This is the text of the message I preached to Range Road Uniting Church in Parawa on Sunday 18th December 2016
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 1:18-25
If you were asked to summarise the Christian message in one word I wonder which word you would choose. I actually think this to be an impossible task, or perhaps possible only in the moment. If I was asked I’d probably say something like “right now the answer for me is: …” and then give that word. Does anyone wish to offer a word today? One word that summaries Christianity or perhaps what being a Christian entails? The word I have chosen for today, and indeed for most days, is this word: Trust.
In today’s readings we are told two stories concerning three men from one family, and both of those stories involve trust. In the first story there is Ahaz who was King of Judah in the 740s and 730s BCE. In the second story there is Joseph, a descendent of Ahaz but not a king; and there is also Jesus, the unborn son of Joseph’s betrothed Mary. Joseph and Jesus’ story takes place in the last decade of the BCE, somewhere between 7 and 4 depending upon whom you ask. Technically Jesus is not a descendent of Joseph, not by biology anyway, however Jesus is part of Joseph’s family, and through Joseph Jesus is a member of Ahaz’s line.
Let’s start with Joseph. Matthew tells us explicitly that Joseph is a righteous man and a good man. Matthew tells us implicitly that Joseph is a worthy father even as he says that Joseph sought to divorce Mary because she was pregnant with another father’s child. So let’s be clear; Joseph was not seeking an annulment because he considered Mary to be soiled goods and not worthy of his love and respect. Far from it. I believe that as a good and honourable man Joseph wished only to clear the way for the actual father of Mary’s unborn child to claim Mary as his own wife and the unborn child as his own. Joseph had no wish to usurp another man’s right to fatherhood; this demonstrates to me how highly Joseph honours fatherhood and it indicates to me that ‘he will make a great dad some day, as soon as he meets the right girl’. In addition to his desiring to act with honour Joseph also desired to act with haste and secrecy so as not to bring public shame upon Mary or her family. As well as thinking of the child’s father Joseph did not want to bring dishonour to Mary’s father by a public display of rejection of Mary. Joseph is a good man and he sets about doing the right thing in the best possible way.
This is where God steps in, and when the depth of Jospeh’s trust is revealed. Joseph is told, and we read this directly from Matthew’s account, that the child is a boy and that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This son in Mary’s womb has no father, there is no one for whom Joseph should step aside, and there is no shame from which Joseph must protect Mary and her family. And just in case Joseph is in any doubt as to why God would have chosen him the angel makes it plain to him: Joseph is ‘Joseph, son of David’. The child will be a blessed child who will fill a holy purpose in life; and so full of trust Joseph marries Mary and in the fullness of time he names the boy ‘Jesus’ as the angel had directed him to.
What an amazing story of trust this is, and more than that trust lived out in a man notable for his righteousness and generosity.
Sigh. But our story contains a sour note, and it’s Matthew who gives it to us. Matthew glosses the story of Joseph with an insight from the Greek text of Isaiah 7 making the story of Christmas fit this prophecy from seven centuries earlier, and connecting Joseph and his story of trust with Jospeh’s ancestor and that man’s story of mistrust.
Where Joseph is right acting, right thinking, trustful of God, and generous and loving toward others, Ahaz is dubious, devious and shadowy. See how both men are addressed personally by God’s messenger. Both men are informed of God’s promise to God’s people including the detail of how and when God intends to next act. In both cases a newborn boy is a sign, a son is the physical manifestation of the promise made to the man. “See this boy,” God says, “this boy is evidence that what I have promised is going to happen.” And in both cases what is promised is salvation and the turning back of the tide of enemies.
We have heard many times before that the name Emmanuel means ‘God with us’; indeed we sang to this effect only a short while ago. But more than a random name for a son the message from the Angel of the Lord is that God is to be trusted. In other words in this moment of turmoil it is safe to rely on God because God is with us. God is with us in that God is present, and God is with us in that God is on our side. In the case of Ahaz to say that ‘God is with us’ is the same thing as to say that God is not with ‘them’. But where Joseph thought first of what was best for the child and for the woman he loved, and then acted to obey God’s command in the assurance of God’s promise, Ahaz thinks only of what is best for himself. Both men know it is God speaking, both hear the promise, both understand the sign of Immanuel, but Ahaz chooses to ignore God and go his own way. Ahaz has chosen not to trust God.
