Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
The people of Judah need a savior. Today’s reading from Isaiah comes from the period of the divided kingdom: ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel inhabit Israel to the north, and two tribes inhabit Judah—where Jerusalem is—to the south. Israel has teamed up with its northern neighbor, Syria, to gang up on little Judah. Ahaz, King of Judah, is afraid. He wants to protect his people by teaming up with Assyria (not to be confused with Syria). If Judah is here, Israel is here, Syria here, and Assyria over here….
The prophet Isaiah tells the king: ask for a sign from God. But Ahaz says “I will not not put God to the test.” This has a familiar ring to it, right? It comes from the ten commandments and Ahaz is trying to be obedient. At the same time, this is a false piety. He says he doesn’t want to put God to the test, but actually he is denying his need for God. He lacks the willingness to use any means necessary to save the people of Judah.
But Isaiah, God’s spokesperson, says: “Too bad, God is going to give you a sign anyway.” And the sign is this:
A young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. And within a few years, those two countries whose kings you are afraid of will be deserted.
Well, guess what happens? The kingdoms of Israel and Syria are in fact destroyed in the end of the 8th century, and are no longer a threat. But, ironically, Assyria invades Judah, destroys Jerusalem, and takes its people captive. So much for prophecy, right? Wrong. Because the true part of Isaiah’s prophecy, the part that does not rely upon the proof of human history, is God-with-us. Immanuel. No matter what happens, God-with-us is a sign of hope, encouragement, and steadfast love.
The prophet Isaiah points Ahaz to a sign of God’s presence. God’s presence comes to Joseph in a dream, saying the child Mary carries is conceived by the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean to be with child from the Holy Spirit? In Mary’s case, this has come down to us as the explanation Joseph has been given to help him stick it out during a potentially awkward situation. Don’t worry! Mary has not been unfaithful to you.
Mary’s virginal status, meant to remind us of the young woman who bears Immanuel—God-with-us—began as an error in translation. It has come down to us as doctrine—God’s great miracle of parthenogenesis. (That’s a fun word to say! It means creation from virginity.) The challenge of our doctrine of the virgin birth—and I’m not going to offer heresy a third week in a row by dissing the virgin birth—but the problem with that being doctrine rather than translation is that we focus on that miracle rather than the miracle of God-with-us.
The other day I heard a commentary on the radio about how this time of year can be difficult for people who have never had children and have always wanted children. I still remember when I was trying to get pregnant, and then learned that I never would, hearing a preacher (a man) say: “There’s only one good metaphor for Advent, and it’s pregnancy.” I’m not so sure.
What if we stop—at least until the Christmas Pageant on Tuesday—thinking about a baby, and instead think about the sign Isaiah spoke of, the sign remembered in Joseph’s dream, reminding us that God is with us? What if we ask ourselves: what else might it mean to be with child by the Holy Spirit? What if I, a 54-year-old—were to bear the Holy Spirit? What would it mean for Joshua to be with child by the Holy Spirit? Or Tom? To what would the Holy Spirit give birth, in us? What sign of God-with-us would we show to the world?
In the time of King Ahaz, a young woman bore a son and named him Immanuel, God-with-us, and Assyria still invaded Judah. Jesus came with a message of God-with-us, and three years later, he was crucified. God raised Jesus from the dead, another sign of God-with-us. People took this sign seriously enough to start a church, but the world is still full of suffering and disappointment.
What are the signs today of God-with-us? Where is the Holy Spirit growing inside of us?
A few days ago, I decided to do something kind of hokey. I decided to pay attention just for a few hours to signs of God-with-us, and see what I could see. Here’s what happened:
On Thursday evening, I met a woman who was recruited a few years ago to be part of a reality-TV expose of sweatshop conditions in developing countries. She was chosen, along with several other women in their late teens and early twenties, because they were typical consumers of the clothes created in these sweatshops. However, her life was changed by the experience. Not only did she change her shopping habits, but she became an investigative story-teller and devotes her life to exploring issues related to human exploitation, liberation, and reconciliation around the world. Nowhere did she talk, while telling her story, about God-with-us or bearing the child of the Holy Spirit. And yet that’s what I think happened to her.
Friday morning I heard heartbreaking stories on the radio about suicide among college kids. But the stories included two parents who lost their son to suicide and then started a foundation to provide better support for kids on college campuses. They have turned their grief and misery into a source of strength. They are, in a way, giving birth to hope for others.
After listening to that story I pulled myself together and went into the gym. On the stair master I began my workout by reading Morning Prayer on my iphone. I read from the prophet Zechariah, who wrote to the kingdom of Judah two hundred years after Isaiah. By this time, the Hebrew people have survived several invasions and deportations. Times are grim. Zechariah writes:
Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, the Lord of hosts? Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will save my people…. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness.
These words are no less true today than they were in the 6th Century B.C. What if we always knew that God is with us? What if we went through each day looking for signs of God-with-us, and bringing those signs to birth by talking about them? How does it feel to have the Holy Spirit growing something new inside of you? Who are you going to tell?