St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-7, 16-18; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18
In many respects, it has been an ugly week; we have watched two political parties vilify each other and have observed the impeachment of Donald Trump. We have heard the impeachment proceedings compared to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and to the day of infamy which was Pearl Harbor. It is rare that political parties lack the ability to spin the narrative. One can only hope that all parties will commit to seeking truth and justice.
Our reading from Isaiah confronts us with another tense political situation. King Pekah of Israel and King Rezin of Aram have set out to attack Judah. King Ahaz and the people of Judah are fearful. Isaiah tells us “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7.2; NRSV). This is the context in which the Lord spoke to Ahaz and told him to ask for a sign. Since Ahaz would not do so, Isaiah said, “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. 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.” Ahaz, who could not bring himself to believe, was confronted by God’s promise.
It is worth mentioning that the suffix “El” in many Hebrew words refers to God. A literal translation of Immanuel is “with us God.” We also encounter this suffix in “Bethel,” which means “house of God,” so named after Jacob’s vision of the ladder ascending into heaven (Genesis 28.10-19). After Jacob wrestled with the angel, God changed his name to “Yisra’el” which we know as “Israel,” and which means “one who contends with God” (Genesis 32.28).
Although the people of Israel enjoyed a special relationship with God, they often fell upon hard times and longed for deliverance. Psalm 80 confronts us with three repetitions of a prayer for deliverance: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Vss. 3, 7, 18; NRSV).
The birth narrative we encounter in Matthew reveals how the light of God’s countenance came into the world accompanied by saving grace. In Matthew 1.21, we read how the angel of the LORD told Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (NRSV).
Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s (https://liturgy.slu.edu/4AdvA122219/reflections_rolheiser.html) insights aid our understanding of Matthew’s account:
The marriage custom at the time was that a young woman, essentially at the age of puberty, would be given to a man, usually several years her senior, in an arranged marriage by her parents. They would be betrothed, technically married, but would not yet live together or begin sexual relations for several more years. The Jewish law was especially strict as to the couple remaining celibate while in the betrothal period. During this time, the young woman would continue to live with her parents and the young man would go about setting up a house and an occupation so as to be able to support his wife once they began to live together.
Joseph and Mary were at this stage of their relationship, legally married but not yet living together, when Mary became pregnant. Joseph, knowing that the child was not his, had a dilemma: if he wasn't the father, who was? In order to save his own reputation, he could have demanded a public inquiry and, indeed, had Mary been accused of adultery, it might have meant her death. However, he decided to “divorce her quietly,” that is, to avoid a public inquiry which would leave her in an awkward and vulnerable situation.
Then, after receiving revelation in a dream, he agrees to take her home as his wife and to name the child as his own. Partly we understand the significance of that: he spares Mary embarrassment, he names the child as his, and he provides an accepted physical, social, and religious place for the child to be born and raised. But he does something else that is not so evident: he shows how a person can be a pious believer, deeply faithful to everything within his religious tradition, and yet at the same time be open to a mystery beyond both his human and religious understanding.
How many of us would have been as open as was Joseph? For us, the angel of the Lord would have to be very convincing. And we most likely would have a lot of questions: “What do you mean, ‘conceived from the Holy Spirit’”? Joseph’s actions were a reflection of God’s grace! He treated Mary with grace.
After having set forth this account, Matthew tells us, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means “God is with us.” We can but marvel at Joseph’s belief and obedience, for God was at work in ways which defied Joseph’s understanding. God quite often works in surprising ways, and as Emily, in last Sunday’s Christmas pageant, reminded us, “Nothing is impossible with God!”
Just before these verses, Matthew set forth Jesus’ patrilineal genealogy. Ordinarily, only males would be mentioned in such a genealogy, yet Matthew cites four females: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the “wife of Uriah” (Bathsheba). All four of these females were gentiles. But not only that, as Paul Neuchterlein (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/advent4a/) observes, all four had “some seemingly sexual impropriety in connection with them or the conceptions of the sons in the line of David. So the story of Jesus’ birth follows as the story of a seemingly improper conception.” Why might Matthew have included such details?
God’s incarnation is not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles. The incarnation applies to all of humanity. As St. Paul reminds us in the passage from Romans, the prophets declared that God would send his Son to earth, a Son “descended from David according to the flesh and … declared to be the Son of God …, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name” (Romans 1.2-5; NRSV; emphasis mine).
When we begin to glimpse and understand the intricacies of the prophetic message, when we see the mighty hand of God at work in the stories surrounding the genealogy, when we realize the fulness of the scope of God’s plan for all of humanity, we begin to discover the beauty associated with the birth of Jesus Christ. Those who argue that all we need is the New Testament fail to see the larger picture of the mighty works of God in salvation history. Genesis provides a beautiful story of creation followed by the fall of humankind. When sin entered the world, the world became the mess that it still is, but God has been at work amidst our messiness and has provided a way of salvation. God so loved the world that God was born in human flesh, suffered the violence of the world in crucifixion, yet arose from the dead that all who believe might have life – life eternal. God has conquered sin and death. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, that we might live victoriously as aided and empowered by God’s Spirit.
All of this beauty is captured in the Eucharistic Prayer. Listen, really listen, to these words:
We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life (BCP, p. 368).
The truly amazing thing is this: When we find this beauty, when we fully apprehend it, we come to realize Beauty has found us.