The Christmas Story begins at Easter. Or let me put it another way. We are here today – singing carols, with tree and Advent Candles – because of Easter. Without Easter we would not be here; we would not be doing this or anything like it; we would not be celebrating ‘Jesus, our Immanuel’, as Wesley’s hymn so magnificently puts it. St Paul says the same: if Christ had not been raised from the dead he would have no good news to share and we would have nothing to believe. So there it is: no Easter means no Christmas, but because we are Easter People with an Easter Faith we can celebrate as we do.
It’s the same with the Gospels themselves. They were written backwards, if you like, starting with the Easter ending and finishing with the Christmas stories. Mark, the earliest Gospel doesn’t say a word about Christmas. John, the latest, has that most amazing Christmas introduction upon which we could spend every Sunday until Easter unpacking and not even scratch the surface! Matthew and Luke come in the middle, telling quite different stories but with the same aim; to explain and highlight the significance of Jesus, to say who and what he really is and what he means to them. That’s the clue to reading the Christmas stories. Read them as parable stories aiming to explain the tremendous significance of Jesus – of who he was and is and what he meant to the Gospel-writers and can mean to us – the Jesus who is crucified and risen.
So to today’s reading from Matthew. It follows a long and detailed genealogy, which calls Jesus the ‘Messiah’ and traces his line back to King David and ancestor Abraham. It divides the history of the People of God so far into three epochs, and the birth of Jesus marks the beginning of the fourth. A new age has dawned. The story is full of rich images and powerful metaphors: the ‘Messiah’ is born, the ‘Holy Spirit’ is at work, an angel announces the events and a prophecy is fulfilled. Then there are the names: not only ‘Messiah’, God’s anointed king of David’s line, but also ‘Jesus’ itself, the current version of the old Joshua, meaning ‘Saviour’; and then there’s ‘Immanuel’ – ‘God with us’. It’s a powerful passage pointing up the tremendous significance of Jesus for Matthew.
But we also read Isaiah 7:1-16 which Matthew quotes. He says that the birth of Jesus fulfils the ‘Immanuel’ prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, and no doubt the difficult words of the Creed about the Virgin Birth come to mind. But let’s ask a different question. Let’s ask what Matthew is doing when he quotes this verse from Isaiah that ‘the virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ and says that this prophecy is ‘fulfilled’ in the birth of Jesus.
Isaiah chapter 7 is quite straightforward. Around 738 BC little Judah’s bigger northern neighbour’s, Syria and Israel, have come together in a coalition against the rising power of Assyria from farther north still and they are putting real pressure on Judah to join in. King Ahaz of Judah is panicking about what to do. Isaiah, God’s prophet, his spokesman, goes to him with a message from God about his predicament.
‘Don’t worry about this coalition’, he says, ‘Ignore it and it will go away. Put your trust in God’. Then Isaiah invites the king to ask God for a sign. Up to now the king hasn’t had much faith in God at all but now he comes out with the pious, ‘Far be it from me to ask the Lord for a sign’. Isaiah retorts that he’s getting a sign whether he likes it or not. So we come to the crucial bit.
The sign Isaiah gives him is the birth and infancy of a child. The meaning of the sign is plain enough. By the time a young woman can conceive – and the passage talks about a ‘young woman’, not a virgin – have her baby and the child grow old enough to tell right from wrong, then this threat will be past. Isaiah doesn’t say which young woman he is talking about, probably one of the king’s wives, as this baby is mentioned again later where he appears to have grown up to be king. This detail apart, there is no problem with Isaiah 7. It is as straightforward as any passage you will find in the prophets. It’s a word of advice to a frightened king: sit still, do nothing and in the time it takes for a woman to conceive, bear a son and wean him, this problem will have gone away. Just hang in there and God’s time will sort it! In the setting of the king’s panic in 738 BC it is no use at all for Isaiah to tell him not to worry because the Messiah is coming in 740 years’ time! Isaiah’s word is not that sort of prediction.
But Matthew uses this sign to speak of Jesus and it’s important to see why. Ask yourself why the words of these ancient preacher-prophets were preserved at all. It wasn’t, mostly, because they predicted the future. It was because they spoke of what God had done or was doing in their own day and age; and if God was the God of yesterday, today and tomorrow, the way he had been seen to act in the past was a sign of how he would act in the future. The words of the prophets were preserved and stories about them handed down so that later generations could gain that kind of help and inspiration from them. Later generations could look back and read such words and be encouraged, tell the stories and be given new hope for changing days.
This is exactly how Matthew is using the old Immanuel sign. In its original setting it was about salvation, about God saving the king and the people of Judah from foreign invasion. Isaiah promised through this sign that they would be delivered and they were. The enemy coalition was destroyed by Assyria, and the king and the prophet sat there safely in Jerusalem while it was done. The sign had come true: God had delivered them as he said he would. Seven hundred years later, Matthew reuses this story to make the point that a greater and fuller salvation is now here – in Jesus the crucified and risen Saviour – the one whose life-story he is telling.
This Jesus, Messiah and Saviour, is God’s true deliverer, the one who brings God’s full salvation. Matthew uses that old Immanuel sign to say that although God’s deliverance of Jerusalem at the time of Ahaz was marvellous enough, now in Jesus Christ – crucified and risen – God has done something which makes that old victory pale into insignificance.
It is in this sense that Jesus is indeed the ‘fulfilment’ of Isaiah’s word and sign, the fulfilment of God’s salvation, our Immanuel. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is God’s great and final deliverance: that is Matthew’s Easter conviction which shapes his Christmas story. Thanks be to God for it.