Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Why the Incarnation?

Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25

 You are familiar with the story, of course.  We hear it at least once a year.  

 Mary and Joseph are betrothed to each other.  In first century Jewish culture, there were three stages to the relationship between husband and wife.  First, when they were still young children, the marriage would be arranged by their parents.  Second, when they reached marriageable age, which was like 14-16 for women, 18-20 for men, the couple would give their consent to the marriage, and then they would enter into a year-long time of betrothal.  At the end of that year, they would have a wedding ceremony, and they were fully wed.

 Betrothal was different from our practice of engagement in a few ways.  First of all, it was legally binding.  It could only be broken by a divorce.  But the relationship was not yet consummated.  In many parts of Judea and Galilee, the couple wasn’t even allowed to be alone together.  The intimate part of their relationship was only for after the wedding.  

 It was during this time that Mary was found to be pregnant.  Joseph knew he was not the father, so he was expected to divorce her and subject her to public shame.  But we learn that in addition to being an upright man, Joseph was also a compassionate man.  He didn’t want to bring harm to Mary, so he wanted to divorce her quietly.  

 He couldn’t see any other way to proceed until God intervened in a dream.  God said, “The child is conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  In Hebrew thought, the Holy Spirit was the one who brings the truth of God to human beings.  He is also involved in the act of creation, as Genesis 1:2 says that the “Spirit of God hovered above the formless earth.”  The Spirit creates life in Mary, and that life brings the truth of God to human beings. 

 There were, of course, stories from the mythologies of other cultures, like Greece and Rome, of the gods coming down and conceiving children.  But those stories were sexual in nature, and this story is not.  God creates from nothing.  

 “She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus.”  In Hebrew culture, names were meant to convey something about the character or the destiny of the individual.  Or sometimes the name was related to something significant that happened at the time of the child’s birth.  But a name given by God had very special meaning.  Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means “Yahweh saves.”  

 “All this is to fulfill God’s message through the prophet Isaiah, ‘The virgin will conceive a child, a son named Immanuel, God is with us.’”  We know that prophecy because we hear it every year at Christmas.  But do we really understand it?  Let’s go back and have a deeper look at it.

 The context of Isaiah 7 is that it was 735 BC.  At that time, Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms, were split apart from each other, and they were often in conflict with each other.  Meanwhile, Assyria was the top dog in the ancient Near East world; they were the superpower.  But in those years, Assyria was busy elsewhere.  They were up north fighting against kingdoms called Media and Urartu.  The small states along the Mediterranean coast, Israel, Judah, Philistia, Aram, Phoenicia, and so on, were basically being left alone.  So they decided to get together and form an alliance against Assyria.  But there was a holdout.  One of the nations didn’t want to go to war:  Judah.  

 The kings of Aram and Israel, Rezin and Pekah, had a solution:  Invade Judea, topple Jerusalem, and install their own guy, named Tabeel, to be a puppet king, who would go along with the coalition.  So there was fear in Jerusalem and in the heart of the king, Ahaz.

 God’s message to Ahaz was “Do not be afraid.  They will not prevail.”  Then God says to King Ahaz, “Ask for a sign.”

 Pretty much everyone in the ancient Near East world believed in signs.  They would look for signs from the gods in the skies above.  They would look for them in various natural phenomena.  When all else failed, they would sacrifice an animal and look at its entrails.  And somehow, they could, supposedly, divine from the entrails what the gods were saying.  

 But Ahaz says, “No, I don’t want a sign.”  Why not?  The best guess is that Ahaz just didn’t care to hear from God.  Everything we know about him says that he had no real interest in God.  He was not a God-fearing king.  In fact, in this matter, he didn’t trust God.  Isaiah said, “God will take care of it.”  And instead, Ahaz went out and tried to get help from Assyria with a bribe.  

 So God chooses the sign:  “A virgin will conceive a son named Immanuel.  And by the time he is old enough to eat curds and honey, he will know right from wrong.  And by then the kings you fear will be dead.”  

