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Let’s pray. O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. May these words be impressive to us, not only because they were sung and played so well, but even more so that they might take root in our hearts. We should be, of all people, most to be pitied if we gather here to sing these things and remember these things and they didn’t really happen. But if they did, O Lord, then woe be to us if we do not shape our entire lives around them. What night could be as holy as the night of our dear Savior’s birth? So we pray as we come to Your Word that you would show us Christ, you would lead us to Christ, you would give us more of Christ, do so on this eve of Christmas, and then forevermore. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We come this morning to the book of Isaiah, chapter 7. This is page 572 if you’re using one of the Bibles in the pew in front of you. If you’re visiting this morning, a special welcome, whether you’re here with friends and family or perhaps you’re just looking for a place to worship on Christmas Eve, we’re glad that you’re here. And as is our practice, week after week, we go through a particular passage in the Bible and we try to understand what God is saying to us, and that’s what we’re doing in Isaiah chapter 7. We’ve been going through the Gospel of John for a number of months and then took a week off last week to do something Christmas related from 1 John and then this morning from Isaiah, and as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I will be out of the pulpit the next two weeks and so you will hear very good preaching from our other pastors who will be here. My family and I will be flying to Michigan, Lord willing, tomorrow morning, so we’re hoping it’s a good day for nine of us to get through security and make our way to the frozen tundra, and we will be there for a week. We promise we will come back. But then Trisha and I are leaving just two days after that. I have the very hard gospel assignment of being called upon to preach in Hawaii in the first week in January, so Trisha and I will be going and we are taking, oh, zero of our children, so that is very good news also. But we will miss them; they’re here somewhere and we do love them.
Isaiah, chapter 7. Beginning at verse 10. “Again, the Lord spoke to Ahaz: ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ And he said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as not have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!'”
We read in the Nicene Creed “for us and for our salvation, He came down from heaven. He,” that is Jesus, “became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and the Son of God was made human.” And then in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” In these ancient creeds of the church, we confess that we believe in the Virgin birth. I wonder if we really do believe in the Virgin birth.
There’s a lot of talk in these days about the term “evangelical,” what does it mean, is it worth keeping. Well, it’s been a term that Bible people, gospel people, have used for centuries to say “we really take the good news of Jesus Christ seriously and we believe the Bible.” John Stott once defined evangelicals as “those who can recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.” We actually believe these things.
The entire season of the year that we’re celebrating is about, among other things, a Virgin birth. Strange. As I reflected last week, every December it’s amazing. You can go to the mall and though it is getting less and less and the “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” and “All I Want For Christmas Is You” sort of songs are taking over “Hark, The Herald” and “Silent Night,” but if you listen, they’re still all around you, and they’re on the radio station that plays Christmas songs every hour of the day in December and they’re there in the mall. You’ll hear them on holiday specials. Christmas music. Songs about Jesus, songs about the King come to earth. Which is wonderful, and of course the danger is that it becomes what it is, just background noise to our lives.
Christmas, what a wonderful time, when we have all these beautiful poinsettias here, and we have the lights, and we have the beautiful songs, and we have a sermon from a familiar passage. What’s not to like? It’s just a nice stroll down memory lane. Just a bit of nostalgia.
And so the danger is we hear something like “the virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son,” and we no longer stop to think do we actually believe that that happened. It’s incredible. We hear songs all around us saying “round yon virgin, mother and child.” I don’t say the word “virgin” for the 11 months of the year other than this one. And I don’t say the word “yon” except when I’m singing “Silent Night.” And yet we confess He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
I want us to think of three questions this morning. One, where did this come from, this Virgin birth? Or if you want to be technical, it’s actually a Virgin conception. Where did it come from, did it really happen, and then why does it matter?
So first of all then, the Virgin birth. Where did it come from? Well, I hope you have your Bibles open to Isaiah. I’ve already read verses 10 through 17, but I want you to go back to the very beginning of chapter 7, because we’re apt to hear these words and they’re familiar to us around Christmastime, and not really understand well, what was going on in Isaiah’s day? Because any sort of biblical prophecy means more than just what the far fulfilment would be. We see this, and we’ll come to Matthew later, and we see it fulfilled finally with the birth of Christ, but it meant something there in Isaiah’s day. It had a word of rebuke and encouragement to them long before Jesus would come on the scene. So what’s going on here?
