Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas, though if the truth be told, people have been celebrating for some time already, anticipating the festival at home and in places of work, and even in church. I’m not complaining, or at least not too much. The birth of the Son of God, come as one of us into the world, is an event that can hardly be contained, and tends to spill over in ways that can’t be controlled. I’m just glad folks make a fuss.
Part of Advent is the call of the prophets of Israel, addressed to the people of their time but also to us. Their message is one of judgment and mercy: God’s judgment on a world that is in terminal decline as a result of sin, and God’s mercy on those who are going down with the ship. The prophets identify the crisis, and then foretell the remedy. Their voice rings out in the Advent season because it sets the stage for God’s intervention in a world that is out of control, and spinning toward disaster. The prophets prepare the way for the birth of the Messiah.
Our reading from Isaiah is a case in point. The word of the prophet is addressed to Ahaz, the king of Judah, who’s faced with the threat of invasion from the north. Ahaz is confident that he can handle the challenge, through diplomacy and military posturing; but Isaiah’s message is that the only way forward is to trust in God. The sign that will be given is the birth of an heir to the throne: a sign that God will continue to be with the kingdom no matter what.
“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). King Ahaz is trusting in himself, but he needs to trust in God for the continuation of his royal line. Clever negotiating on his part will be fruitless, but God will be faithful to the kingdom in spite of Ahaz’s reliance on himself. A child will be born, and his mother will name him Immanuel: God with us. His name itself is an expression of faith in God.
There is judgment and mercy in the words of the prophet. The kingdom and its inhabitants will be humbled; but beyond judgment there will be mercy. “Before the child knows to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Is. 7:16) takes us back to the garden of Eden, and to the point of the primal decline of the human race, when Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But the one who is coming will know how to refuse the evil and choose the good, reversing the curse, and will initiate a new era of faithfulness to God.
This prophecy foreshadows God’s mercy and judgment in Isaiah’s day, but in this case the word of God is not bound to one time only. We hear it again in our Gospel today, the foretelling of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Gospel writer tells us that the angel’s words to Joseph fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Matt. 1:23).
The Letter to the Hebrews says that the word of God is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). It has application that far exceeds its original context. Here, in Isaiah and Matthew, we hear the words of the prophecy increasing their range and scope, and taking in new times and places.
The prophecy of the birth of a royal heir, in the time of Isaiah, now foretells the coming of a greater Messiah, to be born in Bethlehem. The long slide of the world into darkness and death, the going down of the ship, is overcome by salvation itself, by the coming of the One who will save his people from their sins. God’s Word, spoken by the prophet, has now taken flesh itself in Jesus Christ. All time and all contexts are his, because the Word of God cannot be bound to one time and place.
The good news of salvation is mercy itself: God’s favor extended to us and to all humanity. Like the Christmas feast itself, which spreads out and cannot be contained; so too the good news of salvation takes root in Isaiah’s time, and then overflows to the time of the birth of Jesus himself. It is living and active in our own time as well, bursting out in our homes and our places of work and in our very hearts. This thread of salvation knits together both Testaments, and witnesses in our lives as well. Now is the time to prepare for the coming of the Son of God.