Jesus’ birth proof of God’s presence

  • December 14, 2007

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A), Dec. 23 (Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24)

Great written works have many lives and this is especially true with biblical texts. The original audience for Isaiah’s prophecy was Jerusalem in the eighth century BC, and the sign of encouragement was meant for Ahaz the king. Jerusalem was under siege, and Ahaz was close to despair. Should he make foreign military alliances in order to lift the siege? The word that came through Isaiah was a resounding negative. All that was needed was trust in God.

Timid Ahaz cannot even bring himself to accept God’s offer of a sign — any sign he wanted — and he sinks deeper into his paralysis. The sign that is promised is the birth of an individual whose very name — Immanuel — will be a sign that God is with the Kingdom of Judah.

It is unclear who this individual actually was, though many scholars would point to Ahaz’s son Hezekiah.

This passage’s second life occurred in Matthew’s Gospel when the people of God faced another crisis: their loss of freedom under Roman rule and their growing oppression under that yoke. This secondary use does not cancel the first, it merely amplifies it.

To look for some sort of sign in the midst of pain, fear, struggle or loss is human. Asking for a sign is not necessarily a sign of bad faith. To ask for proofs from God would be unacceptable, but to ask for a sign of comfort and encouragement is not.

That sign will most likely arrive in the midst of our everyday experience. It may take the form of an encounter with someone, a word of encouragement, a dream or something quite ordinary that suddenly leaps out at us and takes on special meaning. One of God’s favourite modes of communication is the coincidence. But any of these signs will be for us a reassurance of God’s presence and support.

There is a lot packed into Paul’s long and convoluted introduction to his letter to the Romans. He is often put in the position of defending his status as an apostle, and this occasion is no exception. There were many who questioned his right to be carrying any message to the gentiles, especially in view of his earlier role of persecutor of the Christian community.

His reference to Jesus as “declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” is indeed vague and not a little puzzling. Wasn’t He Son of God with power before that? It likely refers to God’s declaration of that status — by raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated Him in a dramatic and public way. And Paul believes that the vindication included the Gospel that he proclaims: the obedience of faith of the gentiles. It is nothing new; it was God’s intention from the beginning.

Most of the divine-human interaction in the Gospel of Luke is between the angelic messenger and Mary. In Matthew, however, it is Joseph who receives angelic communications, and it is in the form of a dream. We can imagine Joseph’s feelings when he discovered that Mary was pregnant, and for a while the demands of tradition and culture take over. He will send her away, for if it is discovered, she could even be in danger. But the dream trumped the demands and pressure of tradition, and Joseph was reassured that this was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Inner guidance comes to most of us in our struggles, but most people drown out the Spirit’s voice. Joseph seems to have been uniquely sensitive and open to the Spirit’s instruction.

God’s work often glides silently alongside human activity and from time to time it erupts into our awareness. Its arrival is almost always surprising, shocking and unsettling, but also reassuring to those prepared to receive it.

Matthew’s use of the quotation from Isaiah is a theological proclamation that this birth is an irrefutable sign of God’s presence and compassionate care for God’s people.

Our fearful and violent world is increasingly desperate for a sign of this sort. Jesus Himself was this sign, but He also asks us to be a similar sign for others. It is a message that will be both whispered in secret and openly proclaimed in myriad ways until the end of time: God is with us!