Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Merry Christmas! It’s even more of a joy than I’d anticipated (and I anticipated significant joy) to be able to celebrate Christmas with you all on a Sunday morning. What better way could there be to honor Jesus’ coming than this—gathering together around God’s Word, his praise, his prayers, and his people? Welcome once again to Grace Church and welcome to the celebration of the fact that Christ has come!
Appropriately, we are going to end our series on the names of Jesus this morning with Immanuel, which means God with us. God was faithful to his promises in Isaiah and we get to celebrate that together this morning. Please pray with me that our minds and hearts would be stirred as we consider the promise, wonder, blessing, and necessity of Immanuel.
THE PROMISE OF IMMANUEL
The beginning of this sermon might not feel much like a Christmas sermon, but I assure you, it is! If you can hang on for a bit of background, you’ll be Christmasly rewarded in the end.
In the first 13 verses of Isaiah 7 we are given a good deal of the background necessary for truly understanding the significance of v.14—perhaps the most famous Christmas verse.
In those verses we find out that one of David’s descendents was on the throne of Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). His name is King Ahaz. At this point God’s people, Abraham’s children, were well past the peak of their glory. Under kings David and Solomon they had been among the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth. But by the time of Ahaz, because of their unfaithfulness to God’s covenant with them, God’s judgment was upon them. This left them weak and vulnerable to outside attack. And that is exactly what we find by v.2.
Treacherously, the northern kingdom of Israel, along with the Syrians, had agreed to attack Jerusalem (the capital of Judah). Having received word of this impending attack, King Ahaz and the rest of God’s people trembled in fear. And in fear, not faith in God, King Ahaz determined to form an alliance with the Assyrians. His hope, of course, was that Assyria would protect Judah from the immanent attack of Israel and Syria.
In modern terms, this is loosely the equivalent of the US turning to Iran for help in light of an impending invasion. Whatever Iran’s expressed purpose for their willingness to initially align with us, it is certain that their ultimate purpose is not the good of the U.S. Everyone would know this from the beginning which is what would make any such alliance utter folly.
Again, this is what Ahaz felt he needed to do in light of the threat from Northern Israel and Syria. And at this point God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz.
Speaking on behalf of God, Isaiah pleaded with King Ahaz not to fear and not to trust in Assyria, but to fear and trust in God alone. For it is God alone who can protect and deliver Judah. Indeed, God promised that Syria and Israel “shall not stand” and “will be broken to pieces.”
As God’s covenant promises repeatedly made clear, if God’s people would hope fully in God, he would protect them and bless them. Simple faithfulness on the part of God’s people means they need not fear anything or anyone, ever!
And yet, the entire OT is one consistent, repetitive record of Israel trusting in God, being blessed by God, trusting in the blessings rather than God, abandoning their promises to God, experiencing the resulting judgment of God and God’s patient call to repentance, and then determining to return to God. Over and over and over again this took place.
As I’m sure you’ve already recognized, what we find in Isaiah is Judah in the rebellious part of that cycle, and God patiently endearing them to turn from their sins. In fact, God is so gracious that he offers to provide a sign for King Ahaz demonstrating God’s power to protect Judah from any and every opposing force.
To Ahaz he said, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” In other words, God said to Ahaz, “Tell me what would convince you that I will protect you and I will do it.” What an extraordinary offer. What an extraordinary gift.
And yet, Ahaz had already made up his mind. He gave a spiritually sounding answer to God’s offer to provide a sign; which was really nothing more than a deflection. With a hardened heart and a deceived mind, Ahaz was certain that Judah’s best chance of survival was to reject God’s offer of help and align with Assyria, their mortal enemy.
In the end, Ahaz aligned Judah with Assyria, according to God’s promise Syria and Israel did not attack, but then Assyria turned on Judah and wiped them out completely. Judah experienced temporary deliverance before an even more disastrous defeat—the best the world can offer.
