The Beginning of an Idea

This past Sunday morning was the first Sunday of Advent. With the season in mind, we kicked off a brand-new teaching series called, God with Us. For the next few weeks, we are going to take a look at this idea that Jesus was to be named Immanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll examine both the glorious and the humble aspects of this. Today, though, we’ll start with a look at where the idea came from in the first place. May this be the beginning of your preparing to receive Jesus as we move forward into this sweet, sweet season.

The Beginning of an Idea

One of the benefits of living in a culture steeped in nostalgia is that sometimes our forays into it can be pretty fun. One of the most classic sports movies when I was growing up was Disney’s The Mighty Ducks. It was one of those special movies that got everything just right. It certainly wasn’t going to win any awards, but it generated two sequels, both of which did reasonably well—especially once they left the theaters. More than that, the first film actually resulted in the naming of a new hockey team in the Los Angeles area that is still playing today: the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. I can’t think of another professional sports team that was named after a kids’ movie. Well, as Disney+ strives to attract subscribers by producing content intended for both kids and their parents who grew up in my generation, they are leaning pretty heavily on nostalgia to hook viewers and reel them in. One of the titles they have resurrected from the past in order to do this is none other than The Mighty Ducks. 

The new series is called Mighty Ducks: Game Changers. It’s about a ragtag group of kids who, with the help of Emilio Estevez’s, Gordon Bombay, manage to overcome incredible odds and…narrowly lose the local little league hockey championship game against…wait for it…the Mighty Ducks, which has become a local hockey juggernaut, completely disconnected from their humble beginnings. But in an unsanctioned rematch, the Don’t Bothers (which is really the team name of the new upstarts) claim the victory everyone was waiting for in the second-to-last episode. Instead of a championship banner, though, that victory earned them the name rights to The Mighty Ducks. It was a fun little twist on the standard Disney sports movie script. 

My family is currently watching our way through the second season of the show which takes place at a summer hockey camp in Los Angeles. This season didn’t really have any connection to the past minus some mentions of Bombay, who is not in this season at all, until they make an inspirational trip to the home stadium of the professional Mighty Ducks to meet with the team’s head coach. When they arrive at the stadium, however, they are greeted by a representative of a representative of the team’s official representative who gives them all some cheap souvenirs and breaks the bad news that due to a media firestorm from the menu at a team dinner the night before featuring roast duck, the head coach can’t actually meet with them as planned. Now, everything works out fine in the end because this is Disney we’re talking about, but their initial disappointment at getting only a representative of the coach instead of the coach himself was intense. There’s something special about getting to be with the actual person you’re trying to see rather than just a representative. 

This morning, we are kicking off a brand-new teaching series for the season of Advent which begins today. The word “advent” means arrival. The season of Advent in the church calendar officially begins four Sundays before Christmas. This means that in some years…like this one…it actually starts in November. The season of Advent is supposed to be a time when we are preparing to celebrate the arrival of Jesus. As we celebrate the season of Advent here, I want to get us ready for Jesus’ arrival by thinking together with the Scriptures for a few weeks about just what it means that in Jesus we have God with us. In fact, that’s the title of our series: God with Us. Before Jesus came, we could only ever engage with God through representatives. This wasn’t necessarily a bad system, but it also left us constantly having to settle with less than we really wanted. Instead of God, we only got representatives, and that’s not the same thing. When Jesus came, though, we suddenly had God with us. This season, I want for us to see if we can get our hearts and minds around that idea in a way perhaps we haven’t before.

We’ll spend the next couple of weeks, Lord willing, digging into the idea in more detail, but this morning, I want to start with where the idea comes from in the first place. Why would I tell you that in Jesus we have God with us? Why have you perhaps heard that even before I just told you? Where do we get such a notion? We get it from Jesus’ disciple, Matthew, and the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy this morning, find your way to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Let’s take a look at this story together. 