Isaiah, chapter 7. “In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. When the house of David was told, ‘Syria is in league with Ephraim,’ the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. ”
What’s going on here? There’s a lot of names and a lot of places. Basically you have two nations coming together to fight against a third nation, Judah. Remember God’s people, sometimes called just by the name Israel, but technically they split into two kingdoms after Rehoboam and Jeroboam, then they split with Jeroboam in the north over Israel, and Rehoboam in the south over Judah. So Judah and Israel, though we both would look on a map and think of it as Israel, really Israel’s in the north, Judah’s in the south, Israel is now fighting against Judah and the great superpower of the day were the Assyrians. And so there is an alliance made between Aram, or Syria, and Ephraim, which is another word for Israel. So there’s a lot of different synonyms here, these kings, and Judah had refused to join the Aram-Israel alliance against Assyria. So I said Assyria, but I meant against Assyria.
So now they were threatening to invade Judah. What would Judah do? You have Aram, you have Israel, and you have Judah. The question that dominates Isaiah 1 through 39 is the question “whom shall we trust?” Assyria is the superpower. What are we going to do with Assyria? And the question in the first 39 chapters is “do we trust Yahweh or should we rely on Assyria?”
And so there’s this constant temptation that we can call out to Assyria for help, or perhaps we could make a covenant with her for help. And so now when we have Aram and we have Israel coming against Judah, Judah is faced with the question “what should we do? Can we call on Assyria?”
Now to call on them for help was different than our understanding of well, you know, just calling 911 and the police can come and take care of you. To call upon another nation like Assyria would be to enter into covenant with them and would be recognize their gods, submit to their gods, and put yourself in subservience to them. That’s what you get in exchange for their military power. Will they do so in order to avoid the invasion of Israel and the Arameans? That’s the question before them.
Now look at verse 3: “And the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field.” So Ahaz is inspecting the water supply in the event of an attack, and Isaiah meets him there with his son Shear-jashub, which means “a remnant will return.” Now the son, his name is both a bad omen and a good omen. The bad omen is you’re only going to have a remnant, so a lot of you will be wiped out. But the good omen is they will return, there will be a remnant.
And then we read, in verse 4, “and say to him ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it.'”
So you see what their plans were. Their plans were to go and to supplant the king of Judah. Now this was the Davidic line, this was the promised line, that they would never fail to have a king to sit on the throne after David. And this alliance wants to come and wipe them out. But here, notice what God says to them through the prophet, verse 4: “Do not fear. What are these two nations? They’re two smoldering stumps of firebrands. They’re nothing. They’re about to be snuffed out. Don’t go to Assyria for help. Don’t fear Aram and Ephraim.” That’s the message.
Isn’t it such a helpful perspective on our problems and our enemies? We tend to be very fearful people. And let’s be honest—sometimes the voices we listen to, the newspapers, the blogs, the cable television, talk radio. You don’t get ratings by making people feel like everything’s okay. “Hey, everything’s okay, but tune in at 11. Come back tomorrow to the site because everything’s really fine.” No, you get ratings when everything’s horrible and it’s going to get worse all the time…. Fear.
What a message the Lord gives us here. Now they had real reason to fear. That’s not to say that things are getting better. We many evidences that show things getting worse. But whom shall we fear? Not Assyria. Not Aram. Not Israel. He says “look, what are they?” They had nations marching in to conquer them, and they had to face the question of where do they trust, who do they trust? And God says through the prophet, “What are those nations? A little smoldering stump. A little piece of wood that’s about to be burnt out. Ashes. Nothing. Don’t worry about them.”
And so He gives to them another word. Look at verse 7: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.”
So you understand what this is saying in poetic, prophetic form. It’s saying “look, will you believe in God’s sovereignty or are you going to make a covenant with Assyria? Or will you trust the Lord’s covenant with you? Look, these nations, give it a few decades, they’re going to be gone.”
We get so concerned about short-term gains that we can’t look at long-term promises. God says “look, you need to be firm, but you need to trust Me. You’re going to have to rely on faith, not on sight, and if you’re not firm in faith, you won’t be firm at all.”
