December 23, 2013 by jmw
Introduction: The Great Let Down
Well, you all knew this was coming. Anyone who has celebrated the season of Advent and Christmas before, you knew this was coming eventually. Despite our best efforts to prolong the season of Advent with darkness and waiting, with visions of hope and justice, you knew that this moment would come eventually. Today, on this fourth Sunday in Advent, we have come to the moment when all of our credible visions and hopeful dreams come crashing down. Today all of our expectations for the healing of the nations and the coming Messiah come to an unexpected halt.
You knew this was coming. This absurd detail. This unbelievable and downright embarrassing baloney about a virgin birth. After all the poetic visions of Isaiah and John the Baptist and Mary’s Magnificat, we come to this? This fairy tale plot twist?
Some of you may be thinking that I’m only setting this up for rhetorical purposes; that I will go on to explain how all of this makes perfect sense and how it is, in fact, historically possible for a virgin to give birth; and how it is rationally justifiable to believe this and other “miracles” that we read in the Bible. For those of you who think this, I apologize in advance.
I’m quite aware that the debate over this absurd story is as heated as it is old. I’m quite aware that
the evangelical atheists and rational humanists love to make fun Christians for believing this rubbish. I’m quite aware that there are dozens upon dozens of other miraculous birth stories
attributed to famous historical figures like the Buddha, Dionysus, Horus, and even Caesar Augustus (who lived when Jesus was born).
I’m also quite aware that with the help of good scholarly criticism we can explain that “virgin” might actually mean “young woman” or a woman who got pregnant after her first experience of intercourse. Or we could take the philosophical route and
demonstrate that David Hume, who argued strongly against such miracles, used logic that was circular and fallible (problem of inductive reasoning) – therefore, miracles can, in fact, occur. Or perhaps you’ve seen that article floating around the internet about how 1 in 200 women experience a “virgin birth.” Maybe that will help us prove that this story is believable.
But I’m not interested in any of this. (Though I find it interesting for sure.) I’m not interested in resolving this debate. I’m not interested in collecting empirical evidence to prove this absurd story. That just doesn’t interest me because I’m not interested in determining “what is possible.” On the contrary, I would prefer to leave this tension be and sit right in the middle of it. In fact, I would suggest that embracing this absurd, impossible story is precisely what Advent and Christmas is all about.
Virgin birth!? This is absurd. Impossible. If this makes you uncomfortable, good; then you’re already on your way toward welcoming the birth of the messiah. I invite you to hold this tension and this discomfort as we explore our two texts from Isaiah and Matthew.
Our two texts are similar in many ways. In both readings the major player is confronted with a choice. Both feature a visionary promise about God’s future and both include the promise of a virgin giving birth to a son. Let’s begin with Isaiah.
Ahaz: King of the Possible, King of Fear
Isaiah chapter 7 tells of Ahaz, the king of Judah, at a very tense period in history. It is after the kingdom of Israel has split into two: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. This division caused a lot of conflict and Israel wanted the land of Judah back, especially its capital city of Jerusalem. So Israel made a pact with a neighbouring king by the name of Rezin, the king of Aram (Syria) and planned to attack Judah together. This has Ahaz quite literally shaking in his boots because Judah is not a strong military force. Verse 2 reads, “The heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”
What happens next is quite interesting. The Lord tells Isaiah to go and meet king Ahaz to deliver a message. Isaiah tells him not to fear these two neighbouring kingdoms. In fact, Isaiah calls the kingdoms “smoldering stumps of firebrands”, that is, fire that burns low and gives off little heat. More importantly, Isaiah goes on to say that because these two kingdoms intend to bully the weaker kingdom of Judah God shall not allow them to stand. Isaiah declares that these two stronger kingdoms will be broken to pieces because of their oppressive violence. And in his final words of wisdom Isaiah tells king Ahaz that if he is willing to trust then this promise shall come to pass, but if he will not trust then his kingdom and his people will not stand. In the Hebrew there is a play on words: it literally reads, ‘If you don’t stand firm, you will not stand.’ So Isaiah’s message is essentially: Do not fear. The oppressors shall not win. Trust in the promise of God and you will stand.
Now all of this comes before our reading today, which begins at verse 10. What I’ve just described is all from verses 1-9. Up to this point we see that king Ahaz is in a fairly precarious situation, but he has been confronted with the promise of God; and he has been invited to trust the promise of God’s future.
Beginning with verse 10 we read that the Lord spoke to Ahaz and said, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” In other words, God is offering some kind of demonstration or manifestation of this abstract promise. Indeed, when the promises of God seem absurd in light of the status quo it is difficult to trust. Therefore God offers the king a concrete manifestation, a sign, that God’s promise can be trusted.
