Isaiah 7:10-16 CEB
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign from the Lord your God. Make it as deep as the grave or as high as heaven.”
But Ahaz said, “I won’t ask; I won’t test the Lord.”
Then Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Isn’t it enough for you to be tiresome for people that you are also tiresome before my God? Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.
Matthew 1:18-25 CEB
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
Today we have a tale of two messages. First, the prophet Isaiah offers a sign to the reluctant king, Ahaz, who is facing an uncertain future: “Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.” Second, an angel of the Lord gives righteous Joseph a sign about his fiance’s pregnancy: “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.” Each sounds so similar to the other, and yet they are so different! Each calls upon its listener to see and accept the signs of God that are all around, the signs that God is at work in my life, your lives, and in people’s lives across this wide world. However, one takes it a step further, going from simply looking for signs of God’s work in creation, to becoming a co-creator with God. One goes from seeing signs to being a sign. We have a tale of two messages, and there is also one invitation, to be a sign, to be the reminder of the reason for this season. So often we call upon the sign of the birth of Christ, upon God entering our world, as the reason but how often do we give ourselves as a sign of the Lord’s ongoing work in our world?
The prophet Isaiah comes to the King of Judah, Ahaz, and tells him that God will give the king any kind of sign he wants. In fact, he says this sign can be anything whether it’s “‘as deep as the grave or as high as heaven,’” in other words, the sky is the limit. What an offer! Instead of taking Isaiah up on this offer, Ahaz refuses, saying that he would prefer not to test God. Why though? Why refuse this gracious divine offer? How many of us would refuse that same offer today? Before we answer though, let’s explore what’s at stake in asking for a sign from God. Let’s say Ahaz does ask for something outlandish like pigs flying or hell freezing over, or even that the northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Aram stopped being a threat to him and his country overnight. If what he asks for happens, Ahaz would be left much option, he would need to trust God wholeheartedly from that point forward. That’s why the Lord is making this offer through Isaiah after all, God wants Ahaz to trust! God is saying, “If you ask, you will have to watch, and when you see signs that I am working in your life and in your world, you in return need to trust that I am God and follow me!” That’s hard for Ahaz to do, this giving up control and letting life get messy as God turns it upside down. That’s hard for any of us to do!
Ahaz’s encounter with God reminds me of a fictional encounter described by the great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky. In his work, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky imagines Jesus coming back to earth and arriving in Seville, Spain during the high days of the Inquisition. There Jesus encounters the Grand Inquisitor, the cardinal responsible for rooting out heresies and burning heretics at the stake. The inquisitor takes Christ into custody and puts him to questioning. Instead of being happy, upon seeing Jesus, he asks, “‘Is it you? You?’ But receiving no answer, he quickly adds: ‘Do not answer, be silent. After all, what could you say? I know too well what you would say. And you have no right to add anything to what you already said once. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?’” God appearing to us, speaking to us, comes with a terrible invitation, the opportunity to trust God completely. It means allowing grace to work throughout the whole of our lives. It means seeing God, not just where and when we want to see the divine, but in all the places and in all the people the divine shows up in. It means trusting in the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future and following God anyway. Ahaz the king and the Grand Inquisitor have the certainty of their roles in life and their control over their lives, and they don’t need God mucking it up.
Isaiah’s response to Ahaz is perfect for this Advent Sunday where we have lit the light of love in our sanctuary. For, God shines love into Ahaz’s life whether he likes it or not. Look at how Isaiah responds:
“Then Isaiah said, ‘Listen, house of David! Isn’t it enough for you to be tiresome for people that you are also tiresome before my God? Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.’”
King Ahaz says no thank you, and Isaiah says tough, you’re getting a sign from God anyway! It sounds harsh, but I have to chuckle! Steadfast love is God’s nature after all. We see it in the child’s name, as Immanuel means “God with us,” and that truly is the way of it. Even the Grand Inquisitor after he rails against and questions Christ is met not with anger and retribution but silent understanding and a kiss. It reminds me of a scene that I do not like from a Christmas movie I do enjoy and just rewatched this weekend with Caitlin, The Bishop’s Wife. In it, we meet an angel of the Lord named Dudley, and at one point he describes what angels do saying, “You see, we’re everywhere, helping people who deserve to be helped.” This one scene irritates me! “God only helps those that deserve it.” Nonsense! If our Bible teaches us anything, it is that God is steadfast with us even when we are not, faithful even when we do not realize God is there. God continues to love and surround us with care at all times without fail.
