‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’ (Isaiah 7:14)
Christians see these words as a prophecy concerning Jesus. However, strictly-speaking this is not prophecy but typology. Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah is threatened by the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel along with a war-ally. God reassures Ahaz, king in Jerusalem, through the prophet Isaiah: Isaiah’s wife will have a son, and before that son is weaned, the two kings set against Ahaz will be destroyed by the Assyrian empire.
The son borne to a young woman is a sign of God’s impending and inescapable judgement; and a call to repentance and trust, and the (re)formation of a people who will live faithfully, as God’s chosen people were called to do, beyond that destruction. A faithful remnant; the stump left when a tree is cut down.
The reason this word is applied, some 600 years later, to Jesus is that Jesus is born as the same type of sign. This time, it is Jerusalem itself that will experience God’s impending and (after John the baptist) inescapable judgement—at the hands of the Romans, in 70AD—and in the face of this there will again be the need for and hope of a remnant community, the followers Jesus gathers around him.
The message of Jesus neither was nor is ‘God loves you’ (though that is true) but, rather, God hates injustice and unfaithfulness, and determined to do something about it, while maintaining his own faithfulness to his chosen, covenant people.
As we prepare to celebrate the sign of Immanuel—God-with-us—let us remember that it is a sign for the over-throwing of those who turn away from God and pursue self-interest, including those who do so in God’s name. Let us pray for mercy on the society that experiences such a visitation—perhaps adding to the Advent prayer ‘Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus’...’but not yet!’—and for the grace to be found faithful.