Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Wait a minute, you might be saying to yourself. Isn’t Christmas next week? it’s true—but since this is the year of Matthew, we get a special bonus: Matthew’s version of Christmas, one week early. Note how different it is than the story we hear every year on Christmas Eve from Luke: Mary does not speak, there is no mention of a decree from Caesar Augustus, and really, the whole situation seems so much more tenuous than the way we hear it tomorrow night. Imagine the disappointment Joseph must have felt when he learned that his betrothed was pregnant. Imagine how he must have felt to learn that she was pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit—and no one else knew. In these days Mary’s punishment could have been severe. But, the angel says, his name will be Jesus, which means God saves, because in Jesus, God saves the people from their sins. As Paul would later write, he became sin who knew no sin so that we could enter the righteousness of God. But in Matthew, that righteousness comes to us—in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. But God chooses to come among us in poverty and under the cover of shame. And I think this is especially important for us to think about today.
Ahaz was a king in old Judah, the southern half of the original nation of Israel. And he knew the law of God—you shall not put the Lord to the test. But he wasn’t interested in the law as a way to righteousness; he wanted to keep his kingdom. And so he does not answer the prophet from his heart, but in form. He says the right thing, but his heart is not inclined toward God. He speaks religiously, but without faith. And yet, despite his pretense, God tells him what he is to hear anyway: that God will save Judah from these enemies, and a sign will be a child called Immanuel.
Now, we are accustomed to thinking that prophecies are predictions of the future that come true. But that’s not exactly what happens to us here today. Rather than prophecies that come true, instead we hear about the fulfilling of Scripture: both Matthew and Paul write about how Jesus fulfills Scripture. Matthew uses the word fulfill; Paul shows how Jesus is the good news the scripture promises. Both Matthew and Paul are unburdened by the cultural suppositions we bring to the Bible—they think, for instance, that a deeper meaning lies behind plain meanings of scripture. So Matthew believes that this prophecy Isaiah made to Ahaz is also a prophecy about Jesus: that a young woman will conceive and bear a son, and his name will be Emmanuel, God with us; and this promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who, after all, in Matthew says, “I did not come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.”
King Ahaz, we learn in other parts of scripture, pleaded with the King of Assyria to save him. And he was so impressed with the Assyrian altar, he had one created for the temple in Jerusalem, carved just as the Assyrian altar was carved. He desecrated the temple of his God, and placed his faith in the might of Assyria. In time, his kingdom fell to a foreign power. His trust was ill-founded. But Isaiah’s prophecy to him was fulfilled.
If this were the end of the story, it would be enough. But it isn’t the end of the story. Matthew wants us to know that Christ fulfills the scriptures. The scriptures have their end in him. Something more is at stake in the scriptures than the future of a nation, its borders and its armies. And this is why Jesus comes to dwell with us in something less than a king like Ahaz. He comes into the world like most people have come into this world throughout human history: in tenuous circumstances, under the terrorizing power of a state, poor. He comes as a human being that anyone could recognize. And his principle mission is not to build a nation, but rather to reconcile people to God, and to make clear God’s presence in life. Matthew looks back on the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, and he sees that Jesus shows their point: that God cares for the world and wants to save it from its own horror and terror. That’s the Christmas message.
Two kings in Scripture today: one a warlord, one a child. Two rulers in Scripture today: one desperate to make deals to save his little country, one the creator of the universe fulfilling his covenant with humankind. Both texts urge us to look critically at political power and seek instead the power that transcends all other power: the power of Almighty God, who comes to dwell with us in Jesus, whose name means God saves.
We live in a time when the political class has no compunction of using their piety to attract voters. I will not judge their hearts; it could very well be that some of the people who talk all day about being a Christian nation while working tirelessly to eviscerate voting rights and access to health care and the social safety net really believe that they are acting in a Christian way. But it is important for us to see today that Christ did not come into the political class: he came into the lowest class, the class without power, and rather than build a revolutionary movement, he built a church, the church which calls us its own.
The church works and exists everywhere in the world, in ever kind of political situation, from Scandinavia to Syria, from Russia to Chile, from Papua New Guinea to Canada. God really has come to dwell with us, and to save us from our sins. There is no political movement free from sin, no government free of oppression. Even the government of the church, the body of Christ is not free from sin. But there is the wonderful Counselor, the mighty Lord, the Prince of Peace, who has come to fulfill the scriptures. And his rule is good.
The ancient Israelites faced a problem like we do: some of their rulers were good, most of them bad. We’ve managed to mitigate that a little by instituting a democracy here. But even in the aggregate, it turns out that rule by the people, for the people, and of the people, is still rule by people, still subject to the sins that plavery person. So no matter the government, no matter the society, we still need to be saved. We still need God to be with us, because without God we fail.
And, we need God to be with us so that we do not be overcome by form. The temptation of Ahaz is to say the pious things, to make all the right moves, but to worship power and wealth instead. The Scriptures are clear: the real worship of God is for the rich to ensure the poor have enough, for the dignity of every human life to be respected, for people of every kind to be together in unity. And the Church’s task to practice that way of life, continually searching for God in lives of repentance from sin.
We are in bondage to sin, and we cannot save ourselves. Sin clouds our vision: we cannot always see where God is taking us, and we cannot always see how God dwells in our midst. But nevertheless, God is here. The Scriptures teach us how to see him—in prophecy, in law, in Gospel, in the constant miracle of people of every kind joining one another around Christ’s holy table. So, no matter who sits in the powerful places, do not be afraid: God has come to make a place for us with him. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack