Staunton Mennonite Church
10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol has been a holiday favorite for many people since it was first written in 1843. This popular novel has been adapted into different forms of stories, movies, and plays which has allowed many people to come to love and appreciate Dickens’ work. Across town at the Blackfriar’s Playhouse they do a wonderful rendition of this novel and Sonya and I have had the chance to see this play the last two years.
I assume that most of us know the basic story of A Christmas Carol. We have this old man that seems to care about nothing else but acquiring more money for himself. In the first scene of the book we find Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve turning down an invitation from his nephew to celebrate Christmas with his family, Scrooge turns away collectors that are trying to raise money for the poor. He resists giving his employee Bob Cratchit coal to heat his part of the office, and Scrooge reluctantly allows Cratchit to take off the next day, which is Christmas day.
But over the night, Scrooge is visited by three different ghosts. Now please recognize that this is a work of fiction and I am not claiming to believe in ghosts. But Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas yet to come. The Ghost of Christmas Past helps Scrooge to see what had happened in the past, the Ghost of Christmas Present helps Scrooge to see what is happening that Christmas, and the Ghost of Christmas yet to come helps Scrooge to see what is going to happen in the near future.
So we begin today by going back, back around 700 years before the birth of Jesus. We need to set the context for this Isaiah passage to really understand it. This is the time of the divided kingdom. The Northern Kingdom is often called Israel or Ephraim. The Southern Kingdom is called Judah. We need to remember that Isaiah was a prophet to the Southern Kingdom during the times when the Assyrians were a great power and they were taking all of the land they could come in contact with.
With the threat of the Assyrians invading their countries, the Northern Kingdom forms an alliance with another nation, which Isaiah calls Aram. And this alliance of the Northern Kingdom and Aram approaches king Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom and asks him if he would join their alliance against the Assyrians. But Ahaz refuses to join them. So the king of Aram and the king of Ephraim decide to attack Jerusalem, to over throw Ahaz, and to put in place a puppet king who would join them in their coalition against Assyria.
Now I know that all of those hard names make it difficult to really understand what is going on here. But what we need to remember is that these two countries are planning to team up on king Ahaz of Judah to over throw him. It is going to be two against one. And it is probably worse odds than that because there are likely people in the Southern Kingdom’s army that wish to form alliances with these other two nations to fight off the Assyrians.
So the two other nations are against Ahaz and his own solders may be against Ahaz. It doesn’t look too good for Ahaz, now does it? But this is where the prophet Isaiah comes in. Isaiah reassures Ahaz and tells him to have faith in standing firm in his decision. And God even offers Ahaz a sign to assure him that God will keep him safe.
Now Ahaz probably does what is right and he remembers his teachings. He says that he will not put the Lord to the test. But God gives him a sign anyway. A young woman, some versions say a virgin, will have a child and he shall be called Immanuel. And by the time that child is old enough to know right from wrong, by the time he is old enough to make decisions for himself, those two nations that are threatening Judah will fall.
This child was not the savior of Judah, but he was a sign that God was with Judah, that God would save Judah. And while I don’t know exactly how old someone is when they know what is right and wrong, we know that the Northern Kingdom did fall in the year 722 and the Southern Kingdom of Judah remained standing until 586. God was with Judah and the child was a sign that God would save his people.
Now we fast-forward another 700 years. A man named Joseph is engaged to be married to a young woman named Mary. That’s great and exciting for them. One problem, Mary is pregnant and Joseph knows that he is not the father. So Joseph decides to break off the engagement and try to salvage whatever dignity he could for himself and for Mary. He wanted to do this quietly because Mary would have been subject to stoning if she had committed adultery against Joseph, her betrothed.
Then as Joseph was sleeping the angel of the Lord came to him and told him not to dismiss Mary because the child that she was carrying was not from another man. She had not committed adultery. This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And they are to name him Jesus, which means “God is salvation”, or “God saves”.
And Matthew, the author of this book of the Bible, looks at this encounter and he says, “Whoa, this is the fulfillment of prophecy!” Matthew remembers what Isaiah said 700 years ago. He remembers that a young woman was to conceive and bear a son. And that son was to be called Emmanuel, God with us. In the days of Isaiah this son came as a sign that God would save his people. Now, 700 years later, that prophecy was being fulfilled in Jesus. This time the child was not a sign of salvation, the child was the source of salvation.
