A Sign

Originally preached at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square on December 22, 2019.

Relevant lectionary texts here

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

We have spent quite a bit of time with the prophet Isaiah in this season of Advent.  Besides a visit during our special children’s message on Advent 1 from the prophet Isaiah himself, four of our first readings over the past 4 weeks have been from the book of Isaiah.  This week we actually get Isaiah TWICE, both in our Hebrew Bible reading and again in the Gospel reading, where the author of Matthew harkens back to Isaiah and quotes the very same passage.  Over the next week at St. Luke’s we will have the opportunity to hear three different Christmas birth narratives from three authors; Matthew today for Advent 4, and Luke and John on Christmas Eve.  Each of these authors is coming at the story of Christ’s birth from a slightly different angle and emphasizing slightly different things. For our reading today, for the author of Matthew, the question is mostly centered around the idea of identity.  Matthew is most concerned with where Jesus comes from and what that tells us about who God is and how God operates.

The author of Matthew was a Jewish person writing to a Jewish audience.  And so it is important to him to connect the ways that God is at work in his world at the time with the stories of old, the ones that he grew up hearing and the ones that had formed him.  Before the section of the text that we read today, Matthew goes into a long and detailed genealogy, connecting the birth of Jesus to his ancestors, all the way back to Abraham. And as he tells the story of a man named Joseph, a dreamer, meant to link us back to Joseph the Dreamer in Genesis and his colorful garment, Matthew goes through painstaking detail to root the story of Jesus in Jewish history. 

The story of Ahaz from Isaiah that Matthew is referencing comes during a tenuous and scary time during the history of his people. King Ahaz is facing threats of invasion and annihilation from powerful foreign Empires, something that would also deeply resonate with Matthew as a Jewish person living under the occupation of the Roman Empire.  And King Ahaz had to decide, like faithful people throughout history in every generation, whether to align with Empire for the sake of perceived safety or protection, or to resist Empire, no matter the cost.

Isaiah comes to King Ahaz with a sign.  The Hebrew word אוֹת (oht) “sign” here is the same word used to signal the manifestation of a divine covenant, like the way that the rainbow was a sign in the story of Noah, or circumcision was a sign in the story of Abraham.  Isaiah says to the king, “There is a young girl. She’s pregnant. But before this baby about to be born reaches two years old, he will be eating milk and honey, the freedom food of our people after escaping slavery in Egypt.  Hold on, it won’t be long now and the Empires that you fear will be no more. God is with us.”

I tell that story to give you some of the original context because there is this thing that Christians often do where we look back into every part of the Hebrew Bible and we see Jesus.  We read stories like this in Isaiah where it says, “the young woman will give birth and the child will be named Immanuel,” and we say, “See? Jesus was here all along.” The problem with that kind of theology, though, is that it comes with some incredibly anti-semitic implications.  When we look at the Hebrew Bible like a game of Where’s Waldo and try to proof text each piece of scripture to say it’s really about Jesus, we become ignorant to the ways that our Jewish siblings read and interpret these verses and we essentially tell them that their theology is incomplete and inferior.

And yet, it is true that the authors of the Gospels used the Hebrew Bible as a source, often quoting from it directly to make connections to Jesus’ life, like Matthew does in our reading today. So how do we deal with this?

One analogy that has helped me to think about this is noticing the major differences between Queer History and the act of Queering History.  Queer History vs Queering History might seem like semantics, but they are two very different things. Queer history is about things that actually happened throughout history to verifiably queer people.  For example, Queer History includes the Stonewall Rebellion, the election and death of Harvey Milk, the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality in 2015. These are things that, even at the time, were openly and obviously queer.  Learning about them brings the past into the present.

But the act of QUEERING history is different. It has a different starting point. It brings our present into the past.  Queering history is when we as queer people look back throughout history in general and we find things in history that may or may not be literally or actually queer that nevertheless resonate with our own queer experience.  A well-known example of this would be President Abraham Lincoln. We don’t know much about Lincoln’s sexuality. And it is hard to even speak with historic accuracy about sexuality in the same terms because the cultural framework for talking about things like gender or sexuality were so different 150 years ago.  And yet for years LGBTQIA+ people have looked back at Abraham Lincoln and noticed things in his life that resonated with our own experiences, like when, for example, Lincoln’s stepmother was quoted as saying that he “never took much interest in girls.” Regardless of speculation or verifiability of Lincoln’s sexuality, this story is the sort of statement that many gay men can relate to or see parts of their own story reflected.  They see parts of their own present story reflected in the past.

