By the Rev. Darren Miner
This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we focus on a time just beforeJesus’ first advent, namely, the angelic annunciation to Joseph.
But before addressing that Gospel story, let me say something about the first reading from 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—he is afraid that God’s intervention might limit his political options. Well, Ahaz gets a sign anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” He promises that, by the time the child is weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be gone. There is no mention of a virgin birth, no hint that the child will be the Messiah.
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. And according to Jewish custom, the engaged couple were not to have physical relations before marriage. Somehow, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. As a righteous man, it is his duty to publicly denounce Mary for adultery. But Joseph defies the demands of the Law; instead, he decides to spare her from shame and to divorce her quietly. Before he can proceed with his plan, Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel. He is told that the unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and that he should proceed with the marriage. The angel 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 an editorial comment that has been a source of consternation for biblical scholars. He writes, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” He then quotes the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” In the original Hebrew text, it was a “young woman” who would conceive, not a “virgin.” Matthew undoubtedly knew this, but the Greek version suited his purposes much better.
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 Scripture. So, he took some liberties with Isaiah 7:14 to make a point.
Modern folk tend to have a problem with the virgin birth of Jesus. Let me share my take on this doctrine. 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 for the world. So, I don’t find the concept impossible. In any case, 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, in fact, the most significant aspect of today’s Gospel reading. The most significant aspect 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, however, the meaning of the name Jesus is that God will save us through this child.) And according to Matthew, later generations shall also know Jesus as “God is with us,” first, as the perfect expression of God in the body of a human being and, later, as our eternal mediator with God the Father.
In the time of Isaiah, King Ahaz was given a sign, but he rejected God and died in his sin. Two thousand years ago, we too were given a sign in the person of Jesus Christ. Let us not make the mistake of Ahaz, but accept Jesus, our Emmanuel, with all our hearts and so be saved!
© 2019 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.