Isaiah 7, 10-14 + Psalm 24 + Roman 1, 1-7 + Matthew 1, 18-24
Today’s text from Isaiah is so familiar and comfortable that we no longer question what he was really speaking about. Christians easily read the scriptures backwards and like to think that Isaiah was predicting the future, writing about Jesus of Nazareth, sustaining the hopes of countless people through endless ages until suddenly Matthew applies the text to the birth of Jesus, and it’s all settled. No it is not. At the risk of spoiling the way you may have heard this text for much of your life, it is not fair to Isaiah, Matthew, or yourself for that matter, to treat the text in such a simple and shallow way. That this text is only proclaimed days before Christmas makes it all the more difficult to dig deeper into the challenge of Isaiah. This is not about Jesus. Isaiah had no clue about what would happen 700 years after he spoke those words. He speaks to a problem of his time, and for that matter, he still speaks to the same problem in this time.
Isaiah is warning the foolish King Ahaz that relying on the military might of a neighbor who was unbelieving was courting disaster, because by doing so Ahaz was not remaining faithful to the God of his ancestors. Ahaz is like Herod who has put his trust in the Romans betraying the faith of his own people in the God of their ancestors. Consequently Matthew sees the similarity, and the prophetic warning continues into our own age every time we pick up this text. We cannot abandon the faith of our ancestors and trust easy alliances and compromises with anything less than the God who is Immanuel, the God who is present and active among us.
Yet it goes on. We trust ideologies, political alliances, military might, and naïve economic policies to bring us justice and peace when only God’s way do. Rather than rely upon service and sacrifice, commitment and love our young people look to careers and wealth, influence and power to make their lives meaningful and happy. We bend to the opinions of others and compromise our most basic principles to look good and be liked. In the light of all this stands the man at the center of today’s Gospel, Joseph who in all the gospels speaks no a word. He just does what is right again and again. I sometimes think it is because he does not talk. He just listens and then decides what is right. He never argues or becomes defensive.
In spite of what others might think, and there was plenty for them to think and say about him, he does what is right; and as Matthew puts it so simply, “He takes her into his home.” What he does in fact, is set himself up to be mocked and ridiculed and as fool for taking a woman who is with child by someone else into his home as his wife. That would take some courage even today. But over and above the details, what he does is ignore what other people think refusing to let that control him and make his decisions. What a man! He put her reputation above his own. King Ahaz thought his salvation would be secure through his army. Joseph discovered an alternative in Immanuel and accepted a risk we call faith. “Do not be afraid.” said the angel.
It is a painful reality of this age that so few of us take the challenge of old Isaiah to heart failing to trust in God rather than in “princes” as one of the psalmists says. There is still too much fear that keeps too many of us from doing what is right and trusting in Immanuel. The angel’s message is till proclaimed. Like Paul writing to the Romans, becoming a “slave to Christ” is what ultimate set him free; free to live with courage, free to do what was right, free from worry about what others would think or say, free to have one goal, the Will of God.
Immanuel is not only a messiah and a person, Immanuel is an experience of freedom that allows us to discover our true identity and the spark of divine life that is within us all as children of the light called from darkness and the slavery of sin to the freedom of God’s children.
We close this Advent Season with the image of Joseph before us.
Joseph, free, fearless, and faithful.
Joseph, prudent and wise.
Joseph who listens to angels and asks for no signs.
Joseph who risks everything by taking Mary into his home accepts the divine guest she bears.
How better to celebrate again the presence of God among us than by learning from Joseph how to be free, fearless, and faithful, prudent, and wise? Faith for Joseph was an adventure that allowed him to walk with confidence into the unknown. He did not just open his home, he first opened his life. Three days before Christmas, the Church invites us to do the same.