12/22/19 – A King and a Carpenter


December 22, 2019
4th Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew.1:18-25
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Today we have read of two men faced with a dilemma. God asked both King Ahaz and the humble carpenter, Joseph, to take a risk and trust God’s assurances that all would be well. Their internal motivations were laid bare for us to judge. Their moral dilemma might be described as a case for doing the “right thing” for the wrong reason or the “wrong thing” for the right reason. It seems as if God was giving them a test. If so, Ahaz failed and Joseph passed with flying colors.

The historical context is important in our understanding of Isaiah’s role in the history of the Jewish people and the relationship the author of Matthew’s gospel places on Isaiah’s prophecy with Jesus as a descendant in the line of King David. King Ahaz was the king of Judah; the southern half of what was once the nation of Israel. Syria and Israel had formed an alliance to resist the advances of Assyria and to take over Judah, installing their own man as king, thus strengthening their position against Assyria. Ahaz determined he would be in a better position if he formed an alliance with Assyria to protect his kingdom from the challengers to the north. Ahaz decided to put his faith in the strongest aggressor, trusting his goodwill toward Assyria would spare his own kingdom. The prophet Isaiah had warned Ahaz this was not the course of action God intended for Judah.

We read that God spoke directly to Ahaz, assuring him protection if he did not ally himself with Assyria. God promised that within three to four years’ time, the time in which a baby begins to eat solid food, as represented by the phrase, curds, and honey, Assyria would no longer be a threat to Judah. God also promised that Ahaz’s line would be continued and a child, who was at that time still in his mother’s womb, would continue as God’s faithful servant king. In foretelling the child would be named “Immanuel,” meaning “God is with us,” Isaiah strengthened the promise that if Ahaz trusted God, Judah would remain favored by God’s presence and care. Biblical scholars believe that the child mentioned in the promise probably referred to either one of Ahaz’s wives or, perhaps, a wife of Isaiah. Isaiah had children whose names had prophetic meanings. one whose name translated from the Hebrew meant “A remnant shall return” and another named “Spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Although naming children biblical names has long been popular, I don’t believe either of these names made the most popular baby names in any year.

Despite God’s assurance, Ahaz was sure his own calculations were right. He had weighed all the seemingly logical factors and determined his best move was to go ahead with the alliance with Assyria. He had decided to do the “wrong thing” – what God has instructed him not to do – for the “right reason” – what seemed the most expedient answer to his problem. That has always been our downfall, hasn’t it? We, fallible humans, are tempted to disregard God’s long-term and lasting solutions to our problems in favor of easy and profitable short-term answers. It plagues foolish leaders and foolish followers alike and leads us further away from the peaceful, just and abundant life for all God has intended since Creation.

Even though Ahaz did not have a stellar record in listening to Isaiah’s prophecies, Isaiah offered that God was willing to send Ahaz a sign to assure him of God’s promise of protection. Ahaz responded with a deception. He justified his wrong action with a righteous reason. He claimed to be faithful by not putting God to the test – a weak and hypocritical justification of his disobedience. Isaiah saw through Ahaz’s ploy and accused him of “making God weary” with his rebellion. As Isaiah demonstrates, the game of politics is ancient, as is practicing the lies of self-righteousness. As God had warned, once the bully of the Middle Eastern playground made the alliance with Judah, Ahaz became a puppet king. Assyria had conquered Judah without firing a shot. Judah was defeated from within, by its own leader.

In juxtaposition, we read about a new Joseph, a hero in the mold of the Joseph of Egypt from the book of Genesis. We don’t hear much about Jesus’ earthly father. Just once, every three years on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we read a gospel passage that features Joseph. Only Matthew and Luke mention him at all, and Luke portrays him as a flat character, who got Mary and Jesus where they needed to be to move the story along. But in Matthew, Joseph plays an important role in the Holy Birth narrative.

As a mini-lesson for interfaith understanding, I will tell you that, in the Muslim tradition, Joseph is completely absent from the nativity story. Jesus is a major prophet in Islam, mentioned far more often than Mohammed. The account of Jesus’ birth found in the Quran does have many similarities with the Christian story. Mary is a member of the house of Zechariah and cousin to Elizabeth. She is a virgin who conceives by the power of God. She is grateful for and humbled by the honor that God has bestowed on her. In the Quran, the birth of Jesus is a miracle, but it is a miracle that happens without Joseph.

