Text: Isaiah 7
The time is 735 BC or thereabouts. The southern kingdom of Judah is under threat from its northern neighbours, Israel and Syria. King Ahaz and his people are beside themselves with fear. The prophet Isaiah steps forward and announces, “Though your enemies have been plotting your downfall, it is they themselves who will be ruined. Stand firm in your faith (v9).” Then, v10f, the Lord makes Ahaz an offer: “Ask the Lord for a sign that this is true – anything you like.” With a fine show of piety, Ahaz declines the offer, saying, “No, I will not put the Lord to the test.” In fact, as 2 Kings 16 records, Ahaz had no interest standing firm in his faith. He was already hatching a plan to outwit his two enemies by making friends with the biggest enemy of them all, Assyria.
The Lord is going to give a sign anyway, v14 – “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” And, of course, you know what the name Immanuel means: ‘God with us’.
You would assume, wouldn’t you, that this sign would have had some kind of immediate fulfilment there and then? But if so, who was the virgin, and who was her son? Was it (a) Ahaz’s wife, and her son Hezekiah? Or was it (b) Isaiah’s wife, and her son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz? Or was it (c) some unnamed young woman, and her otherwise unknown child? Or, (d) was Isaiah referring more enigmatically to Judah as a whole? Was he saying this to the nation, in vv16-25: the nations you fear most will be utterly destroyed. The same whirlwind that devastates them will come sweeping over your own land too. But you will not be utterly ruined; for though your population will be decimated and the countryside reverts to jungle, God will not forget his promise. The longed-for Saviour will come; and when he comes, you will know that ‘God is with us’. But whether any of these interpretations is the correct one, I afraid I havn’t a clue.
But whatever we are to make of the short-term fulfilment of the Immanuel sign, that there is a longer-term fulfilment is beyond doubt. You see, over the next few chapters Isaiah will speak of this coming deliverer in increasingly expansive terms. He will possess the land, 8:8, he will thwart all opponents, 8:10, he will appear in Galilee of the Gentiles, 9:1, he will be a great light to those in the land of the shadow of death, 9:2. He will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, 9:6, and his government and peace will never end as he reigns on David’s throne forever, 9:7.
Taking all this evidence together, it becomes clear that the Immanuel sign looks forward to some greater person and some greater deliverance than anything that ever happened in the days of Ahaz. It looks forward to the coming of the God’s anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. This is clinched at the beginning of the NT by Matthew (1:22f), who relates the circumstances around the miraculous conception of Jesus and then, quoting from Isaiah, says, ‘All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” –which means, “God with us.”‘
Well, now that we’ve been catapulted into the NT, I suggest that we stay here. I propose that we take ourselves on a whistle-stop tour to see how this message of ‘Immanuel, God with us’, might help us to stand firm in our faith today. Ready? Let’s go.
1. First stop, Mt 28:20. These are among the very last words Jesus spoke after his resurrection, just before his ascension. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” This was uttered in the context of mission. We invert the biblical order if we say, “We’re not ready, we can’t go until we know that God is with us.” It is in going, it is in the proclamation of the Word, in the evangelising of the nations, in church extension, in outreach, in bringing God’s word to bear upon the lostness and blindness around us that we enjoy the promised presence of God.
Stand firm in mission, because ‘God with us’ as we go
2. Move on now to the majestic opening of John’s Gospel. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.’ The Word who was in the beginning, and who was with God, and who was God, came down to earth and set up his tent among us. “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?” asks one of Job’s friends. No, you can’t. But God has come down to us in the person of his Son.
Near, so very near to God,
Nearer I cannot be;
For in the person of his Son
I am as near as he.
Let’s stand firm in our faith in Jesus Christ, because God is with us, in the flesh.
3. Travel forward next to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 8:38f. Do we sometimes feel that the forces of evil and darkness are so strong that they might finally thwart the gracious purposes of God? ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
How we need this assurance, this stability, today! Christians are not guaranteed immunity against temptation, tribulation, or tragedy. But we are more than conquerors, because God is for us, and God is with us.
Let’s stand firm in adversity, because God is with us, inseparably.
4. Next stop, the Epistle to the Ephesians, 2:21f. Paul says that Christ is with us corporately. ‘In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.’
This is a profound corrective to the individualism of our age. Take a look at the people around you, and then ponder the following words of Geoffrey Paul: ‘there is no way of belonging to Christ except by belonging gladly and irrevocably to that marvelous and extraordinary ragbag of saints and fatheads who make up the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.’
Let’s stand firm together, because God is with us in the community of believers, the church of Christ.
5. Our final destination is Rev 21. Here, in the closing pages of the Bible, is a golden promise of ‘God with us’ in unbroken presence in the world to come. ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”‘
Let’s stand firm in hope, because God is with us, for ever.
The story of ‘Immanuel, God with us’ does not sell computer games or crisps or shampoo. It is never going to form a major story-line in East Enders or Coronation Street. It is unlikely to oust from the front pages of the tabloids the latest scandal of a man who is paid £4m a year for training 11 men to kick a ball into a net. But that is simply to say that we live in a topsy-turvy world in which truth is constantly being distorted, values routinely inverted, trivial things habitually distracting us from what really matters.
And what really matters are the things that our God has set before to do and to believe. So, let’s stand firm in our mission, stand firm in our faith in Jesus Christ, stand firm in adversity, stand firm together, stand firm in hope, and God will be with us. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.