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 can 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.
That’s a strange way to start a sermon.
The practice of using gender-inclusive language for the divine has been around for awhile but it really came into vogue shortly before I arrived in seminary. It’s a willingness to confront the masculine pronouns often attributed to God: God as he.
The reason being that God is not a he, unless we’re talking about Jesus.
Of course, scripture and grammar lends itself to this. We pray to God as Father and all of that. But there are actually plenty of moments in the Old Testament when God is given feminine attributes, and even Jesus uses feminine attributes for God in the New Testament, we just rarely talk about them.
Again, what’s at stake here is the fact that God is not like us. God is, to use an expression of Barth’s, totally other. Therefore, to use human attributes, particularly gendered attributes for God, makes God like us.
And so there began a push while I was in school to stop referring to God as he. True story: we would have one point taken away per gendered reference to God in our papers, which taught us how to adapt quickly.
Perhaps you have noticed, but maybe not, when I preach I try my best to not masculinize God. In other words, I try to avoiding pronoun-ing God. And sometimes it makes for a strange sentence. But it’s important. God is not a man. God is God.
Of course there are some, who in order to offer a corrective to the masculinity of God rendered in church, will feminize God and refer to God as she, or mother. Which, I think, can be helpful. God is both paternal and maternal. But it still puts God in our own terms, rather than letting God speak to us about who God is.
And yet, there is a more radical notion about the identity of God that we often overlook or downright ignore.
You know what’s more radical than talking about God as our mother? The fact that God has one.
700 years before the Advent of Christ, the people of God were in a time of war and fear. The city of Jerusalem was besieged during the reign of Ahaz and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon. And in the midst of this terror, the Lord asks Ahaz if he would like a sign of God’s power. And, inexplicably, Ahaz refuses! Which leave the prophet Isaiah to lament, “Is it not enough to weary everyone else, now you’ve moved to wearying God?”
And the Lord offers this sign whether Ahaz wants it or not: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Notably, Isaiah does not say that “a” young woman will bear a child named Immanuel. Isaiah says “the” young woman will do so. “The” is the definite article indicating that not just anyone will give birth to this Promised One, but someone in particular would do it. We, of course, did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the Mother of God, the mother of Jesus. Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry and birth Jesus is Mary.
It’s difficult, I fear, for us to imagine the bewildered reception of Isaiah’s proclamation. We are so storied by the story of Christmas, moved by its majesty, that we can scarcely fathom the oddity of the prophet’s promise.
The city is under siege, hope is lost, and the Lord says, “A baby is coming.”
A baby? What about a ruthless warrior, or a fearsome king, or a charismatic leader? Surely that’s what God people needed! And yet, God says the sign is the woman who will bear a child named Immanuel.
That God chooses the woman as the sign, that God enacts God’s purposes through this young woman is so confounding.
What we dare to proclaim about God is that God willingly gets involved in the flesh and blood and bone of human life. The God we worship is en-wombed in Mary.
There’s a reason we don’t talk much about Mary. There are a lot of reasons actually. Most of them stem from our patriarchal renderings of existence. Some of them stem from the fact that we are Protestant and don’t want to be associated with the Mary-worship that happens in the Catholic Church. And yet, to ignore Mary, is to ignore the radical notion of the Incarnation.
The ignorance of Mary results in a form of Christendom in which men continue to feel as if they are superior to women.
Patriarchy is real, the unjust rule of men over women exists and its wrong. And not just because of our modern sensibilities of equality, it’s wrong because of the fact that God is born of Mary!
Listen – Mary, as we say in certain theological circles, is the THEOTOKOS, the God-bearer. And, so named, she safeguards the fleshiness of God. Without her the God we worship remains aloof, but with her, the God we worship becomes one of us.
There is something almost outrageously particular about the fact that God’s fleshy presence in the world is localized in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth. Which is made all the more wild when we realize that Isaiah told God’s people this would happen 700 years before it did.
We tend to lob all these titles and distinctions upon God. God is almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, or whatever big seminary word we want to use. And all of that is fine. God is the author of the cosmos after all. But to claim God as enfleshed, that God has a birth and a death, is at the heart of the scandal that makes our faith, faith.
