The child shall be a sign for you. Unto us a child is born, unto you a son is given.
During this last week I read a story in the newspaper about how children are being brought into the world in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine, in the midst of that terrible conflict with an outcome still so uncertain. Birthing and raising children is one way to insist on hope and determination and resilience, even in times of great peril. Can you imagine one of us or our loved ones bringing children into that world? To me it seems something like an act of defiance, and a decision that could also carry prophetic dimensions.
Both of our Scripture readings this morning focus on the promised birth of a child. This newborn infant will demonstrate God’s favor to the endangered Kingdom of Judah, in the case of Isaiah, or to the Jewish people under oppressive Roman rule, in Matthew. The arrival of a child, by any means, is often such a source of wonder and joy, back then and still today; yet rarely would it carry this much weight for the fortune of nations and kingdoms.
Thinking back to the dilemma of King Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah, their tiny temple-state of Judah was operating in a climate of impending war and the threat of conquest. The mighty Assyrian empire, located where the country of Iraq is today, was advancing from the east, intending to add Judah to its many subject provinces. How should King Ahaz react? How to sustain the future of Judah as a nation under its God? Judah was a tiny realm consisting merely of Jerusalem and its environs, about the size of Hennepin County, with no ability to stand up to the Assyrian chariots on its own. Two small neighboring kingdoms headquartered in Damascus and Samaria sought King Ahaz’s agreement to join together with them to resist the imperial onslaught.
It’s something of a parallel to the situation today in eastern Europe. Russia plays the part of the invading Assyrians, while the three smaller realms feature in the place of threatened former Soviet republics and satellite states. None of the three kingdoms of Damascus, Samaria, or Jerusalem was nearly as large or resilient as Ukraine is today; the hope of King Ahaz’s neighbors was that he would join his forces with theirs to resist their common foe.
However, he does not. Ahaz’s decision was more pragmatic than it was defiant. When the king of Judah decides that he must pledge fealty to Assyria, he gambles that as a client state Jerusalem might retain at least something of its autonomy. But now he faced the enmity of Damascus and Samaria, whose approach to the city provokes Isaiah’s prophecy. It’s something like Belarus supporting Moscow against Kiev today. It’s ultimately a devil’s bargain, requiring submission to the overlord’s demands. It turned out that even the temple rituals in Jerusalem were compelled to adapt to Assyrian religious practices that would only be undone by a future generation. King Ahaz went down as one of the worst kings in the history of Judah.
This is the perilous situation when the prophet Isaiah is sent to King Ahaz with the promise that their God will give him a sign of ultimate deliverance: the birth of a child, to be named Emmanuel—God is with us. The prophet’s words to Ahaz are these: “The Lord will personally give you a sign. Look, there’s a young woman about to become pregnant. She will give birth to a son, and she will call his name Emmanuel.” Who that young mother might be is left unstated. King Ahaz had a harem full of potential candidates. Whoever did give birth, the infant would at least offer hope that the community still had a chance to survive, whatever choices the king might make.
“Unto us a child is born, unto you a son is given.” This is what that heavenly choir of angels will announce to Joseph and Mary seven hundred years after Ahaz and Isaiah. And still today, the promise and arrival of children can also bring hope to us on a more personal level. From my own family history, I know a bit about the impact and potential significance of the birth of a child. My son Charlie was born to me and my late wife Kathleen after fourteen years of a childless marriage—in no way a miraculous conception, but a premature birth that might well have been fatal to mother or child not that many years beforehand.
And this birth was for me a private sign of a different sort. Along with all the joy and excitement of having our little boy joining our household, I felt a personal message of hope. Since long before, since when I was only twenty-three years old, I had harbored a deep desire to be a grandmother someday—specifically a grand-mother. This notion seemed to be an outrageously impossible goal, given the fact that in those days my female gender identity was thoroughly hidden under the guise of manhood—not that I was the most masculine of men, but nonetheless for all anyone else could see, my chances of becoming a grand–mother someday would have been slim, or frankly, there was no chance at all. Indeed, that’s how unlikely the whole scenario seemed to me, too, at the time. There were so many reasons why I would never be anyone’s Grandma or Nana.
But then, when our son Charlie was born, at least there was one step accomplished toward my rather implausible grandmotherly future. Something of a sign of future possibility. Yet another wrinkle was thrown into my impossible dream when my son came out to me as gay, and due to my limited understanding of such things at the time, any odds of my grandparenthood seemed to diminish even further.
