December 22, 2019
Today we light the fourth candle in the Advent season and in only a couple of days, the white candle for the Christ child will be our guiding star. After the prophets announced that something amazing was going to happen on the first Sunday in Advent, and then encountering John the Baptist “preparing the way of the Lord”, today we meet Joseph. We are now in Lectionary Cycle A and the Gospel of Matthew guides us through his version of the birth narrative. We do not hear Mary’s song — the Magnificat and, in a way that heroes in the old western movies were quiet, stoic, simply doing what is right and with few words — Joseph is that kind of figure. In fact, he is a man of no words, only action in response to whispering angels who guide him.
I want to focus today on the richness of the texts before us — Isaiah, Psalm 80, a psalm of petition, the Epistle of James, and finally, Matthew himself. We are setting the stage for the mystery of Christmas and while waiting, while getting ready, I want to set the stage before the children show us the way on Christmas Eve.
Let us begin with the passage from Isaiah. We should refer to this prophet as First Isaiah as there were probably three prophets who wrote under the name, Isaiah. This era occurred is under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria around 740 BC. Assyria was the strongest nation and threatening the three neighboring kingdoms of Aram, Israel and Judah. Ahaz is the King of Judah and Judah was the Southern kingdom of the Hebrew people, made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin with Jerusalem as its capital. Israel (to the north) retained members of the other ten tribes that split from Judah after the death of King Solomon under the rule of his son, Rehoboam. All of this matters because this civil war weakened the Hebrew people, leaving them divided and vulnerable to the growing power of the Assyrians. Ahaz has refused to join with Israel and Aram against the Assyrians, and so Aram and Israel attacked Jerusalem. Today’s reading begins after the attack of these northern neighbors. The Lord speaks to Ahaz, calling the king to turn to the Lord, to seek help. Ahaz refuses, saying he won’t put God to the test. This is a bit of Old Testament prooftexting — using scripture to justify unfaithfulness. (Alas, we still go to scripture to find passages to justify our own issues!)
Ahaz is chided by the prophet Isaiah for not asking for God’s help and says that God will give a sign, the Lord will be faithful. It is here that the familiar story of a young woman (in Hebrew, a young woman, in Greek, a virgin), pregnant with a son whose name will be Immanuel and who will (in a time frame of “coming of age” — between two and thirteen) understand the nature of good and evil; this child is the sign that the Kingdoms of Aram and Israel shall fall within thirteen years. And so, it was. Aram and Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC. Judah prevailed for another 150 years or so, falling to the Babylonians in 598 BC.
The point from Matthew is to tell the story of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew scripture being fulfilled. The pregnant woman in the story from Isaiah is relevant to God’s encounter with Ahaz — we see God’s hand acting and Matthew sees that story as “fulfilling the prophecy” ongoing — God continues to act if only we have eyes to see. This is an important part of understanding Matthew’s motive and style. It is very different from Luke’s telling of the story, and for us, another lens for coming to know the wonder of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Immanuel, the Christ. Immanuel — Immanu means with us and El means God — the coming together of God and humanity. God with us.
The Psalm reinforces this fact, God is with us and God alone will save us.The Epistle of James was probably written between fifty-five and sixty-two CE — we do not know, but think, James was the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem and speaking to them in a time of Roman persecution. The Romans grew weary of the rebellious Hebrew people and in a violent crackdown and ultimately the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the Romans drove out the Jews and with them, the small band of Christians. Yet another diaspora of the people and the total dismantling of the Temple hierarchy. It was a time of suffering and James seeks to encourage the Jewish Christians who are now scattered.
And that brings us to Matthew’s Gospel. Lucky for us, the lectionary didn’t include Matthew 1:1-17 — genealogy of Jesus — we would still be reading it! Matthew’s genealogy differs from Luke but let’s clarify the use of the genealogy — it isn’t so much an accurate counting of every generation but instead a kind of oral remembering of who we are and whose we are — in Matthew’s case he counts three cycles of fourteen generations each cycle and it is important to remember that the lineage of David was part of the prophetic vision of the coming of the Messiah. Since he is writing to what was a community of Jewish Christians, Matthew has a curious inclusion of women in his genealogy, especially because these woman were out of the cultural norm — a prostitute, an outsider, the wife of a warrior, and finally Mary, the young maiden, the virgin betrothed to Joseph. Matthew is assuring these early Jewish Christians that Jesus is indeed the promised heir and that Joseph chooses to claim him as his child.
Joseph is silent and Joseph steps up to the plate, not once, not twice but three times. My offering today is this: How willing are we to be responsive to the urging of the spirit, even in the face of challenging circumstances? We often consider Mary at this time of year — the Theotokos, the god-bearer and we consider how we might be like her — bearing the Christ child to the world. But perhaps we are called to be more like Joseph — silent, courageous, selfless and generous in his love. As we prepare for this Holy Night, let us ponder in our hearts what it means to shelter, protect, love and honor this child who becomes our savior in the end, for Immanuel lives, God is with us.