December 22, 2019

Ha-al-Mah Versus Parthenos

Passage: Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

Today I want to talk about doctrine and how we hold it.

That is to say I want to talk about how we live the Christian doctrines that we understand to be true and correct.

I don’t particularly want to talk about which doctrines you or I hold.

But I do want us to reflect upon a few questions about how we hold those doctrines.

Why this choice of sermon topics during Advent, you might ask?

Aren’t we meant to be getting ready to celebrate what has become one of the most peace filled seasons of the year?

Aren’t we supposed to be focusing at this time of year on all the Hallmark Card images of warm family times, cozy white-Christmas scenes and other images of often over-sentimentalized good times?

So why bring up doctrine at this time of year?

And in particular why bring up the topic of how we hold our doctrine?

Well the answers to these questions are as follows.

First the reason for, “Why the doctrine topic?”

The topic of doctrine came up as I studied the scriptures for this sermon.

This time of year, is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, Messiah.

That birth, Matthew makes a strong point of pointing out to us, was virginal.

That is, Matthew insists that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.

As you may know the virgin birth of Jesus is one of the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, as this doctrine points to the divinity of Jesus because it teaches that Jesus was born not of man but of a virgin woman and the Holy Spirit.

Matthew, speaking to convince a Jewish audience as he was, quotes from their own scriptures to make his point about the virgin birth and thus the divinity of Jesus.

Specifically, Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14 to affirm the virgin birth of Jesus.

The word Matthew uses to name Mary as a virgin in Matthew 1:23 is the Greek word parthenos, which according to the Strong’s Concordance, means a maiden and therefore by implication an unmarried daughter, a virgin.

But when we look at the NRSV translation of Isaiah 7:14, the verse which Matthew quotes, we see that the Hebrew word translated is ha-al-Mah, which translates from the ancient Hebrew as “young woman”.

So, presumably this word could be taken to mean any young woman, married or not and thus, virginal or not.

And there we have the basis for a doctrinal dispute.

The difference between the way the NRSV translates the Hebrew word ha-al-Mah in Isaiah and the Greek word Parthenos in Matthew sets the scene for a controversy around the doctrine of the virgin birth.

So that is why we are talking doctrine today during the season of peace, the season of Advent, the season of waiting to celebrate the birth and the second coming of Jesus.

And any discussion of doctrine needs to include some reflection on the way we live out our doctrines.

To illustrate what I am talking about, let’s get back to the translation of the two words I just mentioned.

First let’s consider again the Hebrew word ha-al-Mah.

That is the word used in Isaiah 7:14 referring to a young woman.

Matthew, in chapter 1 verse 23 quotes Isaiah 7:14.

Matthew, however is not quoting directly from a Hebrew manuscript as is the NRSV translation of the Bible.

Matthew is quoting from an early Greek translation of Isaiah.

This Greek translation of the Hebrew version of Isaiah used the Greek word “Parthenos” or virgin to translate the Hebrew word ha-al-Mah, which we have seen can mean young woman, virginal or not.

I am guessing, well hoping maybe, that you can see where this is going.

As we have said, Matthew was speaking to a largely Jewish audience trying to convince them of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

He was trying to convince them of the divinity of Jesus, thus the emphasis on the virgin birth.

So, Matthew used this and many other Old Testament references, particularly those which could be used as prophesies of the coming of the Messiah, to convince his fellows that Jesus was that Messiah.

But in this case, we see that, just perhaps, Matthew used a questionable translation of earlier Hebrew texts to bolster his argument that Jesus was Messiah.

To this day Jewish scholars point out that the word ha-al-Mah could just as easily mean young woman, virginal or otherwise, as it could refer to a virginal maiden.

Christians of course hold with the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus and point to Isaiah as prophesying his coming as Messiah, born of a virgin.

This lengthy discussion of the meaning and use of two ancient words leads us to the point of this sermon, which is doctrine and its use in the church.

The doctrine of the virgin birth of our Lord has long been debated in the church.

And the translation of ha-al-Mah and Parthenos have been a part of that debate.

I personally am a firm believer in the virgin birth of Jesus.

I don’t see Jesus’ virgin birth as a metaphor, or as a symbol.

I believe it as a historical fact pointing to the super-natural power of God to intervene in the history of the world is he so chooses.

The virgin birth of Jesus is a basic tenet of my faith, one which I am not prepared to compromise.

But I am also not prepared to weaponize this critical tenet of my faith.

I am not prepared to minimize or dismiss the beliefs that others may hold around the virgin birth of the Christ.

And that is the point of this Advent sermon.

As we wait to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, while also awaiting his second coming, how do we hold our faith?

In particular how do we live into our beliefs; our faith understandings that others may not find life-giving?

Do we ambush others with our doctrines?

Do we beat others over the head with the way we understand the scriptures that we share with other Christians, or even with other faiths?

Or in the interest of living into the fulness of life that Christ intended, do we hold our doctrines more lightly and accept that others hold their Christian faith in traditions that differ from our own?

The other morning at men’s breakfast I saw a perfect example of that I am talking about.

We share our men’s breakfast with the guys from the Restoration Community Church.

The RCC is a more charismatic faith tradition than most of us in the LPC are familiar with, or even particularly comfortable with.

At our shared meals we make a point of having a devotional time, a time of sharing our faith, including our faith experiences.

The other day one of the RCC guys shared his understanding and his experience of faith healing.

Much of what he said was challenging to those of us from the LPC.

Much of what he said made me somewhat uncomfortable.

I felt like what he said impugned my faith.

His words made me feel like the reason people were not healed when I prayed for them was because I did not have enough faith to have my prayers for their physical healing answered affirmatively by God.

My brother insisted that if only I had faith those I prayed for, should be, would be healed.

I am guessing that others at breakfast that morning may have shared my feelings.

But I am pleased to say that even if this was the case, even if others felt that our brother’s testimony about his healing and the theology, he gleaned from his healing experiences, made us feel uncomfortable, none of us expressed those feelings in a negative or aggressive way.

There were questions asked to be sure.

But none of us weaponized our understandings of, or theologies around, faith healing and used them against our brother.

Rather each of us there held the center of our faith, which is Jesus Christ and him crucified for our sin and risen again for our salvation.

So, in spite of the challenge we felt at our brother’s interpretation of his healing experience, we held the peace of Christ; holding that as the center of our doctrine.

We allowed the over-arching Christian principle of loving our brothers to determine our response to words that challenged our understandings of faith healing and made many of us feel profoundly uncomfortable.

That is the message for us today during this Advent Season.

Let us always hold Christ as our center.

Though the winds of controversy blow around us.

Though questions and doubt assail us.

Let us, during this season of Advent, hold onto the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ as we live in faith.

As we live by faith expressing itself in love.

Let us always hold Christ at our center as we live, waiting together with all the saints, waiting for the return of the Chosen One, Jesus Christ, Messiah, Emmanuel God with us.