Christmas and Easter are par excellence the times when OT ‘scriptures’ are invoked as prophecies about the circumstances of the life of Jesus, thus proving that God knew all along what he was going to do, and felt the need to give little hints to people which one day long in the future they (or rather their great great great … grandchildren) would suddenly ‘get’ when they saw Jesus. I blame Handel’s Messiah, which is full of the stuff, and makes it impossible for us to hear certain Bible passages without running the danger of bursting into song. Especially that ‘wonderful counsellor’ one. I once got myself into trouble speaking to a group of trainees at one of these youth gap year projects by daring to suggest that Is 7 isn’t actually a prophecy about the virgin birth, but might have had a relevance to the people to whom it was actually spoken. In context it is about God saying to king Ahaz, who feared a united attack from two enemy kings, that God knew exactly what was going on, had his hand on the situation, and was planning to do something about it. ‘But when?’ the king might have cried, knowing as we do that God’s next-on-the-list might take up to a thousand years. So God reassured him: this young girl you’re planning to marry and have a child with? Well before he’s a couple of years old these two kings will have been destroyed. It’s a message of deliverance, of hope, of assurance that God really is in control.
And that, it seems to me, is the real point of this passage, and of its use just before Christmas. Apart from in Matthew 1:23 Jesus never once does get called ‘Immanuel’ , although we know that in a real sense he was ‘God with us’. Whether Is 7 does ‘prove’ the virgin birth or not I’ll leave you to decide. I have no trouble believing that a virgin could conceive, but a lot more in believing that this verse has very much at all to do with it. But Advent and Christmas are all about a God who knows, who cares, and who eventually will act. If we feel under siege, God knows. If we worry about what the world is coming to, we can be assured that God is in control and nothing humans can do will faze him. And if we despair of ever seeing change, God reassures us that the time is coming when he will act. So the message to us as Advent gives way to Christmas is to hold on, to stay hopeful, and to wait faithfully. And God, after all, is with us.