(Adapted and expanded from my Shaping Us Toward Monday piece for Snow Hill.)
We sometimes read the Scriptures through the lens we have been given. For instance, most of us read Matthew 1:18-25 and use Matthews lens for reading Isaiah 7:10-17. Before long we assume Isaiah was hoping someone, anyone would come along and “get it right.” Setting the record straight if you will. Some then assume that as Isaiah was talking about a pregnant woman when he spoke to Ahaz he was really making his own reference to a virgin who would bear a child nearly 800 years later. And so debates are stirred.
And yet, giving into these debates creates an occasion for an ahistorical reading of the Isaiah passage in favor of something of a prophetic, perfect. It may not be the prophetic does not have a “perfect” fulfillment. Instead the issue turns on just what Isaiah is getting at. If he is following the instruction of YHWH then his words cannot be extracted from the historical context of war, ever diminishing divided kingdoms in Judah and Israel, and the outright hope a leader sitting on David’s throne would act faithfully rather than faithlessly. Why? We cannot reduce the richness of the sign given despite Ahaz’s protest to some far flung future fulfillment. After all babies do mean something in the big story of God.
We all attach meaning to events – past and present. There is an oft referenced quote of Karl Marx, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” Marx was attaching his understanding to a quote by Frederich Hegel. Some take this quote by Marx and suggest a shorthand would be that history repeats itself as satire. You know, an instance where a very tragic event is parodied and its repetition points up the resulting absurdity.
What would it look like if we took Marx’s lens for history and we applied it to Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1? Could it be what is shown to be absurd is less about the birth of a child, even the birth of a child through the womb of a virgin, but the absurdity of missing the activity of God in the world when it bears down on us? Could it be as Matthew interprets Isaiah he finds the same kind of sign to be a second occasion both the sign that God would be with us and a sign that we would once again act piously to ignore it. It will not work to assume I do not believe the import of the Incarnation. Rather, this piece established the Incarnation as a sign of God with us absurdly rejected.)
On our observations of the first event (Isaiah 7), it is tragic that Ahaz in some sort of odd piety refused the sign the prophet declares God will give if he just asks. Now (Matthew 1) when a similar sign is given, people will wonder at it and reject it out of piety. Bringing both pasts into the present we still find ourselves acting (im)piously secure in our own renderings of events and their meanings. Desperate to derive some meaning from life we reject out of hand the “God with us” of Jesus. We suggest its veracity is tied to the practice of others, all the while becoming the thing we work so hard against. Absurd isn’t it.
Let’s not miss Jesus in our own pious trivialities or in our attempts to discredit “God with us” because we prefer a more pious way unto ourselves.