NOTE: Because of our congregation's moving to a new facility and the associated activity, this morning's sermon is an "encore presentation."
4 Advent Proper A4
The Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Isaiah 7:10-14 Sermon
December 19, 2010
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
27 "O Little Town Of Bethlehem"
38 "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming"
328 "Hail To The Lord's Anointed"
15 "Joy To The World"
TEXT: “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."
Giving birth to a baby….it is about the most common place thing that can occur. I have no idea how many children are born every day, but I know it’s a lot. In Lincoln alone, there are a lot of births every day. Friday’s issue of the Journal-Star had 14 of them listed. The maternity facilities are getting fancier and fancier. Technology has advanced at an alarming rate. A baby that is born today has an excellent chance of survival, and mother and child are able to go home in a relatively short period of time.
Apart from the little birth notice buried in an obscure part of the newspaper, the births that go on are seldom noticed outside of the people directly connected with them. Most average, run-of-the-mill births are simply not newsworthy events.
In our text for today, Isaiah records some very important words of prophecy for us, prophecy concerning the birth of the promised Messiah. In chapters 7 through 12 in the book of Isaiah, there are various prophecies given concerning the Saviour. But this section stands out because of the miraculous way he would be conceived and born. The important thing about this birth is that it would be a virgin birth. God the Holy Spirit would impregnate a virgin; that is someone who had not had relations with a man at the time of conception. This would contradict all natural laws of childbirth; the birth of Immanuel would be a miracle in and of itself.
Before we get directly into this prophecy, let’s take a brief look at the history surrounding this event. Ahaz was the king of Judah, the two southern tribes of the original 12 tribes of Israel. North of Judah was the kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim), and Assyria was to the east. Assyria and Israel formed a coalition to resist the advances of common enemies. They tried to get Ahaz and Judah to join this alliance, but he refused. So now the kings of Assyria and Israel sought to overthrow Ahaz and put sort of a “puppet king” in power over Judah, one that would be in their alliance and put Judah under their control.
So God sends Isaiah to meet with Ahaz, as he inspects the water supply that was vital to Jerusalem. God’s command to Ahaz was simple, but necessary. If Ahaz were to rely upon human counsel, then he would be defeated. But if he would trust completely in God, then he would be victorious. To prove this, God invites Ahaz to ask for a sign, something to confirm that what God had promised was true.
Ahaz, even though he was part of David’s lineage, was not a good king at all. In fact, he was most wicked. He refused the sign from God because his mind was already made up. Ahaz’s refusal of God’s sign was an indication of his hypocrisy, and not an indication of his faith in God’s promises.
So the Lord decides to give a sign. This wouldn’t be a sign to convince Ahaz, but a sign that would speak both to the faithful people living under his rule, and to future generations. God then makes the promise in verse 14: “…The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Of course this had to refer to an event off in the future. Ahaz’s wife was already pregnant, and she was no virgin. The son born to them was Hezekiah. Through him, David’s line would continue, and the Saviour would be born.
The time following this wasn’t easy for the people of Judah; but both Israel and Assyria ceased to exist just as God had promised, and the kingdom of Judah remained. This was necessary to preserve David’s lineage until the time of the birth of Jesus. Of course what I just gave you is a rather simplified history in a nutshell, but it brings you up to speed as to what was happening.
Where I would like to focus our attention today is verse 14 of our text, specifically the word translated “the virgin,” and why Christ’s birth absolutely HAD to be a virgin birth.
In order to fully understand this, we need to dig a bit into the original Hebrew, which was the language in which the prophet Isaiah wrote. The word that is translated “virgin” is the Hebrew word, “almah.”
Technically, the word “almah” means “a young woman of marriageable age who has not had sexual relations with a man;” or in other words, a young virgin woman. Virginity is one of the key attributes of being an “almah.” If a young woman was not a virgin, she would not be an “almah.”
There is something else here that is noteworthy. The word “almah” doesn’t stand alone, but has a definite article in front of it, which has the sound of the English letter “h.” So the actual word Isaiah uses is “ha-almah,” which means “the virgin,” and just not any run-of-the-mill virgin. The virgin would be the one God would choose to be the mother of his only begotten Son. She would be a very special person indeed.
If you do a check of Isaiah 7:14 in a variety of Bible translations, you will find “ha-almah” translated two different ways. The King James, New King James, New International, English Standard, and New American Standard versions all translate it “the virgin.” Revised Standard Version and Today’s English Version (or Good News for Modern Man) all translate it “a young woman.” The New Revised Standard Version is a little better with the translation “the young woman” instead of “a young woman.” RSV and the New RSV do include a footnote with the “virgin” definition. The Good News Bible seems to try to discount the “virgin” definition all together in their footnotes.
Even though the “young woman” translation for “almah” is technically correct, it loses the key attribute for the young woman, namely that she is a virgin.
As I studied this section, I discovered that the “young woman” definition is something that was brought forth in later years by Jewish scholars to shift the focus away from the Virgin Mary. I think it is very unfortunate indeed that this favored Jewish rendition has found its way into the Bibles used by Christians.
Even though it is unfortunate, I can see why some do favor it. There is a popular theory in some circles, which asserts that Mary was not impregnated by the Holy Spirit, but rather she was raped by a Roman soldier and became pregnant. They’ll say that Jesus was God’s chosen servant, and that he was God’s son—but God’s son in the same way that we all are God’s children. His birth was God’s will, but the Holy Spirit did not actually impregnate Mary. And so all of the talk about a miraculous virgin birth was nothing more than a romantic way to cover up their version of what they call “truth.”
Even some modern renditions of the Apostles’ Creed have been worded in such a way to allow this theory; “conceived by the Holy Ghost” has been altered to say, “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Once again, although there’s nothing technically wrong with saying it this way if it is understood correctly, yet it does allow for a double meaning. A lot of different things can happen by "the power" of the Holy Spirit. And so by being intentionally ambiguous, various conflicting and erroneous ideas can find a common denominator.
One commentator I read even went so far as to say that the “young woman” and the “son” in Isaiah’s prophecy did not refer to Mary and the Christ child, but to Ahaz’s wife and their son Hezekiah.
Scripture however does not give any indication that this prophecy was fulfilled at any time during the Old Testament, and certainly Hezekiah’s birth was not a Virgin birth. And when you consider that this section of Isaiah also includes other prophecies about Christ, then there can be no real doubt as to whom it applies.
When Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in 285 B.C., they translated “ha-almah” as “ha parthenos,” which means exactly what “virgin” means in English. They knew that Isaiah 7:14 foretold of a virgin birth. These Jewish sages believed without a doubt that the promised Messiah would be born of a virgin, and not just some young woman who might or might not have been a virgin.
All of this now unfolds for us as we once again focus our attention upon the Christmas story. In our Gospel lesson for today from Matthew 1, verse 18 tells us: “…Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph; but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Verse 23 goes on to say that this fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy about the virgin birth. This is underscored in verse 25 that says, “But he [Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.”
I should probably add Mary’s own testimony from Luke 1:34. When the angel visited her and announced the birth, Mary asks the question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary herself indeed confirms the fact that she was a virgin. Taken then to its logical conclusion, for someone to assert that Christ’s birth was not a virgin birth, Mary would have to have been the biggest liar in history—hardly a fit mother to be raising someone the likes of Jesus.
So why is all of this so important? Why couldn’t Jesus have been the product of a Roman soldier who raped Mary? Why was it necessary for Christ to be born of a virgin?
If Jesus was the product of an earthly father, he could not have been true God. He would have simply been a sinful human being like the rest of us without any divine attributes at all. He could not have been our Saviour.
Our Saviour needed to be true God in order to be sinless, because only God can be without sin. During his life, he had to keep God’s law perfectly.
Our Saviour also needed to be true man. He was a descendant of David. He had to be born “under the law,” that is, be fully human and subject to God’s law like all human beings. Hebrews 2:14 says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.”
The people living in a sinful world needed a Saviour. God’s justice needed to be satisfied in order for the world to be saved.
The Saviour would need to be fully human, so God’s law would apply to him like everyone else. He would need to keep this law perfectly, something only God could do. He would have to then bear the punishment for sin even though he himself was completely righteous and sinless. He would have to suffer and die.
As true God, he would conquer death and prove himself to be victorious by taking up his life again by rising from the dead.
All of what Christ came to earth to do, he did for you and me. He suffered for sin so we wouldn’t have to. He rose from the dead, so that death and the grave would not hold us. He defeated Satan for us, and has given us the victory.
We have all of this through faith in Jesus. He has made it so simple for us. All we have to do is believe. Through faith in Christ, we have nothing to fear, but plenty to look forward to.
II Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And Hebrews 4:15 says, “We have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.”
The virgin birth is a guarantee that we have the Saviour we need—a Saviour who is both true God and true man. If we were to swallow a theory other than the true virgin birth of Jesus, then we might as well have Bill Gates or Ted Turner or Barack Obama or Elvis Presley as our savior, for all the good it would do us. If it weren’t for the virgin birth, Jesus would be nothing more than a man like these guys. There would be no power, no reconciliation, and no forgiveness.
At the beginning, I talked about the number of births that happen every day, the majority of which are not anything particularly noteworthy, except for those immediately connected with the birth.
If Isaiah had simply written that “a young woman would conceive and bear a child,” so what? That happens every day. It would be no big deal at all. It would have described a normal birth with normal parents.
But the birth of Christ was no normal birth, not in the least. It was a virgin birth, a birth that fulfilled prophecies from long ago. It was a miraculous birth, something that only God could perform. It was a birth that would reconcile sinful man with God, and be the all-atoning sacrifice for the sins of a fallen race.
And so, this Christmas we can with all assurance rejoice in this virgin birth as did the shepherds from Bethlehem as they heard the words of the angel recorded in Luke 2:10-11: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people; for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”