by Daniel Harrell
By some estimates, the average person spends about six years of his lifetime dreaming—which for me means six years spent magically hovering over a pond in Scotland while trying to get my skin buttoned before my mother calls me to walk her wombat—or something weird like that. Had I lived in ancient times, dreams would have been considered as originating from somewhere supernatural. Dreams were taken so seriously at times they were admissible as evidence in court. Nightmares were thought to be work of evil spirits or even signs of demon possession. Few dreams were ever lightly dismissed. It’s no wonder, then, that God employed dreams with such effectiveness in the Christmas story. It was a dream that diverted the magi away from revealing Jesus’ whereabouts to Herod, a dream that got Joseph, Mary and Jesus out of town before Herod went off on his infanticidal spree, a dream that announced the all-clear sign once Herod died, and of course a dream that persuaded Joseph to marry Mary even though by all external accounts it was an outrageously bad idea.
You know the story well. We rehearse it every Christmas. Virgin teenaged girl. Betrothed to a local tradesman. Nice guy possibly just pushing 20 himself. An arranged betrothal which in that culture carried the weight of matrimony. All that was left was the physical consummation and moving Mary’s things into Joseph’s house. Thus for Mary to be “found” with child while presumably still a virgin was a scandal of the highest order. Mary’s parents were disgraced and Joseph humiliated. Granted, Matthew is quick to inform that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but certainly those who heard Mary plead that case would have only been further outraged. Imagine, her trying to pass off her promiscuity on God!
It’s not that miraculous conceptions weren’t part of Biblical lore. Most famously there was the aged and infertile Sarah giving birth to Isaac. Then came the sterile Mrs. Manoah bearing Samson, the barren Hannah delivering Samuel and of course Mary’s own infertile cousin Elizabeth carrying John the Baptist. But in each of these instances a husband was still in the mix. Nobody in the Bible had gotten pregnant out of thin air. What were the neighbors supposed to think? What else was there for Joseph to do but file the papers? Matthew informs us that Joseph was a righteous man which meant that Joseph obeyed the law and the law said you dump a woman who cheats on you.
Actually, the law said you stone a woman who cheats on you. By all rights Joseph should have been reaching for rocks. But Joseph’s righteousness consisted of his interpreting the law in the most gentle way possible. Clearly he loved Mary and had no desire to disgrace her any more than she had already disgraced herself. He would divorce her quietly with no charges filed in order to save everybody any further embarrassment. Frankly, the whole thing was a miserable mess. And though Joseph didn’t know it yet, it was all God’s fault.
Though we know the story, it can still be hard to hear. Why this and not a greeting card approach? Why not a well lit suburban cradle, cuddly nursery room animals, an incandescent baby Jesus and proud, smiling parents? We traditionally light advent candles representing joy, love, hope and peace; not anxiety, shame, disgrace and scandal. If the point of a virgin birth was for the Son of God to have no original sin, why start by making everything look so sinful? And why be so secret about it? Why not a blaze of public, visible Holy Spirit glory and then a pregnant Mary? That way her neighbors could have thrown her a baby shower with swaddling clothes from Baby Gap. Somebody could have made sure there was room at the Bethlehem Hilton so that Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a manger. Or better yet, why not just skip the whole birth process entirely? Spare Joseph the painful embarrassment and Mary the painful labor. It’s not like Jesus did anything for his first thirty years anyway. Why not just miraculously pop down in person on Good Friday and do what needed doing then?
Christian theology has offered a myriad of explanations for the full-blown incarnation. The logic of substitutionary atonement demands that Jesus live an fully obedient life—adolescence included—in order to substitute his lifelong obedience for our lifetimes of disobedience. Furthermore, the doctrine of Christ’s dual nature begs for combined human and divine parentage. Jesus had to be fully man and fully God; free from sin’s predisposition but at the same time free to sin in order that he might be tempted in every way as we are, important when you’re looking for sympathy from God. As to Christ’s scandalous mode of entering the world, it disabused any escalating expectations of God’s Messiah showing up as some sort of celebrity Superhero. God’s redemption of humanity needed to be an unpretentious operation. Fans don’t let their heroes die.
