12/18/22 – Ahaz, Joseph and the Big Test

AHAZ, JOSEPH AND THE BIG TEST

December 18, 2022
4th Sunday of Advent
Isa. 7:10-17; Ps. 80; Rom. 1:1-7; Matt.1:18-25
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

You will notice that we have something new in our sanctuary, a creche, a representation of Christ’s nativity story. In my preparation for my first Advent season at Westminster, I was surprised to find there was no creche to put in the sanctuary for the season. Where was the scene of the nativity, with an empty manger waiting for the Christ child to be placed there on Christmas Eve? Perhaps, there had been one before the fire in 1985? Someone else noticed something that seemed to be missing. When Virginia McNear, offered to let us use the creche, which had graced the foyer of her home for many years, for our sanctuary, I was delighted to accept her offer.

I’m sure many of us remember Christmas pageants in which either we or our children participated. I remember that all the girls wanted to be Mary, but the boys were more interested in being one of the three kings than being Joseph. Joseph didn’t make a grand entrance like the kings. His costume wasn’t nearly as fine and dazzling as the kings. Joseph’s first scene was being rejected by the innkeeper and then at the end, he just stood there while all eyes were on Mary and the baby.

Only two of the four gospels have a birth narrative. In Luke, the story is all about Mary and Joseph barely gets a mention – only two verses. Matthew tells us a little more, but we only hear it read in church once every three years, so I would feel remiss if I didn’t give him his due. But, before we get to Joseph, the lectionary provides a build-up to Joseph’s entrance into the drama of Christ’s birth.

Now King Ahaz was not nearly as noble a character in the drama of God’s salvation history as Joseph, yet as is usually the case, being a man of wealth and power, he does demand attention. The situation Isaiah shares with us in the verses before our reading is this: Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, after the divide, is surrounded by nations that want that little piece of prime real estate for themselves. No, it didn’t have oil, but crossing through Judah would get a king’s army and the king’s merchants to a lot of lucrative places.

King Ahaz had a dilemma. What could he do to ward off invasions by neighboring countries, Syria, Israel, or Assyria? Ahaz wanted to put his trust in alliances with neighboring kings to save his own little empire. He decided to make an alliance with Assyria to protect him from the other two. Yet, the prophet Isaiah had told him that God wanted Ahaz to stand firm and trust God’s promise to protect Judah. He also delivered God’s warning not to enter into any defensive compromises with other nations. The verse before our reading began is that chilling warning: “If you do not stand firm in the faith, you shall not stand at all.” (vs.9) You would think God couldn’t make it any plainer, but Ahaz was determined he knew best.

God even went so far as to offer a sign to assure him of the promise. But Ahaz wanted to do things his way. Ahaz feigned allegiance to God’s earlier admonitions to the Hebrew people when they attempted to test God. However, as Joseph and Paul would later learn, God always works for the greater good in new situations and does so in humanly unimaginable ways. We have a knack for clever, self-justifying rationalizations for not doing the right thing.  God sees through that time-worn rouse of quoting scripture to justify what we want to do, even when it goes against the spirit of God’s laws which places love, mercy, and justice above all in our intentions. How many signs has God given us that we have chosen to ignore?

 King Ahaz wanted to put his trust in alliances with other kings because he didn’t have enough confidence in God to be vulnerable. He needed the appearance of strength before other nations. Not only did he not trust God, but he also wouldn’t even humble himself before God to ask for a sign. It was traditional for kings to ask for a sign from their gods when they were making big decisions. No, Ahaz had a higher opinion of his own deal-making skills than he had faith in God and obedience to God’s will.

Being steadfast, slow to anger, and gracious, God decided to give Ahaz a sign anyway. Our God of second chances overlooked Ahaz’s cold, calculating heart and promised Ahaz a sign: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” A great segue from Ahaz to Joseph, right? Not exactly. The Hebrew verb used quite clearly puts that woman in the present tense. A woman is already pregnant. Biblical scholars tell us that the soon-to-be-delivered child is probably either Ahaz’s son Hezekiah or one of Isaiah’s sons who carried on the family tradition of prophecy. Matthew takes that prophecy and interprets it to be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Neither Ahaz nor Joseph named the baby of their next generation, Immanuel. However, God was sending the same message: God is with us. In Jesus, God went so far as to join in our humanity to show us the way back to obedience to God’s righteousness.

If you look forward to chapter 8 in Isaiah, you will see that the name, Immanuel, is used to identify all of God’s people who were threatened by Assyria’s army. Matthew seems to be considering the whole narrative arc of God’s salvation in history when he speaks of this scripture’s fulfillment of an Immanuel. In Isaiah 9, we again see the promise of another child, who will bring Judah out of the terrible times of destruction and foreign occupation: The ordinary child born in Isaiah 7 as a sign of failure will be replaced by an extraordinary child as a sign of salvation. Matthew saw this current of new kings flowing into the greater, all-encompassing sign God gave in the birth of God’s Son.

But, why did God have to make Jesus’ birth so complicated and difficult? Why did God choose Jesus’ mother, a poor, young Jewish peasant girl, who had yet to be married? Why did God put Joseph in the dilemma of choosing to obey Jewish law regarding sex outside of marriage or to protect human life, which was and is foundational to the Jewish faith? Deuteronomy 22 lays out the penalties for adultery in several different scenarios. Mary and her unborn child should, by law, be stoned to death. Couldn’t God have sent those angels to deliver the message that Mary’s child was “born of the Holy Spirit” before he went through the agonizing soul-searching to determine a faithful course of action?

Joseph’s” righteousness” was that he interpreted the law in the most compassionate way possible. He decided to break their engagement “quietly” in hopes Mary’s family would take care of her and the baby, which they had no obligation to do by law. Keep in mind, Joseph’s shame would have been their shame also. The initial silence of God to Joseph was as challenging for him as the clear and concise message God spoke to Ahaz. In both situations God appeared to be testing the men: Are you going to act faithfully? Does your hope in God remain steadfast in the face of chaos and confusion in your life?”

It is only after Joseph makes his decision, that God gets around to giving Joseph a sign to assure him that by going through with the marriage and taking Mary’s child as his own, Joseph would be fulfilling the greatest law — the law of love. As one biblical commentator astutely noted: “Jesus’ vulnerability to the law is the sign of the power of the One who was to fulfill the whole purpose of the law.”

Perhaps God was testing Joseph. Like Joseph and Mary’s situation, our lives are complex and challenging. God sent Jesus into a social construct that had all the complications our families and our communities face. Our human relationships are difficult to navigate. One rule does not fit all situations. It is only love that guides us through the murky turbulent waters of our communal lives.

Paul ties it all together. As Saul, the zealous Pharisee who rigidly upheld God’s law as interpreted by humans, Paul persecuted followers of Christ. After having been given his own sign from God, and meeting the risen Christ, he did a 180-turn and became an evangelist and martyr for Christ. Like Joseph, Paul had to look beyond the letter of the law to see the new thing God was doing. They each changed their expected path because they trusted God, despite unanswered questions. Ahaz could not bring himself to have the kind of trust in God that empowered Joseph and Paul to be vulnerable in the world and obedient before God.

This leaves us to consider that in times of God’s silence or being faced with difficult questions, we too may be being prepared for God to do a new thing in our lives.  Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God, in Christ. It is a time to pay attention to the signs that God is active in the world. It is a time to practice the faith and obedience that will enable us to handle what God is putting in front of us. It is a time to let God’s love enter our hearts and guide our lives into a new future.

 

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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