Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. Isaiah 7: 14-15

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel,” which means, “God with us.” Matthew 1:22-23

Matthew cites this passage from Isaiah as a prophetic announcement of the future Messiah’s birth, pronounced seven centuries in advance. To Isaiah’s hearers, the prophecy had immediate, local relevance. Little did they dream that these words were a double entendre—a reference to the coming Savior who asserts his humility of character and God’s eternal promise to be available to his people.

Isaiah’s prophecy was actually longer, and in its day was spoken directly to Judah’s King Ahaz, a descendant of David. The political situation seemed dire, with Assyria and the northern kingdom of Israel in league to attack Judah. Ahaz wanted to counterbalance their alliance by turning to the dominant power of the day, Assyria. In one sense, Ahaz had already surrendered to Assyria for he had rejected the God of Israel and worshipped idols like the Assyrians. Regardless of Ahaz’s infidelity, God honored his promise to Ahaz’s ancestor, David, to be Immanuel—God with us—to David’s descendants in their time of peril, crushing both Assyria and Israel within three years of the prophecy.

Matthew rearticulates Isaiah’s prophecy to highlight the unique nature of Christ’s birth: “a virgin shall conceive.” Again, however, it is the title that is pronounced that should be important to us: “God with us.” The appellation characterizes the Messiah as one who came to live alongside his creation. Interestingly, the title says nothing about political dominion or military exploits, in contrast to the popular expectations of an apocalyptic Messiah which were current in Jesus’ day.

This promise, that God will be with his people, echoes hopefully throughout the biblical redemption narrative. God promised to be with Abraham, to be his “shield” and his “reward.” God directly said, “I will be with you,” to Moses, Joshua, and many other Old Testament heroes.[1] God saved his people countless times at the hands of Deborah, Gideon, Samson, and others as well as manifested himself physically to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace and by a still small voice to Elijah when he was on the run. Most notably, Matthew records Jesus’ last words to his disciples as, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[2]

The Isaiah passage emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, a child eating “curds and honey.” This is humble food, not the rich fare of royal banqueting halls, and some commentators suggest it symbolizes the uncertainty and nomadism of Christ’s early childhood: the flight to Egypt and life as refugee in a foreign land. Joseph’s family apparently lived in Egypt for some time, probably in humble circumstances, and then returned to Israel, again living in a parochial setting.

Not only was the fare of simple folk and travelers symbolic of Christ’s early years, but it also tells us something about the nature of his adult ministry. There are those evangelists who seem to prosper in material possessions as their ministry expands. Jesus’ experience was the opposite. He continued in simplicity throughout his ministry, once commenting, “Foxes have holes… but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In short, this Immanuel lived simply, as did the people he came to minister to. He came without pretension to trumpet the message of God’s love for everyone, regardless of rank or wealth.

God promises to be present, to be with us. He sent his Son to live in the flesh: the Bible asserts that Jesus was fully human and even “tempted in all points” just as we are. Jesus knew hunger, thirst, persecution, disappointment, abandonment by his friends, betrayal, and temptation. Jesus experienced poverty. Jesus knew the loss of family, in fact, his closest cousin was beheaded by the king. Therefore, he knows precisely what it is to face limitation in this life, to experience disillusionment, to feel sadness, to be disappointed. God did not promise to free us from the imperfections of this world. Rather, he promised to be with us as we live through them, as Immanuel, God with us. This is a God who has chosen to have intimate relationships with his creation and is willing to go to great lengths to make it happen.

Consequently, Christ is near at this very moment. He wants to be “God with us” to you and to your family. As in any other relationship, the choice is ours. Will you allow yourself to be comforted? Befriended? Loved? Healed by the God who knows the number of hairs on your head? This is the message of Christmas hope: Jesus Christ is Immanuel, and he wants to be God with you.

[1] See Exodus 3:12 and Joshua 1:15.

[2] Matthew 28:20.