4th Week – Ahaz, Joseph & the Sign of Immanuel

Isaiah 7:10-14; Matthew 1:18-24

We are presented two encounters in our readings today. There are two men, each faced with a crisis and have decided on their action; they are then confronted by the Word of God in front of which they have to re-interpret their situation and make a choice.

First, there is Ahaz. He is the new king of Israel. He is about 20 years old and inexperienced. And now possibly the biggest crisis a king could have in a lifetime looms in front of him. Assyria, the new world power is on the rise which means doom for Israel. And his ‘friendly’ neighbours are plotting a coup d’etat against him. He decides to solve it the only way he knows, through the use of power; by making a political alliance with the superpower – Assyria itself. And now, the prophetic Word comes to him. Do not make this alliance; trust God to protect Israel. And ask God for any sign you want. Ahaz refuses to listen. And Isaiah says, well, God himself will give you a sign. The maiden is with child and will give birth to a son, he will be called Immanuel – God with us.

Who is this maiden? There is no one answer. It could have been Ahaz’s own wife and his son Hezekiah. Hezekiah would be faithful to God and in his time, Assyria will be defeated by a miraculous intervention of God. But even more, the maiden was Israel herself. Israel was the virgin daughter Zion. She was God’s bride, she had received God’s word, the seed which she was carrying which would bear fruit in the salvation of the world. You realise, Israel was birthed out of God’s word. They were slaves in Egypt, but the Word of God coming to them from Moses would make them a free people. They were in covenant, in special relationship with God, particularly exemplified in the covenant with King David. And in the midst of the terrible threat, in front of the powers of the world, God was offering the same thing he had always given them – his word of promise, symbolised by this defenceless maiden, with child. But Ahaz could see only one solution; a solution of power because he sees the world only in terms of who has power and who doesn’t. God wasn’t part of his worldview. If Ahaz had realised who he was – the king in the line of David – he would have known God would have protected him and Israel. Ahaz’s decision might have been good politically – but it became a disaster because in forgetting who he was, he didn’t see the bigger picture that God was working out. And he failed spectacularly. God’s promise would still be worked out, but Ahaz would have disqualified himself from it. In the process he will also plunge a great number of his people into misery. 

Israel would wait hundreds of years for the Messiah God had promised to come, to free them. But they couldn’t know that the freedom they would receive was far greater than what they hoped for. And even lesser, that the daughter of Zion, the maiden carrying the Word would now take flesh and blood in one 14 year old girl from Nazareth, Mary. The maiden would no longer be symbolic, she would carry in herself, the hopes and desires of all the generations of Israel for which the child she is carrying will be the answer. 

The Ark of the Covenant,” Gwyneth Leech.
Image by Lawrence Lew, O.P.;
licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

And now the drama would turn, on another son of David, Joseph. Joseph is described as a ‘just’ man, which is the Old Testament equivalent of a saint. But it also meant he was attentive to fulfilling the requirements of the law. And the law required a woman who was with child outside wedlock to be stoned to death. Joseph was probably of humble background, a carpenter.

But he was holy. He could probably have sensed the sanctity of Mary. Holiness recognises holiness. Yet, there is the undeniable fact that she is pregnant and there was only one way women became pregnant. But even with such undeniable facts, he refuses to judge Mary. His humility is remarkable. Joseph’s first Christmas was an incredible mess. But within this, Joseph’s first thought is not about himself, it’s about Mary, out of compassion. Mary probably hasn’t told him anything, what could she tell him? That an angel visited her? She lets the drama play out in complete trust and silence. He doesn’t try to force it from her but unable to be involved, decides to send her away quietly. And now, the Word comes to Joseph.

‘Joseph, son of David’ – you are not just anyone, you are the one who can give the legal name to the Son of God to be Messiah. Will you step into this mess? Will you step out of your life which is understandable and secure and take this woman into your home? Will you take the virgin with child into your home and trust God unlike your predecessor Ahaz? Will you rise up and undo the fall of Adam?  And Joseph does. The assurance of God’s word is enough for him to step out into complete uncertainty. And saving the maiden with child, he finds his own salvation and takes his place in world history. 

This Word has come to you and me. Every day, we are faced with situations which require a decision from us, be it mundane or serious. How you respond depends on how you see yourself. And how you view the world. Where does your worth, your meaning come from? Money? Power? Or in the simplicity of what counts to being truly human? 

You’re confronted with an unplanned pregnancy – what are you going to do? Yes, you’re unprepared. It doesn’t fit with your plans. But how do you respond? I take this example simply because it ties so well with the gospel. But every situation we face we can respond in one of two ways – life or death, with love or selfishness, with trust or lack of it. Do you take a job which involves working so much that you never see your family or maybe doing something that has a better balance but lesser pay? How do you face an occasion of injustice? A person who you’re not obliged to help requires your help which will cost you. There are no fixed answers to these things. But your answer will depend on how you see the world and where you find your identity.If you’re Christian, God has promised to be with you in all situations of your life – even the ones you mess up. This is the incredible promise and the good news of baptism. But he is not present in power and wealth and the solutions of the world. He is present in the everyday relationships, the small things, the weakness of everyday life, in love. That is the sign of Immanuel. Ahaz couldn’t believe in the poverty of God’s word against the power of Assyria. Joseph responded to trust in the poverty of a child and a woman who needed him. And he saved the world.