And then we come finally to the text that we’ve just read, verse 10. And now notice what the Lord does, speaking to Ahaz, the king. He says “Ask a sign.” Now sometimes to ask a sign of the Lord is a sign of unbelief. It’s a way of kind of saying “all right, okay God, prove yourself to me. Do it, come on. Do some tricks, miracles. Do something.” And the Bible everywhere speaks against that sort of “show me a sign.”
But here is a time where the Lord comes wanting to provide a sign to His people, and He says, almost as a test of faith to Ahaz, “ask for something, do it, do it. Okay? Ask Me.” You know, now God’s not a genie, but you think of, you know, the genie coming to you: “All right, ask me. Whatever you want, you just can’t ask for more wishes. Okay? Ask me.”
And so Ahaz says “I will not ask. I will not put the Lord to the test.” Now, we might think well, Ahaz, wow, he is really being a humble servant, that’s what we ought to say, “oh, no, I could never ask anything of you, Lord.” No, when the Lord comes to you and says “ask Me for something,” you ask Him for something.
We understand faith like a child. Not child-like faith, but that humble reliance and dependence. And one of the things that children are very good at, especially this time of the year, is to ask for things. To ask for things. I told you before that I was so good at it when I was a kid, I made a list of things I wanted for Christmas and a list of things I didn’t want for Christmas. I don’t want to get a sweater, those things eat up a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of toys you could get for the cost of that sweater. Save that for the grandparents maybe.
We know how to ask for things. Now of course you can ask in a way that’s selfish, you can ask in a way that’s just self-centered, but you also, the very act of asking suggests I believe that you can do things for me. I believe that you love me. I believe that you, you want to help me. And so when God comes to Ahaz and says “will you ask for something” and Ahaz says “oh, no, no, I couldn’t ask for anything,” God’s not impressed. He had already said in verse 11 “ask for something as deep as Sheol, that’s the grave, the pit, or as high as heaven. Go ahead, ask Me.” Ahaz sounds pious, but it’s unbelieving.
And so the prophet says “here’s the sign that the Lord will give you. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call His name Immanuel.”
Of course, we know that Matthew quotes this passage at the birth of Jesus, but here the sign, remember, was for Ahaz. For his day. So what’s going on here? Who’s the, who’s the son here?
Well, it seems that there’s a double fulfillment, like we see with most prophecies. And the near fulfillment to this prophecy was a son that would come to Isaiah.
Go over to chapter 8. “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, “Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” And you can go down and you have a little footnote and it means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Back up at verse 2: “And I will get reliable witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, to attest for me. And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Call His name Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” So Isaiah goes to his wife and they have a son. Little bit of Bible trivia, longest word in the Bible. Now it has some hyphens, but there it is: Maher-shalal-hash-baz. Some of you think you were adventurous in naming your kids, hahahaha. I’ve never baptized a little Maher-shalal-hash-baz before. It means “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil,” and it seems that this is the child who is the initial sign to Ahaz.
Now look at the parallel here. Go back to chapter 7, verse 16. It says, this is again with Emmanuel, “for before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” Now keep that in your mind, “before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good,” and then go over to chapter 8, verse 4, okay: “You shall call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz,” chapter 8, verse 4, “for before the boy knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.”
Same kind of parallel, you get it? In chapter 7, saying, look, before he knows how to refuse evil and choose the good, saying before he, he even grows up, before he becomes a little boy. And then the same thing in chapter 8, verse 4: Before he even cries mommy, daddy. In both instances, the sign is suggesting don’t fear these nations because you’re going to have a son and before this son even can say “mommy, daddy,” in other words he’s still a little toddler, these other nations will be taken care of. Trust me. Trust me.
Now you say well, okay, that makes some sense. Maher-shalal-hash-baz, that doesn’t sound quite as exciting at Christmas. Well, it’s, it’s not one or the other, but it’s both. Now you say well, but his name was Maher-shalal-hash-baz, His name wasn’t Emmanuel, which is true. Isaiah’s son was a sign that God would be with His people. But his wife was not a virgin.
