Isaiah 7: 10-16, Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19, Romans 1: 1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The readings today must surely carry a certain weight, for they are the last readings that many will hear before Christmas, the last Sunday of Advent. So today I want to explore what is the spin or the agenda that lies behind the readings. It’s quite important that when we leave church this Sunday with the word of God still echoing, we then have a very short walk before we encounter Christmas.

We’re being introduced to the Christmas event. It’s as if we’re being led into our encounter, our engagement and our interpretation of the coming Christmas event, and unlike good Christians everywhere we should give ourselves permission to critically question the text and the subtext of the readings that we hear. We should be free to ask, are we being set up? It’s a valid question, because history shows that rulers and authorities, and that includes the powerful religious leaders that collected and edited the holy scriptures, almost without exception, rulers and authorities distort the truth to serve a selfish and self-serving agenda. It’s a sad fact but it’s worth a look back and then give ourselves permission to look again with our critical minds engaged.

So we explore today’s readings with a critical and questioning sense of exploration. As we do that let’s just hold on more question. The readings are pointing us towards the Christmas event. The question: is Christmas actually an event; is it, of itself, an event and we’ll come back to that. First let’s go through the readings again and underline the Christmas motifs we’ve just heard.

Isaiah speaks of a sign: ‘Ask a sign of the LORD your God ….. Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.’ When we hear the full Christmas narrative next week we’ll see how that motif of a sign has been expanded by the story of the Magi and the star. Isaiah then introduces us to the young woman who is with child and shall bear a son, and Isaiah names the child – ‘and shall name him Immanuel’. That short reading from Isaiah is addressed to the house of David: ‘Hear then, O house of David!’

Moving on to Paul in Romans, and Paul, writing much, much later is trying to make some theological links. He sees himself as ‘Paul a servant of Jesus Christ’; Jesus Christ is the one who is going to become the superstar of Christmas. He then provides a link to the first reading: ‘the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures’, Then he describes Jesus as God’s son ‘who was descended from David’, another link back to Isaiah.

Matthew takes us into the narrative of the Nativity, so it is absolutely full of Christmas motifs. Verse 18: ‘the birth of Jesus the Messiah’. It’s an important, and yet subtle introduction of a new title for Jesus. We then have his mother Mary and of course we’re introduced to Joseph. Then the nature of the birth is brought into the narrative: ‘found to be with child from the Holy Spirit’. Other Christmas motifs again will get more prominent roles in the full narrative of the nativity – ‘the angel of the Lord appeared’. There’s that phrase, ‘do not be afraid’. Verse 20 then gives us a little more about Joseph: ‘Joseph, son of David’, linking us with the second reading, linking us back to the first reading. Verse 21: ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus’. Okay, we’ve got that link - Paul was talking about Jesus, Isaiah was talking about Immanuel, Paul was talking about Isaiah; before we know it we’ve just linked Jesus and Immanuel together.

And then there's a statement of purpose in verse 21: ‘for he will save his people from their sins’, and yet there’s another statement of purpose in verse 22: ‘All this took place’ – that’s the whole of Christmas took place – ‘to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet’. We then finish it off with another underlining of the virgin birth: ‘"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ and then a link back with the first reading: ‘and they shall name him Emmanuel which means, "God is with us,’ or God-with-us. It’s absolutely full of those Christmas motifs.

One initial observation on the readings: Advent is leading us into the coming of the light, leading us into the coming of Christmas. It heralds the dawning of a new day, as does the Easter story. Christmas signifies a change in tomorrow, such that it will be unlike any yesterdays. That’s what we are being pointed towards. We would therefore expect that the arrow of the text, the direction of the readings would be forward. Certainly Isaiah has that prophetic arrow, and yet Paul and Matthew have a much stronger emphasis on the past.