So let’s take a look at what is actually going on in Ahaz’s story. The background to this episode is that Ahaz as king of Judah is facing military danger from the combined powers of the kingdom of Israel, (the ten northern tribes centred on Samaria) and the Syrians centred on Damascus. Ahaz decides to form a military alliance with the local superpower, Assyria (Babylon), as a means of defending himself and his kingdom. Enter Isaiah who brings the word of God that God’s aid is imminent and trustworthy. You don’t need to form alliances with dangerous people, says God, Judah is safe because God will protect it. Leave Assyria be, let the nations fight it out amongst themselves and don’t get involved on either side. Damascus and Samaria won’t trouble you, you don’t need Babylonian help. God actually says straight to Ahaz ‘trust in the LORD, and ask me for a sign and I’ll prove it’s me’. Ahaz, amazingly, says no. This might look pious but in actually fact what Ahaz is saying is “I have chosen to ally myself with the Babylonians, I don’t want to hear anything other than that even if it comes from God’s own mouth.”
What. An. Idiot.
God answers that a sign is forthcoming anyway, and the sign is that a woman who is currently pregnant will give birth to a child. The child will be a son. The son will be named Immanuel because his birth is a sign that God’s answer is at hand. By the time Immanuel is old enough to, and here’s where the Bible gets polite, ‘choose right from wrong’, Israel and Syria will be flat. In actual fact what God is alluding to is the time when the baby starts saying ‘no’ and spitting out food he doesn’t like. Those of you who have had babies will know how long it takes for a little one to learn “no” and to spit out yuck. That’s how soon God will have acted and the enemies of God’s people will have been removed as a threat. ‘Trust me,’ says God, ‘look at the woman who is already showing.’ Immanuel is an obvious, blatant, unavoidable sign of hope and of God’s favour, but Ahaz chooses not to accept the sign because he wants to do things his own way. So God effectively says in Isaiah 7:17, which immediately follows this reading, that if Ahaz wants to go it alone then God will allow it, but the outcome will not be the one Ahaz had planned for. When you have “God with us” with you it is best to step back and allow God to do what God came for. History tells us that soon after this the Babylonians did indeed come to Jerusalem, but they didn’t come as allies, and Judah was almost conquered.
In each of Psalm 80:3, 80:7, 80:19 we read the same words: Restore us [LORD], let your face shine [on us], that we might be saved. Israel has been messing with the wrong crowd, as was seen in the story of Ahaz, and now they’ve been overrun and smashed. This is the very thing that God told Ahaz that Judah would be protected from if the king would trust God. As it was the Assyrians did get all nasty and threatening, but unlike in Samaria where they toppled the king and conquered Israel, God protected Jerusalem (under King Hezekiah) and Judah was not overcome. The promise of Immanuel was fulfilled in Jerusalem, even if Ahaz treated God’s own message with arrogant disregard. God could be trusted, Judah was saved, but Ahaz’s life and experience were much less enjoyable than Joseph’s life.
Today we hear the message, and we are offered the same choice. “Trust me”, says God. “Immanuel is all the proof you need that I will come through for you as I have promised before.” Ahaz ended his life a beaten-up wreck and it was his son Hezekiah who ultimately saw God’s deliverance. We don’t know how Jospeh’s life ended, but we know he saw Jesus born and was present for all of Jesus’ childhood. Joseph probably didn’t see Jesus die, and thereby bring the salvation to the nations that God promised through that angelic visit to Joseph’s Bethlehem home, but I have no doubt that Joseph had not doubt that God would come through.
So what about you. Where is God asking you for trust? What has God asked you to do, or perhaps asked you not to do, in the assurance that God has your situation in hand and that God will deliver in the fullness of time? At a very dark time in my life I happened to be browsing through a Christian bookshop. Perhaps I was hoping that my being in the presence of Christian books and the little old lady from a local church behind the counter might provide some sort of comfort. Anyway that’s where I was when I happened to pick up a small bookmark. It said on the bookmark, “Patience: is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do what we are told”. Amusingly what I had been told by God was to sit with folded hands and to “just sit” while God orchestrated my salvation, but the message stuck.
The promise of God with us. God. With. Us. That promise is that it is safe to do as we are told, whatever it is God has told us, because that is the only way in which the one who will save God’s people has access to us so as to save us. So I urge you to pay attention to the adventitious arrival of the Christ child Immanuel, the living sign of God, that your salvation is at hand and that God is on the very cusp of breaking through on your behalf.
Trust. Obey. Live.