So how do we understand this? Well, we must understand Hebrew prophecy worked by multiple fulfillment. It wasn’t assumed or even expected that every detail of the prophecy would be fulfilled in that immediate near future. We sometimes think prophecy is, you know, in two weeks from now, you will get a mysterious phone call that will tell you that you have just inherited $10,000. We think it just gives time, place, date… Prophecy doesn’t work that way in the Old Testament, or in the New Testament. Actually, it helps us understand how prophecy in Revelation works as well. There are usually near and long-term fulfillment.
Think of Acts chapter 2, the sermon at Pentecost. And they say, look, this is what the prophet Joel foretold. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and we get that. Okay, the Holy Spirit, and people are prophesying and speaking in tongues, and the Spirit’s falling upon all sorts of people, men and women. But then you notice in that same prophecy recorded in Acts 2, it says about the stars falling from the sky and the moon turning to blood, and all this sort of cataclysmic language of the end of the earth. Well, that didn’t happen at Pentecost. There’s a near fulfillment, and there’s a far fulfillment.
The best analogy which I’ve come across, it’s like looking at a mountain range. If you were going to go out west and look at the Rocky Mountains, and you say “well, keep going west and as you come to Colorado Springs and you see Pike’s Peak,” you could say “well, there’s the front range, there’s the Rockies,” and you go there and what’s in front of you? The Rocky Mountains. But as you actually get to the Rocky Mountains, you realize, it’s not just one peak, it’s hundreds of peaks, and some of the peaks that when you were at a great distance looked like they were all in a straight line and you could just go from one to another, when you get up to them, you see that well, that peak was so high that it was actually 30 miles farther back. And the next one was actually 15 miles beyond that. And when you got past that one, there was actually another one that you couldn’t see. And the whole range of mountains, which appeared to be just flat in front of you, is actually quite wide and deep.
We have, in prophecy, this multiple layers of fulfillment. Suppose that you want to be married. And suppose that you go home for Christmas and you talk to your dad and you say “dad, I really want to get married.” And he says to you “my little girl, don’t lose heart.” Now, dad, I’m not suggesting you give this prophetic word, but just if you did, “I see a day when there’s a man on one knee before you. I see a diamond on your finger. The day is coming. You will be dressed in white. The crowd will stand at your arrival. And you will be one with your husband. I see the day coming. Children around your table. Do not be afraid. The day is close at hand.” Okay, that’s sort of prophecy. Some of you are saying “I’ll take that.”
Now, I think as you hear that, you would instinctively understand a certain prophetic, poetic dimension to it. “On the day, on that day, on that day.” But if you really were to sort of parse those things out, is the man going to be on his knees with the diamond ring and you’re going to be walking down the aisle in white and you’re going to have children around your table, all on the same day? No, not really. But, but it’s all spoken of as “that day,” that day when God will begin to fulfill these things, even though the fulfillment of them may be separated by years or decades or in the case of biblical prophecy, sometimes by centuries. If your dad were to give a prophecy like that, you would realize he’s speaking of a series of events as if they were happening on one day. It’s prophetic speech, with multiple fulfillment. So when you got engaged, you would say “now this is what my dad was talking about,” but you’d also understand instinctively “this is not all that my dad was talking about, there’s more to come.”
And so it is here. There’s going to be a child. And at first it’s Isaiah’s son with his wife, even though she’s not a virgin, and the child is not technically Emmanuel, though it is a sign of Emmanuel. His name is Maher-shalal-hash-baz. But it’s a sign that God is going to be with them.
Which leads to our second question. If this is the context for the prophetic announcement, there’s an even more important question. Did this Virgin birth, fast forwarding now to Bethlehem, did this Virgin birth really happen? Now in Matthew’s gospel he certainly believed that it happened. In fact, what’s remarkable is how he does nothing to prove that it happened. In the early church the Virgin birth was assumed, apparently without much controversy. It was so much a given as an article of fact and faith that you don’t see a great controversy about it. I mean, Matthew and Luke, they don’t even go to great pains to try to prove that this could be, it’s just, there it is, it happened.
But there are some objections. Some people say “well, look, this word in Isaiah doesn’t mean virgin, it simply means a young woman of marriageable age.” In fact, some people say “well, if Isaiah’s wife was the one, then maybe she was the virgin and maybe the Virgin Mary wasn’t really technically a virgin because the word here can just mean something else.” You’ll run across this often among more liberal scholars or liberal professors or pastors, who will say, “well, look, the Virgin birth, the word really just means a young woman.”
