Last month, one of the largest statues of Jesus ever erected, measuring 108 feet from head to toe, was raised in a Polish field near the small town of Zwiebodzin. The video on Youtube is fascinating to watch as a crane raises first the outstretched arms and then the head is placed on the body. The statue rivals the vast Christ the Redeemer statue that watches over Rio de Jenaro. Last Sunday’s New York Times interviewed the Catholic Priest who organized the project, who said “I hope this statue will become a remedy for this secularization,” said the Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, “I hope it will have a religious mission and not just bring tourists.” The article goes on to say that in Poland, where 90 percent of the people say they are Roman Catholic, actual church attendance has dropped to 40 percent in rural areas and 20 percent in the metro areas. When the non-church goers are interviewed about why they don’t attend, they say that the church is not relevant to modern times, being more focused on issues like contraception. They see the church as hypocritical because of sex scandals and too involved in supporting the political party that just lost power in government. As I read about these issues, I thought, it doesn’t matter how big that statue is, these folks are not coming back to mass. It may be a reassuring and inspiring symbol to those who are engaged in the church, but the symbol doesn’t overcome the disassociation many Polish people feel.
There are times when we want tangible assurance about our faith. We would like some sign about the reality of God to guide us when we are full of doubts. What kind of things give you confidence when you want to know if God is real or not? Do you ever wish you had a sign from God?
I thought I had figured out how to get a sign from God. I was feeling a great deal of uncertainty about something, and since I was a teenager, it was probably a relationship thing. The cause of my great uncertainty is now long forgotten, but at the time it seemed all important. So I got out my Bible and thought that I could get the answer from it. The bible has all the answers, right? So I got it into my head that I could let my bible fall open and if it fell open to the New Testament, the answer was “yes” and if it fell open to the Old Testament, the answer was “no.” I think I wanted a “yes” answer, so since the Old Testament has twice and many pages, I was trying to give God a little leeway and not stack the deck in my favor. So I prayed and pledged myself to follow whatever answer I got from this test. I carefully set up my Bible, trying to precisely balance it to give the Holy Spirit a fair shot, treating like a basketball referee getting ready to throw a jump ball up in the air, and I let go. The bible fell sharply on its side – unopened! I had not counted on that. At first I was angry, then I felt stupid, but finally I decided it was truly a sign. It was a sign that God trusted me to make some decisions myself, and that God had given me a brain for a reason, and that the only way to grow as a human being was to experience life. And that maybe I should read the bible and learn something rather than using it like a magic hat. William Sloan Coffin once said that many people use the bible like a drunk uses a lamp post, more for support than for illumination. I fell into that trap.
This experience helps me understand our passage from Isaiah looking back three millennium. King Ahaz was looking for a sign from the prophet Isaiah that God is looking out for his Kingdom. Ahaz governed under the shadow of the powerful Assyrian was machine, and wanted a sign that God was with him. If you were here two weeks ago, remember that Isaiah likened the reign of Ahaz to a stump, a cut off tree, but hoped that a shoot could come from the stump and renew the nation. The only sign of prophecy Isaiah is willing to give is that the Davidic dynasty will continue, that the wife of Ahaz will bear a son, and he will be called Immanuel, God with us.
This didn’t do much for Ahaz, so he continued to look for signs of God’s favor. He consulted astrologers, soothsayers and fortune tellers and basically tried every religion available to him trying to find reassurance of God’s favor. You may remember that he was the king who put an idol of a serpent in the temple and restarted the practice of human sacrifices to the gods. That is going pretty far to appease his doubts. None of this ever worked for Ahaz, mainly because he would not do what Isaiah constantly said, which was to govern with wisdom and justice and not let the powerful oppress the weak. He was therefore constantly disappointed in his quest for the divine.
It is fascinating to me what has happened with this passage over time. Matthew read this passage and saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s hopes. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. This phrase is profound to me. One of my favorite hymns is “O come, O come Immanuel.” I like its hope that the spirit of Christ will continue to come among us and free us, so that we can indeed rejoice.
Matthew interpreted this passage in a way that has created much controversy for Christianity, pointing to the idea of the virgin birth. To some the idea of the virgin birth is proof that Jesus is the Son of God and to others it is utter nonsense that makes Christianity less believable. While Jesus and his teachings are the most important influence on my life, I have to be honest and say that the Virgin Birth doesn’t bolster my faith anymore than the 108 foot high statue in a Polish field. I understand and agree with what the writer of Matthew was trying to do, but the notion of the Virgin Birth took on a life of its own which isn’t consistent with faith as I see it. Augustine, who greatly shaped the theology of virgin birth, did so at a time when the church viewed bodies and the flesh, and especially women’s bodies, as evil and to be avoided. I think Augustine misappropriated what Matthew was trying to say in a way that was very sexist and an unhealthy view of sexuality. I don’t think Matthew would have recognized Augustine’s view of the virgin birth.
Matthew was trying to show God’s faithfulness over time, that what Jesus lived and did on earth was the fulfillment of the hopes of ancient prophets. That is an important message. God has been with us for a long time, and God is most profoundly with us through Jesus. By introducing the idea of the virgin birth, Matthew was importing an idea from Greek and Roman mythology and applying it to Jesus. Greeks and Romans often proclaimed great conquerors such as Alexander the Great and Julius Cesaer to be gods born of a virgin. Matthew’s intent is to show that Jesus of Nazareth, a religious visionary put to death by Rome, would outlive and be greater than the Roman Empire and the great military conquerors who had forged the world they knew. Matthew’s audience still lived in a world largely shaped by Alexander and Caesar Augustus. Matthew was boldly telling the world that Jesus would be far greater in history than they, and today we may say that he won that argument.
It’s unlikely that the idea of virgin birth was important to the first generation of Christians. Jesus himself never talks of it to prove his message, and Mark’s Gospel, the first written, does not have any birth narratives, nor do any of the letters of Paul the Apostle. It is also interesting the last written piece of the New Testament, John’s Gospel, does not refer to the Virgin Birth either. John goes a different direction in the first chapter, saying that Jesus is “the word” made flesh, he is the wisdom of God made real in human form.
This leads us back to where we started, to Immanuel “God with us.” We all want a sense that God is with us in some meaningful way, from Isaiah, to Ahaz, Matthew, Augustine, and you and I. The resounding message of scriptures and Christian history is that if you take a deep and loving look within, you will find God with you. Look within your soul and you will find Jesus looking back at you. Listen deeply and you will hear the wisdom of Jesus for your own life. Then you will know the meaning of Immanuel, God with us.