It’s that time of year when many parents of young children ask their friends this important question: “Do any of you have a shepherd’s robe or sheep costume we could borrow for a couple of weeks?” We enjoy watching our little ones dress up as Mary or Joseph, an angel or camel, and listening to the history of how Jesus came into the world. We do it to help our kids learn the story and to remind ourselves of the same. We wrap them in burlap and flowing robes to help them act out the scenes of Jesus’s birth, inviting them to enter the culture and customs of Jesus’ world. In their telling of the story, they often read a portion of Matthew 1, including these verses:
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. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-24)
Every year we are transported back into the world of 1st century Palestine as we again hear the beginnings of the Christmas story. But is that really the beginning?
Before the Christmas Story
As with much of the Bible, the scripts our children read to us are part of a story within a story— one that originated not just with the birth in a manger, but hundreds of years before. There are hints of the Christmas story throughout the Old Testament narrative, beginning even in Genesis. One of the greatest parts of the origin story for our Christmas plays starts with the prophecy Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7 in Matthew 1:23: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” What might our children encounter if they entered Isaiah’s world?
More than 700 years before Mary placed Jesus in the manger, God’s people were threatened by Assyria. In fact, when Isaiah spoke for God in Isaiah 7, the invading armies were less than a day’s journey away, ready to attack. Ahaz, the young king of Judah, was terrified. As he desperately considered an alliance with Assyria to provide water and safety for his people, God sent him the prophet Isaiah to assure him that the city would be saved, against unbelievable odds, if only he would trust in God. In an extremely generous gesture, God even offered to give Ahaz a sign to solidify his faith and encourage him to know that God would indeed protect his people.
Ahaz refused the sign, telling Isaiah that he wouldn’t put God to the test. While attempting to look holy on the outside, what Ahaz really said to Isaiah was this: “I’ve made up my mind who I’ll trust. And it’s not God. I don’t want a sign. And I don’t want him.” We know how the story goes after that. Israel was overtaken by the Assyrians and the exile happened. Most of Ahaz’s people were taken away and forced to live in captivity in a foreign land.
Waiting with Hope
Thankfully, God’s ultimate rescue is not thwarted by prideful kings. And even though Ahaz didn’t want to hear it, God announced a sign of hope for his people anyway. Isaiah 7:10-14 reads as follows:
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask for a sign from the LORD your God, whether from the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven.” But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask; I will not test the LORD.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, O house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God as well? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel.
This prophecy, read partially by our 6- and 7-year-olds, was given over 700 years before its fulfillment. Every year we hear this word from God and watch our children act out its fulfillment. We don’t doubt the prophecy because we’re reminded of its completion in church-built mangers and angel outfits. We didn’t have to live in the in-between waiting time, wondering if the promised “child” was really coming. Both the prophecy and the glorious fulfillment came before we were born.
But what does this mean for us now, 700 years post-Isaiah and 2,000 years post-incarnation?
It means that we can trust God, no matter where we live in the timeline of redemption. It means that just as Israel waited and hoped for Jesus’s first coming, we can wait and hope for his second. Advent literally means “coming.” As we listen to the Christmas plays, readings, and carols this year, we are transported back to the scene of a poor teenage girl giving birth to the savior of the world. But we can also look forward to living out the end of the same story, where the baby born in poverty will return to judge, reign, and rule.
Isaiah told us the child would be named Immanuel, God with us. As he was with Israel, and came to live with us in Bethlehem, so he will be with us fully when we see him face to face. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.
About the Author:
Christine B. Gordon, MATS, is wife to Michael and mother of three. She earned her Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Covenant Seminary. She currently lives in St. Louis where she works as the intake coordinator for a counseling center. She loves to walk, make music with other people, and share bad puns with her family. You can find 8 Bible studies written by Christine and her writing partner, Hope Blanton, along with 2 virtual teaching series to accompany them at www.athisfeetstudies.com.