Fra Filippo Lippi, A Divided Annunciation

This Advent I have the wonderful opportunity of delivering one of the homilies. I will be preaching on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11th. Pastor Ken Garrett and I will follow the four “fulfillment” type passages in Matthew 1-2: 1.18-24 (v. 23); 2.1-12 (v. 6); 2.13-15 (v. 15b); and 2.16-23 (v. 18). This will provide me with a blogging pattern as well.

I do not think that Isaiah 7.14 was originally about a virgin birth. In context, pagan armies threaten Judah. The prophet goes to King Ahaz and he tells him to ask God for a sign. Ahaz refuses. Isaiah tells Ahaz that God will determine the sign then. Isaiah says that a “young woman”(העלמה) will give birth to a son. By the time this particular young woman gives birth to a son the threat of the pagans will have come and gone. Ahaz will see this and remember that Israel’s God promised deliverance.

Of course, the LXX reads “παρθένος”, which means virgin, but this was not the explicit intent of the original Hebrew author.

What I find fascinating about Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7.14 is there was no need for Messiah to have been born of a virgin in any of the Judaisms with which I am familiar. If so, I am open to being corrected. So I don’t think Matthew felt obligated to make a connection similar to the “birth in Bethlehem” tradition which does seem popular.

For me this leaves two explanations. The first is offered by E.D. Freed in The Stories of Jesus’ Birth wherein “Chapter Two: Matthew’s Women in the Genealogy of Jesus” postulates that Matthew sought to include this tradition as a way to combat claims that Jesus had an illegitimate birth. This may be true and it makes sense of the data. The second is more apologetical in favor of orthodox Christianity: Jesus was actually born of a virgin and this sent Jewish-Christian exegetes scrambling to Torah for something that would foreshadow what Mary claimed to have happened inside of her. While more far fetched (i.e. a less ‘naturalistic’ explanation) that the previous solution, this is the one to which I hold because I confess the virgin birth of Jesus.

As Matthew shapes the story he makes sure his own wording aligns with the “deliverance” motif of Isaiah 7. This is seen in Joseph choosing the name ‘Jesus’ because “he will save his people from their sins”, followed by narratives regarding the harsh rule of Herod in the next chapter. Like the small child in Isaiah 7, so Jesus signifies the deliverance of Israel from pagan powers…though not like they may have expected.

Today, the First Sunday of Advent, we celebrate the coming of the child whose birth signified deliverance from evil. In Jesus we find salvation from the forces of oppression that war against humanity. Jesus’ birth through a virgin functions as a sign from God that a new era is being ushered into the world. God’s Kingdom advances on that of Herod, Caesar, and any other force that stands against the true God.