So Joseph wakes up from his sleep and he does everything that the angel instructs him to do. He marries Mary and she has a son and they name him Jesus. They name him “God is salvation.” But salvation from what? The angel of the Lord answers that question when he instructs Joseph to name the boy Jesus. In v. 21, “For he will save his people from their sins.”
I think we need to broaden our understanding of salvation to understand the salvation that Jesus brings. He brings salvation in that he brings forgiveness of sins for his people and he brings salvation in that he shows the people a way to get out of the rut of sinfulness. Jesus comes and he is the atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of the sins of his people. And he comes and he shows them how to break the sinful cycle, to escape their sinful ways. So when we read that the angel of the Lord tells Joseph that they are to name the boy Jesus because he will save his people from their sins, that saving takes on a whole new meaning.
One of my favorite scenes from A Christmas Carol comes near the end when Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up after being visited by the various ghosts and opens up his window only to realize that everything that he had encountered had taken place in one night and it was in fact Christmas morning. And I remember this scene clearly, Scrooge yells out to a young boy in the street and he asks the boy if the big goose is still at the butchers. And the little boy yells back to Scrooge, “You mean the goose that is as big as me?” And Scrooge replies, yes, that’s the goose. And Scrooge sends the boy to go buy the goose and have it delivered to the Cratchit’s home for Christmas dinner.
It is in this simple act of generosity that we find the spirit of Christmas coming out in this old man. But it is more than just the spirit of Christmas, it is the spirit of Christ coming out of Scrooge. He gives of himself freely to the Cratchit family, buying them the biggest goose in the entire neighborhood. He who has much is giving to those that have little. And the next day when Bob Cratchit comes in late for work, Scrooge forgives him and actually gives him a raise to make up for the years of poor pay. Though this story of A Christmas Carol is largely void of any mention of Jesus, I believe that Scrooge experiences one of the ways in which Jesus brings salvation from sin. Because Scrooge is able to escape the rut of his sinfulness. He is able to escape that pit that he has been in for so many years.
Jesus died for our sins on the cross, but he also showed us how to escape the sinfulness of this world when he led a life counter to the ways of the world around him. The ways of the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day were much like the ways of the Assyrians in Isaiah’s day. Their goal was to acquire as much land and power as possible. And anything that stood in their way would be wiped out with the sword.
And this is why so many people in the 1st century were expecting a messiah that would come in and free Judah from the oppression of the Roman Empire. They expected a leader who could defeat Caesar. Now it is common to modern Christians to say that the 1st century Jews just missed the point, that Jesus was not a political leader at all. But I beg to differ. Jesus was a political leader, a leader unlike any that came before him. A political leader that cared more about the people than he cared about money, land, or power.
And this makes me think back to last week’s scripture when we looked at Mary’s song. In Luke 1:51-54 Mary sings about her expectations for this child that he has been told she is about to bear, “51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel.”
And I don’t think that Mary missed the point of the role of her unborn son. And I don’t think that the Jews missed the point as badly as we often assume that they did in their messianic expectations. When we look at what Mary’s reaction was to the news that she was going to bear the Messiah, and look at what the angel of the Lord told Joseph about Jesus saving his people from sin, we can understand that this Jesus was both a great political leader and the source of salvation from sins.
The reason so many Jews missed Jesus as the Messiah is because they were expecting a different kind of political leader. They were looking for someone that would replace Caesar as their leader and lead the Jews in victory over their enemies. The Jews were looking for a Messiah that would be a Jewish Caesar. But instead we all got a savior. A savior from that sinful power, land, and money hungry system, and a savior who would die for our sins.
So now like Ebenezer Scrooge, we must look to the future. And the future that Scrooge saw was not one that he liked. When Scrooge was met by the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, he was shown a series of images of death. The death of Tiny Tim, and even his own death. My brothers and sisters, we are all going to die some day. But we are given a decision to make. When Scrooge saw his dismal future, he knew that he had to change things. Scrooge knew that he needed to stop living for himself, to stop living by the selfish ways of the world, and start sharing some of the blessings that God had given to him.
Jesus came into this world to save his people from their sins. He came to die as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, and he came to show us how to get out of the rut of sinfulness. Today I look to the future, and I proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. He has saved us from our sinfulness, and he has rescued us from our sinful nature. We must follow him. The child born to Joseph and Mary is our king. Not a king like the Assyrian kings, not a king like Caesar. He is the king of Glory. His name is Jesus.