Before moving on, I want to briefly make three practical observations. First, signs and wonders can’t save us. As King Ahaz proves, all of the signs and wonders in the world will mean nothing if our hearts are hardened/blinded/dead toward God (which they all are from birth). Let’s be cautious of falling into the trap of believing that “if only I could see Jesus or one of his miracles I’d walk in peace and obedience.” Grace, Jesus’ killers had that. We do not need signs and wonders this Christmas, we need new birth. Once we have that, everything is a sign and wonder as everything is evidence of God’s glory and power and imminence.
Second, our own wisdom can’t save us. Again as King Ahaz proves, closing our eyes to the truth doesn’t make it go away. God spoke perfect wisdom to King Ahaz and Ahaz subsequently rejected it. As foolish as this sounds on Ahaz’s part, it doesn’t take much soul searching to realize that you and I engage in some form of this every day. We are constantly making choices based on our own wisdom or desires and ignoring God’s clear promises.
Third, our predictions of the future can’t save us. It is a fool’s errand to attempt to predict the plans of God. Ahaz believed he knew what would happen. He believed he knew more than God. He was certain enough of Israel and Syria’s power that he was willing to reject God’s promises. Grace, let us learn from this. Let us resist the ever-present temptation to take matters in our own hands, to believe we know what the future holds, to think there is a safer path than the promises of God. Our worries about what might come are foolish, for God alone controls the steps his creation.
What, then, is our hope? If signs and wonders, our own wisdom, and our won predictions of the future can’t save you and me (as they couldn’t save King Ahaz), what can?
The answer is: Christmas.
Even though Ahaz refused to ask for a sign from God, God gave one anyway. The nature of the sign changed, however. Instead of a sign that God would immediately protect his people from their enemies, God offered a different sign.
Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
The LORD offered a sign that he would ultimately protect his people from their enemies. And, greater still, he offered a sign that he would forgive them of all their sins and give them everlasting joy in God’s own presence.
Though Ahaz, a descendent of David, sat on the throne of David, it was not through him that God would ultimately fulfill his promise and save his people. It would be through another of David’s descendents that this deliverance would come. That, of course, is the story of Christmas and that is where we now turn: to the promised Messiah of v.14; Immanuel; God with us.
Again, let’s consider the wonder, blessing, and necessity of Immanuel, of Christmas.
THE WONDER OF IMMANUEL
First, the wonder of Immanuel; the wonder of Christmas. Wonder—as I’m using it here anyway—is defined as, “A feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Marvel, astonishment, amazement, and awe are words that are similar.
When is the last time you experienced real wonder?
There have been a few lesser examples since, but the last time I experienced full-on, breath-taking wonder was on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t even know Gerri took this picture until we got home. We were at the start of the Bright Angel trail which leads from the top of the Canyon’s south rim to the Colorado river at the bottom of the Canyon. About 2/3 (6 miles) of the trail is visible from where I was standing. The rest disappears nearly a vertical mile below and beyond a ledge in the canyon.
The thought of God fashioning this canyon in years forgotten by all but God himself; the thought of the massive size of the Canyon being but a grain of sand in God’s hand; the thought of all the work it would take me to go up and down something that God could lift and toss into another galaxy with a word; the thought of trying to merely remember or capture that which God designed and created in all its brilliant color and depth and texture and variety; the thought that the reality I was experiencing was so pure that God himself was experiencing the same reality at the same time; all of that and more caused me to experience a kind of heavenly wonder that I wish I could bottle and pour out on days like today.
Today is a day of wonder. The wonder of wonders. It is the day we celebrate the cosmic reality that God became man and dwelt among us. Grace, if the Grand Canyon can stir our souls to wonder, what measure of wonder ought the coming of its maker create within us?
Matthew 1:18-23 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
King Ahaz did not believe that this day would come. Therefore, he did not know wonder at a time in which it should have filled his bones. Instead, he knew only fear. And his fear turned his eyes away from the one thing that could deliver what he wanted and needed most.
