Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25
This Advent we have been guided by the theme of Mystery. One of the mysteries I’ve enjoyed is seeing what the musicians have prepared each week and what new thing is going to be happening visually up front from week to week. We approach our worship this in the same spirit as the Franciscan Richard Rohr, who speaks of mystery not as that which is unknowable, but that which is endlessly knowable. Mystery, Divine Mystery, is that which is endlessly knowable. You can’t get to the bottom of it. The church dedicates more than a month each year to the drama of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and, however familiar we are with the story, we intuitively know that we have only scratched the surface of what this means for us and for the world. Ponder again Mary bearing the Christ child into the world. There’s always more to see.
This time around Advent has also happened to coincide with the death of a remarkable human being, Nelson Mandela. As we have been pondering mystery, and with hopeful expectation of Christ’s presence among us, we have shared in the public remembrance of this life that represented so many of the hopes of his people and people around the world. This is a man who spent 27 years in prison for his leadership in the South African movement to overthrow apartheid, some of that time in solitary confinement, and had his eyesight permanently damaged because he was forbidden to wear sunglasses to protect himself from the glare while he and other prisoners spent their days breaking up limestone into gravel. He was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, and was not permitted to attend the funeral of his own mother and his oldest son. There were times in these years when he was not allowed to read any books except for the Bible because of the threat he posed to apartheid government. Had the government leaders actually read the Bible themselves, they may have reconsidered placing it in the hands of a revolutionary.
There was surely the mystery of the Spirit at work in his soul for him to emerge from prison willing to not only lead this emerging multiracial democracy, but to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which focused on exposing the evils done under apartheid, not for the main purpose of punishing the perpetrators, but for the purpose of restoring the losses of their victims. Imagine reconciliation as public policy!
It is those same revolutionary scriptures, and that same Spirit, that lead us into this final Sunday of Advent. Today’s Psalm, Psalm 80, includes the cry, “Stir up your might, O God, and come to save us!” We have high expectations. Our hope is for nothing less than the salvation of the whole world, our own souls included. Today we join with all those throughout history who have ever prayed this prayer. Save us! Save us from oppression. Save us from oppressing others. Save us from the prison of bitterness. Save us from ourselves. Save us, O Holy Mystery.
2. With us is God
Attempting to say something about this passage from Isaiah feels a little bit like walking into a war zone. Its traditional connection to Advent is that it contains a line that is cited in Matthew’s gospel as being fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Most likely, that verse is the only thing that sounds remotely familiar from this portion of Isaiah. It’s verse 14 of chapter 7. “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanu-el, translates as “with us is God.” “God is with us.” Matthew’s gospel is laced with references to the Hebrew scriptures, especially the prophet Isaiah, these ancient words coming to be fulfilled in the person of Jesus. This is the first of those fulfillments. For Matthew, the young woman is Mary, a virgin, and the son is Jesus, Immanuel, “With us is God.”
What happened to this Isaiah passage is that it became a proxy war for liberal and conservative Christians, focusing on the translation of one pivotal word. Unfortunately, the word which has received so much attention is not Immanuel, “with us is God,” which feels like the real scandal of this passage, but the one translated either as young woman or virgin. An extremely abbreviated history goes something like this: the Hebrew word originally used in Isaiah usually means “young woman,” although it can mean virgin, although there is a different Hebrew word more often used for virgin. But when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the Septuagint, the Greek word used can only mean virgin. The New Testament writers read from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and saw Isaiah’s words as coming to completion in Mary’s virgin pregnancy which becomes a part of Jesus’ birth story which for complex theological reasons becomes a doctrine of the church. Early in the 20th century Protestant Christians argue whether belief in the literal virgin birth is or isn’t fundamental to Christian faith. The lines have been drawn ever since, although I think a fair amount of battle fatigue has set in for all involved.
What can get lost in this approach is recognizing that this Isaiah passage comes out of an actual war zone. Jerusalem is being attacked by its neighbors from the north, Aram, also known as Syria, and Ephraim, also known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel, those 10 tribes that broke off from Judah after the reign of King Solomon 200 years before Isaiah’s writing. The inhabitants of Jerusalem are overpowered and outnumbered, and Ahaz, their king, is about to make a desperation move by making an alliance with the superpower of the day, Assyria. But the prophet Isaiah, himself an inhabitant of Jerusalem, believes the alliance is foolish and reveals a lack in faith in God; and in good prophetic fashion, tells King Ahaz that God will provide a sign that the city and its people will be safe. For whatever reason, the king does not want a sign, does not, he says, want to put the Lord to a test. It sounds pious, but Isaiah refuses to not give the king a sign.
So what’s the sign? What kind of sign would help give the assurance that the armies of the enemy will not prevail and that everyone inside the city will be secure? How about this: Look, the soldier’s sword. Sharp and ready. It’s a sign that we will pierce our enemies, and they will retreat in shame. What’s the sign? How about this: Look, the walls of the city. Thick, tall, strong. They will protect us from harm.
Neither of these are the sign that Isaiah gives to Ahaz. Instead, rather than pointing to the might of the soldiers or strength of their technologies of war, Isaiah points to the most unlikely place one would look for assurance in times of battle. You know what Isaiah says: “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him “With us is God,” Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” We don’t know who this young woman of Jerusalem is that Isaiah points to, but her pregnant body and the young life of her child become a time keeper for Jerusalem’s salvation. A pregnancy lasts nine months, and it was believed that a child could start to tell right from wrong, refuse the evil and choose the good, after their first two years of life.
Curds and honey were not items readily available during siege warfare, yet Isaiah is assuring the king that before this child to be is even old enough to know right from wrong, in only a few years, the threats to the city will go away. The child will be snacking on curds and honey, running around and laughing in the streets of Jerusalem just as every child should be able to do, safe and secure in the neighborhood, free as a bird.
The sign of Isaiah is that, in the most violent and threatening of circumstances, the very ones who appear to have no power and have nothing to contribute to the protection of their people, become the ones to watch. Through the anonymous young woman, With us is God, Immanuel, is born. Creation renews itself. A new generation begins that has not suffered the trauma of their parents. Every day of the growth of this child is a sign. Soon the threats will pass and the son, the daughter, will be eating the good stuff, curds and honey. And every time you whisper the child’s name, you are reminded, “God is with us.” “God is with us.”
3. With us is God II
And now another child is born. The threat of the Aramians and Northern Kingdom has long passed, Assyria has come and gone and with it other world empires. But empire itself has not gone away. And the scope of concern is no longer the preservation and safety of one city, but the whole world. The character of Ahaz is gone and now a person of much lower social standing, Joseph must decide what to do with this new kind of sign.
It’s Joseph’s honor that’s at stake when his wife-to-be is found to be pregnant and he knows he’s not the father. The law of Deuteronomy stated that such a woman could be stoned to death. Joseph was a righteous man, obedient to the law. Joseph was a carpenter. A carpenter like Joseph worked not only with wood, but also with another common building material, stones. Joseph was used to handling stones. Every day he was working around them or with them, his hands touching and gripping and moving and placing stones. Stones for building walls, stones for fences, stones for pavement. Stones were solid. Things built with stones last a long time. Stones were heavy and hard. A stone poorly placed could fall and crush an arm or a foot. Joseph was a carpenter, skillful, and knew what to do with stones.
Joseph was a righteous man, obedient to the law, but he was not a literalist, he did not believe that stones were for punishment. Although he had it in his power to do so, he was unwilling to expose his wife to public disgrace, and he planned to dismiss her quietly.
Joseph had a dream that told him that this child of Mary’s would save his people from their sins. A dream in which the voice of Isaiah, surely lodged in the deep recesses of his brain from hearing it read in synagogue, seemed to be speaking directly to him: “Look, the young woman – a virgin, Matthew says – shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” With us is God. God is with you, Joseph. This child is from the Holy Spirit.
The young woman is Mary, although it would be more accurate to call her an older girl. It was custom for girls to be pledged to be married right around the time they hit puberty, so if you’re a girl between 12 and 16, you could be Mary. Mary could be you.
In fact there’s a whole stream of Christian spirituality that says Mary is you. Not just teenage girls, but you, me, everyone who yields to God. That Mary’s task is essentially the task of every living and breathing human being. To receive the Word, the seed of God within you, to nurture it within the womb of your soul, like Mandela did in that dark prison cell, and to birth Christ into the world through your body, your life, and in this very act, to declare to the world, God is with us. To take this great risk for God.
The salvation we long for does not involve removing ourselves from this world and going to some other place to be with God. The current of salvation flows in the exact opposite direction. It is God who is with us, in this world of atoms and molecules, and bodies. Matter, animated by Spirit. And it is through our very human and broken lives that the Holy Mystery does its work.
For Ahaz, and for Isaiah, and even for Joseph, the sign of God was something for them to look at outside themselves. Something happening around them, in their environment, to be seen and watched. But for Mary, the sign is something happening within her. It’s not a thing out there to be looked at. The sign is happening to her. She is, you are, the environment of God’s activity. The sign, Christ, is happening to us. It’s name is With us is God.