“The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him ‘Emmanuel.’” This verse has produced more interpretations and been the subject of more disputes than any other verse in Isaiah, possibly in the whole Bible. Seven-hundred thirty-four years before the birth of Christ, the kings of Israel and Aram tried to force Judah into an alliance against Assyria. The Prophet Isaiah made his first appearance on the political stage. A young woman, presumably present in the Israelite delegation, was pregnant. Isaiah says to his king, “Look, by the time her son is old enough for his bar mitzvah there isn’t going to be an Israel or an Aram. Don’t buy their propaganda, and don’t go tattling to Assyria because that’ll make us their vassals. God is with you.”
Someone wrote down what happened. Subsequent generations of Hebrews interpreted the verse as a sign of providence—they weren’t concerned with a miraculous birth so much as with God providing a sign at the time when we most need it. Over time, “young woman” got translated, “virgin.” Throughout the middle ages, Jews argued that the “virgin” in the text was Israel (who is personified in the prophets as a virgin), while Christians, of course, argued she was Mary, Mother of our Lord. If nothing else, this long tradition of interpretation underscores a basic truth of Scripture: it is supposed to produce new interpretations over time. It always has something to say.
It is wonderful and dangerous. Why dangerous? One thousand nine hundred thirty four years after the birth of Christ, German protestants were claiming that current events in Germany were a new revelation alongside (or even superior to) Jesus Christ; that Jesus Christ had his arena, but it was limited, and shouldn’t interfere with public life; that the Church should adapt its mission to the dominant political ideology; that the Church could have pastors and other ministers, but should be led by a Leader (or Führer); that the state had the last word in all things and the Church should work with it. So a large minority (though a minority nonetheless) of Lutheran and Reformed Christians signed the Barmen Declaration, refuting those teachings and ultimately establishing what would be called the Confessing Church.
These sorts of false teachings are not confined to the Third Reich. The Third Reich only showed how dangerous they could be. It is a popular pastime in America to claim politicians you don’t like are Hitler. I won’t do that. Rather, I call attention to the similarities between the teachings of the German State Church (that supported Hitler) and a fair number of self-identified American Christians. I shared a few weeks ago the claim in some Evangelical circles that Donald Trump is the second coming of Cyrus, sent to save America from liberals and Hillary Clinton. Sounds an awful lot like a “new revelation” and God favoring a state and establishing the church to serve that state. There are other similarities, though, between some Christians then and some Christians now. We see laws passed to “protect religious freedom,” but the freedoms protected always seem to belong to a certain political ideology. That’s an awful lot like adapting Christianity to our politics. And whenever church leaders oppose such legislation, they are told not to meddle in politics, that Jesus Christ has his own sphere and should stay out of this one.
We can be accused of such things as easily as we accuse others. (It takes nothing to accuse people.) A good rule for us, when we wonder if our interpretation is off the wall, is to ask if our interpretation points to Christ or conforms to Christ. This is an old method, and one Luther advocated. He said that when you’ve got a text to interpret and it isn’t immediately obvious what it means, act like you’re a bird, the text is a really hard nut, and you’re gonna drop the nut on Christ the rock. The shell will shatter on Christ, leaving something good. If we want to understand Isaiah 7:14 and not just be tailoring it to what we already feel like thinking, we can throw it against Christ.
Matthew is the first person we know of to do this, so let’s look at what he does. He sets this text in a dream. Our English bibles usually end the dream before the Isaiah quote. But there are no quotation marks in biblical Greek, and I think it makes a lot more sense to read everything up to Joseph awakening as being part of Joseph’s dream. Speaking of a dreamer named Joseph, this sounds familiar. We all know from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that there was a man named Joseph, born miraculously (his mother was unable to have children). He gets special dreams and can interpret them (and the dreams of others). He winds up in Egypt, not by choice but because his brothers assault him and sell him as a slave. His presence in Egypt saves the world, because he can interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and warns him of a coming famine. When the famine comes, Egypt is ready, and the world survives on their stockpiled food.
All the basic elements of the story of Joseph son of Jacob are present in the story of Joseph son of David. The differences, of course, are that here the dreamer is the lawful father of the miraculous child, and the child (who, by the way, is God) saves the world. He saves the world by becoming an alien, a refugee in Egypt. His father and mother will flee Herod’s death squads. Before he can do anything else, God will save the world by being a refugee. There’s your Christ. There’s the rock on which you drop Isaiah 7:14. If we’re reading Isaiah 7:14 right, then “God with us” is with us as a refugee. Our God is a child whose family is fleeing war and terror. If you want to claim to be a Christian, then God for you is revealed in Christ, and Christ, Matthew tells us, is a refugee. So we worship the refugee. We serve the refugee. We welcome and care for the refugee.
We worship the refugee not on the off chance that one of them may grow up to be Jesus. We worship the refugee because every one of them already is Jesus. The creator of the universe has chosen to give refugees the value and importance of God. God reminds me of this almost every day. Some of you know, Trinity is now the site for Valparaiso Adult Learning Center. They use our basement four days and two evenings a week. They have some people here doing their GED, and a lot of people here learning English as a Second Language. Most of the students and some of the assistants have been in the United States for less than a year. Most of those are refugees. They’re here from Syria, or Yemen, or Iraq. One of the assistants had a birthday, and it was hard for her because while her husband and children are here with her, the rest of her family was unable to leave Iraq and was still there in a rather dangerous area. We host them not because it is nice (though maybe it is), and not because everyone on the facilities review team is some bleeding-heart liberal (some are Bolsheviks). We host them because when you fling Isaiah 7:14 at Christ, you find out that if God is with us, God is with us as a refugee.
I know many of us have watched in horror as Syrian government forces regained control of Aleppo this week, murdering civilians with impunity. The story makes the news because the crisis is so acute and because no one stateside has done anything too outlandish in the last few hours so there’s room for the story. For Syrian refugees, it’s another horrific chapter in what has been everyday life for years. A couple of months ago the students at the Learning Center threw a potluck and invited the church staff to join them. A Syrian student made some kind of beef meatball dumpling thing. I don’t know what it’s called, just that it has no garlic, a week’s worth of salt, and tastes amazing. The taste has been in my mouth all week. I cannot help but think this woman who fled the legitimate government, ISIS, the Russians, and probably some folks the US armed, is living in Valparaiso, goes a little heavy on the salt, and wanted to feed me. God wanted to feed me, and now is watching her former home destroyed. God says, perspicuously, “I only save you if I save her first. I have; don’t worry. But that’s how it is.”
It’s been a good 2,750 years since the Prophet Isaiah made his first foray into Judean politics. This morning, the refugee God makes a political statement again. The God who fled in his parents’ arms welcomes us into this space even though he has no place of his own. The God who fled in his parents’ arms feeds us his own body and blood even though he has no food. The God who fled in his parents’ arms baptizes us and clothes us with Christ, even though he has only the shirt on his back (and he’s a baby, so it’s like only a onesie). The God who fled calls us to welcome, feed, and clothe those who flee, for God is coming, in waves. I don’t remember the name of the Syrian woman who fed me. (This should surprise none of you, as I can’t remember my own name.) God says, “If you can’t remember, no matter. You shall call her ‘Emmanuel’.”