Granted, the only explanation Matthew offers is that “the Scripture was fulfilled.” Not that the Scripture he cited really had anything to do with Jesus’ birth. It comes from Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Matthew’s citation has caused centuries of scholarly consternation since the word translated young woman in Isaiah generically applies to any unmarried or soon-to-be-married girl. Given the context of Isaiah 7, it’s highly unlikely that the prophet was talking about the virgin Mary giving birth since the birth he talked about apparently occurred in Isaiah’s own lifetime. Israel’s King Ahaz was in dire straits and needed divine help. Eager to help, God presses Ahaz to ask for a sign. But Ahaz, feigning modesty, demurs. He wanted to do things his own way. So God gave him another sign, though it hardly looked like a sign from God. “A young woman will have a baby and name it Emmanuel.” Big deal. Women have babies everyday. Which may have been the point: God being with Ahaz meant that God was going to let nature takes its course. Assyria was strong enough to take down Israel any day of the week. So God lets them do it.
Why does Matthew quote this Scripture? If you read on in Isaiah, you realize that chapter 7 is just the beginning of a whole string of events about a child and the name Immanuel. In chapter 8, the name Immanuel gets attached to the entire people of God who were coming under Assyrian attack. “Since this people rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloh,” Isaiah foretold, “the Lord is about to bring against them mighty floodwaters of Assyria which overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, O Immanuel!” Check it out: God not only lets Assyria take down Israel but apparently was willing to go down with them.
But then you turn to Isaiah 9 where Emmanuel resurfaces as a child of redemption. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. …For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his dominion and peace there will be no end.” The ordinary child born in Isaiah 7 as a sign of failure gives way to the extraordinary child prophesied in chapter 9 as a sign of salvation. Matthew had Isaiah’s whole pattern in mind when he spoke of Christ fulfilling it. Failure is the way to victory. Disgrace is the way to grace. Bad news comes before good news. Ordinary gives way to extraordinary. Humiliation is the way to heaven.
It’s the pattern throughout Scripture. Emmanuel, God with us causes concern before comfort and joy. “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years,” Moses said, “he did it to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart… He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna… to teach you that people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” “You save the humble O Lord,” Samuel spoke, “… but your eyes are on the proud to humiliate them.” “The tax collector stood at a distance and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you,” Jesus said, “this despised tax collector went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It’s been said that true faith takes you as low as you can go so that God can raise you up. Except that when Joseph found Mary to be pregnant, he had not yet gone as low as he would go. That happened later that night as Joseph slept on his decision to divorce his unfaithful wife. That night the Lord used an angel and a dream to wake him up. “Joseph son of David, fear not (angels always say that). Take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son whom you will name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” Because Joseph was a righteous man, he obeyed God. But because only Joseph dreamed the dream, his obedience ironically cost him his reputation as a man of obedience. Talk about a nightmare. True faith took Joseph as low as he could go.
Yet what’s so remarkable about the Christmas story is that God himself went down as low as He could go too. Just like Isaiah foretold and we read last Sunday: “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.” “Jesus made himself nothing,” Paul wrote, “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient to death—on a cross as a guilty criminal.” Despised and rejected. God with us means that God takes on the very sin that separates us from him to the very places we sink ourselves. True faith takes you as low as you can go, but truth is, you were going to go there anyway. Perhaps a better way to say it is that God lets you go as low as you can go so that he can meet you there. After all, when you’re as low as you can go, you have no where else to go—but up.
This is the pattern of Christmas. Disgrace is the way to grace. Bad news comes before good news. Humiliation is the way to heaven. For Jesus too. Paul describes Jesus in Romans as one born according to the flesh, situated in the line of King David, a notable designation since by then David’s line was defunct, run into the ground by the likes of King Ahaz. Yet according to the pattern, Paul goes on to describe Jesus as the one raised by the Spirit out of failure and death to be crowned with power and glory. And not only him, but as Paul adds, “you also.” God lets you go as low as you can go so that can meet you there, be with you there, and raise you up from there with Jesus to where “God with us” is always a dream come true.