The irony is, the one to whom God first tried to give the Immanuel gift didn’t want it! It was a gift meant for Ahaz, the king of Judah — albeit a craven and corrupt king — but God sent him the prophet Isaiah at a time when this king happened to be worried. Ahaz had opted out of an alliance with the kings of Israel and Syria in a plot against the powerful Assyrians. These former allies had retaliated by invading Judah with the intent of deposing Ahaz and replacing him. Out of this obscure set of political and military circumstances the Immanuel gift was born. Ahaz was out inspecting his city’s defenses when Isaiah met him on the wall to try and calm his nerves. “Don’t worry about this threat from Israel and Syria. Their armies are minor nuisances. Don’t overreact! Don’t do anything rash. Be cool!” But Isaiah saw fear in Ahaz’s eyes and added, “Look, I’ve been authorized by God to give you a gift as a way of confirming the truth of my counsel. God will send you a sign: a young woman will soon conceive and bear a child, and they will call his name, ‘Immanuel. God with us.’ Before this child is old enough to distinguish between good and evil, the threat offered by these minor kings will dissipate. Just relax! God is with us! The child ‘Immanuel’ will prove it. God offers us the present of His presence.”
Ahaz did not trust the sign of the Immanuel gift. Instead, he cut a deal with the powerful, hated Assyrians. Then Ahaz sat on the sidelines and watched Assyria destroy Israel and Syria. But it came with a price. In the exchange he surrendered the independence of his nation. From then on, Judah was a vassal state, paying tribute to Assyria. Moreover, Ahaz set up altars in Jerusalem to the Assyrian gods and mimicked their barbaric practice of sacrifice by slaying one of his sons on an Assyrian altar. Even so, the Immanuel gift came anyway — in the form of another of Ahaz’s sons, Hezekiah, who grew up to be a righteous king who undid many of the wrongs perpetrated by his father. Long and good though his reign was, Hezekiah’s rule eventually ended; he died. But the Immanuel promise did not die with him. The people of Judah continued to hold to the promise that God would one day send another Immanuel, and this Immanuel would be a cosmic Deliverer and Redeemer of God’s people, and this hope endured throughout the ages, as the Assyrians gave way to Babylon, and Babylon gave way to Persia, and Persia gave way to the Greeks, and Greece gave way to Roman, so that over the years this hope intensified that God would send a special gift in the form of a divine presence who would bring liberation. The Gospel of Matthew gives voice to this hope: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a child, and they will call his name ‘Immanuel. God with us.’”
Before we can further explore the meaning of God’s Immanuel gift, we must confront that one little troubling word in that promise: the “v” word – “virgin.” When Isaiah issued his original promise to Ahaz, he used the word “virgin” in the generic sense of a young woman of marriageable age. That was all he meant. Hezekiah was conceived and born in the usual way. But over the centuries, as hope for a cosmic Messiah intensified, expectations intensified, too. People came to expect that the birth of God’s Anointed One would be unique. Even today some people claim that Jesus had to be born of a virgin in order to be the sinless Redeemer of humankind. That claim never made much sense to me. But I have been equally skeptical of the claim that Christ couldn’t be born of a woman who had never known a man sexually. Some people say that such a birth would subvert the rules of the universe. I argue that if God brought the universe into being, if God established the rules of the universe, how can we say that God could not be allowed to bring one human child into being in an unprecedented way? Scientists have documented that some mama sharks in captivity have birthed a baby shark without a male shark’s participation. Biologists have documented that mama frogs have done the same. Are we saying that sharks and frogs can give birth through an immaculate conception, but it cannot happen just once in the case of a human being without the laws of the universe being usurped? The truth is, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth has never been about biology. This doctrine is a theological statement. The Virgin Birth makes the point that in instituting the drama of redemption, God took the initiative. In reconciling the world unto Himself, God acted first! Through the unique birth of the Christ child, God was saying to us all, ‘Your lives are in my hands.’
When I think of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, I think of that conversation in the great movie Jurassic Park where the chaos theorist questions the scientists’ belief that they can control the dinosaurs by keeping them all female. A scientist retorts, “Are you saying that a population composed entirely of females will breed?” The chaos theorist answers, “The history of nature is that life breaks through barriers, sometimes creatively, sometimes violently, but nature refuses to be contained. Life finds a way!” That’s all the Virgin Birth doctrine is trying to say: God refuses to be bound by our conceptions of what is possible . In offering us redemption, represented in the birth of the Christ, God finds a way to break through barriers creatively, sometimes violently and uniquely, in an attempt to convey this fundamental truth: our lives are in God’s hand. Christ conveys the truth of Immanuel. God is with us.
The real issue is, what does the Immanuel gift meant for us. Is this term, “God is with us,” just a collection of pious words or does it convey a profound understanding that undergirds our very existence? God has structured a life that is very good and very meaningful but life is also very hard. God has so constructed our lives that ultimately we must surrender everything and everyone we cherish. What happens when losses leave us empty? How do we respond when no drug can dull the pain inside us? What happens when we hurt so badly in our soul that we do not think we can draw our next breath – and we are not even sure we want to? In such moments God intends for us to open the Immanuel gift and hear the words, “I am with you. Your lives are in my hands.” God does not intend for the divine promise to be just words, but a comforting, empowering reality that we experience in the heart of our being. When we feel empty, when our inner being is a void, God intends for us to claim the divine promise: I will be Immanuel for us. Your life is in my hands.”