The word in Hebrew translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 is the word “almah.” It occurs nine times in the Old Testament. It’s used in Psalm 46:1 and 1 Chronicles 15:20 as a musical term actually, and we’re not quite sure what the word means. Psalm 68:25 speaks of maidens playing the tambourine, and it’s not clear whether they would be virgins or not. Proverbs 30:19 speaks of the way of a man with a maiden, and it may or may not be a virgin. Song of Songs 1:3 says “no wonder the maidens love you,” and it’s speaking very likely of single, unmarried virgins. Song of Songs 6:8 talks of queens, concubines, and alamot beyond number, which almost certainly means virgins. And, importantly, in Genesis 24:43, it speaks of Rebekah, and Exodus 2:8 speaking of Miriam are clearly references to unmarried virgin women. Those are all the occurrences of this Hebrew word “almah” in the Old Testament. And I’ve just run through them to show, yes, on some occasions, it’s unclear whether it means virgin or not. But in every instance where it must be one way or the other, it means unmarried virgin women. Like all of our words, they have a semantic range of meaning. Words don’t just, this word equals that, but they can mean a number of different things depending upon the context. But wherever the context makes its meaning clear, almah in the Old Testament always means virgin.
And the Greek word used in the Septuagint, remember the Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, and that’s the Bible that the New Testament authors would have been familiar with, the Greek word used in Isaiah 7 is the word “parthenos” which everyone agrees is the word for virgin and it’s the same word used in Matthew 1:23. There’s no way that the Jews would have translated almah as parthenos unless the word really meant virgin. So you can’t, you can’t get around this by saying “well, maybe somewhere deep into the Hebrew it really means something else.” No, it means what the English Bible has for you.
And besides, why would someone try to change it? There wasn’t much of an expectation for a virgin birth, so they weren’t reading their hopes back into the text. It would have been easier to interpret the prophecy translated as “young woman” because now that’s much easier to find a young woman giving birth than a virgin, so there’s no good reason to think that later translators just put virgin into the text. That makes their work just more difficult.
Some people it is very hard, just say “well, I don’t know, I like the Christmas story, but the Virgin birth? Really? Now we’ve seen a lot of things, but virgins don’t give birth.”
Have you ever experienced anything you couldn’t quite explain? Do you know people who have had strange hunches? Premonitions? Dreams? I bet every single adult in this room could tell some story of something in your life, you just, you couldn’t piece it together. Somebody who had some coincidence that you can’t quite explain. You know there’s all sorts of things that science has not unraveled. You can go Google for yourself this afternoon “disappearing lakes” and you can get a whole list of lakes around the world that have disappeared. And some of them, scientists find later, oh, well, here was a sinkhole, and then there’s other ones they say “I don’t know.” Did God cause a lake to disappear? I don’t know. But the point is you would probably look at that and say you know what? Disappearing lake. Well, there’s a reason for it. Somebody can explain it somewhere. Somebody probably knows.
I mean, think of all the things that you take for granted very single day that you don’t begin to understand. Do you understand how your computer works? Okay, some of you work in computers, but you don’t even understand how it all works. If you did, then why doesn’t mine work? How does the internet work? I mean, you know technology, but really? Just push a button and all this stuff comes at you?
And the people who understand that, you probably don’t understand how manufacturing works. How do you get, how did this building come together? And if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand medicine, pharmacology. Some of you, you take multiple pills, because somebody said “here, it’s just yay big, just take it, swallow it, you’ll get better.” And because the person that you were talking to you trusted, you said okay, I’ll swallow stuff. I don’t know what it is. I’ll take this and I’ll live longer. You understand that for most of human history that’s like Jack and the Beanstalk kind of stuff? People made fairy tales of that? You take pills and you live longer. But now we just say, yeah, you know.
Now why do you accept it? Because you believe that somebody in a white coat somewhere tested the thing and they understand it and they could explain it to you even though you don’t have the foggiest idea how this all works. So might it be with the miracles in the Bible? With something like a Virgin birth? Before you, you know, fold your arms and shrug your shoulders and say ah, that stuff can’t happen, well, what if there were somebody out there who’s really, really smart, and really understands how everything works, and maybe someday if you meet Him face-to-face He could explain it to you? Do you think maybe could trust that? Maybe there’s somebody like that? Maybe somebody even smarter than a doctor? Maybe like the person who made the universe?
