Someone once mentioned that a real music connoisseur is a person who can listen to the "William Tell Overture" and not think of the Lone Ranger.

In a parallel way, a real Scripture student is someone who can listen to Sunday's first reading (Isaiah 7:10-14) and not think of Jesus of Nazareth.

During this part of the liturgical year, Isaiah's words to Ahaz play in the background of our minds when we think of Jesus' birth in the same way we picture a masked cowboy when we hear an Italian composer's music dedicated to a Swiss hero.

Context

We need only read the verses preceding the reading to discover that Isaiah couldn't have had Jesus in mind when he originally promised that "the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel."

This pregnancy was the eighth-century B.C.E. sign Ahaz needed to convince him not to join Israel and Syria in revolting against Assyria.

The king's overriding fear revolved around his family's safety. If he refused to join this anti-Assyrian alliance, they would be killed. If he did join the revolt and it failed, Assyria would also slaughter his family.

Isaiah assured Ahaz that his wife's pregnancy was the sign he wanted. (The Hebrew word "alma" isn't the technical word for a virgin. It simply refers to a woman who has yet to give birth. We have no parallel word in English.)

The prophet can't help but add a slam at Ahaz in his proclamation. The heir to the throne won't be a chip off the old block; he will be a much better king than his father. His reign will so emphasize Yahweh's will that it'll be like having "God among us" -- Emmanuel.

How could Matthew (1:18-24 ) take those words out of their original context, latch on to just one meaning of "alma" and make Jesus the Emmanuel? It was no problem. In the first-century after Christ, taking sentences (and even words) out of context was not only permitted, but also expected.

Matthew was simply following the early Christian practice of finding Jesus tucked away in the words of the Hebrew prophets, turning these "consciences of their people" into predictors of what Christians experienced in their relationship with the risen Jesus.

Christians eventually would even go so far as to change the order of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, placing the prophetic writings immediately before the Gospels to emphasize their "prediction-fulfillment" theology.

Effect of Jesus

No one can dismiss the effect the risen Jesus had in the lives of His first followers. Not only did that effect lead them to reinterpret their Scriptures; more importantly, it also led them to reinterpret their daily lives.

In the second reading (Romans 1:1-7), Paul, for instance, reminds the Romans that his experience of Jesus has forced him to change his basic direction in life. No longer is he content just to follow the 613 laws of Moses; he has now received "the grace of apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of His name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ."

Quite a change in lifestyle!

Perhaps we should spend less time trying to surface predictions of Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures and more time surfacing the risen Jesus in our everyday lives.

(12/20/07)