Introduction – what does Immanuel mean?
At Christmas time we are surrounded by music and it is often music that we do not sing at any other time of the year. There are Christmas hymns, classical music like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Handle’s Messiah and, of course popular music like Mariah Carey claiming “All I want for Christmas, is, you.” These songs are filled with biblical imagery, clichés of the season and well worn phrases. But what do they really mean? Take for example word “Immanuel.” It is a Christmas word that pops up in more than one carol, but specifically in “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” What does that word mean and why do we use it at Christmas? During this Advent season we are going to look closely at some of the songs of the season, five specific Christmas carols, to see what they tell us about the baby born in Bethlehem. We start with the word Immanuel and the story of Immanuel begins with a king who is filled with fear.
Transition: if you are the king in an ancient culture you are not scared of many things. You run the nation so what could scare a king – what about two kings with armies advancing against you? That is pretty scary.
Ahaz faces a crisis but will not trust God
The king in question is Ahaz the king of Judah in the year 734 BC. Ahaz was worried that his kingdom would be destroyed by the assault of Pekah king of Israel and Rezin king of Aram. They wanted to depose him and put another in his place. Their real concern was not Ahaz but the king of Assyria who threatened the whole area. They wanted to create an alliance against Assyria but Ahaz was reluctant, so they would get rid of him and replace him with someone who would understand the urgency of the situation. Ahaz’s plan was even more dangerous. He wanted to make an alliance with the king of Assyria against his more pressing neighbors. This was extremely dangerous because he would immediately be the weaker partner in a volatile partnership with a king who wanted to conquer the known world. Into this situation the Prophet Isaiah spoke. His counsel was clear. Do not worry about the Kings of Israel and Aram and do not make an alliance with Assyria. Do nothing and trust God to protect you. Here is what it says in Isaiah 7:
7 When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.
2 Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with[a] Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
3 Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub,[b] to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. 4 Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. 5 Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6 “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” 7 Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘It will not take place,
it will not happen,
8 for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’”
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”
Ahaz was afraid and he had reason to be afraid. Notice that Isaiah confirm that these two belligerent kings were plotting Ahaz’s ruin. But Isaiah counseled him not to make a decision out of fear. When we act out of fear rather than trust we often overreact and make bad choices. This is what Ahaz was facing. Isaiah was giving him the opportunity to trust God in a time of fear and darkness. It would reveal to the world that the God of Judah could be trusted. In fact the situation was so critical that Isaiah offered to give Ahaz a sign, something that would bolster his faith and prove to him that God was in control of the situation, but Ahaz said no. he claims that he did not want to put God to the test, but the truth was he was set on disobedience. He had not desire to trust God and he did not want a sign that would change his mind.
If there is anything scarier than acting out of fear it is stubborn refusal to obey God. That only brings disaster.
Transition: God decides to give Isaiah a sign and this is where we first hear the name “Immanuel.” It will be a sign of God’s presence but it will not be a good sign for Ahaz.
The sign of Immanuel shows that God could have been trusted but the king was not willing to obey and the people go into exile
13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you[c] a sign: The virgin [or maiden] will conceive and give birth to a son, and[e] will call him Immanuel.[f] 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”
Look what it says in Isaiah 8 starting in verse 7:
7 therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
run over all its banks
8 and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
9 Raise the war cry,[c] you nations, and be shattered!
Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
10 Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
propose your plan, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.[d]
11 This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:
12 “Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread.
14 He will be a holy place;
for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
What Isaiah tells Ahaz is that God could have been trusted and the proof will be the birth of a baby and the demise of the two kings. He wants the king to know that God will take care of the kings of Aram and Israel so he gives him a time table. A virgin – by this he means a currently unmarried woman of marriageable age will conceive and give birth to a son and give him the name “Immanuel.” Before that boy is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, the two kings would cease to be a factor on the world stage. That would seem to be good news except that by then Ahaz will have already invited Assyria to the region and they will sweep over the land like a flood. This is the imagery Isaiah uses, water overflowing, swirling and rising up to the neck.
There is a lesson here for us. Ahaz thought he could manage a partnership with Assyria and in that way he thought he could manage disobedience with God. Surely he did not expect his new partner to sweep across the land conquering everything but Jerusalem itself. But rarely do we expect the sin we invite into out lives to control us. And it almost always does.
This is the problem with calculated disobedience – you open a door to consequences that you cannot control. In our world someone might say:
– I will steal from the company just this one time
— I will just try this drug to see what it is like then stop
— I am only flirting, it is nothing dangerous.
We don’t have that much control of our lives. We dabble in sin without realizing that we are risking everything. How differently would you handle the situation you are in if you knew that God was with you?
So the northern nation goes into exile at the hands of Assyria. The southern kingdom follows a generation later conquered by Babylon because of their sins. Forty or so years later they are released and given an opportunity to return to the land but they never really have their own Kingdom.
Strange fact: the birth of the child named Immanuel is never mentioned. You just assume that it happened. And we would think no more of this child or the name and he would certainly not appear in Christmas or of Christmas carols, if the story ended in Isaiah but it doesn’t.
Matthew 1 reveals the facts of Jesus’ birth and recalls that he is the real Immanuel for a people who are still in exile
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[d]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[f] because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[g] (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew tells us that Mary the mother of Jesus carried a child conceived by the Holy Spirit alone. This child would truly fulfill the prophecy of a virgin being with child – not just a young woman as in Isaiah, but a virgin. And Jesus would fulfill the name “Immanuel” better than any person ever born. This passage could mean that there never was baby back in Isaiah’s day, or that there was a baby born but this child of Mary is a deepening of that promise, fulfilled in completeness in a way we could not see coming.
Notice that Joseph is told to act out of trust and not fear. He was facing a scary situation, but unlike Ahaz he was willing to trust God. Notice also that the angel says that the child will “save his people from their sins.” Joseph must have thought that Jesus would grow to be a king to throw off the Romans and restore the nation once and for all. But we know he was after something deeper. The problem with bringing the people back from their exile is that once they return they fall into the same habits. It is hard to trust God when we are afraid. In this sense we remain in exile, enslaved by our own sin, fear and inability to trust. But Jesus has come not only to pay a penalty for our sin and so save us, he also break the power of sin in our lives that we might be changed from the inside out. In Jesus we can be set free from sin’s penalty and from its power. We can trust God because we can see how much he loves us when we remember the cross.
In the song, O Come O Come Immanuel, the writer brings together all this imagery
The song picks up this imagery, that Jesus has come to set us free and that God is with us in incarnation and Holy Spirit.
O Come O come Immanuel
1. O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
2. O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Jesus has come to save you from captivity, from the tyranny of Satan and the grave. He pays the penalty of sin with his death and gives us eternal life – victory over the grave. He breaks the power of sin through his gift of the Holy Spirit – captivity and tyranny. And he never leaves us. He is truly Immanuel – God with us.