Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church Budapest, Hungary 2022 December 18 Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel. Many years ago, a parishioner at a church I once served stopped by my office after one of our Wednesday morning bible study sessions and asked me a simple question. “Why is it,” she wanted to know, “Why is it that the Jews do not accept Jesus?” “I mean,” she continued, “the Scriptures and the Prophets make it so obvious that Jesus is the Messiah.” She went on to cite several biblical texts including the well-known one we have before us this morning in our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. As later quoted by the Evangelist Matthew in Greek translation, the passage reads in English translation, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” “What could be clearer than that...?” my parishioner asked again. Well, I suppose if you are a Jew, or for that matter a biblical scholar, a lot of things could be clearer than that. The Book of Isaiah, with sixty-six chapters, is by far the longest book of the Bible. In fact, most biblical scholars consider it to be at least three, and possible four, books by different authors from vastly different time periods or eras which, the experts surmise, somehow over the centuries ended up being compiled or assembled into the same ancient scroll which ultimately became the Book of Isaiah as we now know it. Our passage today, from chapter seven, is logically enough, part of the first of these texts, often referred to by those same scholars as First Isaiah. First Isaiah is an historical document and one in which, to make a long story short, the Prophet Isaiah confronts King Ahaz for his political machinations during a time of great turmoil sometime in the middle of the 700s before Christ. Isaiah challenges Ahaz to ask for a sign in order to discover the truth of his prophecies to the king. When Ahaz refuses to do so for reasons which are not explained in the text, Isaiah gives him one anyway. And, the sign is of course the one we are familiar with from the text, namely that, as the original Hebrew would have it, a “ young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Well, be it “young woman” or “virgin,” most experts in Hebrew scripture will readily admit that they have little or no idea, in the context of the time this was written, just what the Prophet Isaiah was getting at, since the text does not say who the young woman, much less who her child, was to be. Indeed, some commentators call this chapter and verse one of the most puzzling in the entire Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. So, no wonder then that devout Jews see this text in a different light than do most Christians, including of course the Evangelist Matthew. And my inquiring parishioner. Indeed, Matthew is apparently the first writer, Christian or otherwise, to have ever applied the Prophet Isaiah’s words to the birth of Jesus, as we of course see him doing here in our Gospel account this morning. Firmly rooting the advent, or coming, of Jesus as Messiah in the traditions of ancient Israel is particularly important to Matthew, and he more than all the other Evangelists combined cites Hebrew scripture to make his point over and over again; to demonstrate that, in his word, Jesus is the fulfillment of ancient prophecies.
That of course is what we find him doing here in his Infancy Narrative describing the birth of our Lord, an account of our Lord’s birth which differs significantly from that of Luke. Joseph, the central figure in Matthew’s narrative, does not quite know what to make of Mary’s pregnancy since, to put it delicately, he and Mary had not yet come together as husband and wife. Perhaps naturally assuming the worst, Joseph seeks to resolve this most awkward of family matters by in a sense quietly sending Mary on her way. Matthew’s account of the virgin birth of Jesus is then in some sense deeply troubling. And at the same time deeply human. Matthew however turns the matter around in an instant. In a dream, an angel tells Joseph not to fear taking Mary as his wife, and the more or less obscure passage from Isaiah which we have been reviewing is invoked to justify or explain Mary’s highly unusual pregnancy. What begins as a family crisis among obscure villagers or country people long ago becomes the fulfillment, to use again one of Matthew’s favourite words, of God’s promises made long before through the prophets. It is, I suppose, somehow reassuring to know that issues such as sexuality, child birth, and family relations have a long lineage and are nothing new. Husbands and wives, parents and their children, all over the world today face such issues still. Few of them alas are resolved so neatly by Isaiah and his prophecies. Still, it is always in the midst of the everyday, it seems, that the Lord comes to visit us, angels or not, in our homes and communities. It is there that Emmanuel takes place; that God is indeed with us. While in some sense Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem long ago is about the mystery of his Incarnation and becoming man or human, it is also about the incarnation of each of us; and what is means to be who we are, to be in other words human. And to be human, be we ancient Jews or contemporary Europeans, or any other nationality, means to be made in the image of God. Each of us is charged to bring God into our world no matter our circumstances, no matter the hardships or distractions of our lives. After all, Christ came into a world more than familiar with sin and human frailty, a world then as now sometimes quick to judge and slow to understand. Yet, Isaiah’s name for the promised and mysterious child to be born of a young woman, or virgin if you prefer Matthew’s interpretation, remains the promise of the Incarnation. God is always with us. At his birth in humble circumstances, the Lord embraces us in all the humble circumstances of our lives. Emmanuel is what Christ came to us to be; what Christ came to teach us and share with us. Isaiah’s prophecy, no matter what it meant in Isaiah’s or Matthew’s times, or what it meant to my devout parishioner decades ago, remains the Lord’s promise for all times to come. God is with us. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs