I love the Christmas story. I love that it is one of the first stories my children learned when they were young. I love that we used to have family plays acting out the birth narrative. I love that each of my children has enjoyed reading the birth stories of Jesus over and over again. I love the Christmas story.
The story is both simple and complex. It’s God coming to earth. A baby born in a manger. Shepherds in the field coming to worship a child no one expects. It’s why we all stop when Linus shares the story near the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. It’s simplicity continues to bring us joy.
Yet, in it’s simplicity, it is complex and ironic. The announcement of the new King isn’t made in a palace, but out in the fields. While Augustus is declaring the Pax Romana, the angles are announcing peace actually comes through a child in Bethlehem. Jesus going to Egypt mirrors ancient Israel’s story, while the Magi bringing gifts shows that the Gentiles are welcome to worship the king.
The story, in both it’s simplicity and complexity, still makes us wonder, what does it have to do with real life struggles now? In the midst of marriage struggles, it’s hard to imagine how the baby Jesus story makes much of a difference. It’s wonderful to think that Magi bring gifts to the young family, but those gifts make no difference in the midst of our own personal financial struggles. The miracle of the virgin birth is wonderful, but at times it’s hard to imagine what good that story does when one sits in the room to hear the doctor say cancer. The Christmas story is nice, but it’s easy to wonder, how does it help life now?
Consider the story of Ahaz from Isaiah 7. Ahaz is king of Judah, around the year 734 BCE, and the times are troubling. Judah is being surrounded by the armies of Israel and Syria. Ahaz fears the advancing troops. He fears his country will be overthrown, so much so that he is considering making an alliance with Assyria. Assyria may protect him in the moment, but ultimately, they are more of a threat than the smaller armies he sees now. The struggle is that Ahaz has lost faith. He no longer trusts in the promises of God. Ahaz’s struggle is not the impending war, but between faith verses fear. Will he succumb to his fear, or will he remain faithful?
Isaiah comes to bring comfort, and God provides a sign. Isaiah encourages Ahaz to remain faithful and not give up. God is still here. These armies you fear will soon be destroyed. To confirm this word from Isaiah, God provides a sign. A young girl will be with child and will name him Emmanuel, which means God with us. Before this child is even two years old, the armies you fear will be destroyed. Don’t succumb to fear. Remain faithful.
Sometimes we get hung up about the sign. Who is the girl? Who is the child? Is this another miraculous birth? Or did this message mean nothing to Ahaz, and only given for us? However, when we get hung up on the details we miss the sign. The key is not the mother, the child, or even the two year time frame. The key to the sign is the name. Emmanuel, God with us. Every time the child’s name is spoken, God’s presence is proclaimed. Emmanuel. God with us. God is near.
Ahaz is so distracted by the problem of the armies that he’s allowing his actions to be dictated by his fear. God, however, is providing a sign to remind Ahaz. Don’t fear. Have faith. God is near.
This prophecy is one with a double meaning. It meant something to Ahaz at the time, but, it also means something in the future. Centuries later, Matthew realizes the sign has taken on new meaning. It’s no longer just a word for Ahaz, it’s also a word for us. The child will be named Emmanuel, God with us. It’s a name we need to hear over and over again; a story we need to constantly share.
Which is exactly why the Christmas story is not just a story for Christmas. We need this story in all of life because life is hard. It has a way of hitting us like a ton of bricks. Everything is fine, and then we get a call, or an appointment happens, or weird symptom starts, and we don’t know where to turn. The struggle involves a present situation: health, relationship, financial…however, it’s about so much more. The struggle is between faith and fear. The struggle is how will we approach the coming danger.
We need to be reminded of the child Emmanuel, God with us. We need to hear the name spoken over and over again, Emmanuel, God with us. In the midst of relationship struggles, Emmanuel, God with us. In the midst of health scares, Emmanuel, God with us. In the midst of financial uncertainty, Emmanuel, God with us. We are not alone. We are not forgotten. Don’t lose faith. God is here!