Don’t let that happen to you today, or any day. Grace, do not let this day pass without fighting for wonder at the reality that Christmas is the good news that God is with us. This day is about celebrating something wonderful—full of wonder. Today we must be full of surprise and admiration and beauty and marveling and astonishment and amazement and awe at the inexplicable reality that God became one of us.
May it be so for us this Christmas day.
THE BLESSING OF IMMANUEL
More than just wonder-producing (which is a blessing in and of itself), however, Immanuel’s blessings are limitless. I could go on for page after page after page listing the benefits of Immanuel’s coming for those whose hope is in him. When we trust in the God who came at Christmas we are never alone or vulnerable. We are never without purpose or meaning or love or hope. Instead we are forgiven and free and adopted and sanctified and kept and redeemed and renewed and on and on and on forever.
But Grace, as great as all of these things are, there’s something more; there’s something greater. Don’t miss this as King Ahaz did. King Ahaz believed real blessing was his glory, and prosperity, and the survival of Judah, and the protection of the land of Israel. But the real blessing of Immanuel, the greatest blessing of Immanuel is Immanuel! God with us is the greatest blessing.
In God Is the Gospel John Piper writes, “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.”
Again, Grace, the greatest blessing of Immanuel is revealed in the name itself, God with us; and for all who hope in him, it is the blessing of us with God.
Though indwelling or remaining sin makes it seem like God is not that great, and therefore that an eternity with him would get boring at some point; though indwelling or remaining sin makes it seem like toys from the store or trips to warm places are the real blessing of Christmas; while indwelling or remaining sin makes it seem like God plus other things is what we need to be satisfied; these things couldn’t be further from the truth.
God alone is what we were made for, and once sin is finally driven completely out of us—that is, once our sanctification is complete—we will see this clearly. Once Christ’s saving work is finished in us we will be able to see fully what we can only see partially right now.
This is why Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Grace, let us fight to believe and celebrate, what the Bible teaches from the first page to the last:, God with us is a greater blessing than we could ever imagine; the greatest blessing of all.
THE NECESSITY OF IMMANUEL
Finally, at the end of the day, Christmas is a celebration of the fact that God with us was not just a clever or kind gesture—one among many ways that God could have saved his people. No, it was the way. The coming of God to mankind as a man was not just good, it was necessary.
King Ahaz may have believed God could do something to save his people. He may even have believed God’s way would have been good. But he certainly believed that there were other, better ways as well—his ways. In Ahaz’s mind the promise of Christmas was not necessary and so it was not enough for him. He believed he needed something else, something more.
Grace, there is no better way. There is no other way at all. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And Christmas is the good news that Immanuel has come.
Had God not remained faithful to his promise, we would be left in our sin and under the resulting wrath of God. But God did remain faithful. He did provide a savior. He did provide a redeemer and a restorer and one through whom the countless blessings we just heard of would come. That is what we celebrate today.
When presented with the promise, wonder, blessing, and necessity of Immanuel, Ahaz rejected them all. But, Grace, if Christmas morning reminds us of anything, let it be grace. Let us never forget that it is by grace alone that any of us have left Ahaz’s path. Let us never forget that we were born on that path and if left to our own devices we would have remained on it, even to our death. It is by grace alone that you and I can see that the promise, wonder, blessing, and necessity of Immanuel are glorious beyond comprehension. And it is by grace alone that our celebrations will be as they ought.
And so, let me remind you of something I’ve said many times in the past five weeks: the child of Christmas, the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Immanuel, must be that which stirs our hearts above all else. May it never be that the instruments of our celebration overshadow or become the object of our celebration. Instead, let us be eager to use all the instruments God has given us to make our celebrations fit for the One whose coming and eternal presence we celebrate.
Therefore, let us go out, Grace, and continue celebrating well today. Share your celebrations and reason for celebration with everyone you encounter. Delight in, praise, and declare the good news that Christ is come!