God is with Us!
Every year we hear cries from the populace demanding that Christ be put back into Christmas. In the minds of many there is a conspiracy, perhaps by a cadre of elite secularists, who are intent upon stripping Christ out of Christmas. But if Christ is at risk being removed from Christmas then it’s like that the culprit is the very ones who are making the demand. That is, our participation in the commercialization of this sacred feast of the incarnation is what is pushing the true message of Christmas out of the picture.
If we would attend to the voice of Scripture we would hear a message that is summed up in a name – Emmanuel, which is translated “God with Us.” The prophet told the king that God would provide a sign – a young woman would bear a child and she would call this child Emmanuel. And many centuries later, a gospel writer picked upon this prophetic word and reads the story of Jesus in light of it. The one, who, according to Matthew, is named Jesus because he will save his people, fulfills the promise that God would be with us. Therefore, as we watch the blue and the purple of Advent give way to the liturgical white and gold of the Christmas season, and as the hymns transition from a message of expectation to one of fulfillment, the message of God’s presence begins to make itself felt.
This message that God is with us permeates the three texts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Two of them speak of a young woman/virgin who bears a child as a sign that God is in our midst. Paul doesn’t speak of the birth of this child but does affirm the gospel message that comes down from the prophets of old, that God’s Son, who is descended according to the flesh from David, has been declared the Son of God through the resurrection. Before I engage more fully these three texts I’d like to add into the mix a statement made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lectures on Christology given in Berlin during the 1930s. He notes that the two stories of Jesus birth and baptism stand together, with one concerning itself with the presence of the Word of God in Jesus, while the other is focused in the coming of the Word of God upon Jesus. He writes that “the manger directs our attention to the man, who is God; the baptism directs our attention, as we look at Jesus, to the God who calls.” He then goes on to say:
If we speak of Jesus Christ as God, we may not say of him that he is the representative of an idea of God, which possesses the characteristics of omniscience and omnipotence (there is no such thing as this abstract divine nature!); rather, we must speak of his weakness, his manger, his cross. This man is no abstract God. (John De Gruchy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, pp. 116-117).
The texts for this Sunday take us directly into the Christmas story, and they remind us that the Christmas story, indeed the gospel story, isn’t the story of an abstract God-man.
The first word comes to Isaiah and is delivered to King Ahaz of Judah, who is told that God will give him a sign, but the king in a bit of false modesty declines the opportunity to test God’s faithfulness. But the prophet will not be put off, and so God will give him a sign anyway, and the sign will be this. A young woman will bear a son, and she will name him Emmanuel, which means “God with Us.” And before this child reaches the age of understanding good and evil, the land controlled by the kings whom Ahaz dreads will be deserted. In context, this is a word of hope to the people of Judah. The young woman could be Ahaz’s wife, and thus the mother of Hezekiah, or she could be Isaiah’s wife, for Isaiah speaks of his own children as “signs . . . from the Lord” (Is. 8:1). Although it’s easy to get caught up in the debate over whether Isaiah 7:14 is speaking of a virgin or simply a young woman without any reference to her sexual experience, if we do this we miss the point – God has offered a sign in the person of a child, a sign that reminds us that God is with us.
Before we move to the gospel lesson that builds upon Isaiah’s word of promise about God’s faithfulness in dealing with Judah’s enemies, we must stop and attend to Romans 1:1-7. Here in this opening section of Paul’s great letter to the Romans, in which he affirms his own call to be an apostle so that he might deliver the gospel that had been promised ages before through the prophets. This gospel concerns God’s son, who though descended from David in the flesh (note there is nothing here about an extraordinary birth), but who is then declared Son of God through the Resurrection from the dead. And the calling to which Paul has been called is to bring the Gentiles into a position of obedience “for the sake of his name,” for they belong to Jesus Christ. Again the text lends itself to debate. One wonders whether this emphasis on the resurrection being the point at which the Son of David becomes Son of God could signal an adoptionist Christology. That is, God chooses to adopt Jesus as his son – either at baptism or in the resurrection. But as Bonhoeffer reminds us these events are all connected and thus fighting over whether this is an adoptionist perspective again misses the point – God us chosen to be present in Christ.
And so we come to the gospel lesson, wherein Isaiah’s “young woman” gives way to the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew almah into the Greek parthenos (virgin). The message is this. Joseph was going to put away his betrothed because she was pregnant, and apparently he was the father. He was a kind and gentle man so he didn’t take the option of putting her away publicly. But as he contemplated this action, an angel appears in a dream and tells him: “fear not,” go ahead and get married to Mary, just as you planned, for this child is from the Holy Spirit. The focus isn’t on the how, but on the sign. This young woman, not yet fully married, and probably very young is pregnant, and that means she has broken her vows (or, more likely had been raped, perhaps by a Roman soldier). Joseph was fully in his rights to set her aside, but he was a good and gentle man and so he chose not to do so, and now the angel gives him further instructions. Get married, have the baby, and name him Jesus (Yeshua), for he will save the people from their sins. He will do this to fulfill the word of Isaiah, that a “virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel.” And so it happened, and Joseph refrained from engaging in sexual relations with his wife until the son was born, and they named him Jesus. The message once again is this: “God is with us.” And because God is with us, there is hope, even a world full of darkness -- as Matthew's gospel quickly reminds us in the story of the slaughter of the Innocents. But that text is still ahead of us. Now, the message is this: Fear Not!
There is much going on in these texts that require our careful attention. They have a powerful message of God’s abiding presence, not in abstract form or in typical human power relationships, but rather in weakness, as Bonhoeffer points out in a manger and on a cross.