22 December 2013

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Isaiah 7: 10-17 & Matthew 1: 18-25

Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 22nd December 2013

Three weeks ago we began the season of Advent with the words of the British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie describing the work of the poet.  Rushdie said, “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from falling asleep.”  Throughout Advent we’ve been comparing the work of the poet with the work of the prophet, thus providing us new ears to hear the prophetic words of Isaiah.  This approach was inspired by the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who encourages us to think of prophets as poets.  (It’s fitting that this morning on Krista Tippett’s program “On Being” I heard her interview with Brueggemann talking about the prophetic tradition as poetry.)

            A poet helps us to see what we often can’t see on our own.  A poet helps us to reframe the way we look at the world, ourselves, even God.  Through the use of metaphor and symbol, stretching the limits of language, demonstrating the power of language, a poet pushes us deeper into reality and helps us come awake.  Brueggemann says the prophet warns against “narcotization” in our culture, that is, every “narcotic” that tries to lull us to sleep. 

            We can very easily substitute poet with prophet in Rushdie’s definition, for a prophet names the unnamable, points at frauds, takes sides, starts arguments, shapes the world and stops it from falling asleep.  Not surprisingly, we’re reluctant to hear what the prophet has to say.  But we need to hear from the prophets, these poets who help us to see, these poets who help us to image the future that God is eager to bring.  These prophets offer warning, to be sure, but overall they offer hope, hope in the new thing that God is doing and will do—and that’s why we need to be awake.

            We find it here in Isaiah 7, probably written by the prophet himself.  With an extraordinary imaginative reach Isaiah envisions a promising future for Judah, even though he knows that the Assyrian Empire is almost at the gates of Jerusalem.  King Ahaz is in a panic, he’s unable to trust in Yahweh. It’s almost a comical scene painted here.  God speaks to Ahaz and says, “Ask a sign of me your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Is. 7:11) In other words, God says: Ask away, Ahaz.  Ask big.  What kind of sign do you need to calm your nerves? Be bold.  But Ahaz replies, “I will not ask and I will not put the LORD to the test” (Is. 7:12).  Ahaz is a bit of a coward; his god is too small, he’s afraid to risk trusting in God’s faithfulness.  He will not risk being disappointed.  It’s as if Ahaz can’t quite trust God.  So, Isaiah steps in, and turns away from Ahaz and speaks to the people, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” (Is. 7:13).  If you’re not going to ask for a sign, then God will provide the sign, a sign that demonstrates Yahweh’s faithfulness to the people. 

            “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).  That’s the good news.  Now here comes the not-so-good news.  “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” (Is. 7:14). The reference to the birth of the child offers temporary assurance for Judah (about two years). In the end Ahaz cannot trust in Yahweh. Ahaz panics because he rules God’s people but forgets the promise; he rules minus the “God is with us” part of the sign.  Will Judah will be invaded and taken off into captivity, like the Northern Kingdom?[1]  Isaiah warns, “The LORD will bring on you and your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (Is. 7:17).  Tidings of great joy? I don’t think so.  That day is coming, Isaiah warns.[2]  But within the “bad news” there is still gospel to be heard here, there’s still good news, a promise.  A child will be born who shall be named Immanuel, meaning, “God is with us.”  Whatever comes, this assurance remains:  God is with us.  No matter what the world will throw at you, this fact remains:  God is with us. That’s Israel’s promise.

            Now fast-forward almost 700 years.  We hear echoes of this text in Matthew’s gospel.  These well-known references to a woman and a child with a special name, Immanuel, “God is with us,” fill our pageants, carols, anthems, and oratorios. 

            Now, I don’t want to mess too much with tradition here, but it’s important to lift up something here.  In the long history of the Church it’s often assumed that when Isaiah refers to this woman who will bear a child that he’s talking about Mary; and that when Isaiah gives us the name of this child, that he’s foretelling the birth of Jesus.  We read it that way because that’s how Matthew describes it.  But that’s probably not the way Isaiah meant it. Matthew actually gets the original reference, in Isaiah, wrong. And by noting this we quickly come up against the “tradition,” facing a major problem with translation, as well as an enormously complex theological quandary.  And this is when Christmas pageant directors begin to panic and start to get nervous because we’re starting to veer off-script!

            Listen to the Isaiah text again, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  The Hebrew there makes no reference to the woman’s status as a virgin.  Why?  Because it’s not important.  Neither is her name important, apparently; she’s anonymous.  The Hebrew is “young woman” (‘almâ), meaning a woman of marriageable age, meaning very young woman, a teenager.  What we need to remember is that centuries after Isaiah, after Alexander the Great’s (356-323) conquest of Jerusalem in 332 BC, which then led to the Hellenization of Jewish culture, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek; this version of the Hebrew text was known as the Septuagint.  The Hebrew word ‘almâ, young woman, was translated in the Septuagint as parthenos, the Greek word for virgin.  The Greek Septuagint served as the basis for the much later Latin translation called the Vulgate (in the late 4th century AD).  Now, from reading Matthew it’s obvious that he’s quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, because he quotes the prophet as saying, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  Even the spelling of Emmanuel, with an “E” in Matthew, reflects a Greek influence.  In time, the Church subsequently developed a very complex theology around the virginity of Mary as necessary for the birth of God’s Son. It made it’s way into the creeds and today the virgin birth remains one of the pillars of Christian orthodoxy and at the center of our Christmas pageants and carols.  Now, I’m not saying Matthew got the virgin birth wrong. Maybe the Church got it wrong. (Did I just say that the Church got it wrong? Okay, maybe I am saying that—or maybe got some of it wrong or placed too much emphasis on this part of the story.)

