December 22, 2019
Sermon by Christian Skoor-Smith
How many people actually believe in the idea that the way you think has some affect on your life? So, how many people actually woke up this morning, and consciously created a future? The biggest reason why people don’t do it, is because they don’t really believe it’s true. You see, if you knew on a gut level that it was absolutely true, would you ever miss a day? Would you ever let any thought slip by your awareness that you didn’t want to experience?
According to neuroscience, your brain is designed to reflect everything you know in your life. Your brain is a record of your environment, in part (at least) an artefact of your past. And if you believe this, does your environment control your thinking? Or does your thinking control your environment?
If you wake up in the morning, get out of bed on the same side as you did the day before. Shut off the alarm clock with the same finger. Shuffle into the bathroom and use the toilet like you always do. Then you look in the mirror to remember who you are. Then into the shower and you wash yourself in the same routine way. Then you groom yourself to look the way everyone expects you to look. Then you go the kitchen and have your breakfast, drink your coffee out of your favorite mug, then drive to work the same way you did the day before. You see the same people that push the same emotional buttons, you do the thing you know how to do and that you’ve memorized so well you’re an expert at. And you hurry up and rush home so you can check your emails so you can hurry up and go to bed so you can wake up and do it all over again. So here’s my question: did your brain change at all that day?
We could say that you were thinking the same thoughts, performing the same actions, that produce the same feelings, but secretly expecting something to change in your life.
Now, what we’ve learned from neuroscience over the past couple decades is that you begin to think equal to your environment. As you see the same people and encounter the same situations, your brain starts to think equal to everything you already know. And as long as you keep thinking equal to everything that’s familiar or known to you, what do you keep creating? More of the same.
Now, we started with the principle – the idea that your thoughts have an impact on your life – only you’re just thinking equal to everything that you “know” and you keep creating more of the same.
To change, to truly change, is to think greater than your environment. Think more expansively or creatively than your past or your habits or your expectations. This isn’t a new idea, certainly – the New Testament has a word for it, even: in Greek it is metanoia. It is often translated into English as “repentance” but that’s a loaded term for most of us already. It’s really just two words stuck together: meta which means “larger” or “bigger” and noia which means “knowledge”, to think, to know something. It means “think bigger.”
And that’s precisely what the prophet Isaiah was trying to get King Ahaz to do, in our scripture reading today. But it is also a particular challenge during Christmas, isn’t it? It is so easy to think about presents, to-do lists, parties, family obligations, and maybe we’ll give a little extra at church in advance of it, maybe drop some change in the bell-ringer’s bucket at the grocery store, and hope that qualifies as “thinking of others” for the season. That’s natural – I’m not setting us up for a guilt trip here, honestly. No judgment. I have three kids and a spouse – I can hardly keep track of everyone’s needs and wants in my own house, let alone outside of it. And the Christmas story itself kinds of lends itself to zeroing down: a story about one specific family, at one specific moment in time, in one particular place, all centering on one little newborn baby.
It’s nice! It feels good: hopeful, cheery, just the right amount of empathy and struggle to make the happy ending… happy. It’s why we love to tell the story! Half Silent Night, half Handel’s Messiah! “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah!”
But, of course, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, in the very beginning, it seems like it wasn’t even a story worth telling. Mark, the earliest Gospel, doesn’t even mention it – he starts the story with Jesus’ baptism. John, the last Gospel to be written, also doesn’t have a birth story – apparently, the community he was in hadn’t heard it, or didn’t think it was worth preserving. Our entire Joseph-and-Mary-go-to-Bethlehem/Jesus-in-the-manger saga is a combination of stuff from just two Gospels, Matthew and Luke – and the really famous line that we hear repeated in Handel’s “Messiah”, the foretelling of Jesus’ birth by the prophet Isaiah, the bit about a virgin birth and being called Immanuel (or “God with us”), is only mentioned in Matthew. What for most of us is THE defining quality of the story, comes from one line in one book. A line that, as it happens, is taken totally out of context! A line that, as it happens, is in our scripture reading for today.
Today, the Sunday just before Christmas, when we are probably wanting most eagerly to look forward and anticipate, our scripture has us looking backward, to an earlier time, the background of the story, if you will.
At this point in history, the kingdom of Israel has been split in two – the northern kingdom of Ephraim and the Southern kingdom of Judah. Judah is where Jerusalem is, and where Isaiah the prophet is doing his thing. Israel was always a small kingdom between bigger empires, and now they were even smaller – and the northern kingdom of Ephraim was being conquered by the Assyrians. And the Assyrians were heading Judah’s way.
This is actually a really fertile time in Israel’s prophetic life – lots of the prophets come from this period: Isaiah, Hosea, Micah and so on. (Interestingly, they didn’t always agree with each other. But that’s a different topic.) A key question for the prophets was what will happen when Assyria reaches Jerusalem? Will Jerusalem fall? Will Judah survive? Enter Isaiah with a decidedly mixed answer: almost.
The Assyrians, Isaiah says, will destroy most of Judah and even lay siege to the walls of Jerusalem, but won’t ultimately take the city. Better news for the people in the city, certainly, than for them in the countryside – which is why Isaiah paints a much-different prophetic picture from inside the city, than Micah does from the countryside… an interesting case-study for how our circumstances affect our perspectives on a situation. But… that’s for another time.
For our purposes here, let’s understand it this way: things were bleak, and not looking to get better for a while. How long, you ask? So did King Ahaz, and Isaiah’s answer was that there is a young woman who is already pregnant, she will give birth and before that child is old enough to be weaned (probably about two years or so), the Assyrians will leave. The child’s name: Immanuel, or “God is with us.” – cold comfort for the difficult days ahead.
With the context laid, let us read from the 7th chapter of Isaiah (vs10-16).
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman[a] shall conceive and bear[b] a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el.[c] 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 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.
If you were looking for it, you might have been surprised by the tense of the whole thing. Isaiah isn’t talking about some far-flung future when a baby will be born to signal the survival of some far-flung future kingdom. He’s talking about a young woman who is pregnant right then, the birth of whose son is important to understanding their present situation.
The way Matthew puts it, in his Gospel, Isaiah was calmly musing about the future glory of the Son of God to appear in 500 years or so. But nothing could be further from the truth: there is urgency and immediacy to what Isaiah is saying.
And did you notice the virgin Mary, or more specifically, her absence? Isaiah uses the term “young woman,” but he was speaking Hebrew. Matthew didn’t read Hebrew, he spoke Greek. Hundreds of years Isaiah’s time, his words would be translated into Greek and the translators used a Greek term that means “virgin.” So that’s what Matthew used when he told the story.
And Matthew’s selected use of this one child is also a little misleading. If all we read is Matthew’s Gospel, we might think that this little kid is unique, being named in a prophecy and all. Now I don’t mean to demean the special-ness of that baby, but it helps to understand his naming in context. Just a few verses before, Isaiah names another child “A Remnant Shall Remain”, pointing to the fact that some of them will survive the Assyrian invasion. And a few verses after our selection he names another child “Fast Spoils Quick Booty,” lifting up that much of the riches and bounty of Judah will be taken away. So, naming kids is kind of his prophetic shtick, his MO, his go-to move. And he isn’t the only one who does this: the prophet Hosea also gave his children symbolic names. (And you thought it was bad being a preacher’s kid. Imagine going through Jr. High with the name “Speedy Spoils Quick Booty!”)
For the prophets, naming kids wasn’t just symbolic. Those signs were understood to effect what was prophesied. An action that brings about the thing prophesied: as this child is named, so is Judah easy spoils, so there will be a remnant remaining, so God with us as judgment and hope. The prophets believed that what they thought and said affected the world right then. It wasn’t an analogy for what would happen in a distant future.
So there are some big differences between Isaiah and Matthew’s version of Isaiah. There’s the “young woman” vs “virgin” thing. The present tense vs future tense. The immediate situation vs prediction of far off future concern. The naming kids as typical Isaiah trope vs unique prophetic utterance. And this whole thing being about their kingdom and the fate of his community vs about some future kingdom and the spiritual fate of world. Matthew isn’t being duplicitous! He takes the older story and reinterprets it for his present situation, to help him make sense of what he is experiencing.
And we can sympathize with him, can’t we? It’s like we are going to a concert of Handel’s Messiah, looking for that “Hallelujah”, but what we get with Isaiah is more like Carmina Burana! All doom and fate and suffering to endure. Glory and confidence on one hand, or judgement and narrow escape on the other. No wonder Matthew re-interpreted the scripture!
But isn’t that what we always do? We take the old story, and lay it alongside our circumstances and experience now, and as we come to it differently, it speaks to us differently. That old, old story is new every time. Let those with ears to hear, listen!
I think part of the reason we do this – reinterpret the scriptures for our own time – is because on some level we do believe that our thoughts have some impact on our world, our choices do make a difference – they shape reality and our response. Now, whether you call it neuroscience, quantum physics, magic, faith, or responsible scripture study, we change as we encounter the scripture, so it changes in its message to us. So, I’m less interested in the fact that Matthew shaped the story, and more interested in how he shaped it, what he did with it, and what that story does with us.
Look at what he didn’t choose! When he was looking back at scriptural models for how he felt about Jesus, he had his choice of prophetic children to lift up. But he didn’t choose the despair of “A Remnant Shall Remain” or the cruelty of “Speedy Spoils Quick Booty”. (Thank goodness… can you imagine The Messiah with that name?) When faced with the choice of cruelty or despair, Matthew saw God’s revelation in God’s commitment to be with us, no matter what. The particular sign God gives in Isaiah arouses hope. At the same time it opens up the gap between what the world is and what it ought to be. This kind of sign crystallizes the contrast between the forces ranged against the good, and the hope for salvation from all that is violent and destructive. Matthew looked back at centuries of warfare, struggle, injustice, and chose a little baby testifying that God is with us, regardless.
As we look back at Matthew, we aren’t so much reading a story about a time long ago, as much as a story about right now. Migrants seeking shelter, denied and cold. Children vulnerable. Parents struggling to provide for their families. Women’s voices and experience not being trusted. Brutality in politics. Leaders not being held accountable. And hope, despite it all. The present is pregnant with possibility – hope, despair, struggle, and God’s Being With Us. Where can we see God today? Where is God breaking into the world? What prophesies are we effecting in the world by our declarations, our actions? How do we shape the world with our own expectations? The promise of love is shaped like a question mark.
We encounter a world we’ve known, and we think we know what to expect. But Christmas is a soft and knowing sigh that comes with every newborn: think bigger. For God’s sake, think bigger.