But Ahaz responds, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Ah, what a prudent reply; directly from the Torah (Deut. 6:16). We’ve head these words before on the lips of Jesus himself when he was tempted in the wilderness. But in this case, the words come not from a place of trust but of fear, which is the opposite of trust.
Beneath the king’s supposedly pious response he is really saying: “I’d rather not know if this promise is legit or not because knowing so would require a response, and not just any response but a response to trust what seems absurd.” Isn’t it interesting that the king can hide his fear behind religious piety, behind a reasonably acceptable response: “No, it’s not right to test God. I won’t ask for a sign.” [I will return to this cowardly brand of religious faith later.]
Back to Ahaz.
We know that Ahaz’s response is rooted in fear rather than genuine piety because we can read the historical account of all of this in 2 Kings 16. There we learn that rather than trusting the promise that God made with him Ahaz instead sent a bunch of the temple’s silver and gold to the king of Assyria in hopes of buying him out. King Ahaz lives in a world of the possible. He lives and moves and sees and thinks in a world where what you see is what you get; where earthly power backed by violence is the way things are and always will be. For king Ahaz the future can only be an extension of the present, of the status quo, and that means only the “possible.”
Despite the king’s response, Isaiah announces that God will offer a sign anyway and this sign is the very sign that Matthew recycles in his account of the birth of the messiah. So let us turn to Matthew now.
Joseph’s “Ahaz” Moment
Like I said, these two stories are incredibly similar. In many ways Joseph is just like king Ahaz. Like Ahaz, Joseph finds himself in a precarious situation: he has just discovered that his wife-to-be is already pregnant. Like Ahaz, I imagine that Joseph was quite scared, not knowing what to do. [Now the text does not tell us explicitly whether or not Joseph has been told that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit, but I think it is fair to assume that Mary has at least attempted to tell Joseph. We would expect this much from a couple already engaged to be married, no?]
But most importantly, like Ahaz, Joseph responds to this absurd situation with an acceptable, religious answer. His response is to quietly divorce Mary on the grounds of adultery (and absurdity!). Indeed, Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and he planned to do exactly what a man should do according to Jewish Law. Just like king Ahaz, the acceptable, religious answer provides Joseph a safe resolution for his fears and doubts. When confronted with the absurd, the impossible, and the downright embarrassing, the religious system gives Joseph an easy out. The religious answer allows Joseph divorce the impossible.
This is why I have such an issue with those who try to resolve the debate around the virgin birth.
There are those who believe they know what is possible in reality and they aim to dismiss the virgin birth as impossible. Like Joseph, they divorce it because it is absurd.
Then there are those who, for one reason or another, claim to believe that the virgin birth happened and they aim to defend that the virgin birth is possible. But by defending it as possible, they dismiss the impossible. Like Joseph, they too divorce it because it is absurd. It is no longer absurd and impossible, rather, it is absorbed into the everyday, ordinary realm of the possible. More significantly, it is resigned to the modern realm of ‘belief.’
[Now please don’t hear misunderstand me. I’m not saying: Don’t believe the virgin birth. What I am saying is: Don’t resign it to the realm of the possible just so you can believe it. If you’re going to believe it, believe it as impossible. ]
Today the virgin birth is taught as an article of the Christian faith and it is therefore the acceptable, religious answer. But what if giving the acceptable, religious answer here functions just like it did for king Ahaz? What if believing the virgin birth as possible allows us to avoid having to respond to the absurd and the impossible? I’m suggesting that when we make this story all about belief in what’s possible then we strip away its absurdity and, most importantly, its demand for a response.
As soon as we deem the virgin birth possible it no longer haunts our hearts, it no longer confronts our reality. When we casually accept the virgin birth as possible and confess, “I believe it,” we run the risk of offering an acceptable, religious answer that divorces us from the impossible promise of God’s future.
This is what makes our religious answers so dangerous. It’s not that they’re incorrect or heretical; they’re quite acceptable. But they run the risk of letting us off the hook from having to respond, from having to risk our own necks, from venturing into the unknown, the absurd, and the impossible.
Joseph’s Messianic Moment
This is the heart of Matthew’s story and it is what sets Joseph apart from Ahaz. Despite his intention to take the safe way out and divorce the impossible, Joseph experiences a change – a metanoia – and chooses to embrace this absurd and impossible promise. And by “embrace,” I don’t mean that Joseph simply “believes it” or decides that maybe it’s “possible.” What we read in the text is that Joseph embraces the absurdity of the virgin birth by taking the impossible as his wife. In other words, by choosing to respond, to act, to make a covenant with the impossible promise of God. It is not belief that allows Joseph to embrace the virgin birth; it is love. It is the courageous leap of love, that willingness to marry the impossible, that explains how the birth of the messiah took place.
