Sermon by Kenneth Padley for the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Baptism of Naomi Roden
22nd December 2019
Readings: Isaiah 7.10-16, Matthew 1.18-25
Excitement has grown during the days of Advent as we have recalled those who prepared for the birth of Jesus. On this the last Sunday of Advent our attention turns to Jesus’ mother. To better understand the significance of Mary, I want us to consider her alongside two other biblical women.
Biblical woman number one was introduced in that tricky first lesson from the prophet Isaiah. The context of Isaiah chapter 7 was a siege of Jerusalem. King Ahaz was scared by two rival warlords encamped outside his city. Isaiah, however, did not share the King’s fears. He had confidence that God would rescue Jerusalem. And he found a symbol of this in his wife’s baby. Isaiah 7.14: ‘Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’ Immanuel was one of three sons fathered by Isaiah who had meaningful names. The name of this boy means ‘God is with us’. So, despite the bleak political and military outlook, Isaiah trusted in God for a solution. He predicted that before the child knew how to refuse the evil and choose the good, there would be curds and honey to eat again because the enemy armies would have fled the land.
Isaiah’s hope yearns for release, for freedom, for peace and prosperity. These are prophetic Advent values which find their fulfillment in Jesus. It was therefore quite natural that the gospel writer Matthew (source of our second reading) latched onto what Isaiah wrote about Immanuel. For Matthew, Immanuel was not a symbol of military rescue, but an individuated instance of God’s saving presence. Matthew thought of Jesus when he wrote in chapter 1 verse 23:
virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
The observant will have noticed a subtle difference between the words of Isaiah’s prophecy and those quoted by St Matthew. Isaiah wrote ‘the young woman is with child’ but Matthew wrote ‘the virgin shall conceive and bear a son’. Matthew’s use of the word ‘virgin’ has become loadbearing for those who believe that Mary’s conception was – shall we say – biologically atypical.
The reason for the variation between Isaiah and Matthew is language. Isaiah wrote in Hebrew, Matthew in Greek. Matthew rendered ‘parthenos’ (virgin) for the more general Hebrew word used by Isaiah. Matthew thought of a virgin but Isaiah was thinking of his wife whom he termed a ‘young woman’.
Now we haven’t got time today to tackle n detail debates about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. However, I do want to say this:
Whatever we understand by the idea of Virgin Birth in Matthew 1.23, the verse chimes with what we know of Mary’s youthfulness. Rabbinic sources inform us that the process of betrothal described by Matthew [1.18] would have seen girls getting engaged at the age of twelve or thirteen before moving in with their husbands perhaps a year later. This is culturally alien territory: should Mary and her distinctly older husband arrive in twenty-first century St Albans, the Diocesan Safeguarding Officer would go into overdrive.
The youthfulness of Mary in the story only serves to reinforce the miracle being described. This young, naïve girl from the sticks was chosen to be the Mother of God. For that is what the incarnation means: the assumption of a human embryo by the second person of the Trinity is why the Church lauds Mary the village teenager as Theotokos, God-bearer, Mother of God. It is one of many paradoxes of the incarnation intended to draw us to our knees.
As Henry Bramley wrote in the C19th:
O wonder of wonders, which none
The Ancient of Days is an hour or two old;
The Maker of all things is made of the earth,
Man worshipped by angels, and God come to birth.
Or as Timothy Dudley-Smith has put it more recently:
Infant hands in a mother’s hand,
for none but Mary may understand
whose are the hands and the fingers curled
but his who fashioned and made our world…
This is what God does for us when he stoops to take flesh in the child of Mary.
I promised you three Biblical women this morning but so far we have only met two. Friends, we know the names of very few women associated with Bethlehem. But one about whom we do know – by most felicitous coincidence – was called Naomi. This woman lived in Bethlehem more than a thousand years before Mary but even she has a role to play in the drama of Advent and Christmas. Let me explain.
Naomi in the Bible presents as a rather forlorn figure. She and her family were driven from Bethlehem because of famine. In the land of Moab to the east of the Dead Sea her two sons married native women. However, Naomi’s husband and then her sons all died. Naomi was left bereft, exiled, and without security. Although her name means ‘pleasant’, she thought she should be known as ‘Mara’ which means ‘bitter’.
With time, however, the fortunes of Naomi began to improve. She chose to return to Bethlehem, and one of her widowed daughters-in-law went with her. The name of this woman was Ruth – hence the Biblical book in which all this is recorded. Once in Bethlehem, Ruth fell for a chap called Boaz and, despite being a foreigner, Ruth persuaded Boaz to get married.
Well, that’s a nice tale, Kenneth, but what’s the point? The message of the story is this: through Ruth, Naomi became reintegrated into society. She regained those things which she had lost during the long hard years in Moab – family, home community – all pleasant things to have.
But the story of Naomi is more significant than a ‘happily ever after’ fairy tale. It is a tributary in the bigger stream of biblical narrative. For Boaz and Ruth had a son called Obed. And Obed had a son called Jesse. And Jesse, humble farmer from that obscure village of Bethlehem, became the father of David. And David rose to become founder of the kingdom of Israel. Thus by a quirk of genealogy, and long after her death, Naomi became the Step-great-great grandmother of the greatest king in Jewish history. Had she not gone through her time of bitterness, there would have been no King David. God’s plan is sometimes greater than the horizons of pain and misfortune which confront us.
But there is more. For the story of Naomi does not end in the glorious reign of David, because a thousand years later, when Jesus announced the coming of another Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, his followers logically deduced that he must a new David, the long-anticipated Messiah, God’s anointed ruler. And so they associated the birth of Jesus with Bethlehem and they drew up genealogies which included Joseph in the line of David (Mt 1.20), a direct descendent of the famous ancient King.
Pulling all this together, this means that Naomi, the grieving granny from a rustic backwater, unbeknown to her, had a part to play in the mission of Jesus, the greatest story ever told. My friends, we are exactly the same as Naomi when through faith we accept the invitation of God to become his children. Through faith, we – like Naomi – are adopted into the family of God, and baptism is the symbol of this. Each one of us, when we accept God’s loving invitation to relationship, we travel the same road as Naomi three thousand years ago, from bitterness to pleasantness, from exile to integration. And that is why this coming feast is not about turkey nor tinsel nor a beardy wierdy on a sleigh; it is the celebration of the birth of a child who is the beginning and end of all our families.