But then, nearly two decades later, I was able to undergo the long process of gender transition, to begin to live publicly as my authentic female self. And wonder of wonders, ten more years later, through the miracles of modern reproductive medicine, along with lots of wishing and hoping, Charlie and his husband celebrated the birth of their first child in the early months of the pandemic, only one month before the murder of George Floyd a few miles from their home. In those times of uncertainty and fear and social disarray, the birth of a grandbaby made my impossible dream of my grandmother-hood tangible and real—but also gave us all as a family more hope for the future. Jonah was, so it seemed to me, our miracle baby. He’s the little boy I bring with me Thursday mornings to the Southeast Playgroup here in our church basement. The little guy I watch with wonder and so much love every week. He brings me hope.
Two thousand years ago, and more than seven centuries after the days of Ahaz and Isaiah, another, admittedly more significant child was born. But the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were even less promising. Another young woman was found to be pregnant, in this case with no father on the scene. In that place and time, a child born without an acknowledged father would be unlikely to find acceptance as a teacher or prophet, let alone as God’s anointed Messiah. And then what if that person of dubious parentage with messianic pretensions was arrested and executed by the Romans as a failed revolutionary? How would we make sense of that biography?
The early Christians struggled with this paradox. But, as we can see in today’s gospel passage, the author of Matthew had a special source of information about Jesus and his heritage—he had the Jewish Scriptures. Through a creative reading of the prophetic sign given to Ahaz by Isaiah, way back in the day, which he pulled completely out of its original context, Matthew redirected the prophecy away from ancient Judah to the unusual circumstances of the conception and birth of Jesus. The child long promised and now delivered to be God’s Messiah—indeed, God’s own son—is brought into the world by its own miracle, through divine intervention and blessing. Perhaps we can recognize that Matthew read his Bible in a spirit of insight and a most generous understanding!
You will have noticed that the focus of Matthew’s story is on this fellow Joseph, not on the expectant mother. There is something special about Joseph, as it happens. This rather modest man of Roman Judea receives divine messages through his dreams. And what a message he gets this time! He has been planning to marry a local young woman, when the dreamy angel informs him that’s she’s pregnant—and Joseph is well aware that he couldn’t possibly be the child’s father. All the forces of custom and public reputation compel him to break off the engagement and leave Mary and her unborn child to their fate. Why does God not let that happen? Why is Joseph directed to accept both mother and child?
There’s been a sticking point in the divine plan to re-imagine what Messiahship should mean for Israel and for humanity at large. There’s no way that little Judea could rise up successfully against the Roman Empire—as the Jews were to discover with their disastrous revolt seventy years after the birth of Christ. The Jews would have as much chance as little Latvia or Estonia would have in throwing off the rule of Soviet Union back in the day, all by themselves. (Let’s all hope that Ukraine does manage that herculean task!)
So instead of the Messiah playing the expected role of the conquering military hero, a new conception of that purpose is imagined—salvation not so much from earthly overlords, but more of a spiritual journey. But in either case, whether a military messiah or a spiritual guide, the Messiah long promised to Israel was definitely meant to be a descendent of King David. Now Ahaz was a Davidite, and so was his son Hezekiah, and so were all the kings of Judah right down to the end of its independence under the thumb of Babylonian, Persian, and Greek rule. But then the throne on Mount Zion was left empty, despite all the prophecies heralding David’s eternal rule. Where were the eligible great-great-great-great grandchildren of David to be found now?
This is where Matthew’s ingenious family tree of the messiah comes into play. We read in the opening verses of that gospel that Joseph, ostensibly the father of the newborn child, did descend from King David—at a distance of 28 generations, to be sure, but who’s counting, other than Matthew himself? And though we the readers of the gospel know that Joseph wasn’t really Jesus’ dad, no one else seemed aware of this fact, and by giving the child his name, Joseph becomes his legal parent in any case. So, by yet another act of defiance and compassion and hope, Jesus the Christ is born, officially eligible to become God’s Messiah.
This is the birth we will be celebrating this coming weekend, here in our beautiful sanctuary, joining I would imagine with hopeful children and parents and grandparents and auntie and uncles worldwide. I wonder what it is that brings each of us hope in these times? What signs could we look for this week and in the coming months to suggest that better days are on their way? Something to ponder, perhaps, along with the joys and busy-ness of the Christmas season. Amen.