In Ahaz’s case, Isaiah tells him that before this young child is weaned, the king’s worries will be answered. God promises the king that in just two to three years Israel and Aram will be gone. God gives the king a sign and asks that he might respond with trust, to be in a faithful relationship with the divine. That’s a hard thing, as Joseph’s encounter also teaches us, for we might not just see signs but be invited to become a sign ourselves.
In Joseph’s case in Matthew, he has just discovered that his wife-to-be Mary is pregnant, and he has to respond. Now, in those days, Joseph could have done any number of things with this news. According to Jewish law, he could have Mary punished. He could have her publicly humiliated. He could have her stoned or exiled, but instead, he decides to simply set her aside. We are told this is because he is a righteous man. We know very little of Joseph outside of a few things like his righteousness. At first, we might think that this small fact about his character tells us that Joseph is simply pious or a do-gooder, perhaps that he’s “[morally] upright, without guilt or sin,” but it means something different in scripture. To be righteous is to be like God, as it says in Psalm 11, “For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7 CEB). To be righteous in scripture is to be steadfast in our promises and in our relationships. In other words, to keep covenant, to be lovingly faithful. Joseph seeks to be faithful in his relationship with God and with Mary. It sets him apart from Ahaz who is scared to do the former. Joseph’s dilemma is that he does not know how to be faithful to God and keep Mary as his wife.
Luckily, an angel of the Lord is sent in a dream to Joseph, telling him something as crazy as what Isaiah tells Ahaz, this baby that Mary carries is none other than “Emmanuel,” the Messiah conceived in Mary through the Holy Spirit. Normally, we see Joseph as the passive bystander in the Christmas story, he reacts to what is happening to him, but we don’t always see him being proactive much. He’s not in control here, but in that, he’s like all of us. He didn’t have a say in Mary getting pregnant. He didn’t ask to be the father of the Messiah. It’s a reminder to all of us that so much in our lives happens outside our control. Like Ahaz or the Grand Inquisitor, we had plans! Like the Bishop, we knew what our future held until an angel named Dudley stopped by to show us a different path! It looks at first that Joseph has no choice here, but like the king and all of us, Joseph has a choice, he can accept this sign and faithfully follow God or he can continue with his life plan and set Mary aside. Again, we are told Joseph is a righteous man, and to be faithful in your promises and in your relationship with God takes choice. Joseph made the choice to lean into this crazy sign and choose to keep Mary as his wife-to-be and even name the child, naming him Jesus.
It takes a lot to see signs, but it takes even more to be one. That’s what Joseph teaches us. King Ahaz and all of us get God’s care whether we deserve it or notice it, but Joseph leans into that sign of God’s care when he sees it and lives it even when it cost him a lot. He shows what it means to be righteous, to be faithful. In looking ahead, Joseph takes Mary with him to go to Bethlehem. Do we remember why? Well, if we recall, in Luke we are told that “Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in tax lists” and that “Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled” (Luke 2:1-3 NRSV). Joseph goes to Bethlehem from Nazareth because that is his family home. In those days, there were no Motel 8s or Best Westerns, “inns” were often homes of relations with a room or two to share. It may not have been an innkeeper that Joseph visited but rather a family member who told him that there was no room for him and his pregnant fiance in their house. Joseph not only accepts the sign of Emmanuel, but he also chooses to be a sign of what God’s faithful love looks like even when those around him made it painful to stay steadfast, to stay righteous.
What about us today? We say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but how are we keeping our eyes open this Advent for the ways God is active all around us? Do we have faith to trust in what we are seeing even when doing so might upset our desire for control? When it might disrupt the plans we have for our lives? What is more, are we willing to make the choice, not just to see signs but to be a sign of what God is doing in this world? God has shown us steadfast love again this Christmas. How will we respond? Are we showing steadfast love to each other and to our gracious God who is, if nothing else, with us? Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman