Jesus comes to us in visions, nudges and dreams. (Satterlee)
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 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. 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.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O LORD God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn* of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
In this coming Sunday’s gospel, an angel tells Joseph his betrothed is going to have a baby. It comes as news to him.
Scholars like to point out that the story of the virgin birth is hardly novel.
Zeus/Jupiter impregnates Danaë and out comes Perseus, or as the popular movie series titles him, Percy: “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” (2010) and “Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters” (2013).
Zeus impregnates Maia and Theseus is born; Persephone and Dionysus, Zagreus and Demeter are born. Zeus impregnates Alcmena and Hercules is born. Leda, and Helen is born. Leto, and Apollo is born. Zeus is busy impregnating mortals. Apollo follows suit several times. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Hermes impregnates a shepherdess, and Pan is born. Mars impregnates Aemila and Romulus is born. And on it goes.
So, scholars say, in antiquity, the virgin birth is a way of saying that this Jesus is unique among mortals. Divine. This new Christian deity can compete in the pagan pantheon. This leads to a theology of Jesus as a god/man hybrid, a concept well-known in the Greco-Roman world. Augustus was said to be son of Apollo, who impregnated a mortal woman via a snake. So Augustus was the son of God before Jesus reached 14 years of age.
Both Jews and Greeks used the phrase “son of God,” but they meant it quite differently. King David is a son of God (2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7) as are others. It is a term of royal standing. But, let’s be clear: there is no real sense here that Yahweh is coming down and impregnating mortals. The concept would be foreign to Jewish thought.
As Ben Witherington articulately points out mortals being raped by the gods is a far cry from what Isaiah or even Matthew have in mind. In fact, the virgin who conceives in Isaiah 7 isn’t necessarily doing so miraculously. Jewish interpreters of that text didn’t interpret Isaiah 7 as a miraculous birth, just an important one. The point of the virgin conceiving in Isaiah was that this would be a firstborn child. Period.
“God is coming,” says Isaiah to Ahaz, accompanied by his son Shear-jashub, “and God is bringing a kingdom of peace, justice, and prosperity.” Ahaz wants to trust in God showing up, but is going to depend his alliance with Assyria, thank you, for security, not some flimsy promise of trusting in God who’s supposedly coming. Assyria will use this dependent alliance to destroy Judah in the end. It’s just so much easier to trust in arms and alliances than faith, hope, and love for our future. Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary says, “The mice invite the protection of the cat at their peril.”
Isaiah’s young woman is already pregnant, but there is no reason to assume she’s has gotten so in any but the usual way. In fact, עלמה (almah) doesn’t really mean virgin anyway. Hebrew has a better word for “virgin.” Almah means “young woman,” and that is how the NRSV translates it. The Septuagint translated it παρθένος for obvious reasons. For Isaiah, in spite of the threats on all sides, Judah is pregnant with hope. The world is pregnant with hope. The preacher might play with the slogan “God with us,” and a world pregnant with God, hope, peace, and justice.
“God is coming,” echoes John the Baptist, through Matthew’s pen. Ralph Klein (LSTC) says Matthew uses the exegetical pattern of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are utterly uninterested in the meaning of the Hebrew text in its original context, but rather its meaning for current events.
So, if the original Isaiah text didn’t reflect a miraculous virgin birth, then why does Matthew reinterpret it that way? He’s speaking a message to his community. He bringing Isaiah’s message to bear on his community’s current situation, as every great preacher and caring pastor must do. (Note Paul’s free and allegorical reinterpretation of Sarah and Hagar and other Hebrew Bible stories in Galatians and Romans.) The story arises from a historical incident. Something unusual happened. This explains Joseph’s shock, and Mary’s.
Of course the first person to doubt the virgin birth was Joseph himself. This is why he decided to divorce her, quietly. An angel visits him in a dream, and in the end he decides not to divorce Mary, and to adopt her child as his own.
Whatever the world may think about a literal virgin birth, no one questions that Jesus was adopted, and Joseph was an adoptive parent. Perhaps the greatest miracle was Joseph’s decision to accept this situation, marry Mary, and to raise the child as his firstborn child, in spite of the fact that he was not the biological father.
As an adoptive parent myself, I can attest that after a couple years, biology is emotionally irrelevant. You come to love a child you adopt as much as a biological child. I have both. When we adopted, I was worried about this. Could I possibly love another child as much as my son? Today the question amuses me. How could I ever have doubted?
Matthew wants us to know Jesus is utterly unique in the world. This creates challenges. Joseph has to overcome feelings of doubt, betrayal, confusion, disappointment, and stigma. At first he decides to dump Mary, because he is “righteous.” Later he comes to understand righteousness as trusting God, not rigidly following the law. Sometimes doing the right thing means listening to others. Other times it requires us forging ahead, regardless of what others may think.
The preacher may want to talk about ways God surprises us, showing up unexpectedly. Mary is pregnant, but so is the world. What we are truly awaiting, truly needing is hope. It may also be an opportunity to talk about dreams, which are a very important connection with the spiritual world. God speaks to people in dreams all throughout the Bible. Does God speak to you in dreams today? When has God revealed something to you in a dream? When has hope surprised you? Are we listening for God, in prayer and in dreams? Are we listening for the rustling angel wings?
Be at peace with God and with one another.
There are those who scoff at miracles.
I don’t know what they make of the birth of the Child.
For that matter,
I don’t know what they make of the birth of any child.
There are those who laugh at dreams,
so they’ve never heard an angel’s voice,
nor seen any unusual light in the night’s sky,
nor felt the yearning to set out in search of new life.
There are those who do not see the Star.
I wonder where it is they go when everyone else
sets out for Bethlehem.
To those of us who believe,
into every night is born a Star.
In Search of Kneeling Places
In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
an inn where we must ultimately answer
whether there is room or not.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
we experience our own advent in his.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
we can no longer look the other way conveniently
not seeing stars not hearing angel voices.
We can no longer excuse ourselves
by busily tending our sheep or kingdoms.
This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem
and see this thing that the Lord has
made known to us.
In the midst of shopping sprees
let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.
Through the tinsel
let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.
In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos
let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem
and find our kneeling places.