By the Rev. Darren Miner
This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we consider the first advent of our Lord. More precisely, we look at the time just before Jesus’ first advent, namely, the annunciation to Joseph. Now the art world has always favored Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary over Matthew’s story of the annunciation to Joseph. I don’t know about you, but I could not possibly rank one story above the other. Each has its own artistic and theological merits.
But before addressing the Gospel, let me say something about the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only. It serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign. Well, he gets one anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” The child in question was probably King Ahaz’s future son, or just possibly Isaiah’s.” And there is no reason to believe that the young woman in question conceived in any way other than the normal way of doing it. For some reason or other, our lectionary omits the final verse of the prophecy, which portends the future fall of the kingdom to Assyria.
Jumping ahead to the Gospel reading, we get another prophesied birth, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Joseph and Mary were engaged, which in Jewish law was as binding as marriage. When the time came for the marriage ceremony, the bride would be taken by her father to the house of her espoused husband and handed into his care. Until that time, the engaged couple were not to have physical relations. Somehow, Joseph figures out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows for a fact that he cannot be the father. As a righteous man, it is his duty to publicly denounce Mary for adultery and to subject her to the possible punishment of death by stoning. But Joseph defies the demands of the Law; instead, he decides to quietly divorce her, which only requires the witness of two people. But then, before he can proceed with his plan, Joseph is visited in a dream by a messenger of God. He is told that the unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and that he should proceed with the marriage. The messenger goes on to say that the child will be a boy and that his name should be Jesus (which means “The Lord is salvation”), because he is destined to save his people from their sins.
At this point, Matthew the Evangelist inserts a little editorial comment, one which has been a source of consternation for many biblical scholars. He writes, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” He then give an emended version of the Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us.’” In the original Hebrew text, it was a “young woman” who would conceive. But Matthew prefers the Greek version of the Old Testament which refers to a “virgin.” In the Hebrew scripture, the young woman will name the child. In the Greek Old Testament, it is King Ahaz who will name him. But in Matthew, an unspecified “they” will name him. It’s enough to give one a headache!
Here is what I think is going on. The Evangelists Matthew and Luke both inherited a tradition that Jesus was miraculously conceived of a virgin. As a pious Jewish Christian, it was important for Matthew to show that every aspect of Jesus’ life was, in fact, a fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture. So, he took some editorial liberties with Isaiah 7:14 to make his point. And the point is what is important here! And that point is just this: that this infant will turn out to be both Jesus, “The Lord is salvation” and Emmanuel, “God with us.”
I kind of wish that Matthew had not reused the prophecy of Isaiah to make his point, since his revision of the text has only muddied the theological waters. But his point stands. Jesus mediates God to us as no one else ever has. And his purpose is to save the entire world.
As moderns, we tend to get stuck on dogmas such as the virgin birth. We look at it as primarily a biological claim, and we have our doubts. Let me say something about my take on this issue. First, I believe that the God who created the Universe is fully capable of causing a virgin birth if he so wills. Second, I think it possible that he might do so as a sign of the uniqueness of what he was about to do in the world. So, I don’t find the concept impossible. The witness of the Christian scriptures is admittedly ambiguous. St. Mark, St. John, and St. Paul make no mention of the doctrine, while St. Matthew and St. Luke most certainly do. Of course, the unbroken tradition of the Church has been, and continues to be, that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.
All this being said, the virgin birth of Jesus is not the most significant aspect of Matthew’s story. In my opinion, the most significant aspect of this story of the annunciation to Joseph is that the unborn child is to be given two meaningful names: Jesus and Emmanuel. One is the common name that many Jewish boys carried, signifying the belief that God is the source of salvation. In this case, the meaning of the name is that God will save through this child. And according to Matthew, the unspecified “they,” which in this case probably refers to us Christians, shall also know Jesus as “God with us,” as the perfect expression of God in the body of a human being and as the eternal mediator before God for all of us here on earth.
So, if you are one of those who struggles with the idea of a virgin birth, I suggest that you focus instead on what’s really important. Jesus is much more than the long-awaited Davidic Messiah—although he is that too—he is the very Son of God. He is the One sent by God to save his people, all his people throughout the nations of the world, from the ultimate consequences of their own sins. He is the One who brought God to us in the flesh some 2000 years ago. And he is the One who continues to bring God to us even now, having promised to be with us always, “to the end of the age.” So, don’t be like King Ahaz and refuse God’s gift, but accept the One who is “God with us” and be saved!
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.