Starting in Matthew 1:18, we find this: “The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way.” This comes right on the heels of Matthew’s royal genealogy of Jesus which probably did not represent many of His actual ancestors like you might find from an Ancestry.com search, but which would have been broadly accepted in that day as a way to show Jesus’ legitimate connection to the royal line of King David. This was important to establish for Matthew’s Jewish-background audience because the apostle’s goal was to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, which for them meant He was the son of David. With His royal family lineage firmly established, Matthew turns his attention to telling the remarkable story of how Jesus entered the world. Even more so than what Luke highlights, it was quite a doozy of a story. 

“The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit.” That may seem like a simple enough statement of fact, but there is a world of stuff packed into it. In the first century, their engagement was called a betrothal, and was a little like what engagement is now, but even stronger. It was established by a contract that was intended to be replaced by a covenant in the marriage ceremony. Violating the terms of this contract was a big deal. It would have been enormously expensive for the family of the partner who breached it. Worse yet for them, it meant accruing a huge amount of shame. In Mary’s case, her being discovered to be pregnant meant she had broken the contract in about as thorough a way as possible. Legally speaking, she could have been charged with adultery; a charge that carried the penalty of death by stoning. And let’s face it: No one was going to believe her pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit,” least of all, her husband. 

“So her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.” Sometimes folks will ask about how to harmonize Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’ birth and Matthew’s. That’s not totally clear from the Scriptures, but here’s my best take. When Mary received the announcement of God’s plans from Gabriel, it wasn’t long before she figured out she was pregnant. When she found out, she told her folks about it, and they hustled her off to her cousin Elizabeth’s (that would be John the Baptist’s mom) to hide out for a few months while they figured out a plan for when she got back. It was when she got back and in a state such that hiding her pregnancy wasn’t an option any longer that word began to get out. I suspect this discovery was first made by Joseph himself in his eagerness to see his bride-to-be. This is why he was able to make a plan for divorcing her secretly. If the rest of the community knew what was going on, the shame incurred by her family would make keeping the whole affair a secret all but impossible. 

Somehow, Joseph found some reserves of grace in his heart and decided that he didn’t want to put her through any more than she was already facing. All the same, he couldn’t fathom the idea of being involved with a woman who was unfaithful to the point of getting herself pregnant before they were even married. Any one of us would have done the same thing in his shoes. Actually, that’s not quite right. We are more likely to have taken more of a scorched-earth approach and griped about the thing all over social media. She may not have been subject to a legal court today, but the court of public opinion can be even harsher—and less just—in its punishments. 

Just as Joseph was preparing to carry out his plan, God moved. Isn’t it just like God, too, waiting until the last minute like this? Often He just lets things play out, but this particular plan was one He needed to keep on a bit tighter of a track, so He got involved a little more, let’s say “directly,” than He often does. Verse 20 now: “But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’’ Now, there are a whole bunch of things we hear in that from a theological standpoint, but there is one thing Joseph heard and before everything else: The child his soon-to-be wife was going to bear was going to be the Messiah. We know from the rest of the story that Matthew gives us in v. 24 that Joseph does exactly what God tells him to do in his dream. Righteous people do that and Joseph was a righteous man. 

But before he gives us the rest of the story, Matthew takes just a second in vv. 22-23 to offer a quick editorial comment for his readers. He wanted for them to understand that this Jesus was indeed the Messiah who God had promised to send His people in the Scriptures. Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy. And of all the prophecies Matthew could have cited to back this up, he zeroes in on one in particular. Matthew writes, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us.’” 

Now, I think this is really interesting, so stick with me here for a second. Matthew doesn’t give the name of the prophet here because all of his original audience would have recognized immediately what you may have needed your Bible’s footnote to know: this came from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet to the people of Judah for a really long period of time during which the northern nation of Israel was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrians all in about the mid-8th century BC. As a member of the royal household, he spent much of his time speaking the words of the Lord to the people during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah. Ahaz was generally a horrible, faithless king who ruled for about 30 years and did enormous damage to the spiritual condition of the nation. Thus the need for Isaiah. 

