Wednesday, December 22

Sermon 4th Sunday in Advent


(This is a reconstruction of the sermon I gave from notes on Sunday.)

We are left wondering at these texts at least I am.

This Isaiah passage and the Christian use of it is full of holes. What possibly could these seven verses in Isaiah have to do with us? Maybe a lesson about what it means to test God. Isaiah certainly says that by Ahaz wanting to not test God he is testing God’s patience!
And as the NSRV has it translated it appears that this prophesy of the young woman has already happened. These words were for Ahaz not predicting some some event several hundred years latter. What is spoken is nothing very miraculous. Isaiah is possibly pointing out a woman, in king Ahaz's court, who is already pregnant. God is simply telling Ahaz the time frame in which he will no longer need to be afraid of his neighboring Kings with whom he is in conflict. The name, Imanueal, on this reading appears insignificant. And yet there it is Immanuel, “God with us”. What could such a name mean. How is God with us? There is a gap between this name and the “sign”. The sign, apparently, is not Immanuel. Gap.

Then we have Paul’s salutations at the beginning of the letter. When I first started doing exegesis, my professor instructed us not to make much of the salutations. They are formal and empty of any real meaning. Do we give much weight to “Dear so and so…” no and so we should not try to exegete the salutations of the letters of the New Testament. I always felt that my professor was over stating things, but at the same time Paul’s salutations do simply tell us what is assumed, it doesn’t give us a why or how. It isn’t reasoned argumentation. It’s not empty but there doesn’t seem to be much to unpack.

Mathew’s story is interesting, but what to make of it. Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, and he hasn’t been sleeping with her they are engaged but not yet married. I think Joseph is angry but he is also kind and doesn’t want to make a big fuss so he is trying to find a way to end all this business without making a scene.

Just as Joseph is about to quietly end the engagement an angel appears to him and he is told to name the baby well let see Immanuel right? No he’s to name him Jesus or J'shua/Joshua, “God saves”. But Matthew then tells us that this is a fulfillment of the Isaiah passage for today.
Matthew Might I point out that Immanuel and J’shua are not the same name. “God Saves” and “God is with us” not necessarily synonymous.

How to preach on text so full of holes, Passages that have this glaring blackness right in the middle of everything?

You don’t. You let them be. Can we live with these texts full of holes and see something other than just the gaps?

At the center of every icon of the Nativity is the big black gapping whole of the cave and in this deep dark cavernous gap in the icon sits the baby Jesus, usually already blessing us, and Jesus is in unlike western painting not in a manger with hay, but wrapped in cloth and laid in a stone sepulcher. Yes, to Christian iconography the cave of Jesus birth is the same as the cave in which Jesus is wrapped and laid after his crucifixion.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida has a little book called Aporias. It’s about the holes, the aporias, in our philosophies and in our systemizations. No matter how much we think we have done in capturing the world around us our descriptions and attempts to control the world end up always already to be full of holes. These gaps that keep appearing in our attempts to give a complete explanation of everything, show forth something terrifying. In these gaps Derrida sees death. It is our mortality, which is reflected in these gaps in our lives.
In a sense this is what the nativity icon tells us the gaps in our lives are death, and God as a child entered into that Gap.
If our texts are full of holes and our explanations of them are as well. If you try to explain away Matthew’s use of Isaiah you still have to face that name Immanuel.
Most likely Matthew is quoting not from the Masoretic text (the standard Hebrew text of the Bible) but a Greek translation possibly what is known as the Septuagint, meaning the 70. A legend as told by the Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria (a rough contemporary of Jesus Christ) tells of one of the Hellenistic Kings of Egypt gathering together the greatest scholars of the Jews of his time and demanding they translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek. The catch was that they would not be allowed to have contact with each other in the work of their translation. They were locked in individual rooms and were to translate the scriptures. When they had all finished to the amazement of the king they all had the same translation word for word. God inspired the translation. This Greek translation used the word parthenos, virgin, for maiden, to translate the Isaiah prophesy. An inspired translation that varies from the original, a gap.

Our lives are full of holes. We are here I suspect because with out God without Christ life, our lives, doesn't make much sense. And this isn’t Newtonian “God in the gaps” science in which the gaps are covered over plastered and hidden by saying oh that’s God. No this is seeing God appear as a child, as a man (yes I meant man and not human though that too, the particularity of Jesus is perhaps another gap we must face), God as a body laid in a tomb. And in the end the lost body the empty tomb. The Gaps don’t go way they become moments of revelation.

You see I don’t think that Matthew and the early Christians were stupid. Long before modern scholars came along and pointed out that maiden in Isaiah doesn’t necessarily mean virgin and the “plainer” meaning of the Isaiah text is what we find in our NRSV and not the Greek that Matthew appeals to, ancient readers of these texts knew this, and argued with Christians about it. But even the plain meaning of the text has this gapping hole in it and it is {"God with us”. How is that name ever going to be fulfilled? And by the way the Greek translation of the Scriptures was inspired, remember the story all these scholars translating it alone and they come together and viola they all have exactly the same text.

These texts challenge us. These stories remind us that our nice tidy attempts to wrap up our world and our lives simply hide that we are full of holes, that death lurks in us, or dissolution and absence are very, very real. The hole in these texts, like the holes in our lives, is the place where God appears and is with us. A virgin shall bear and child and he shall be named God saves God is with us. God appears in the gap in death so that by death death would be trampled down, to paraphrase an Orthodox Easter hymn.
God is the God of the gaps not because he plasters them over but because God appears in them. We await the coming of God in the gaps, in the dark gaping hole in the world, as a child and so much more, Immanuel God with us.