God With Us
Category : Reflections
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on December 18, 2016 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)
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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
– Matthew 1:18-25
Long ago, in a church far, far away (6 years ago, in Indian Head Park, Illinois, to be exact), I did an Advent reflection on these same scripture texts. It was a part of a series of reflections I was doing on great Advent songs of the church — In this season we are hearing all the traditional Christmas songs, but the church has a great tradition of Advent music as well. The closing song on that day was the same one we will sing today – “All Earth is Waiting.” So I am reprising that reflection for today.
Many of the traditional hymns of the Advent season are very old – going back ten centuries or more. But some are much newer, including one that has become one of my favorites. “All Earth is Waiting” was composed by Alberto Taule’ about 50 years ago. He was a leader and church musician in the Roman Catholic church in Spain. In those years after Vatican II, the Catholic Church was trying to add hymns to their masses – hymns in the language and culture of the local people. Taule’ composed Toda la Tierra (translated by Gertrude Suppe) for Advent, drawing particularly on texts from Isaiah 40 and 7.
The second verse is based on the text we read this morning from Isaiah 7:
Thus says the prophet to those of Israel,
“A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel”:
One whose name is “God with us,” our Savior shall be,
through whom hope will blossom once more within our hearts.
The virgin birth of Jesus is one of the traditional central teachings of the Christian church. It is expressed in many of the ancient creeds of the church – such as the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed. For many Christians, it is a miracle that they believe without question. But for some people, it is difficult to accept and a stumbling block to faith. This may come as a shock to many of you – especially those of you who grew up Roman Catholic or in churches that believe the Bible is always to be read as literal truth. Modern biblical scholarship has raised questions about whether Mary was actually virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. I have usually been reluctant to take on this controversy in the context of a sermon – especially as a big celebration like Christmas is right around the corner – but it seems important in the light of our lessons for today to at least make folks aware of the issues.
Let me begin with the text from Isaiah 7 – this often-quoted prophecy in the Advent and Christmas seasons. This was written or spoken more than seven centuries before Jesus was born. Isaiah was not getting a vision of the birth of a Messiah in some far-distant time to come; he was not staring into some mystical crystal ball, foretelling the future. Isaiah was trying to speak a word from the Holy One about a current event of his time – a threatened war between Judah and its allied enemies, Israel and Aram. King Ahaz of Judah was in a panic because these other kingdoms were threatening Judah, and he may have been considering going to war against them or making an alliance with some other nation that would cost him and his kingdom. God (or Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf) tried to reassure him with an ordinary, yet extraordinary sign: “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (a Hebrew word that means “God with us.”).
It isn’t clear what young woman Isaiah was talking about – but it was someone who was expecting at that time. And what a remarkable sign this was. Ahaz was afraid his kingdom might be destroyed and life as he knew it would come to an end; Isaiah assured him that life will go on. Ahaz was afraid that God had perhaps forgotten him and the promises God had made to his ancestor David; Isaiah said the child would be a sign that God was still with them, and would help them.
But here is the surprising thing about this prophecy: Isaiah did not say “a virgin would conceive and bear a son.” Isaiah used the Hebrew word almah – which means “young woman.” It does not specify marital status or sexual experience. So there was nothing particularly miraculous about the birth that Isaiah was talking about. Isaiah did not prophesy a virgin birth.
Now, fast-forward a few centuries. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel were both eventually conquered by other enemies. God’s covenant people (the ancient Jewish people) for various reasons were scattered to many places around the world – far away from their ancestral homes. And then, in the year 333 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world and established a Greek empire. Soon, Greek became the common language of that broad empire, and many Jewish people grew up speaking Greek instead of the Hebrew in which their Bible was originally written. So, in the mid-third century BCE, a group of scholars translated the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek (known as the Septuagint).
If you have ever studied other languages, you may have learned that all of the words in one language do not necessarily have a corresponding word in another language with exactly the same meaning. For example, I’ve heard it said that the language spoken by Eskimos has many different words for what we would call snow. They live with snow even more than we do, and their hunting success and even their lives may depend on distinguishing between fresh powder, or old, crusty snow, or wet snow. And so, they have many different words for snow.
And so it was when the Bible was translated from Hebrew into Greek. Greek has several words that can mean “young woman”, and the translators chose to translate Isaiah’s almah with the Greek word parthenos, which means “virgin.” For all of the Jewish people who were hoping for a Savior who would restore their kingdom, and who read or heard the Greek Bible, they came to believe that a Messiah would be born of a virgin – a real miracle. There were other Greek legends or mythologies of the time of heroes being born to virgins. But this reading was different from what Isaiah had originally prophesied centuries before.
In the days after his earthly life and resurrection, when the first believers were proclaiming the good news about Jesus and claiming that he was the Messiah the Jewish people had been waiting for, some refused to believe because they claimed he didn’t fulfill all of the scriptures that they thought described the Messiah. I don’t think anyone really knew much about Jesus’ birth or childhood. In the biblical writings we have from the Apostle Paul, he never wrote anything about Jesus’ birth. What most scholars believe was the first gospel written – the Gospel of Mark – has no birth stories at all; It begins with Jesus’ baptism as an adult. One would think that, if Jesus had been born of a virgin, that would be well-known and proclaimed.
I believe (and I am not alone in this) that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke wanted to show that Jesus fulfilled all of what they believed were Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah. And even though the exact circumstances of Jesus’ birth were probably not known, they created stories of his birth that fit them. They told of his birth to the Virgin Mary because that is what people who read the Greek Bible thought would happen, even though the original prophecy by Isaiah didn’t talk about a virgin birth.
While this may sound shocking to many modern readers – that the authors of the gospels would invent stories of Jesus with no basis in fact – it was a common practice of that time. And maybe it isn’t even that shocking to us any more, with people now inventing “fake news” to influence elections and public policy and spreading their stories on the internet. The gospel writers were not trying to write factual histories of Jesus — they were trying to convince readers and hearers to make a life-transforming leap of faith by accepting Jesus as their Savior.
This may all seem very convoluted and complex – especially if it is the first time you have ever heard this. So let me try to give you the important, take-away lesson from all of this. We will probably never know the exact circumstances of Jesus’ birth because there is reason to believe the only sources we have (the gospels) may be biased. If it is important for you to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin – well, the angel Gabriel assures Mary in the gospel of Luke that “nothing will be impossible with God.” But if you just can’t buy it – you are still welcome here in this church – because what I am saying is that it may not have happened. And for me, it isn’t a real important issue. My faith in Christ does not depend on whether it is true or not. In fact, it may be a good thing if it didn’t happen, since the church has often used the story of the virgin birth of Jesus to suggest that sex and sexual desire are inherently sinful, rather than a good gift of our humanity as God created us (when exercised responsibly).
Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith makes no mention of a virgin birth.
For me, here is the important point: long ago, God’s people hoped for and longed for God to send them a great leader – like Moses and David and Elijah and Elisha of long ago – who would show that God loved them and cared about them, who would forgive their past sins and those of their rebellious ancestors, who would restore them to a healthy relationship with the God who had created and saved them, and would bless them with health and wholeness and peace. Today, many people – Jew and Gentile, spiritual seekers and people who have been turned off by religion, agnostics and atheists and people who just don’t care one way or another – are looking for the same thing: someone to lead them into fullness of life and community, and to free them from all things that rob them of their humanity.
“All earth is waiting to see the Promised One.”
That person is Jesus, whose birth (virgin or otherwise) we are preparing to celebrate.
In the words of Alberto Taule’, “Again, on arriving, Christ brings us liberty.”
Robert J. von Trebra