Whose birth are we celebrating at Christmas time? I suppose it can get confusing in the midst of all the hustle and bustle that has become the Christmas season. The idea that there is an event, and a person behind it — behind all the holiday trappings — might even come as a surprise to some people. Honestly, the layers of tradition, custom and practice that have come to be associated with the celebration of Christmas all too easily distort its meaning and distract us from its significance. In fact, those traditions, customs and practices have taken on a meaning and significance all their own. Without them, it would not be Christmas for some.
But what if what you need is God? The parties are grand and the meals with family and friends are treasures. Giving is a joy and receiving a gift from someone who took the time to think of you is heartwarming. We ought never to miss an opportunity to celebrate and to share joy with one another. But what if what you really need is God? What if, like King Ahaz of Judah, your enemies have allied themselves together and are plotting your destruction? We read in the seventh chapter of Isaiah that the Lord instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sort of sign. The Lord put no limits on what Ahaz could ask, but Ahaz was too afraid, too filled with despair to ask; and he hid behind a false sort of piety refusing to ask for a sign because he did not want to test the Lord. The prophet Isaiah does not let him shirk his responsibility so easily. If Ahaz is unable to ask for a sign, God will give him one anyway. “. . . Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).
In the midst of these troublesome times, it is a woman giving birth to a child that will be God’s sign. A woman will do what the king, for whatever reason, could not do. She who had as much, if not more, to fear from the possibility of war and the horror that it brings to the most vulnerable, will act with courage and faith. When all evidence is to the contrary, she will name her child “God is with us.” Her bold proclamation will echo the words of the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:1-3). The King cannot bring himself to trust in God, but this woman will. She will do for him and for her people what he cannot; she will believe in God.
For Christians, there have been few explanations better than the courage and faith of this Jewish woman to explain the meaning of Christmas and the nature of God. In this story, we see God taking on flesh and dwelling among us. We see God coming to us and saving us. Like Ahaz, we at times find ourselves in dire situations. To our eyes, there seems to be no prospect for a positive outcome. Our fears paralyze our faith and the idea of turning to the Lord for help appears pointless. Or we have cried out to the Lord for so long without seeing any change in our dilemma that to do so any longer feels like it would be fruitless. These sorts of situations are ripe for Christmas. When our courage is waning and our faith is wavering, God gives us a sign and names him Immanuel, God is with us.
Yet, we miss it. Perhaps our situation is not dire enough. Our enemies are not drawn up around us on every side. Our circumstances are not such that we have needed to frequently cry out to the Lord. We embrace the hustle and the bustle even if it is not all together to our liking. The traditions, customs and practices that have grown up with around the Christmas season satisfy our need for Christmas, or so we tell ourselves. Still, we need a sign, perhaps more so than if we were in trouble. Is there any greater trouble than to not know that we need God? Though we have constructed our lives to look content, satisfied, and peaceful, our need to know God, to know that we are not alone, to know that God is with us, is no less than that of the long ago Jewish mother who named her child Immanuel.