Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Born of the Virgin Mary

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

            Both our texts today feature the same words in a prominent role:  “The virgin will conceive a child.”  But looking at those words from, shall we say, opposite sides, and 700 years apart. 

            The prophet Isaiah spoke those words in about 735 BC.  We looked at Isaiah 11 a couple Sundays ago, and even though they’re only four chapters apart, those two chapters are addressing different situations in Isaiah’s ministry.  What they share in common is the threat of a coming invasion.  In Isaiah 11, it’s the invasion of Assyria.  But here in chapter 7, it’s a threat much closer to home.

            In 735 BC, Assyria was the big bully on the block, the one everyone was worried about.  But Assyria was busy dealing with Urartu and Media, far to the north of Jerusalem.  They were still the bully; they were just bullying someone else.  And while they were busy elsewhere, the small states of the region called the Levant; Aram, Israel, Philistia, Moab, Phoenicia, and others; were organizing themselves to oppose Assyria.  But there was one holdout:  Judah.  The king of Judah, Ahaz, didn’t want to go along with the plan.  So the kings of Aram and Israel, Rezin and Pekah, decide to invade Judah, overthrow Ahaz, and replace him with a puppet king, so that they can complete this alliance.  Instead of turning to God, Ahaz turned to Assyria and asked them for help.  He even gave them money he stole from the Temple. 

God’s message to Ahaz is, “Ask me for a sign.”  Everyone in the ancient Near East world believed in divine signs.  They were always looking for them in different places to know the future.  But Ahaz says, “I wouldn’t trouble God for a sign.”  It might sound pious, but he really just didn’t care about God’s input.  He was making his own plans. 

Isaiah says, “You exhaust God’s patience, So God himself will choose the sign.  The virgin will conceive a child and name him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”  The Hebrew word here for virgin is a young woman who is old enough to marry but is not yet married. 

Scholars have long wondered who this virgin is.  Some have suggested it is the prophet Isaiah’s wife, who has a baby in chapter 8.  But Isaiah’s wife already had a child, and this one wasn’t named Immanuel.  I think it’s more likely that the virgin in question is an unmarried daughter of Ahaz.  Presumably this exchange happens in the royal palace, which is where Isaiah would go to talk to the king.  And I can imagine a daughter of Ahaz standing nearby, and Isaiah pointing her out and saying, “The virgin will conceive.” 

“Before the child knows right from wrong, the kings you fear will be dead.”  Pekah and Rezin both died within about three or four years of this prophecy.  Pekah was murdered by his successor; Rezin was executed by Assyria.

Seven centuries later, the same prophecy is applied to the birth of Christ.  And this was not unusual in prophecy, for a message to mean one thing at the time it was delivered, but then later to gain a new and greater meaning. 

In Matthew chapter one, we find Mary and Joseph betrothed.  Betrothal was the second stage of the process in a marriage.  Most marriages were arranged by parents when the two were still children.  Once they reached marriageable age, which was typically 18-20 for young men and 14-16 for young women, they would meet each other, sometimes for the first time.  If both agreed to the marriage, then they would enter into a year-long betrothal.  During this year, they were regarded as husband and wife in every way except one:  They weren’t allowed to be alone together.  This was intended to demonstrate the purity of the bride.  But this betrothal was a legally binding arrangement.  It could only be ended by death or divorce.  And after the betrothal period was over, there would be a wedding celebration, and they would move in together and consummate their relationship.

Mary is found to be pregnant during the betrothal.  Now, if we read Luke’s Gospel, which tells the story from her perspective, we know why.  But Matthew’s Gospel tells the story from Joseph’s perspective.  The expectation of a husband in this situation is to divorce his wife and subject her to public humiliation.  She is, after all, an unfaithful wife.  But Joseph decides to do it quietly.  Divorce only required two witnesses and a written document, so it didn’t have to be public.  He’s trying to be merciful and compassionate.

But of course, God intervenes.  The child is conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Joseph should not be ashamed to take her home.  So he does.  And in so doing, he takes the shame on himself.  Now, instead of people saying, “Oh, that Mary.  She’s unfaithful,” they’ll say, “Oh, that Joseph.  No self-control.”  Because they’ll make an assumption here.  And the prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus.

Is belief in the virgin birth an essential belief for Christianity?  Because there are some people who say it is not.  And of course, others say it is. 

Well, why might it be essential?  It might be essential for our understanding of the nature of Christ.  We believe Christ is fully God and fully human, two natures contained within one person.  And the virgin birth provides a good way of understanding that. 

Others say the virgin birth is essential to our understanding of Christ being without sin.  Most Christians believe in some understanding of original sin, which is the idea that we “inherit” a rebellious spirit.  Think of the words of David in the 51st Psalm, “I was born a sinner, from the moment my mother conceived me.”  The virgin birth can be used to explain Christ, being fully human, being without sin. 

But I’m not sure either of those arguments is foolproof. 

What is foolproof is that it’s very important to understand Christ being born of the Holy Spirit.  What does the Spirit do?  Well, the Spirit brings truth from God to human beings.  And that’s what he’s doing in the conception of Christ, bringing the one who is Truth from God to us.  The Spirit is also an agent of creation and new life.  And Jesus brings us new life.  He begins a new creation in us.

I think maybe the better question is, “Do we have a reason not to believe in the virgin birth?”  And I can’t see one.  The skeptic might say, “That’s not how babies come about!”  But is anything too wonderful for God?  I think it creates more difficulties and more unanswered questions not to believe in it.  I wouldn’t jump on someone who says, “Well, I believe Jesus is the Son of God but I don’t believe in the virgin birth,” but I see no reason not to believe in it.

We’ll conclude this morning with one of the ancient creeds of the Church, a creed that affirms our belief in the virgin birth.   

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