Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive 4 th Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013, Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25 The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

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1 Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive 4 th Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013, Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25 The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means God is with us. Both the Prophet Isaiah and Matthew s Gospel announce the coming of events so extraordinary that we in our present-day routines of life wonder what do they have to do with us and how significant are they to the world and reality in which we live. It is, in fact, the objective of faith in God to expand our scope of reality to include the ever-present dimension and interplay of the unseen and unexplainable upon our lives. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. Certainly, nowadays, given the medical procedure of in vitro fertilization, this notion is no longer farfetched. However, it still involves the union of a female egg with a male sperm, which the Gospel of Matthew may or may not have had in mind. Now bear with me, this may not be the sort of Advent sermon you were expecting, but indulge me for a moment as together we try to make sense of this central statement in the Nativity narrative. The Hebrew word almah may be interpreted as a young woman of childbearing age or an unmarried virgin. We find in today s scripture readings that the same word is used in both Isaiah and Matthew, but rendered differently. Isaiah points to one of the wives of King Ahaz, a young woman of childbearing age, and prophesies that, through natural means, she will bear a son who will be king of Judah and Messiah to the world truly a tall order that Ahaz could not comprehend in his immediate dilemma and distress. Matthew, on the other hand, seems to refer to a different kind of conception involving an unmarried virgin, Mary, who will bear a son without the aid of Joseph, the one with whom she was betrothed; for that which was conceived in her, according to the Gospel, was of the Holy Spirit

2 2 (Matthew 1:20). Still, we wonder if Joseph had no part in this conception why Mathew and Luke s gospels trace the ancestral lineage of Jesus through him and not Mary (Matthew 1:16, Luke 3:23). Questions such as this leave open the inquiry about Jesus humanity. Add to this the fact that the Bible is not of one mind regarding the humanity of Jesus. Mark, the earliest gospel, and John, the latest, make no mention whatsoever of Jesus birth as if to say it was not an important feature in their witness of him; yet amid the pages of all four gospels we re conveyed the picture of a man with miraculous abilities to calm the storm (Mark 4:39,), feed thousands (Luke 9:10-17), heal afflictions (John 5:1-5),and raise the dead (Matthew 9:18-26) while, at the same time, be tempted (Matthew 4:1-11), show bias and bigotry toward others (Mark 7:24-30), fear for his life (Luke 22:42), feel abandoned by God (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34), and die as any mortal (Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37, Luke 23:46, John 19:30). For these reasons I ask that we not get too hung up over whether Jesus was born of natural or supernatural causes or whether Mary was a young wife or an unmarried virgin. While such matters are intriguing, they have little bearing on the deeper meaning the Christian message is trying to convey, which is that the Christ is apparent in every human soul that allows him or herself to be conceived of the Holy Spirit. While both Matthew and Luke s gospels take great pains to connect Jesus to David s royal lineage, it is obvious that Jesus is not what Isaiah anticipated. The prophet Isaiah, from whom most of our messianic expectations arise, envisioned Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz, to be the Messiah. But Hezekiah failed to live up to the prophet s expectations. However, Jesus would not satisfy prophetic assumptions either. The reason these messianic expectations are never satisfied is because such expectations are constantly co-opted and corrupted by

3 3 worldly enticements of grandeur, power and prestige that detract us from the constant and overarching theme of God s presence and likeness in the world through the lowly and least favored. How quickly we forget that David was the least favored and last expected among Jesse s sons to be considered as king over Israel (Samuel 16:11-13). How quickly we forget that God chose Israel not because they were the greatest in number among the peoples of the world, for they were the smallest and most insignificant in number (Deuteronomy 7:7); how quickly we forget the canticle of Mary praising God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly (Luke 1:52); how quickly we forget the parable of the Great Judgment in which the anointed one welcomes the righteous into God s eternal realm because they cared for him by caring for those considered the least among his family (Matthew 25:40). Blessed are the poor in spirit and Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the realm of heaven. (Matthew 5:3, 10) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God, says Jesus (Matthew 5:8). How quickly we forget. And when we forget, which we will often do, Jesus reminds us that the messianic vision and visionary need not be confined to one individual or a special class of people. The Messiah or Christ or God s Anointed is one who is responsible for enlarging the community of God s anointed, so that the Spirit of God and the realm of heaven may abide in each of us (Luke 17:20-22). The role of the Messiah is to create a messianic realm where, to paraphrase the prophet Joel, God s spirit is poured out on all flesh; where the old dream dreams and the young see visions (2:28) Blessed are the pure in heart, says Jesus, for they will see God. Let s not get so hung up over the outward condition of Mary; over whether she was a young wife or an unmarried virgin. Hers was

4 4 not the first miraculous birth God pulled off. Isaac was born of Abraham and Sarah, parents over 90 years old, who laughed, Abraham falling on his face with laughter, at the thought of having a child at their age (Genesis 17:17, 18:12). Similarly, John the Baptist was miraculously born to elderly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:18). The mighty Samson and the prophet Samuel were born of women considered barren and incapable of having children (Judges 13:2-3, 1 st Samuel 1:19-20), all of whom the Bible declares as having been born by divine intervention. Ultimately, God seems less concerned about our outward physical condition and makeup than about the spiritual capacity of our soul to receive and be transformed by the Holy Spirit. The birth of Jesus was a cooperative venture that depended upon the receptive nature of all the key players involved. Mary, central to this event, could have rejected God s plan. Joseph could have exposed her and had her stoned to death. Jesus also had a choice in the matter and could have resisted the urgings of God s spirit. We know it took him thirty years to finally fully submit to God s will. The Christ within and among us is something that God cannot pull off alone. It requires an environment of willing receptive souls. On this Sunday before Christmas I m reminded of a modern-day Jewish mother who in the process of giving birth to her child, Jacob, died on the operating table, triggered by amniotic fluid entering her blood stream. She was resuscitated, but spent nearly a week afterwards in a coma. Stephanie Arnold had a sinking premonition, based on no physical data or family medical history, that this delivery might cost her life. Her physician could have dismissed her concerns, but she was a receptive listener and altered the pre-operation orders to include more blood and monitors, which Stephanie is convinced saved her life. She literally died and was raised to a new appreciation of life s gifts and wonders through this cooperative experience of childbirth.

5 5 The Christ within and among us is born in all sorts of situations and settings of life, but most positively in environments that include and appreciate the ever-present dimensions and interplay of the unseen and unexplainable in the scope of reality. Our scope of reality has witnessed many extraordinary human beings whom we ve exalted above the common mass, lavishing upon them the luxury and rewards we determine is due them for convincing us to believe they are far better than we could possibly imagine of ourselves. Yet the extraordinary quality about Jesus is that he invited us into his exaltedness wondering why it wasn t obvious to us that we had as much right to it as he(john 14:12-13); constantly encouraging us not to broadcast to others what he had done for us, but rather to believe that it was our faith that made us well (Matthew 9:27-38); always pointing to God as the Source greater than he and imploring us to do the same (Luke 18:18-20). A virgin shall conceive? Quite possibly, for nothing is impossible with God. But more importantly, a pure soul receptive of God s will conceived a child of the Holy Spirit, born not to the ways of flesh but to the ways of God; a child who believed that we ourselves, by God s Spirit and grace, could also be newly born. Jesus, which means God saves, enables the nativity narrative to be refashioned and told to every new generation with a broader cast and of characters. For the birth of God s saving messianic presence takes place when people of worldly ways and flesh finally discover that they were created and intended to be one with God in heart and soul, in mind and strength. At that moment they are divinely conceived and newly born as children of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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