Even Martin Luther, who so famously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, (which was simply called church until Luther started something different), Luther was wary of the church’s veneration of Mary and how close it was coming to idolatry. But even Luther was quick to note, “Mary breastfed God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God.”
Have you ever thought about the Gospel that way before?
If we take the strange new world of the Bible seriously, then Mary also changed God’s diapers, taught God songs to sing, taught God the stories of the faith, even the promise of the coming Messiah who was rocking in her arms the entire time.
Similarly, Charles Wesley praised Mary as one, “Who gave all things to be, what a wonder to see, God born of this creature, and nursed on her knee.”
Mary, an ordinary young woman from Nazareth, keeps the incarnation scandalous.
Not to jump too solidly into the New Testament, but, Mary’s “Let it be” opens the way for a new eruption of grace into the world. We might call “Let it be” the Gospel according to Paul McCartney, but its actually the Gospel according to Mary!
Mary writes the best (can we say that?) song in the Gospels, a song we refer to as the Magnificat. It demonstrates her profound knowledge and love of the scriptures, and is perhaps the must frequently sung song throughout all of church history.
Mary is present and is also the instigator of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (water to wine). And she and others are present at the cross when the disciples flee.
Moreover, Mary is in the upper room at Pentecost, the only woman present who is named, and she receives the same Spirit that sets the church in motion.
But wait, there’s more: Throughout the early history of the church up through the Middle Ages, there were more paintings done of Mary than of Jesus!
The young woman with child of Isaiah’s proclamation is Mary, the flesh and blood Mother of God. Mary is not an idea, she is not a myth. She is a real person, as real as you and me. She is a real person who made decisions upon which our faith depends.
We often fail to embody the embodied nature of our faith because, at some point, we assume that whatever our faith is it is at least a set of ideas or slogans. Ideas that help us make sense of the world, or slogans to help us behave better and therefore fix the world.
But the witness of the faith cannot be summarized on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. It cannot be expressed through ideas or slogans.
It cannot because our faith, oddly enough, hinges on a young Jewish woman named Mary.
Here we are, at the end of Advent, preparing to dress up the kids next week for a pageant, and perhaps we do well to remember that Mary was not only real, she was also unlikely. That God chooses her, from a forgotten town with no bright hope for tomorrow, is wild beyond imagining.
That God chooses any of us for God’s purposes is outrageous.
We would never have chosen to do it this way.
But, then again, we are not God. Thank God we are not God.
Because of the proclamation of Mary’s womb, God has given us more than we deserve, God has given us reason to be patient because the cosmos hinges not upon what we do, but upon what has been done for us.
Therefore, here on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given the hope that we can learn to wait. Not unlike the Israelites waited for God to keep God’s promise. Not unlike Mary waited nine months with her belly swelling. Not unlike the disciples waited three days after the crucifixion.
Waiting is part of the discipline of learning what it means to be creatures of time.
Time is a gift and a burden. That we have time at all is nothing short of God’s grace. But our time is limited. We must be born and we must die – Advent refuses to let us pretend otherwise. And yet, at the same time, Advent stories us. That is, Advent teaches us who we are and whose we are.
Stories, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short and some are long. Some are funny and some are not. Some are defined by all sorts of words, and others can be summarized with “Let it be.”
We, all of us, are storied creatures.
And, strangely, the great Good News of Advent is that our time has been storied by Jesus Christ, born of Mary. Mary makes possible our stories because she bears God into the world. God takes on flesh and dwells among us which gives us the grace to be, and become, fully human.
It’s rather extraordinary, when we can take a step back from it all, that we know the name of the Lord’s mother! And yet, even more extraordinary is the fact that God chose to come and make time for us, redeeming out time, and making possible the salvation that disrupts time forever.
Our time is so redeemed because Mary’s son is Immanuel, God with us.
No matter what.
Whether we are on the naughty list or the nice list, God is with us.
Whether we have gobs of presents under the tree, or if we haven’t had the time to get a tree at all, God is with us.
Whether we have more Christmases ahead of us, or only a few left, God is with us.
Behold! The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Thanks be to God.