 The age at which a child would start to eat “curds and honey” in Old Testament culture would be two years old.  So the timeline for Isaiah’s prophecy is about three years:  9 months of pregnancy plus two years.  And it came true.  In 733 BC, Assyria attacked Israel and took away most of their territory.  Pekah was murdered in a conspiracy for the throne.  The next year, Assyria attacked Aram, took their whole territory, and put Rezin to death.  

 One question remains unanswered:  Who was the child?  

 If you go on to read chapter 8 of Isaiah, you get the impression that the child was Isaiah’s child, because Isaiah’s wife conceives a son.  The problem is that Isaiah’s wife was not a virgin.  She already had children.  So some have suggested that maybe this refers to a second wife of Isaiah, either his first wife died and he remarried, or simply that he took a second wife. 

 Still others suggest that the prophecy refers to a member of the royal family who conceives a child.  In either case, the prophecy isn’t really fulfilled, is it?  The Hebrew word “virgin” refers to a young, unmarried woman.  In both cases, it’s a young woman who gets married and then conceives.  So the prophecy isn’t really fulfilled until Jesus, born of a virgin, one who truly is “God with us.”  Sometimes when we talk about prophecies in Scripture, we talk about how a prophecy can have more than one level of fulfillment.  It can mean one thing at the time, but later, it can have a richer and fuller meaning.  I think that’s the case here.

 Does the virgin birth matter?  Some say it doesn’t.  Some say that believing in the virgin birth is not an essential of Christian faith.  I’m not so sure it isn’t.  After all, our belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man is an essential Christian belief.  It’s very hard to conceive of that without also having some kind of divine birth.  

 Often, the discussion of the virgin birth is set in the context with a discussion of original sin.  Original sin is the belief that human beings are born with a rebellious spirit.  Again, some argue against that.  Some argue that human beings are essentially good.  Others that we are neither good nor bad; it all depends on the influences we receive.  But there certainly seems to be good reason to believe in some type of original sin.  

 We see it in the Scriptures.  Psalm 51:5 says, “I was born a sinner – yes from the moment my mother conceived me.”  Job says, “Who can bring purity out of an impure person?”  (Job 14:4).  And in Ephesians, Paul writes, “All of us used to live that way,

following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature.  By our very nature we were subjected to God’s wrath.”  

 I think we also observe it in human nature.  We like to rebel against authority.  The moment someone says, “You can’t do that,” we want to do it.  

 This relates to the virgin birth because many people say, “If Jesus was not born through some divine intervention, then how could he be free from the corruption of original sin?”  

 So I do think the virgin birth matters.  But I also think there are more important issues about the birth of Christ.  The big question isn’t “Was Jesus born of a virgin?”  The big question is, “Why did God come down and take on human flesh in the first place?”  And I think there are two answers to that question:

 First, God took on flesh so that we could truly know God.  There is a level of knowledge that is impossible to have without first-hand experience.  When I do the canoe trips in Ontario, I try to explain to people what the experience is like, and no matter how much I describe it, when people actually go, they always say something like, “It was different from what I was expecting.”  If I describe my friend to you in the greatest detail possible, do you really know my friend?  No, not until you meet them in person.  In the same way, we can’t really know God until we know God personally.  Jesus reveals God in a way nothing else could.

 Second, God took on flesh because we couldn’t save ourselves.  No matter what we do, we can’t save ourselves.  We are sinners, and we can’t atone for our sins.  There was a great theologian of the Middle Ages named Anselm of Canterbury.  He wrote a book called “Why did God become a man?”  And his conclusion was, “Human beings owed a debt they could never repay, so God, in his great love, became a man to pay a debt he didn’t owe.” 

 Jesus became flesh so that we could know God and be reconciled to him for all eternity.  That’s the reason for Christmas.  That’s what we are celebrating. 

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