Advent rises up in a kind of a drumroll. Christmas itself is a mysteriously silent night, a bizarrely insignificant event. But God surrounds it with the songs of angels, and signs in the heavens, to show us that this is the center of all history, the ultimate miracle.
Our reading from Isaiah is a little confusing. God’s prophet demands that the king, Ahaz, should ask for a sign. Ahaz refuses: “I will not put the Lord to the test.” The prophet rebukes him: “Is it not enough for you to weary men, but you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.”
Such a strange confrontation. Ahaz is quoting Deuteronomy: “you shall not test the Lord your God, as you tempted him at Massah” (Deut. 6:16). Jesus himself will quote the same line against the Devil in the wilderness (Matt. 4:7). It seems like Ahaz is doing the right thing.
But Isaiah quotes back at him the lines from Massah itself: “the people strove with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said to them, Why do you strive with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Ex. 17:2). Is it not enough for you to weary men? Must you also weary my God?
Maybe the deeper meaning is in the first words Jesus quotes against the Devil. Deuteronomy says, “He humbled you, and allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you knew not, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only; but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord man lives” (Deut. 8:3).
Ahaz quotes the Bible out of context. The deeper problem is not signs, but whether we trust in the Lord. The Lord was calling him to trust; he replied I will not tempt the Lord.
The greatest sign of all, the greatest word, the greatest trust, is what comes from the virgin’s womb, Emmanuel, God with us.
Our reading from the opening of Romans does nothing but underline this. “The gospel of God,” he says, is “the gospel about his Son.” He is the one “promised previously through the prophets.” He is the true descendent of David. And he is “established as Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This is the center of the Bible, the place where all the signs and miracles converge, the ultimate word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord, the true manna, the living water, life itself.
And “Through him we have received the grace of apostleship”: the whole Church exists for nothing but this. It all points to Jesus, Emmanuel.
And after all the fanfare, all the drum roll, comes the simple story of the birth. Of Joseph, a righteous man, stumbling along trying to figure out what is going on, “for it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her,” so that the prophecy, the sign offered to Ahaz, might be fulfilled: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
Joseph, this true son of Abraham (Matt. 1:2), of David (Matt. 1:6), and yes, according to Matthew himself, just before he tells the story of the birth, the son of Ahaz – “And Uzziah begat Jotham, and Jotham begat Ahaz, and Ahaz begat Hezekiah” (Matt. 1:9) – does not ask for a sign. But what the angel offers, he lovingly receives: “He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took his wife into his home.”
The life to which God calls us is supremely supernatural. It is a life, as Paul says in our reading from Romans, of “the obedience of faith.” We are “called to belong to Jesus Christ . . . called to be holy.” The Christian life is not a life without miracles. It is a supremely miraculous life, a life that hinges on a virgin birth, the resurrection of the dead – and even more, the justification of sinners by the power of “the Spirit of holiness.”
Ahaz gets it completely wrong. What “wearies” and “tempts” God is not our desire for the supernatural. It is, to the contrary, our insistence on living for nothing but worldly bread, our shoving God to the margins. Jesus offers infinitely more.
And thus the drumroll to Christmas: God is with us, to do infinitely more than we could possibly imagine. In the manger is poverty – and infinite riches.
What if we really believed that God was with us? How would that change us?