing up – whenever military aggression is chosen over peace, whenever illness destroys hope, whenever fear overcomes faith, whenever death loudly boasts of another victim.
“The good news proclaimed by Isaiah is that God will not abandon God’s people to the darkness; God is at work to overcome death and to bring wisdom, peace, justice, and righteousness in ways as hidden and seemingly as weak as a newborn child. In the darkness, a light has shined.”
The light shining in the darkness is not a reward for the people’s faithfulness or the result of the leader’s trust in God. It’s the good news that comes to a struggling king and country simply because God is faithful to God’s promises.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
As the prophet continues, the images of the increasing joy for all the people are striking. It will be like the joy of harvest time – when there is plenty of abundant food for all. It will be like the relief at the end of a battle – when you survive and know that everything is going to be alright. It will be like the decisive end of your enslavement – when you are released and set free from hard labour.
And then there will be a great bonfire, and all the tools of war and the symbols of oppression, injustice, and fear will be thrown on the fire. It will be a great celebration of freedom and joy!
Why? Because God is with us, and God is faithful, and God is keeping the promise God made: “A child is born for us, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.”
For King Ahaz and Judah, the hope was for their kingdom to endure – to survive and thrive into the next generation rather than be conquered by foreign powers. But in the centuries to come, Isaiah’s words become something bigger – a joyous proclamation of God’s enduring intention to save God’s people in distress.
Oh, the distress! Certainly, many among us and around the world have known the terrible realities of war, poverty, illness, and need. But in the last two years we have shared a new experience of fear, uncertainty, and loss that is aptly described as unprecedented.
Like Ahaz, our faith has ebbed and flowed during this seemingly endless pandemic. At times we have hung on to hope, straining our eyes to see glimmers of light and acts of kindness and care that have sustained us. But we’ve also had our times of discouragement and despair when all we could see around us was darkness and gloom.
Friends and family in other parts of the country or even around the world are on our hearts and minds tonight. We lift up our prayers for those places where the Omicron variant is spreading like wildfire, and we pray for God’s help as we try to keep one another safe and well.
We have learned again and again that there is no quick fix for the rapidly-mutating Coronavirus. Vaccines and boosters are helping, but not wiping out the illness or its terrible effects. We’re not unlike Ahaz in his time, stuck between a rock and a hard place, with no perfect solution, and so many worries and anxieties about the future.
But God’s message to us this Christmas is the same as it was so long ago to Judah: “Look at the child, know that I am with you, and trust me.”
As we celebrate tonight, we join with the Gospel witnesses to proclaim that God’s promise to send a child of hope, a promise fulfilled over and over again in history, has most definitively and gloriously been fulfilled in the child of Bethlehem.