Some people say well, this Virgin birth, that was in, all the pagan myths had this. Well, really they didn’t. Not God coming to earth in the form of a man. Yeah, maybe Zeus seducing a woman or something and then having some sort of half-ling offspring, but nothing like this. And think about Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels. Constantly referencing Old Testament prophecies. Matthew was a Jew writing for Jews. Which is why he goes to great lengths to show Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy and any devout Jew would have been decidedly opposed to pagan religion, pagan infiltration in their religion. You don’t write as a Jew for Jews and try to impress them by saying “and I’m going to throw in a little bit of pagan mythology.” That doesn’t work. That doesn’t impress anybody.
They were devout monotheists. If anything, Matthew could have been nervous about this. A Virgin birth? I don’t know about that. Except that the Scriptures had predicted it. The worst way to convince Jews would have been to copy a bunch of pagan myths and then say “well, that’s Jesus.” So perhaps it really happened. Just as the Bible tells us that it happened. A virgin conceived, not some crassly physical way but mysteriously by the power of the Holy Spirit she has a child within her though she has known no man. And she gives birth.
Which leads to a final question. Why does it matter? You say, “pastor, that’s interesting, I didn’t know about Maher-shalal-hash-baz, I got a little Bible trivia. And I didn’t know that lakes disappeared either, so I’ll look that one up. Yeah, Virgin birth. I can buy that. But what’s the big deal?”
Many years ago, now over 10 years ago, there was an author who famously, or infamously, said look, would it really matter if we, you know, somehow discovered through some DNA evidence that Jesus had an earthly father named Larry, he said would it really matter? Can’t we just, can’t we still keep believing what we’re believing? Is it really… And if that is going to throw off your whole faith, then maybe your faith isn’t really worth very much, that’s what he said. And he was dead wrong.
Our faith is based on history. Not just an inspiring myth, like “Lord of the Rings,” what a great story, or “Narnia,” or “Les Mis” or some classic piece of literature. The Gospel story isn’t mean to just inspire us to a better way of living; it matters because it happened. And that in happening, this amazing redemption was revealed and accomplished.
Here’s what the Heidelberg Catechism asks: “What does it mean that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary?” Here’s the answer it gives: “That the eternal Son of God who is and remains true and eternal God took to himself through the working of the Holy Spirit from the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary a truly human nature so that He might become David’s true descendant, like his brothers in every way except for sin.”
Did you notice that line, “who is and remains true and eternal God”? In becoming as one of us, He did not cease to be who He already was. This is not a shape-shifter, this is not a transformer. This is divine now wed for all time to a human nature. For all time. Do you know that a man, a man sits at God’s right hand as the King over all things. A man. A God-man. A God-man because of this miracle of the incarnation. He did not cease to be what He in becoming as we are. The Virgin birth is how we can have the uniting of full deity and full humanity. So yes, it matters if Jesus was born of Larry.
Jesus, the Son of God, born to Mary, comes to us as a man like Adam, bearing the flesh just as Adam did, but He does not come to us in the line of Adam. How else do you get that? We need somebody to redeem Adam’s fallen race, all of us, so He needs to be Adam’s kind and nature and likeness, but He needs to not come from Adam and so inherit the depravity from Adam. How do you have that? Same nature as Adam, doesn’t come from Adam. You have a Virgin birth.
So you have a parallel track, so that Christmas is announcing to us the tale of two Adams. The Virgin birth tells us that someone from the outside has now become an insider in our world. Someone from somewhere else has now come and taken on our flesh, a man like Adam but not in the line of Adam. The Catechism says how does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you? And by the way, the immaculate conception, that’s a Catholic doctrine referring wrongly to the belief that Mary was born without original sin, so don’t equate Virgin birth and immaculate conception, they are two different things. Immaculate conception, Catholic doctrine about Mary; Virgin birth, what we see here in Isaiah and Matthew about Jesus.
