Christmas Eve: Isaiah 7:14, “The Virgin will Conceive”

Christmas Eve–it’s finally here.  After all the preparation, the hurry, and the scurry, whether you’ve finished buying presents or not, Christmas is here, for real, tonight.  And soon it will be time for presents!

But what if we didn’t get any presents this year?  Would it still be Christmas?  Of course, for, after all, our Christmas gifts are only signs and symbols of the real meaning of Christmas.  But what is Christmas without presents?  I’m sure we’d all feel shortchanged.

Oh, Christmas means “presents,” to be sure.  But the true presence we receive is not the presents under the tree, but is singular.  It is a present, all right, and a gift from God Himself of Himself, of His presence for us.  For, after all, Christmas means God’s presence with us, Immanuel, God with us.

That’s what our Old Testament reading said when Isaiah spoke of the Messiah by the name “Immanuel.”  That’s the Hebrew word, which simply means “God with us.”  Indeed, God is present among us.

But why is it that all the holiday cheer evaporates so soon after Christmas?  Why is it that all those so concerned about making the world a better place this week will continue to contribute to the world’s problems next week?  Why is it that all those who would shout with Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone,” may well curse God the next minute?

And why is it that even we, who know the true meaning of God’s presence, can misunderstand and forget what His presence among us means?  That’s why the Christian Church spends four weeks preparing for Christmas.  That’s why we have an Advent season.  It’s four weeks of humble soul-searching, of confession and repentance, with true reflection on what it means to be a sinner in the presence of God.

Consider King Ahaz in our Old Testament reading.  He wanted God to be with him, but only on his terms.  A foreign army was about to invade Judah.  This concerned the king.  But instead of turning to God and His promises for comfort, security, and peace, in unfaithfulness, Ahaz took matters into his own hands.  God was a good-luck charm to have around.  But to surrender the control of your life and salvation to Him, well, Ahaz had some problems with that.

Yes, the king recognized God.  Of course, the king went to church more often than just the holidays.  He even did the holy day rituals.  But when he came face-to-face with his sin, with the trouble caused by his own sinful neglect of the one true God, it was another story.  It was as Isaiah would put it: “These people … honor [God] with their lips, but their hearts are far from [Him]” (Isaiah 29:13).

Ahaz wouldn’t admit his sin and turn to God in faith and trust.  Ahaz only wanted God his way.  Ahaz only wanted Christmas in the way he wanted it.  He said, “I’m in control here.  Don’t bother me with all that religious stuff.”

Now Ahaz should have known better.  He had the word and promises of God.  He was a son of the house of David.  He was the king–and it’s magnificent to be king!  But sometimes knowing gets in the way of needing.  Sometimes, the power gets in the way of God’s promise.  Sometimes, even we who should know better forget.  This is God’s story, God’s history, God’s salvation, God’s holiday, and God’s holy day.

Isaiah called the king to return to humble faith, to trust in the trustworthiness of God for his salvation.  But Ahaz thought he had it figured out.  Do you know what he did?  He turned to the power of this world.  He made a deal with the king of Assyria to help him out.  And with the king of Assyria came the gods of Assyria.  And suddenly his shrewdness in the ways of the world ruined his relationship with the God of his salvation.

“Ask for a sign, then,” Isaiah told Ahaz.  “Ask God, if that’s what you need to turn back to God.”  But Ahaz refused, even using pious-sounding words and phrases.  He said, “I won’t ask!  I won’t put the Lord to the test.”

So, Isaiah had some hard words to say.  Isaiah told the king, “Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men?  Must you also try the patience of God?”  So, you won’t ask for a sign, but God will give you one.  “The virgin will conceive, and give birth to a son, and name him Immanuel.”

Immanuel means “God with us.”  We often think the presence of God, especially during the glow of Christmas, is always something magical, joyful, and peaceful.  But it wasn’t that way for Ahaz.  You see, the presence of a holy God amid sinful people means judgment, not joy.  The presence of God amid the absence of faith means damnation, not salvation.

But you don’t what to hear a Christmas message like that?  You want to hear cute, heartwarming stories–not the truth of God.  You want a cute, cuddly baby.  What happened to peace on earth, goodwill toward men?  We don’t want our Christmas stocking filled with coal and signs of sin and judgment!

But that’s why the Christ Child came– to deal with sin and judgment.  For here–and here alone–is the true and real essence of the Christ-child’s presence at Christmas.  God gave the gift of Himself, His own Son, a Savior, to take in our sins and die for them.  That’s the harsh reality of Christmas.  Without that, Christmas has no meaning but has only become an empty ritual.

But this is also the reality of Christmas.  God has not come to judge and to punish us.  Instead, He came to take that sin-caused death on and in Himself.  God has taken on human flesh–born as a baby to live in a sinful world, as you and I do, to die a death as you and I will.  But in His death, He died to bear what you and I won’t.  And then He rose victorious into everlasting life, so you and I will, as well.  By faith, that’s our Christmas reality.  It’s all real because of Christ’s incarnation.

Yes, because of God’s presence for us at Christmas, we have the forgiveness of sin, new life in Christ, and communion with God Himself.  The crib of Christmas leads the Christ Child–and Christians–to the cross of Calvary.  The One who came forth from the Blessed Virgin’s womb would one day come forth victorious from a virgin tomb, to give to you this day, and every day, newness of life.

When we forget about God, when we fail to love those around us, when we realize the world is not all that changed by the human wishes of goodwill, God is still with us.  When we continue to face the problems of a sin-sick world, when we continue to face the troubles of our own sinful lives, when we, too, come face-to-face with God, God is still with us.  For because of the Christ Child, we have peace with God.

Indeed, Christ the Savior is born!  That’s the presence of God at Christmas, the best gift we can receive.  Amen.