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Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Centuries of debate and discussion have gone into trying to explain how Jesus could be human and divine. In the early years of the church there was even intense debate over two Greek words that differed in only one letter. Out of that debate came the Nicene Creed considered by many to be the standard of orthodoxy. It spoke/speaks (still recited in many churches today) of Jesus and God as being “of one substance.” The alternative was “of like substance,” hardly distinguishable in Greek.

Here’s my take. People who met Jesus sensed that they were in the presence of some kind of divine power when they were with him. As human beings are so prone to do, they tried to capture that experience in words and images they could hold onto as absolute truth. The “virgin” birth which appears in this week’s lectionary readings was one such effort. After all, there were stories of other “gods” born of virgins. Ours is at least as good as theirs.

Our reading from the prophets looks ahead to a “young woman” who will bear a son. (Isaiah 7:14) Notice that it does not say, “a virgin.” When Matthew, in the Gospel lesson, quotes this verse however, he uses the word, “virgin.” (Matthew 1:23) The manuscript from which he was reading Isaiah had been translated into Greek, where it seemed to mean “virgin.” Even that, however, has been debated. We love to debate rather than stand on holy ground and rejoice in the presence of mystery.

The focus in both stories is upon one to be named Emmanuel—or Immanuel in the Isaiah reading. (Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, again). In Matthew, it also says that the child will be named “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) “Jesus,” the same name as “Joshua” and a common name in those days, as it still is in some cultures—say Hispanic, means “God saves.” In Isaiah, Immanuel is described as a child who knows "how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” (Isaiah 7:16) In both cases, the child is seen as one who represents God’s presence in the midst of humanity as a sign and bearer of the harmony and justice God’s people long for.

Other attempts at explaining the combination of divine and human have asked about Jesus’ sense of his own identity. Who did he think he was? Did he think of himself as divine? Who made him into God and when did he know it? The reading from Romans, an introduction to that letter by Paul, makes a stab at telling about Jesus’ identity. He was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,” a descendant of David, who “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead . . .” (Romans 1:2-4) Some have suggested that Jesus came to some awareness of who he was and his special mission when he visited the temple as a young boy. Others have suggested it happened at his baptism, or on the mountain when he was seen as a shining light. Who really knows how Jesus would have resolved this divine-human debate?

The reading from Romans sees the resurrection as the sign that he is the “son of God,” and it says he “was declared to be the Son of God.” Isn’t that an interesting turn of phrase? Who did the declaring and when? All we know for sure is that Jesus’ early followers, and the church early in its history, made that declaration.

Isn’t it too bad that instead of sitting (or standing or serving) wide-eyed, we debate the details?

We got into a discussion this morning at our weekly breakfast at Mehri’s about how one tells the Christmas story to children. Following that discussion Ethelyn forwarded that following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ki8EcnVbd-Q Check it out and notice how unconcerned these children seem to be about accuracy of detail, yet they seem to sense the greatness of what is happening in the story. They know that it is about God being present in the lowliest of circumstances, and about God touching and changing human hearts and lives. What more could we want than an account of the Christmas story with that result?

One other aspect of the divine-human discussion has to do with the divine spark even in us. We too are sons and daughters of God. Romans 8:14 says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (There are other references in Romans and Galatians as well.) Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis both spoke of us as “little Christs.” The focus here is not on how we differ from Christ but how we are called to be vessels of God’s Spirit (the divine) in this life. It is God’s intention, I believe, that we are to be the Spirit of Christmas to those around us, “Little Christs” as Luther and Lewis put it, to our neighbors.
There is divinity loose among us, folks. Merry Christmas and Good will to all!

As is often the case, I have a couple of afterwards.

1. I did not mention the Psalm. It is a Psalm of longing, the same longing for God in our midst making things right that is found in the other scriptures. The prayer, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be save,” is repeated three times. (Psalm 80:3, 7, & 19) It can be, for us, an Advent prayer.

2. I didn’t talk about Joseph who is a central character in the reading from Matthew. It would be another whole blog entry to begin to do justice to this often overlooked character. He may have, at times, been, as Pastor Rick said Sunday, “clueless.” Aren’t we all? Yet God uses “clueless” people. Joseph steps up to the plate and becomes a father to this child, however we interpret the actual birth. Jesus may well have learned a lot about God from what was in Mary’s heart, expressed in her song among other places. I suspect he also learned a lot from Joseph about being human. Can we see Joseph and Mary as representing the human and divine influences even from his earliest years? Anyway, let’s not forget Joseph.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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