Somewhere toward the beginning of Ahaz’s reign, the Assyrian Empire was becoming a bigger and bigger threat to the north and east of the region. They weren’t a particular threat to Judah itself, but for Israel to the north and Syria still north of that, they were becoming a pretty significant threat. As a result of this, those two nations formed an alliance to stand against the Assyrians. Knowing they didn’t have enough military might to do this on their own, they began to seek to get the nations around them to join up with them. For those nations who didn’t join willingly, these two regional powerhouses conquered them and forced them to join. As Ahaz was still getting his feet wet, Israel and Syria came to town urging them to join their alliance…or else. 

In the midst of all this, God sent Isaiah to Ahaz with a message: Don’t worry about the threat these nations pose to you. I’ve got your back. Flip over to Isaiah 7 with me and you can see this. From Isaiah 7:3: “The Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out with your son Shear-jashub to meet Ahaz at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, by the road to the Launderer’s Field. Say to him: “Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or cowardly because of these two smolding sticks, the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram [that is, Syria], and the son of Remaliah [that is, Israel]. For Aram, along with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has plotted harm against you. They say, ‘Let’s go up against Judah, terrorize it, and conquer it for ourselves. Then we can install Tabeel’s son as king in it.’”’ This is what the Lord God says: ‘It will not happen; it will not occur. The chief city of Aram is Damascus, the chief of Damascus is Rezin (within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people), the chief city of Ephraim is Samaria, and the chief of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you do not stand firm in your faith, then you will not stand at all.’” 

Are you with Him here? Maybe not. God is saying to Ahaz through Isaiah: “These two knuckleheads think they are going to conquer you. It’s not going to happen. I know who they are and what their end will be. Trust in me to have your back or else fall on your own.” Then, Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask God for a sign to prove His faithfulness and give him confidence to trust in Him. Ahaz, though, puts on a pious act that was really a sham to cover for his total lack of faith in God and refuses. Isaiah gets frustrated and essentially says, “Fine! You don’t want to ask for a sign, then God will give you one Himself.” Now, this whole conversation was happening in a public place where people went to wash their clothes. There was probably a young woman nearby performing this regular household task. Isaiah may have pointed to one of them when he declared: “See, the virgin [which can also be translated “this young woman” without affecting the meaning for us at all] will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.” We take these as just words on a page, but this had to have been a wild scene when it first took place, and all the more so perhaps for the young woman at whom Isaiah may have pointed his finger here. Isaiah goes on to describe how in the very near future, God is going to devastate Israel and Syria by way of the Assyrian army who will then come calling on Judah. In other words, when Isaiah declared that this young woman was going to name her child Immanuel, which Matthew helpfully translated as  “God with us,” this wasn’t a promise of comfort and compassion, but of judgment and devastation. When God draws near, things aren’t going to go well for those who, like Ahaz,  have no fear of Him; who don’t respect Him as God. 

This prophecy from Isaiah that in context doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with the use Matthew would later give to it has what theologians call a “typological fulfillment.” This means that while it meant one thing in its original context, the leading of the Holy Spirit would later help God’s people to understand it to mean something slightly different, but still legitimate and able to be seen in the original text. This second meaning comes when we look at it through a different lens than its original context offered. More specifically, it comes when we look at it through the lens of Jesus. What Matthew is trying to help us understand in quoting this prophecy is this: Remember when Isaiah said that thing about God being with us when a young woman—a virgin—got pregnant and had a son? It’s happening again, but this time, instead of coming for judgment, God is coming for salvation.” 

Imagine that. God’s coming near to save His people. What other god has ever done such a thing? The idea of a god coming for judgment was always an easy sell. Gods came for judgment all the time in the ancient world. But while they might come in a display of power to help rescue their people from an enemy, this was hardly the kind of salvation Matthew was talking about in v. 21. This kind of salvation was—and is—something altogether different. The “salvation” of old was merely a physical one. It got them out of some immediate danger, and may have given them some small measure of economic or geopolitical relief from the troubles that had been pursuing them. But that was it. And, given that the gods who gave this kind of salvation weren’t real gods in the first place, this wasn’t ever anything more than a reflection of which army had a better battle plan or the stronger warriors in a given moment. 

