As Clarissa Baldwin famously said ‘A dog is for life and not just for Christmas’, and to its credit the Dog’s Trust is still urging people to think very carefully about the type of dog, if any they choose.
I think we could say the same about a well-known verse in the Bible too, one that we’ll probably hear repeated time and time again over the next few weeks. It’s found in Matthew’s gospel and reads “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Now I reckon we are making a huge mistake if we think this verse simply refers to Christmas because it means we are failing to see all it has to say to us as we face life with all its challenges.
Matthew was obviously referring to the birth of Jesus but in doing so he was quoting words that had been uttered some seven hundred years before by a Jewish prophet called Isaiah, and it is important to appreciate that Isaiah had not been talking about Jesus, he had been referring to a totally different child altogether, which is why we need to understand the backstory.
Isaiah predicted the birth of this child when he was trying to persuade king Ahaz to place his trust in God. In simple terms he was trying to tell him not to panic. Ahaz clearly needed to hear because he was in very real danger of being toppled from his throne. He had refused to join two other kings in their opposition to the ruthless Assyrian ruler Tilgath-pileser, and even worse he was wondering if he should become one of his subjects. It wasn’t the bravest of moves of course, but at least he thought it could save his skin.
That’s when Isaiah approached him and told him that a ‘young woman’ (the Hebrew didn’t necessarily mean ‘virgin’) would give birth to a child whose name ‘Immanuel’ would remind him that God was with him. In fact, Isaiah then went on to reassure him that he could relax, because his enemies would soon cease to exist. History was to prove him right.
Sadly Ahaz failed the test and he didn’t put his trust in God. He had heard that God is in control of history but that truth had not penetrated his heart. I can understand his reaction of course. It is not easy to view things from that perspective today either. When we see what is going on in the Ukraine and in the Middle East for example it can be very difficult to believe that history is not a random series of events. But God wants us to trust Him when we are watching the news as much we do when we are in church. Ahaz’ challenge is our challenge.
And if you want to be reassured that this is true then just stop and think about the Christmas story for a moment. As Matthew says a virgin did conceive and have a child, but he was born in Bethlehem and not in her home town of Nazareth. Much to her inconvenience the Roman emperor Augusts ordered that a census should be taken throughout the empires and everyone had to travel to their hometown to be accounted for. Mary went to Bethlehem there because she was engaged to be married to her fiancée Joseph and it was while they were there that Jesus (Emmanuel) was born.
Now it ‘just so happened’ that another prophet named Micah had predicted that some seven hundred years before. I can only smile when I think of this. Augustus may have been the ruler of the Roman empire but in the big scheme of things he was simply serving another King. He was unaware of it at the time of course, but as someone wisely observed history is ‘His Story’. I hope this explains why Jesus is for life and not just for Christmas!