I think back to a searing moment years ago, the day after my good friend and colleague, my associate pastor in Charlotte, a man named Tom Green, had died from cancer while I was camping in the Nantahala National Forest, at Apple Tree. I lay in my sleeping bag, wracked by the sorrow of losing a good friend, a great minister and a better man. In that pre-dawn hour I found myself praying a spontaneous prayer of consolation for his wife and his son — and asking spiritual strength for myself. I felt defeated, as if all of my prayers for my friend’s healing had come to naught. But amidst my prayer, even as I was intent upon voicing the void within my soul, I felt God’s strange and illuminating response. A message flashed into my brain like a lightning bolt. I felt these words form within me: “Your life is in my hands.” I rarely have received a direct communication from God, but in this instance, I did: “Your life is in my hands.” In that moment the Immanuel gift was not mere words but a spiritual reality within me. I felt God’s peace. “Your life is in my hands.” Suddenly, my daughter Clara, then a young child, cried out in her sleep, and, reflexively, I pulled her to me and she nestled quietly against me, comforted. I realized, This is what it means to be a human being. In our despair we cry out into the world’s darkness, our hearts seeking reassurance. Our Divine Parent answers back, “Your life is in my hands. I am Immanuel, God with you.”
I hold in my hand a calculator, a handy friend for those of us who are mathematically-challenged. Do you know who invented the first calculator? His name was Blaise Pascal, and he invented it over three hundred and fifty years ago. Yet for all of his mathematical genius and intellectual brilliance, Pascal knew his soul was beset by a great emptiness, and he searched for a sustaining faith relationship with God that might give him meaning. One day Pascal and friends were riding in a coach whose horses suddenly bolted and ran headlong toward a bridge. In a moment worthy of Hollywood, the coach’s reins broke just as the carriage was flying into the abyss, and the coach hung for a moment, suspended on the bridge, half on, half off, literally teetering between life and death. Pascal and his friends escaped, but the moment so overwhelmed the sensitive thinker that he fell unconscious and remained so for some time. A few days later he experienced God’s nearness in a way so overpowering that he recorded the moment in a sort of poem entitled “Fire.” The poem was so meaningful to him that he sewed a copy of it inside his coat.
“Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. . . .
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. . . . Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. . . .”
Here is the testimony of one who had experienced the Immanuel gift. The phrase, “God with us,” was no longer a mere concept for this brilliant man. That phrase now articulated a truth that resonated in the center of his soul. He had opened his being to the Immanuel gift and God was with him, intensely present. He knew God’s reality as a true fire of presence, a vibrancy of love. He knew Christ was truly Immanuel, God with him. Do we, do we truly feel the Immanuel gift within us? Do we truly feel that we have appropriated the Immanuel promise of God’s being with us in the depth of our being? Do you and I realize that God is truly with us, and that God in God’s very being, is a Giver – who seeks to give to us?
I hold in my hand a rock, a gen-u-ine rock from around the Sea of Galilee that I have kept in my office since 1998, when I led a group to the Holy Land and one of my parishioners pilfered it, plucked from near the old synagogue by the lake where Jesus actually walked. I keep this rock because it reminds me, Jesus really did come to earth. Jesus really did walk on rocks. Jesus could have even walked on this rock. In fact, not far from where this rock lay, Jesus one day entered a synagogue and rose amidst a congregation to read, “Behold, the blind see, the lame walk, the poor have good news preached to them.” Then, with every eye in the place upon him, he said, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He was telling them, “God is with you. The Immanuel gift has come. The promise is fulfilled. I am living proof that your lives are in God’s hands.” One wonders that day how many of them understood what Jesus was saying to them. One wonders how many of us truly understand what he was saying, even now.
I hold in my hand a box of chocolate chip cookies, the kind I deliver to our church’s visitors and to those hospitalized, homebound, sick, or grieving. One day some years ago, near Christmas , I was a was on such a mission, walking up the hill to the house of a visitor near Christmas, when I passed a young Hispanic man who was handling a leaf blower. He saw the box of cookies in my hand, grinned at me and asked, “For me?” I grinned back, shook my head and walked on to my appointed house. But as I returned to my car, I had an inspired thought. I grabbed another box of cookies, walked back up the road, finding the young man still working his leaf blower, his back to me, so I greatly startled him when I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, giving me an astonished look as I put a box of cookies in his hand and said about the only two Spanish words I know besides “taco” and “burrito”: “Feliz Navidad.” Merry Christmas ! Then I walked away, knowing that though he would never know my name, he would not soon forget the day when some stranger in a suit handed him a gift he did not expect and wished him “Merry Christmas.” I knew that doubtless he would enthusiastically open the gift. So, too, our giving God offers us gifts of hope, peace, joy and love. Will we truly open them in faith and enjoy them with relish? Is the faith within us truly a fire of love, conveying joy, peace, certitude? Will we know God’s Immanuel gift as a transforming reality and not just words?
This shall be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Come let us adore him. Feliz Navidad. Merry Christmas. May we truly see in the Christ-gift a sign of God’s assurance that our lives are always in God’s hands. God is truly with us.