Like King Ahaz, Joseph faced a difficult decision. According to Mosaic Law, Joseph, upon learning Mary was pregnant, should not go ahead with the marriage and should bring public charges against her for adultery as well as having pre-marital sex. He would have been deemed righteous in assuaging his hurt from betrayal by publicly airing her transgression and leaving her to just punishment, which according to Mosaic law would have been death by stoning. Following the Law, this would have been the “right” action. Out of compassion, he decided to break the engagement quietly so as to save her from public humiliation and, perhaps death. Joseph saw this move as doing the right thing for the right reason. He would not marry a woman pregnant with a child not his own; and, he would preserve life and show mercy.

Matthew portrays Joseph’s refusal to publicly shame Mary as righteous. In today’s society, there is a lot of finger-pointing going around. Public shaming on the Internet has become a blood sport for bullies. Even children have bullied their peers so badly on social media that some victims have committed suicide to escape the public humiliation. We shame people we do not even know in the virtual arena of social media, such as Facebook or Twitter. As Jesus did, we should speak truth to power. We should point out hypocrisy, injustice and hateful behavior. But too often we go beyond shaming the wrongful actions with self-righteously shaming the person mercilessly. Then, doing the righteous thing for the wrong reason diminishes the personhood of another and becomes unrighteous. Amidst the terrible divisions in our country that are encouraged from outside and within, we must navigate our reasoned analyses and avoid our desire for vengeful shaming of the opposition. In those situations when speaking out is imperative to lift up the lowly, to feed the hungry, to heal the afflicted, we are called to walk with Christ. If we let Christ be our guide, we are more likely to speak truth to power for the right reasons and without treating those in opposition as less than human beings with the dignity that comes with being God’s children.

God spoke to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, the same way he spoke to Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph — in a dream. Later, the New Testament Joseph will also save his family by going to Egypt, as did the Old Testament Joseph. In the dream, God reveals to Joseph the truth of Mary’s defense that her baby was conceived, not with another man, but by God’s Holy Spirit. Joseph was instructed to marry Mary and to name the child she is carrying, Jesus. Here, Matthew makes the case that Jesus is legally descended from David. According to Jewish tradition, when a man named a baby he was declaring the child to be his own. Thus, Matthew shows that Jesus is a descendant of David through Joseph. Joseph, effectually, adopted Jesus. The name the angel of the Lord instructed Joseph to give Mary’s baby was not Emmanuel, as in Isaiah’s prophecy, it was Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which meant “God saves.”

Though Joseph may be pushed to the back row in the story of Jesus’ birth he is a biblical character that exemplifies obedience and trust to God. He also demonstrates the kind of grace God has shown us. Mary is a figure like those we know but often choose not to see. Young, female and Jewish in the Roman Empire she had little if any power or importance in society. Even her role in producing children was scorned by the political powers, which wanted fewer Jews, not more. The more Gentiles who would worship Caesar the better. Yet Joseph extended grace to her even before the dream.

We have the opportunity to be like Joseph for the Mary’s of this world. Christ invites us into uncomfortable and risky situations to show grace to the marginalized and needy people in our communities and in the world. Sometimes we, like Mary, are in need of grace ourselves when we find ourselves in predicaments, perhaps of our own making, from which we cannot free ourselves. There are times we have the opportunity to be like the voice of the angel, speaking for people whose voice the world ignores or drowns out and comforting them with the assurance God cares for them.

God reached out to Joseph and showed him that divine grace has no limit, no boundaries. God looked upon humanity’s brokenness and took the form of a vulnerable infant to be with us and show us the way to healing and wholeness. God walked with us in Jesus’ ministry and his journey to the cross. Through Christ, God took on the pain and the shame of crucifixion to show us the power and the glory of the resurrection and eternal life that we might live in the comfort and assurance of grace. So, today, looking at the world with all of its pain and anger and distrust we can look to Joseph as a model and King Ahaz as a caution. Whenever we follow God instead of the devices and desires of our own hearts and minds, whenever we extend grace to those in need, we are making the right choice for the right reason and the consequences life saving and eternal.



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
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