One of the biblical texts for Christmas is Isaiah 7.14 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
It’s a biggy for those of us who know the Lord Jesus as our Savior. It’s a no-brainer for us that he fulfilled this promise given by God to Isaiah 700 years earlier. The one sentence is the essence of Christmas.
But if we go back to the context of this announcement, to when it was given, it will seem anything but relevant or even helpful. The promise was directed to King Ahaz who was facing a devastating war. Naturally he went to the prophets of Israel for answers. Are we going to survive this? What do we have to do to get out of this mess? He was hoping God would give a practical solution.
Isaiah’s answer hardly seems appropriate- “a virgin shall have a son”…..? Well thanks a lot! How is that to keep the enemy from the gates? I was expecting something a little more concrete and germane to the issue!
Ahaz’ approach to the crisis facing Judah may have been not so different from the way I thought of Christmas as a child: What am I going to get? Isaiah’s word was about what God was going to do for Ahaz and Judah -but the childish way of interpreting the promise is extremely self-centered. Our old nature wants our needs to be met, and if God is going to do that for us, we are onboard. So we tell God exactly how we want our needs met!
The world’s understanding of Christmas has at least one thing right. Christmas is all about receiving. However human nature wants the receiving to be focused on pleasure, being entertained, adding things to one’s stockpile.
God surprises everyone and sends a baby instead. The events surrounding his birth have been romanticized and sanitized. Our celebrations of the birth of the Christ are mostly feel-good activities. That’s why Christmas is so popular. The place we worship is full.
One Christmas Eve service I played guitar and sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” in Immanuel Church in Tel Aviv. The church was packed with Israeli’s who had come for the beautiful music – not because they wanted to worship the newborn King. Later I learned that the entire service had been broadcast over the army’s radio channel. Thousands of Israelis heard the Good News that their Messiah had come to give them real life!
We who know the Babe of Bethlehem are undaunted. So we come to worship this Child who was born the normal way, born into anything but clean surroundings, to a people who (for the most) rejected him. We can’t help but revel in the thought of angel choirs, humble shepherds offering a lamb, or stargazers traveling a 1000 miles to present gifts. It’s O.K. if we do. And it’s O.K. if we make merry and get caught up in the excitement and all the additions that we now associate with Christmas.
Which is why the few and simple words pointing to Christ’s birth and the telling of the story need to be repeated often so that we don’t lose the intent and power of the promise of God – just to know that God has come close – to free us from the results and power of sin to ensure that we know real life, and that all the wonder of the add-ons don’t obscure the most important message: Immanuel – God has come into our lives to make them real and whole.
As you celebrate this year, may you have a truly merry Christmas!
Pr. Steven R. Woita