Eight centuries before the birth of Christ it wasn’t King Herod but King Ahaz who had hell to pay. He was a Jew, under the Law of the Lord, a son of David, and King of Judah, yet Ahaz had a habit of breaking more commandments than he kept, including breaking almost all of commandments one through six at once by not just doing murder but sacrificing his own son to a foreign God.
And now, in Isaiah chapter seven we find Ahaz and his kingdom mired in schisms, heresies, and a military conflict this king cannot manage on his own. But does he turn to the Lord for rescue? Does he plead for mercy? Does he even just pray for help? No. Instead he tries to broker a deal with the evil Assyrian Empire, a sworn enemy.
When the prophet Isaiah brings him a word from the Lord he’s got hell to pay, but does God give him hell? No. Instead God gives him a sign.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. And his name shall be called Immanuel, God with us.
That’s the line the soprano sings about Jesus in Handel’s Messiah. It comes from here, a sign promised to a corrupt king who doesn’t deserve it. It will be eight centuries before that promise will get cherry picked from Isaiah and planted in Mary’s womb.
When Robin Williams used to tell his version of this story he imagined St. Joseph coming home from a long day at the shop having heard the rumor that his fiancée is, unbeknownst to him, expecting a child. She’s waiting for him at the door and she says “Joe, don’t worry, it’s immaculate.” And Joe responds, “Oh it better be immaculate!”
The way St. Matthew tells it in his gospel is different, but not that far off. In Matthew, Joseph hears the news and makes plans to quietly divorce Mary. That’s when, not Isaiah, but an angel appears with a word from the Lord saying, “Do not be afraid, it is just as the prophet Isaiah foretold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel, God with us.”
One of my favorite Advent preachers says the link between both of these stories, Ahaz and Isaiah on the one hand, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the other, has virtually nothing to do with virginity, and everything to do with theology, everything to do with God. In both stories we encounter a God who speaks to sinners and declares to them this good news, a sign given in order to say “Do not be afraid. I am not against you. I am with you.”
I am not against you. I am with you.
Here’s a more modern sign:
There was a woman who grew up in the church, more or less. She liked church, Sunday School, worship, then when she became a teenager, youth group. She was a regular and had a few good friends she met there. After a while she started to realize she wasn’t like all the other girls. She kept it pretty quiet, and then when she did eventually come out to her friends and family, it didn’t go very well. But she says one of the most distressing things about it was feeling forced out of the church.
She felt like there was doctrine being pushed that made her feel like she wasn’t welcome, like God was against her, like she would one day have hell to pay for something she couldn’t control. So, she stopped going to church… for years, until just a couple of weeks ago.
When she called our church office she was in tears. “I left Grace years ago,” she said, “but I think that now I want to come back. I think I’m supposed to come back to church. I think God wants me, is calling me back to the church, but I need to know if I’m allowed to be there.”
The staff got me the message and when I called her back she told me this whole story. I did my best to assure her that indeed she is more than welcome at Grace, in fact she’s invited, wanted.
“Good” she said, “because I think God is sending me to you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, “Can you tell me more?”
“I think God is calling me back to church so that I can be there and say to the church ‘I forgive you. I forgive you for how you made me feel. God forgives you.’”
In other words, I am not against you. I am with you.
The thing about a lot of Christian doctrine including the virgin birth is that it’s often not really about what we think its about. When we confess that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, it’s not because in Mary God finally found someone good enough, pure enough, to be worthy of God’s presence in the world. It’s not about God blessing human purity or goodness.
No. Instead this doctrine along with all of Christian doctrine is about God’s eternal ability to bless sinners by making something out of our nothing, to call into being that which does not exist not because we deserve it or we’ve earned it, but because we don’t, we can’t. What Mary and Joseph and Ahaz and us have in common is that we, by our own power, cannot make manifest the goodness of God. On our own we have a tendency to break more commandments than we keep, leading to the quiet divorce or sacrifice of those God loves.On our own our hearts are as barren, virgin, empty, and lifeless as a tomb.
That woman whose story I shared, I asked her permission. I told her that while I was already moved by her story, what really got me was that when I heard her say the words “I forgive you,” I recognized that voice, the voice of the One who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, who descended into hell, who then on the third day rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and who promised to come again to judge the living and the dead.
What is written in the scriptures and made flesh in Jesus Christ is the good news that by God’s grace barren and virgin wombs give birth, the dead have life, and sinners, rather than getting hell, are forgiven, and given the sign of our salvation. In her Word to the church I heard the voice of the One who, though rejected, came back with forgiveness on his lips, and healing in his wings.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. And his name shall be called Immanuel, God with us. Thus saith the Lord: I am not against you. I am with you.
That woman is out of town today, but she did come back to church for the first time last Sunday. Whether you realized it was her or not, she told me that when she arrived this time you made her feel quite welcome.
This is, in once sense, the posture of the church in Advent and at all times, to acknowledge our sin, our suffering, our weakness, and yet to make even of that emptiness a place open to visitors, trusting that our God is capable of making even of a tomb a womb, to bring into existence that which does not yet exist, and to take on flesh as not just a prophecy, or a promise, but a person whom even Hell cannot hold.
One more time, Advent people, hear the Good News: God is not against us. God is with us. God forgives us. And God will raise us up. This is the God who really is God. This is the One we are waiting for. Take heart. The Lord our God shall come.