Saturday, January 01, 2011

God With Us

Isaiah 7.10 - 16
Romans 1.1 - 7
Matthew 1.18 - 25

The people who compiled the lectionary clearly wanted to challenge the way we think about the Bible because the readings they selected for today contain a number of rather striking contradictions. How are we to choose between them as we try to get to the truth?

First, there’s Isaiah’s prophecy about a young woman - and notice it is a young woman, not a virgin - who is soon to give birth to a son and who will name him, Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’. Clearly this passage wasn’t intended to be about Jesus. It was intended to point to something that would happen very soon, within the Prophet’s own lifetime.

Ahaz, the king of Judah, had refused to ask God for a sign, and this had annoyed and disturbed Isaiah, who interpreted it as a lack of faith. I’m inclined to sympathise with Ahaz. If we don’t ask God for a sign then, of course, we won’t be disappointed if the sign doesn’t materialise or turns out to be difficult to interpret or ambiguous. It was Isaiah’s view, however, that if we’re truly faithful we should expect God to give us clear and unambiguous signs of how things will turn out.

Perhaps Ahaz had heard of the oracle at Delphi, which was famous for telling people their future, except that the oracles they received were notoriously ambiguous. For example, one general who consulted the oracle before a battle was told, ‘You will go. You will return not. In the battle you will perish." Some of his supporters immediately assumed that - in the immortal words of Private Fraser - he was ‘Doomed! Doomed!’ The general was not going to return home but would perish on the battlefield. But the general was a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy and saw things rather differently. He thought the oracle meant, ‘You will go. You will return. Not in the battle you will perish,’ which sounds a bit like Yoda from Star Wars and yet is a lot more encouraging.

I don’t know what happened to the general in the end. Either way the oracle came true, didn’t it? And perhaps that helps to explain some of Ahaz’s misgivings about asking for a sign. However, Ahaz had a Biblical precedent too, which he could point to in making the argument that it’s wrong to put God to the test by demanding signs. In verse 12 he alludes to some words from the Law of Moses which Jesus himself would later use, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ However, Isaiah would have none of it and informed Ahaz that if he didn’t ask for a sign, then God would give him one anyway.

Immanuel, the young woman’s son, would be enjoying a rich diet by the time he reached the age when children are supposed be able to discern the difference between right and wrong - that is to say, by the time he celebrated his bar mitzvah at about the age of twelve. And this would happen because by then the enemies of the Kingdom of Judah would have been swept away. Their lands would be desolate and the troubles faced by the people of Judah would be at an end.

So what were those troubles? The two countries that Ahaz was accused of cringing before were Israel and Syria. They had formed an alliance against Judah in an effort to force Ahaz to join them in opposing the greedy and brutal Empire of Asyria. Isaiah’s view, however, was that they were playing power politics instead of putting their whole trust in God. And sure enough, in the twelfth year of Ahaz’s reign, the mighty empire of Assyria overran both Israel and Syria and utterly destroyed both kingdoms. Judah, however remained at peace with Assyria and enjoyed a further period of respite until the reign of Ahaz’s son.

Unlike Isaiah chapter 7, Romans chapter 1 is clearly about Jesus. Paul draws a clear distinction here between Jesus’ human origins, saying that he was descended from the family of King David, and his spiritual lineage which, Paul says, comes from the Holy Spirit. It was the resurrection, Paul thought, which demonstrated that Jesus was the Son of God, not his birth.

So both of the passages we’ve looked at contradict Matthew’s version of events. A careful reading of Isaiah chapter 7 refutes Matthew’s assertion that the Prophet had predicted the birth of a baby to a virgin mother. In any case, we’ve seen that Isaiah’s prophecy had already been fulfilled centuries before. And then, writing at about the same time as Matthew, Paul shows us that he had never even heard of the tradition that Jesus had a virgin birth. Instead, Paul thought that Joseph was Jesus’ father.

So what are we to make of Matthew’s account? Some people have seen it as a piece of pious fiction designed to show, in a very literal way, how Jesus could be God’s Son. And yet we’ve seen that Paul had no difficulty in calling Jesus ‘God’s Son’ anyway, although he didn’t know about the virgin birth.

Some people have also supposed that Matthew misinterpreted Isaiah’s prophecy because, in the Greek translation which he probably used, the word for ‘young woman’ can also mean ‘a virgin’. Did he perhaps imagine, therefore, that Isaiah was talking about a virgin birth as the unambiguous sign of the coming of Immanuel, ‘God with us’, when Isaiah was really talking about an ordinary birth?

But I don’t think it’s quite as clear-cut as that. Matthew had a very good grasp of Greek, so I suspect he knew perfectly well that Isaiah wasn’t necessarily prophesying about a virgin birth. And just because Paul didn’t know about the virgin birth doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a very ancient tradition.

What seems most likely is that Matthew had been handed down the story of the virgin birth from Jesus’ first followers - just as Luke was handed down the same story in a slightly different version. It must have seemed pretty incredible, even then. Already there were Jewish people who were trying to claim that Jesus’ birth had actually been illegitimate instead. In a lot of ways, therefore, it would have been easier for Matthew to follow Paul’s line, and say that Jesus was a true descendant of King David, because then Jesus would have had a stronger claim to the title of Messiah since the Bible says that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. But Matthew had been assured that Jesus’ mother was a virgin when he was born, and he could only make sense of this amazing claim by linking it - as best he could - to the prophecy of Isaiah.

Christians often say that we have to believe exactly what it says in the Bible. Yet on this occasion we’ve got a choice. We can believe what Paul says in the Bible, or what Matthew tells us. What they both agree about, however, is that Jesus is God’s Son and that this was attested by mighty and miraculous events. And they also agree that what this means for us today is that God is with us, that he is one of us, alongside us, sharing all our experiences, even our birth and our death. Whichever version of the story we choose to
believe it’s a truly startling claim and - as Paul says - it is gospel, ‘good news’.

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