What God promised to Joseph in that dream, though, was that his son—yes, his son, because in telling Joseph to name the child, God was telling him to take parental ownership of Him—would save the people from their sins. Sin is an entirely more significant problem than political or military turmoil. Sin is something that lies at the heart of each one of us and is the thing that keeps us separated from God. Because of our sin, we are deserving of nothing but judgment. The judgment God promised on Ahaz through Isaiah, for instance, was an entirely just outcome of his abject refusal to trust Him. Of course, that judgment was delayed. God showed Himself merciful (again), and the next king was the good and faithful Hezekiah who did place his trust in the Lord and experienced His miraculous rescue from the threat of the Assyrian army even as it was encamped against him. 

Judgment is exactly what sin deserves. It is what sinners deserve—sinners like you and I are apart from Christ. What’s more, it is a judgment we cannot escape. The people of Judah didn’t ultimately escape it. They received a reprieve from it for a time when they responded with faith, but they eventually sank back into their sinful ways and God’s judgment came. You see, that’s the problem with sin. While we long to be free from its terrible grasp and the chaos it consistently brings to our lives, we keep returning to it over and over again every time we try to leave. When we are living apart from God, we are prisoners of sin; slaves of sin. We can’t not sin. We may resist for a time, but we always eventually return to it. We cannot get out on our own. In other words…we need saving. We need saving even as we deserve judgment. 

There is yet one more variable to all of this. This variable is actually a catalyst which when activated has the power to completely change the situation. This variable is God’s love for us. God’s love for us is so great that He was not willing for us to be left in our sin. His justice demands judgment, but His love insists on mercy. Because He is unfailingly consistent to His whole character, both criteria have to be satisfied. How could this happen? Jesus. In Jesus, God came to be with us. Jesus is God with us. He is with us first for salvation. He took the punishment of our sins in Himself. As the apostle Peter put it, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. ‘By his wounds you have been healed.’” When God comes near, He always comes first for mercy, driven by His love. Jesus is God with us. The apostle John would put it like this: “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus is God with us. He is with us to save us from our sins. 

Yet that justice still remains. This justice is still driven by love—for God is always all of Himself—but this time it will be a brokenhearted love that leads Him to give those who finally refuse to accept the offer of salvation Mary and Joseph’s boy would one day bring to the world the thing they have insisted they desire most: permanent separation from Him. It will be a fiery love to see justice served on behalf of sin’s myriad of victims as well. This was the idea of God with us Isaiah was revealing to Ahaz because He couldn’t yet imagine the full picture of God’s being with us for salvation as the virgin’s son would one day reveal. Jesus is God with us. 

Jesus. God with us. For salvation and judgment; God with us. For hope and life and love; God with us. For justice and compassion; God with us. For righting wrongs and rewarding faithfulness; God with us. For joy and peace; God with us. For finally convincing the broken sinner that God in Christ through the Spirit makes her worthy of love and grace; God with us. For helping those who remained utterly convinced in their illusions of self-sufficiency to see just how lost and incapable they truly are; God with us. For saving us from our sins; God with us. Jesus is God with us. 

If you don’t yet know this salvation, today is a perfect time to greet it. Receive the grace of the God who came to be with you in Christ Jesus. Accept the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and confess the existential reality of His Lordship over all creation, and you will be saved. It really is that simple. Stop trying to live by rule-keeping. That hasn’t worked for you yet, and it won’t at any point in the future. Live instead through Him with His love as the only rule to keep. Jesus is God with us. Jesus can be God with you, if you’ll let Him. Receive Him so you can join with everyone around you to prepare to receive Him when He arrives: Once long ago to save us from our sins, now in your heart to make that salvation real, and yet in the future to bring it to its final completion on the day of His return. Jesus is God with us. Let us together receive Him and live.

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