Here’s the answer the Catechism gives: “He is our mediator and with His innocence and perfect holiness, He removes from God’s sight my sin, mine since I was conceived.” This is why the Virgin birth matters. He did not inherit the curse of depravity that we inherited. It doesn’t mean that the sinful stain comes from males instead of from females. What it means is that Jesus was not a descendent from Adam and so in that mysterious way did not inherit the sin that each of us inherit as descendents from the single pair Adam and Eve, but God came to earth born in this unique way to a virgin, conceived by the Holy Ghost. And so the Virgin birth is a sign of Emmanuel, God with us.
Do you understand how that bit of Christmas good news summarizes a whole ton of redemptive historical freight? What does the covenant promise all throughout Scripture? When God comes to Abraham and he says you’re going to have a child, and you’re going to call him Isaac, and you’re going to circumcise him, and I’m going to promise you land, and I’m going to promise you descendents, and then ultimately what does He say in genesis 17? And I will promise that I will be your God, and you will be my people. That is the covenant promise. When God’s people are languishing in slavery for four centuries in Exodus, and their cry goes up to heaven and it says that God heard, saw, remembered, and He knew. He remembered the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the covenant that said “I will be your God, you will be My people.”
And so when God was angry with sinners, when He was angry with His people, do you remember what He tells Hosea? Go to a prostitute, have children, and here’s what you’re going to name those children. Not My people. Because that’s the curse that God would not be with you.
I remember R. C. Sproul teaching so powerfully. You take that blessing that you hear so often at the end of the service, the Lord bless you, the Lord keep you, the Lord make His face shine upon you, be gracious unto you, that Aaronic blessing. Flip it. May the Lord curse you, may the Lord not shine His light upon you, may the Lord turn His face from you and give you nothing but darkness. That’s the curse. That’s the opposite of Emmanuel. That’s God not with us.
And then at the very end of the age in Revelation 21 we read “now the dwelling of God is with men and He will live with them, they will be His people and God Himself will be with them and be their God.”
For some of us, sadly we don’t find this very impressive. Big deal. Yep, God, God’s everywhere, right? He’s with everybody all the time. And in one sense, yes, He is omnipresent. But that’s not what it means here. God with us. God with us is another way of saying God for us when there is no reason that He should be for us. That’s the “with us.” God is with sinners in hell for all eternity in the sense that the very punishing wrath of His presence is there. That’s not good news. This is good news. The God who is for us, will be with us. The God shown to us in Jesus.
Sometimes we need to stop and we need to think “do I really believe this?” Do you really believe a woman, best as we can figure 13, 14, 15 years old, given that culture, never been with a man, probably never kissed a man, and an angel comes to her and tells her you have a child; that’s not normal. And he says that child within you is the Son of God. Now do you believe that that really happened? We’re not just singing about it. We’re not just, God didn’t just think “well, I need a reason to give, you know, people need a reason to give presents. The kids need to put on a pageant. I’ll come up with a story.”
Do you believe it really happened? If that really happened, why don’t we trust God? Can you trust a God who can do that? So you can see, we’re not in a situation all that different from Isaiah. In Isaiah’s day it was Assyria; in our day it’s somebody else. Same issue, same temptation, same doubt, same struggle, same fight of faith. And God says “I’ll give you a sign. You want to know that you can trust Me? You want to know that I’m for you, not against you? You want to know that I will be with you to the end of the age? I’ll give you a son. Not just Maher-shalal-hash-baz, that was nice in the present, but I’ll give you another son, My Son, born not just of a young woman, but of a virgin. This will be My sign to you.”
So God says “don’t compromise, don’t doubt. After all, I’m the mighty God who made a virgin give birth. I’m the Prince of Peace who emptied Myself to be born of a virgin. I’m Emmanuel. God with us. And you shall call the child Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Once again the Nicene Creed, “for us and for our salvation, He came down from heaven, He became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made human.” For us and for our salvation.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, what good news that did not spare Your own Son but sent Him to us, and if You who did not spare your own Son but freely gave Him to us all, how will You not also together with Him give us all things. Help us to believe, forgive our unbelief. And give us in these days a heart to sing and to savor and to love and to wonder the great miracle of the incarnation, of Your love begotten before all ages, made manifest, enfleshed in the cradle on the Christmas morn. We thank You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.