Perhaps this is why the Bible is filled with the imagery of covenant love. Maybe this is why Jeremiah and Hosea describe the relationship between Israel and God in terms of marriage. Maybe this is why Jesus seemed to never stop talking about weddings and bridegrooms. Maybe salvation is more about the fearless love of God’s promise than it is about beliefs.
This is why I’m not interested in resolving the debate about the virgin birth. Do you believe it? Do you think it’s possible? I don’t care! What I really want to know is do you love it? Do you love the impossible? Are you willing to marry it? Are you willing to covenant with God’s absurd promise of the coming messiah? Are you willing to love the promise of the kingdom of God?
Or would you rather play it safe? Maybe you’d rather try to bribe your fears from taking you captive. Maybe you’d rather quietly divorce the absurd. Maybe you’re only interested in the possible. Then the great philosopher Søren Kierkegaard would have unkind words for you, as he once said, “The lover of the merely possible is a mediocre fellow.”
When we accept that the virgin birth is absurd and impossible then we let go of those fearful parts of us that desire to control reality and think of only the possible. When we accept it as impossible then we can embrace the Christmas story with faith, hope, and love, those three supreme virtues of which St. Paul said the greatest is, of course, love. Today we lighted the fourth candle, which is traditionally the candle of love. This is what Advent is all about: a journey from vision to courageous action, from hope to love. But what we often forget is that it is a journey into the absurd and the impossible.
Conclusion: Newborns, Born Anew, and the Absurd Community
So I know I’ve said a lot here. And a lot of it is fairly abstract. What does it mean to covenant with the impossible? What does it mean to love the virgin birth, especially when we tend to look at it as an event that occurred 2,000 years ago? Allow me to say three last things in an attempt to bring this all closer to home.
What does it mean to love the virgin birth as the impossible promise of God? First of all, it means taking seriously the signs of God’s promise. In our reading from Isaiah we hear that God’s sign to king Ahaz is that a child will be born. A close reading of Isaiah shows that Isaiah was not predicting the birth of Jesus 700 years later but rather a woman in his own lifetime. In the following chapter we read, “And I went to the prophetess and she conceived and bore a son.” (8:3) Not only this, but if we continue reading chapter 8 we read, “Behold, I and the children who the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts.” (8:18)
Is it possible that every newborn child is a sign of God’s promise? I think so. It’s no mistake that throughout the Bible God’s promise always include the promise of children. One of our community’s central texts, God’s promise to Jeremiah and the people in exile, includes the exhortation to marry and have children. In truth, every newborn baby is the opening up of the radically New. It is the eruption or breaking in of the impossible future that has never before existed in the universe. If this is not miraculous and impossible then I don’t know what it is.
This Christmas, if you are around infants or small children, love them: for these are signs of God’s impossible promise, the promise of Immanuel.
If you’re not around any infants or young children, remember that at one point all of us were born as impossible invasions of the radically New. This is my second example of what it means to become lovers of the virgin birth. Throughout the New Testament we read that we all need to become like children, like Isaiah’s signs, in order to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus goes as far as saying we must be born anew, that is, by the same Holy Spirit through whom the Virgin Mary became pregnant with the Christ child. Loving the virgin birth as the impossible promise of God means that we too become apostles of the impossible. We become living contradictions to the king Ahaz’s of the world who see only an extension of the present, and we live with openness to the in-breaking of God’s impossible future.
In fact, it is worth noting that Joseph’s paradigm shift that we read in Matthew may not be as incredible and unique as we often interpret. I just want to note that the word we read in verse 20, that a messenger “appeared” (phaino) to Joseph, is the same root word that we all prayed together when we recited “let your face shine (epiphaneia) that we may be saved”. Maybe the kind of shift that Joseph made, from fear of the absurd to covenant with the impossible, is possible for us as well. [Notice here that I am not saying that the virgin birth is “possible” but that our conversion to love the impossible is.]
My third and final example is that loving the virgin birth means loving the Jeremiah Community as an absurd and impossible community. The Advent journey from hope to love is the journey of the community of God as well. It is the journey in which high hopes of the coming salvation encounter the absurd promise that God chooses a teenage girl from Nowheresville, Galilee. It is the journey in which romantic pictures of intentional, missional community encounter the absurd promise that God is choosing a group of misfit, wounded healers in Parkdale. Yes, this is an absurd and impossible promise. Are you willing to love it? Are you willing to covenant with it? For this is how the birth of the messiah takes place.
If you think it sounds absurd, that it looks impossible, that’s because it is absurd and it is impossible. But do not fear. Take the impossible as your wife, covenant with it, for this is how God comes to be among us, to be Immanuel. And if you thought the virgin birth was absurd and impossible, wait until you see God’s messiah.