Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, whether kings or carpenters, world leaders or fiancés, fear often leads us to compound our difficult circumstances as we choose the wrong allies. God gave us a sign who is himself the Good News who saves his people from their enemies – all of them. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
Looking at the map it was clear his little Country was surrounded. Rumors had been confirmed that a new enemy was on the move. What choice did he have? Could he negotiate with an old power to the South? What about that pair to the North? Word is they are mounting their own threat. Could he make a deal, an alliance?
It could be that while he assessed his circumstances, even looking at the map, he received a visit. The leading faith leader in the Country came calling. He did not suggest analyzing the decision with a T-chart to list the pros and cons. He did not suggest a truce should the enemy breach the defenses. Instead, this faith leader invited the king, the commander-in-chief, to trust God.
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear and do not lose heart.
Evidently the king had already had thoughts he could not undo. He was anxious. People depended on him. He could not remain quiet with the news of the plot from the powers to the North. Fear had already gripped him. He did not have the heart to fight.
The faith leader spoke again.
Ask a sign from the LORD.
Ahaz could not laugh Isaiah out of his office after all Israel did have a religious history to consider. The proposition seemed preposterous. What did this faith leader know about war, about superpowers? Isaiah’s words came as a challenge to Ahaz, “Ask for a sign!” Did Ahaz study the offer? One wonders. If we look carefully at the Sacred Text we discover the appeal came with no strings, no limits. It was not, “Ask for a sign within reason.” Or, “Ask for a sign within the budget.” It was as open-ended as that,
Ask for a sign; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
Not only was it open-ended, but it was asking God for a sign. So not only did the faith leader suggest the king ask for anything, he said to ask God for anything. As if God could not do anything, ask God for anything. It is the open-ended nature of the offer and the powerful reality of the One being asked that made Ahaz’s response ring hollow, hypocritical, even arrogant.
“I couldn’t do that,” Ahaz replied.
It was actually worse than that.
Which part? He couldn’t conceive of a sign that would be enough for him to trust God? Or, he dare not imagine God powerful enough to grant the request? Do you see how it sounds? At once it makes you think he was being humble. He wasn’t. His lack betrayed any sense of faithfulness, that God would keep his word. Ahaz was too proud to ask. And it wasn’t a good thing. Assyria would surely come calling. Egypt would not be able to help. Syria and her vassal states would not make an alliance. His pride would mean no hope. No help.
Filled with not just a smattering of righteous indignation, Isaiah said a sign would be given. One Ahaz had not asked for. A young woman would bear a child. Not just any child but the birth of this child would lay out a timetable for the disaster that was to come. The birth of a child is both a blessing and a sign of judgment. When the child is able to eat curds and honey and know how to refuse the evil and choose the good the resistant pride would reap a whirlwind of grief. It would take about two years.
Then it happened.
The sign of the blessing of life became a sign of judgment upon the pride of the king and people.
Against this backdrop, we hear the story in Matthew that Alex read just a bit ago. All the features of the story of Ahaz could well be found on a very personal level for Joseph.
His long anticipation of the preparations for him taking Mary to be his wife was met with the news that she was pregnant. That news could easily be received as enemies of his life and future had won out. To his way of thinking, may we say most anyone’s normal way of thinking, the Power of Sin had won. It must be that Mary’s newfound pregnancy was the result of any number of actions, not the least of which could well be her own doing. All the emotional range Ahaz felt at the news he would soon be under attack came crashing down on Joseph.
How could he think anything other than what he knew? Take heed of what? Quiet? How could he not say something? It was not his doing! Do not fear. Can you imagine the whispers? There he is, the poor fellow. He did not need pity he needed a plan. He did not need his friends to feel sorry for him he needed a way out. Lose heart? He was crushed. All he had planned, dreamed of, had come crashing down. He would be justified with any action he took.
Do you see? No matter if we face the threat of a superpower or circumstances beyond our personal control. It is nigh laughable to ask us to trust what we cannot see. It is absurd, isn’t it, to invite us to ask for a sign. How is this NOT a sign? You think we should take someone into confidence when given this sort of news? How many times has that turned out terribly? Sometimes, many times, situations like Joseph’s leave us feeling trapped, with limited options and none of them good ones.
Who hasn’t been there? Been here, where Joseph or even Ahaz was?
Matthew took up telling the story of Jesus. And when it came to Joseph he saw a way to stretch the shadow of darkness Joseph must have felt all the way back to Ahaz. While the people in Joseph’s day were not exiled to another place, they certainly were not in control of their own land, much less their own destiny. The darkness that had covered Isreal under Ahaz seemed to stretch into the present for Joseph. Could it be that even Matthew wanted to help those who would read this Gospel story, even us, to know just how bleak the people felt their circumstances? How in telling this story of Joseph would heighten the hope brought by the birth of another child?
Here Matthew takes the words from Isaiah and he lays them over the story of Joseph. There in Isaiah, the birth of a child would signal the end. For Joseph, the news that Mary was pregnant was the end of his own dream.
Consider it. Today many people find what we call the Virgin Birth a notion too far fetched to be little more than a myth. Unlike Elizabeth and Zechariah who at their age could not believe themselves to become parents, Mary was at the age she would be expected to marry and have children. And, that these events would follow in order. Joseph no more believed in a virgin birth than any modern thinker would. The idea that he could create his own truth to make it so was preposterous. Joseph, the very best Joseph could do was to show Mary grace.
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Joseph did not ask for a sign. He had planned a family. But just as he was about to put is plan into action, to show Mary the grace he intended, he received a visit from an angel. You heard Alex read the text. Matthew, the one telling the story, noted,
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
Look, the virgin shall conceive and ear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”
The people, all people, all of us who never asked for a sign, received a sign. Rather than continue in the long shadows of darkness cast by the decisions of others or our own, the birth of this child would bring great deliverance. Pride of place, power, and position used by the Powers of Sin to keep people in darkness would be overtaken by a new ally.
We would not need to work an alliance with the lesser powers to the North. We would not need to consider sending an ambassador to the South to look for help. We need not fear the threat of a new power that would surely come. The Good News is God is with us! We are not asked to believe in the Virgin Birth, though many of us do. We are asked to believe the child is who God declares him to be – God with us who will save his people from their sins – from their enemies.
Joseph believed the news about the child!
Please do not hear me this morning calling into question the manner of Mary’s pregnancy. But, hear me saying that the message the angel brought emphasizes the child, the sign, the gift.
Joseph did not rely on his own truth, his inner truth. Joseph trusted the words he heard. And, that is precisely how the Scripture says faith is given birth, hearing the words of God’s grace that in Christ he is with us, saving us from our sins – all our enemies.
The child, Jesus, is both a blessing of life and judgment on all Powers that would keep people in darkness.
God in Christ is our best ally against all Powers!
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen here.