Isaiah speaks of a sign to be given – it’s got a future orientation; he speaks of birth, the creation of a new future. And remember also Isaiah named what he was speaking about as Immanuel. Paul, in the introduction to a letter written to the church in Rome, speaks of the gospel, this forward news: ‘as promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures’. It seems amazingly important to Paul, right in the introduction, before he says anything, to underline a reference point that’s located in the past - the prophets and the holy scriptures - and I think that’s where the spin becomes evident. The same orientation is underlined again as Paul relates the gospel to God’s son Jesus, ‘who was descended from David’, again the link is to the past. Matthew’s gospel, the introductory nativity narrative, gives us ‘Joseph, son of David’, to underline motif of David’s lineage again. The textual arrow pointing back to the Hebrew tradition. And as if to highlight that once again, ‘All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet’. It’s almost as if the Christmas event is not that movement forward, not the dawning of a new day, but the fulfilment of something from way back then.

So what’s going on? If Christmas is the place of change, the opening up of newness, why is it being tethered to the tradition of the past? It’s a fairly well-understood spin, if we do any reading around the holy scriptures. But for most it’s a spin that is not actually appreciated or seen because we are still reading our theology like this:

A candle is burning, a candle of Love,
A candle to point us to heaven above.
A baby for Christmas, a wonderful birth,
For Jesus is bringing God’s love to our earth.

That’s the level of theological training the church currently engages in, and sadly, we actually know it’s not true. And we’ve really got to get that. There’s no candle pointing to heaven above, there is no heaven above. Oh my goodness, what did he say? We’ve got to engage it if we are to encounter Christmas. This is fine for children; it is so important that we lie to our kids, it’s a must-do thing. For goodness sake don’t tell them the truth, don’t spoil the possibility that they have. I lied to mine. I told them about Father Christmas and they loved it. I can still picture one Christmas Eve driving home from my Mum’s place, driving home in my little Mini van with Gabby and Christian on the front seat with no seat belts or helmets, middle of the night, and there was a plane had taken off and there was this red flashing light, the only thing you could see in the sky. Gabby’s eyes went absolutely huge. ‘Is that him?’ ‘I think so, I think so,’ and then it disappeared behind the houses before we could actually confirm that truth. It’s so important.

Let’s have a look at what’s actually going on. The emerging church was a movement within the Jewish faith community and more than anything they wanted to see Jesus in light of, in relation to, and in integrity with that faith community. They weren’t early Christians, they were actually a Jewish community trying to find enlightenment, just as we now have a Christian community trying to do the same. They didn’t want to invent anything new, they just wanted to bring the whole into a new and fuller level of consciousness. The Messiah was to be the fulfilment of all that had been promised, all that God had covenanted, all that the heroes of the Hebrew scriptures had prophesied. In moving into a new paradigm it was stunningly important to the church fathers to make that link with the tradition of the past. However, what’s perhaps been missed or distorted, because of the importance placed on that focus, is that the prophecy is lost. You see the prophet doesn’t speak into history, prophecy is not predictive of tomorrow, rather prophecy is an orientation towards fullness and wholeness. It’s a movement, an orientation towards eternity. Speak it into history and you’ve lost the message altogether.

Christmas has been constructed as an event, in that it serves the desired unfolding that was sought by the emerging church fathers. Isaiah spoke of Immanuel, and that movement very quickly sought to re-badge Immanuel in the name of Jesus, so we’ve got this whole tradition of the past and it’s now going to be invested into one person.

What if we stay with the original prophecy, stay with the voice that speaks of God with us? Then look again at Christmas being an evolution, an enlightenment, rather than an event about one man in one place at one time. Actually look at as an always-and-ever-present doorway into a new paradigm, a new way of seeing everything, a new way of being, a new way of becoming, a new promise as to who I am, who we are.

If we hold onto the faith of the past then our hands will be full and we’re not going to be able to grasp the enlightenment that is revealed, the coming of light, the realisation of God-with-us. Christmas is not about Jesus. It is a movement for and of the whole of humanity. When we sing in our carols that ‘he came down to earth from heaven’, we should not be echoing happy birthday to Jesus. Rather we should be seeking to realise what Christ revealed - God-with-us. It’s not Jesus, it’s us. The naming of Immanuel speaks to each and every being.

The Lord be with you
Peter Humphris