            Isaiah’s point is this: pay attention to the child’s name. That’s what matters.

            Matthew’s birth narrative leads us to the same conclusion:  pay attention to the child’s name.  That’s what matters.

            For the gospel is there in the meaning of his name, a name that tells us who this child is.  But, more significant still, this child’s name, tells us something about God: God is with us.  That’s the point!

            Stanley Hauerwas, one of the leading theologians of our age, a Methodist who teaches at Duke Divinity School, says, “Too often those who worry about whether we are required to believe in the virgin birth do so assuming they are being asked to believe something for which there is no evidence.  But Matthew is telling the story of the God who refuses to abandon us—and even becomes one of us that we might be redeemed.  Virgin births are not surprising given that this is the God who has created us without us, …who will not save us without us.  What the Father does through the Spirit to conceive Mary’s child is not something different than what God does through creation.  God does not need to intervene in creation, because God has never been absent from creation.  Creation is not ‘back there,’ [in Genesis], but is God’s ongoing love of all he has willed and continues to will to exist.”[3] Hauerwas is spot-on when he then makes this claim: “What should startle us, what should stun is, is not that Mary is a virgin but that God refuses to abandon us.[4]  

            God refuses to abandon us. Whether God sends us off into exile in Babylon, the good news is that God does not abandon us; or, when we send ourselves to “Babylon” in self-imposed exile from God, the good news is that God does not abandon us. God is with us.  And cannot but be present.

            The central claim of Advent and Christmas is this: God is with us.  God wants to be with us.  This has always been the case, long before Jesus came along.  But with his birth there’s no avoiding the truth, there’s no running from this claim, there’s no missing this memo.  God wants to be with you and me.  In the face of Jesus we see God’s gracious intent, which was there all along, an awareness that took humanity several hundred years to fathom before Jesus arrived—and in 2,000 years we’ve yet to fully fathom the message of Christ’s nativity: that God wants to be near us.  In love, God wants to come down and come in, right into flesh, right into our hearts, down deep into our psyches, into the darkest reaches of our souls, to live there with us and for us.  In love, God wants to enter into our sin, enter into our pain and our grief.  In love, God wants to dwell fully in our anxieties and our fears, wants to carry our burdens and the weight of our sorrow.  In love, God wants to take up residence in us, with us, so that we might share in God’s glory, God’s grace, God’s joy. 

            The contemporary poet Maya Angelou said it beautifully, “Love knows no barrier.  It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination, full of hope.”

            Arrives…in us – not just some of us, but in humanity.  Not just a portion of humanity, but all of it.  Whether we think we deserve it or not, God is with us.  For Love knows no barrier.  It jumps hurdles and leaps fences and penetrates the defensive walls of our egos in order to arrive at its destination, full of hope.  This is the message that needs to penetrate the walls of our hearts.  For there are far too many people within the church and beyond its walls who can’t quite accept the fact that the birth we celebrate is for them, for us, that it’s really our birth too.  There are so many people who think they are beyond hope, that they can’t escape their past.  They might find it easier to accept others, but they can’t accept themselves, people who can’t extend the same mercy to themselves that they extend to their pets.  If that’s you, sometimes or all the time, perhaps this Christmas will be the year you receive the gift designed for you long before you were born: that you might believe—more than believe, know, feel, through and through, that right now, God is with you. 

            Or maybe there’s someone you know, someone in your family, someone you’re going to see this week who needs to know this, really know it. Perhaps God is calling you to be God’s prophet, to be God’s poet, to help him, help her see what he or she can’t see: that he or she is worthy of God’s love, that God is with her, with him. 

            In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we find these words: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).  “For we are what he has made us….”  The Greek here for “made,” “to make” is poema (poivhma).  For we are God’s poema…poem, created in Christ Jesus for good works. That’s what his birth means and yields for us—the knowledge that we are God’s poems.  We all need help remembering this, really knowing this.  Perhaps you know someone who needs to know it too.

     God doesn’t want to be aloof, apart, separate.  God wants to come close, to share our breath, our hopes and dreams, to give us life, to awaken us and call us to life—why?—so that our lives can properly be given for the world, for our neighbor.  For, like the child we celebrate this season, none of us were born for ourselves, to do whatever we want to, to pursue of own pursuits; like this child, we were created to reveal the glory of God and reflect that glory, reflect that light with our lives. We were created to be poems, poems, poems that transfigure the way we see ourselves, the world, and God, and then as poets help others to see themselves, the world, and even God in a new light, with new eyes. That’s the gift we continue to give to the world

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 70-72.
[2] Brueggemann, 71-72.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew.(Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 34.

[4]Hauerwas, 34. Emphasis mine.

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