As a young Christian in the late 70’s & early 80’s, a product of the charismatic movement, I remember my mom taking me to a midweek church home group meeting. There were usually 30 or so of us meeting in the basement of a home. We sang (many) short, passionate songs to Jesus. We sensed the touch of God’s Spirit. They were precious gatherings I wouldn’t trade for the world. I can still see the blissful expressions, eyes closed, faces and hands lifted to heaven – “Emmanuel, Emmanuel, His name is called, Emmanuel…” Each of us half expecting to see Him physically standing with us when we opened our eyes. But, as I think back, this is just one of many choruses that didn’t quite capture the setting of the passage that inspired it. Fortunately for us, God isn’t bound by the limits of our understanding in the shaping and use of our lives.
In the opening passages of Matthew’s Gospel, we’re presented with Joseph’s encounter with the angel on the heels of Mary’s change of condition. The brief passage serves a number of functions. At a pastoral level, it tells me that God thought it was important for Jesus to have an earthly father – one that also stood in the kingly line of David (perhaps a subject for a future post, someday). But more importantly, it serves the larger purpose of telling us something of who this Jesus is and what is so important about Him. In this case, that His arrival will bring about the day of accountability for the congregation of God’s people – Israel.
I know, I know, it seems a stretch for us to get there from the passage so often quoted as a declaration of comfort and hope but stay with me. Also, I recognize that this is a sensitive conclusion to draw in our day given the church’s less than admirable history with the Jewish people. However much of Matthew (and the NT) is a framed around arguments that 1st century Jews were already having among themselves – only refocused around this Jesus of Nazareth. These ARE NOT Jew vs. Christian debates as to who is right or wrong. These are part of a wide range of Jew vs. Jew debates on what it means to be the people of God in light of the present plight of Israel, the happenings in the greater world, and the recent claims and activities surrounding a crucified itinerant Jewish preacher. It would be improper for us to read OUR history of subsequent Christian and European mistreatment of the Jews into these texts – as difficult as that may be. Matthew quotes a well-known passage from Isaiah 7 & 8 – the beginning of the well-known Immanuel discourse. And, while “Immanuel” indeed means “God with us,” the context within Isaiah (and the story of Israel at this point) leaves us with a rather ironic understanding of what it means for God to be with us (Israel). At this point in the story, the prophet gives King Ahaz a final opportunity to humble himself and receive the counsel of Israel’s God. The Assyrian storm has risen. The desolation of the northern kingdom is imminent and Jerusalem’s fall seems inevitable – despite its claim of being the home of Yahweh. In the face of the coming destruction Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign of hope from God, only the proud, hopeless king feigns humility as he – in his depression and rebellion – desires nothing from the God he believes has abandoned him (one might well – and appropriately – hear overtones of this in Tolkien’s discourse between Gandalf and the regent Denethor in anticipation of Mordor’s advance). There’s certainly more that could be brought in to fill out the picture (including Isaiah’s subsequent oracles of a future hope for a remnant of God’s people sandwiching further detail into the reasons for God’s imminent judgement on his people (rather important details for our exercise in understanding – consider it a homework assignment) – and a bit after the sandwich, judgement on those nations that behaved improperly toward Israel during her hour humiliation), but this should be enough for now.
So what is Matthew trying to say about this Jesus in light of the “Immanuel” reference? Well, if we include in the picture a bit more of Matthew’s narrative such as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness…” language surrounding John the Baptist we might get something that looks like this…. In an hour of overwhelming hopelessness and impending doom, God has sent the messenger to bring hope to the nation and to prepare for God’s arrival (more on this in a future post) to the nation. If they humble themselves to Him in response to the herald’s call they will be counted among the blessed remnant to inherit the promised Kingdom. If they don’t (and as it seems, likely won’t) God’s coming will initiate the day of judgement for the nation, as it was before with Isaiah and Ahaz – Immanuel, God with us.
– Pastor Jim Kushner