December 22, 2013
William G. Carter
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’
Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 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. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’
When my first child was on the way, I remember a lot of knowing glances. A number of childbearing veterans knew I was scheduled to be a rookie parent. The inevitable comment went like this: “Oh, how your life is going to change!”
It was unsettling. The people who said this were usually smirking, as if they knew a secret that I did not yet know. Perhaps there was a conspiracy among those who had survived the maternity room; at the time, I was not certain.
I had a hunch what it might mean. There was an elementary school librarian of my acquaintance. She knew all the books that a child might enjoy. As I got to know her, however, it became clear that she never had an actual child in her home. She and her husband lived in an immaculate house. They had white carpeting. The white enamel doorframes showed no chocolate fingerprints. All their possessions were put away and everything was neat. Obviously they had no kids.
I realize there might be tidy parents out there, too, but beneath the surface, there is a Herculean struggle to bring order out of chaos. The birthing class at a local hospital offered a packet of magazines, gifts, and special offers. I recall one article in that packet. The writer lamented how a parent spends so many energy trying to socialize a child, teaching him or her about what is acceptable in public: cover your mouth when you cough, keep your fingers out of your nostrils, don’t hit anybody ever even if you think they deserve it.
Meanwhile, while you try to make your kid socially acceptable, it has the opposite effect on you. You stand in the conference room to make a presentation, stick your hand in the pocket of your blue blazer, and discover there the baggie of mildewed Cheerios. Having kids will change you.
The trick is to not let it show. Isn’t that right? In previous eras, the father would go out to slay the brontosaurus while Mama would stay home to raise the kids. Child-rearing was considered mothers’ work, while the fathers stepped out to put on a professional face for the world. That could explain why a lot of adult children had distant relationships with their fathers. Mother did the hard work of staying close, while Papa brought home the bacon and attempted to appear unchanged by having a daughter or son.
That wasn’t always the case, of course. One of the most moving scenes of last’s year film on Abraham Lincoln was the moment when the President cuddled with his grieving son. Honest Abe had an affectionate relationship with children. He was tender with them. Clearly his children cracked open his heart. He could have deep compassion for the people he governed because he had great love for his four sons. Children can change us.
Now, you wouldn’t know that by listening to old King Ahaz of Judah. He had a lot of trouble on his hands. The surrounding empires were rattling their swords and making all kinds of threats. The prophet Isaiah said, “Put your trust in God. The God of Israel will save you.” King Ahaz nodded cynically and said, “Uh, right.”
“Really,” said the prophet. “Ask God for a sign, ask God for anything.” Ahaz said, “I’m not going to bother God.” You see, he is a cagey politician. What he is saying is, “I don’t plan to revise my foreign policy around my country’s faith.” No, what he wants are more weapons, more chariots, more soldiers, more strength.
So God speaks again through the prophet. The Holy One clears his throat and says, “OK, I’m going to give you that sign, even though you didn’t want it. Ready, get set, look: a young maiden is going to become pregnant and have a baby. The baby’s name is God-with-us.” That is, Emmanuel.
And ever since, Ahaz and his ilk have scratched their heads and said, “Really? A baby? Baby Emmanuel? What kind of holy sign is that?” They are talking world domination, or at least secure borders and the removal of military threats. Instead they are promised a baby. A baby! What kind of help can you get from a baby?
If you are the king, I suppose that is a very practical question. Most global leaders speak only to the adults, and treat the children as photo ops. If you are trying to run the world, or at least your small part of it, the presence of a baby would be disruptive. A child might interrupt the chiefs of staff with lollipop fingers and relevant questions. To say the least, if God chooses to say to the king, “The child will be a sign for you,” that is enough to make anybody ponder the universe in their hearts. What kind of God gives a baby?
So when the writer of the Gospel of Matthew wants to tell the Christmas story, it’s clear why he picks that old Bible verse. He is not concerned about the context. He wishes to go right for the punch line: “Look, the young maiden shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” In case you don’t know Hebrew, Matthew tells what Emmanuel means: “God is with us.” And he reinforces the surprise of it all by changing the word “maiden” to “virgin.”
Matthew is not concerned about the history. He wants to deal with the surprise. God is sending a baby. The baby is God’s gift to the human race, God’s assurance that the human race has a future. The kings like Ahaz will come and go. People like us will hear their names centuries later and not know much about them. But whenever a new baby comes along, we stop and make funny faces, tickle their feet, and start acting like little kids ourselves. These children, they change us.
On Friday night, my extended family gathered for an evening of gift-giving and good food. My niece Laura is pregnant, the first in her generation with a baby on the way. Her little boy is due in April, and I hope to be able to snap a photo of the baby, her mother, my sister (the grandmother), my mother (the great-grandmother), and my grandmother (the great-great grandmother). If we can pull that off, it’s going to be a biblical genealogy on a digital picture.
As I got ready to leave town and come back here, I offered my mom to pick up a few videotapes from my brother’s house. They are old family movies, and since they are on video tapes, it’s time to save them on a DVD before DVDs go out of style. I offered to do that.
Well, it’s a treasure trove. There are home movies of my twenty-two year old grandmother sitting in my grandfather’s lap and both of them falling out a lawn chair. There’s a clip of my mother making pouty faces when she is two years old. There’s footage of my brother when he was twenty-one and still had a mullet. And there are clips of niece Laura, the future mother, when she was only a year old. It is a span of over seventy-five years.
I was overwhelmed; have you ever reflected on how much our families contribute to the human race? How impoverished we would have been if the children had not come from God. Simply by existing, our family, just like your family, has changed the world.
The children and grandchildren among us are a sign from God for the anxious rulers of the world. Sometimes I think we ought to focus entirely on these kids. Rather than a bunch of old people planning stuffy moments for other old people, what if we threw all our energy into God’s next generation? What if we gave it all for the children, and left behind for them a world worth living in, a climate where their generations will flourish, clean soil and sustainable economies and plenty of resources for all to share? What if we taught them to read, made sure they were fed, and ensured that they will always be safe? God’s gift of the child could totally rewire public policy.
It’s not what King Ahaz was looking for, but this is what God gives as a sign: the child.
And this wasn’t what Joseph was looking for, either. At least, not yet. When the young carpenter discovers Mary is pregnant, he tosses and turns at night. Not now, he says to himself. Not the embarrassment for her, not the humiliation for me. Not the chatter of the wives at the town well. Not the smirk and whispers from the old men. This cannot be happening. I must find a way to escape it. There must be a way to let her go.
That’s when God comes to him, speaking through the voice of an angel. Don’t be afraid, said the Lord, for the child comes from me. He will be the One to rescue you from your worst impulses. He is the One you will call Yeshua – Savior. He will change you . . . and he will change the world.
This is the story that gathers us today, the story that unfolds in the birth of Jesus. It is a story that takes flesh, not as a theoretical idea, but in the birth of a little boy. The young maiden does bear the child. He comes to change our lives. Because there is nothing better equipped to change any grumpy, self-contained, isolated life than the birth of a child. A baby has that kind of power.
It can happen. We know it can happen. For the baby of Mary and Joseph is how God comes into the world and stays with us. Emmanuel, this Child, the Christ.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.