I think we can look at Matthew in much of the same way.  The author, in his own present time, is looking back through the history at the stories that have been so important to him and seeing echoes of these stories in his here and now.  These stories and their common threads serve to help answer Matthew’s biggest questions about identity, about who Jesus is, who God is, and how God has always been at work and continues to be at work in the world.

And what we can see in both the First and Second Testament is that God has always worked in this same way.  In both the Gospel of Matthew and in Isaiah, we hear the promise of a child to be born. God loves to work through children and God has a preference for bringing hope and promises through children, so much so that for all of us, the existence of children in our midst is a sign that God is with us. Jesus knows this and goes on to remind us in his ministry that “the reign of God belongs to such as these” little children.

In November of 2014, I had been out on the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis for three months.  There had been nonstop, 24/7 protests at this time, even as the temperatures got colder and colder.  If you came outside at West Florissant or in front of the Ferguson PD any time, day or night, at least a few people would be there keeping vigil, holding signs.  Just before Thanksgiving in 2014 the Grand Jury made the announcement that they had failed to indict Officer Wilson for the murder of unarmed 18 year old teenager Michael Brown. I have told you a bit of that story before, I was with hundreds of my comrades outside of the Ferguson PD waiting for the news.  After the announcement, the militarized police force descended on the people. I heard gunshots and sound canons. I heard drums. I heard people screaming as they ran away from billowing clouds of tear gas. I remember thinking to myself that I am a mother, and that even though I was fighting for my kids, they needed me to stay alive so I could tuck them in at night.  It was one of the scariest nights of my life.

After I left the police station, I went to the cathedral in downtown St. Louis where my colleagues were holding an all night prayer vigil and staking out a safe sanctuary for anyone targeted by the police (although other supportive churches in the area had at times been targets for raids or tear gas). Every hour there was singing and prayer.  And at one point we gathered around the altar, the same altar where we had assembled tear gas kits only days earlier, and we prayed. I don’t know if you saw the photos from those days in Ferguson, but they looked apocalyptic. We were making homemade gas masks. It looked like a young adult dystopian film. It truly felt like the end of the world. 

And as we gathered around that altar in the cathedral, I noticed that there was a young couple there with an infant in a carrier.  I burst into tears as we prayed and I thought to myself, “The world is ending. Worlds are ending and beginning all the time. And babies are still being born.” 

For me, that night?  That baby was a sign of God with us.  It reminded me that even though things were as bleak as I had ever seen, and justice felt far away, and we were all worn down and broken hearted after going up against Empire and losing, that despite all of it, that baby reminded me that life is stubborn and tenacious and new life finds a way.

These stories in the Hebrew Bible and in the Gospel of Matthew tell us something about the way that God works and who God is. God brings forth life in pure resistance to Empires who wage death. 

And the way that God brings forth these hope-children says something too.  God didn’t have to come to Earth as an infant, if God was hell-bent on being a human, They could’ve just appeared as Jesus as an adult.  But children are so special to God that God just wouldn’t feel right unless God came as a child.

And not just any child in any family with any birth story. The story of Joseph we read today is not one of the stereotypical nuclear-family with a mom and a dad and 2.5 kiddos and a dog.  God chose, on purpose, that Jesus would be born into a queer family, a polycule of love made up of three parents; a man, and a woman, and a nonbinary Spirit lending their Holy DNA. God could have pulled this one off all on their own if They really wanted.  This is the God who says, “let there be light!” and there’s light and by whose Word separated the sea and the dry land. God could’ve said, “Let there be Me on Earth, enfleshed!” and it would’ve been done, insta-Jesus appearing on Earth, no problem. God could’ve done this without Mary’s womb and without Joseph’s faithful “yes” to this very strange plan.  And yet it says something about who God is that God chooses to collaborate with humans, to give us the opportunity and the vital role of co-creating alongside God, even in the miracle of the incarnation. 

And beloved this is such, such good news because just as Matthew looked at his religious heritage and saw echoes of it in his present reality, we can look at our own religious heritage, the Christmas Story, and notice the way that God continues to be at work in our own here and now.  God continues to give us covenant signs of hope when we feel like our necks are under the boot of an oppressive Empire. God continues to make children the leaders of our freedom movements. God continues to build families of choice in ways that are queer and abundant and outside of the norm.  God continues to come to us in our wildest dreams and tell us that – YES there is something even better coming, something richer than anything we could imagine on our own if we only say yes to the risk and step out in faith, like Joseph, and become co-creators of the future that God is building here and now in our own time. 

God is coming and God is already here and God says rather than do it alone, I choose you to help make it happen. 

Thanks be to God.

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