Signs of Divine Presence - Lectionary reflection for Advent 4A
Isaiah 7:10-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore 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. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 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. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on 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.”
As a follower of Jesus, I am called to live by faith. After all, I serve the invisible God. There may be signs of divine presence and activity, but it’s not always easy to offer proof. Now, I live by faith, but I try to live a rational and reasonable life. I’m not given to conspiracy theories and fake news. When it comes to such things, I’m a pretty big skeptic. But my claims to be a reasonable person might note pass muster with some who don’t share my faith. A good example of such a view is to be found in a recently published book that was sent to me for review by Yale University Press. I’m not exactly sure why I received this rather large book that carries the title: Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. In a book that stands at well over a thousand pages, Anthony Kronman offers what he believes is a third way between atheism and the God of the Abrahamic religions. I’ve only read the introduction, so I can’t say too much about the book, but the author does believe that the God of Abraham and the Prophets is “an obstacle to reason.” I hope he’s wrong, but I do know that sometimes faith requires us to move beyond the rational. I hope Kronman’s search for God is successful, but as for me I’m going to stay with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Sarah, and Mary.
This leads me to the reading from Isaiah that marks the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This is the last Sunday before we gather to celebrate the coming of the incarnate one, the one named Jesus, the one who will save the people from their sins. We’re still in the moment of expectation and promise. But there are signs that suggest that God is present, at work in our midst. We simply have to open our spiritual eyes and look for them. This, of course, requires a bit of imagination. It requires that we move out of our de-enchanted world into the realm of the Spirit.
The reading from Isaiah 7 is paired with the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, which announces the coming birth of the messiah (Matthew 1:18-25). In Matthew’s version of the infancy story, the child born of Mary fulfills the promise made in Isaiah 7, that a child would be born whose name would be called Immanuel (God is with us), and that this birth would be a sign that God will save God’s people. The word that came to Isaiah and delivered to the king of Judah, whose name was Ahaz, sought to allay the concerns of the king about the crisis that had enfolded his kingdom. The word given here concerns trust in God. It is a word that may have resonance in our day as well, even as it had resonance in the first century among the early Christians. There is a sense of unease in our midst, but will we be able to discern signs of God’s presence in our midst, or will we seek to take care of things without God? What signs do we need to let go of our anxiety?
When we turn to Isaiah 7, we find ourselves in the midst of a conversation about foreign entanglements (does that sound familiar?). King Ahaz is being pressured by his neighbors to join in alliance with Aram and Ephraim against Assyria. The two neighbors are in the process of invading, and maybe even giving siege to Jerusalem. Things look bad for Ahaz, but Isaiah has a solution, if Ahaz is willing to accept it. Isaiah even offers to provide signs that will cause Ahaz to trust in the way of God, whether it is in the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven. Ahaz, piously refuses to test God. It’s interesting that Ahaz is pretending to be so pious, since his reputation is anything but pious. He’s one of the bad kings, unlike his son Hezekiah. It appears that Ahaz is covering up his own anxiety and need to find an answer to the problems besetting him without any help from God, by feigning piety. Not to be deterred, Isaiah offers a sign of his own. A young woman is pregnant, and before her child is born and weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be over. The two kings that Ahaz is worried about will be no more. The advice seems to be—don’t make a fateful alliance with your oppressors. They will lose in the end, so stay away. That’s the basic point of the story, at least from Isaiah’s point of view. This passage, which we draw our messianic theology from, is focused on a real political crisis. Isaiah isn’t concerned about a first century child. He’s concerned about Judah in the years just prior to the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel/Ephraim to the Assyrians. Will the king be willing to see signs of God’s presence?
For Matthew, writing centuries later, this prophetic word has important implications for his own time. He sees in it a resource for understanding who Jesus is. This is where things get tricky for us. It reveals something of how Christians read scripture. Since many Christians are uncomfortable with perceived “contradictions,” they are often give to harmonization. We like to smooth things out, which is why nativity scenes have both shepherds and magi, even though these two groups appear in different gospels, though both bear witness to this sign of divine presence. There is a tendency to read the New Testament as a first order fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Thus, we arrive at the problem of reconciling what is happening in Isaiah 7 with what happens in Matthew 1. Much of the problem has to do with the way that New Testament authors use the Old Testament. John Goldingay, an evangelical teaching at Fuller Seminary (my alma mater), offers us a helpful clarification of the connections between the two testaments.
The New Testament itself doesn’t address people who don’t believe in Jesus in order to prove from the Prophets that he is the Messiah. It does use the Prophets to help people understand aspects of their confession that Jesus is the Messiah. The passage about a virgin conceiving and having a son who would be called Immanuel, which Matthew takes up, is a notable example. [Goldingay, Isaiah for Everyone, 32].
Regarding the readings from Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1, the issue is centered on the translation of a particular Hebrew word. That word is almah, and it simply means young woman, or a woman of child-bearing age, whether she’s been with a man or not. Goldingay’s translation of Isaiah 7:14 makes this clear: “Therefore my Lord—he will give you a sign. There—a girl is pregnant and is going to give birth to a son, and she will call his name God-is-with-us.” The problem stems from the way this passage is translated into Greek and then read by Matthew. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which Matthew undoubtedly made use of the Greek word parthenos, which is translated as virgin. While the Hebrew in Isaiah 7 is best translated as “young woman,” theology led to it being rendered as virgin in Christian translations to harmonize it with Matthew 1, which was read as the foundation for the virginal conception of Jesus.
In Isaiah’s case, this is simply a young woman who is going to have a baby, and that baby will be a sign that God is at work. Who this girl is, Isaiah doesn’t say. It could be Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. It could be a child born to Isaiah’s wife. In fact, this could be any pregnancy. There’s nothing miraculous about it. The point seems to be that before the child is weaned the crisis will be over. So, put your trust in God and not the less than honorable neighbors. Again, Isaiah wants Ahaz to refrain from giving in to its neighbors, and make a fateful alliance that could lead to destruction. Stay true because God is with the people. Before too long, Assyria marches in and destroys the two neighbors, while Judah gets by barely!
It is important that we let Scripture texts have their own integrity. As Goldingay points out Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14, not an apologetic tool, but to help define who Jesus is. For Matthew, Jesus is the incarnate one (even if Matthew doesn’t exactly use that language), who represents to us the promise that God is with us. This Jesus (Immanuel) will save us from our sins (not something Isaiah has in mind, except as Ahaz decides how to respond to these outside threats). What the story of the incarnation does is remind us that God is present and at work, often within the mundane aspects of life. In the birth of a child, God is present. For Matthew God is at work in the world through the child who is being born in that moment in time. The birth in Isaiah isn’t miraculous, but for Matthew it does seem to be miraculous. This child, to be born of Mary, is conceived through the intervention of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18-25).
As we head into the final days before the coming of Christmas, may we hear the call to put out trust in God, who is with us. May we be attentive to the signs that God is at work in our midst. Let us not get caught up in battles over words, that distract from the point at hand. God has offered us a sign, if only we’re willing to pay attention. That means setting aside all the distractions that want our attention. The sign that God offers Ahaz is a simple one. A child will be born, and this child’s birth and maturation will be a sign that the external threats do not have power over us. That brings us back to the point about whether we’re able to live by faith as we take this final step toward Christmas, when the one called Jesus is born in our midst to save us from our sins.
Picture attribution: Nuttgens, Joseph Edward. Isaiah prophecies to Ahaz about the birth of Christ, Immanuel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55805 [retrieved December 12, 2016]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/2838876113.