December 18, 2016 Isaiah 7: 10-16, Matthew 1: 18-25
In the Nick of Time
Isaiah 7: 10-16
To understand the prophetic words of Isaiah today we need a primer on the political situation back in the 8th century BCE because Isaiah’s prophecies revolved around the alliances and aggressions of several different kingdoms. The northern kingdom of Israel in alliance with the northern kingdom of Syria approached Ahaz, King of the southern kingdom of Judah. They wanted Ahaz to join their coalition to defeat Assyria. But no dice, Ahaz refused. So they decided to go it alone but the Lord said NO!, Ahaz, must have faith and join them. Ahaz was stubborn. And even after Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, he refused to have faith and put the Lord to a test. When Isaiah realized that Ahaz was hiding his fear to trust in the Lord, Isaiah becomes exasperated. So the Lord, just in the nick of time, intervened and gave an unexpected response and sign….
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
So God brushed off the wishes of Ahaz and brought a sign anyway. God shows steadfast faithfulness even when Ahaz did not and, by the way, Ahaz didn’t turn out to be such a great King for Judah anyway. Now we don’t really know who the child was that Isaiah was referring to, it’s vague, but Christians have long seen this passage as a precursor to what comes in the New Testament and in particular what we will hear in a minute from the Gospel of Matthew. All we know about Isaiah’s prophecy is that there is that the birth of a baby is a sign of renewal, that God shows up to help, in this unexpected context and moment to help. God with us. Immanuel. God brings assurance to Ahaz and each generation thereafter will find God in unexpected places, bidden or not. This is the understanding captured for us today.
Matthew 1: 18-25
Let us now hear the narrative of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Matthew, the first verse.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
In the Gospel of Matthew we are told the conception and birth from Joseph’s experience. In Luke we are privy to Mary’s experiences but in Matthew it’s all about Joseph. Both narratives are wonderfully told and give us much to think about during these remaining days of Advent although Matthew isn’t so much interested in a pretty nativity story. Joseph and Mary are real people, with real life problems that they had to negotiate and figure out as best they could. Joseph had his fair share of problems.
He and Mary were engaged to be married, which in the first century BCE was a legal and binding contract; essentially they were married but without the delight of marital relations. So Joseph had only two options when he found out that she was with child. The first was to publically declare his disgrace, humiliation and moral injury because of Mary’s ‘perceived’ indiscretion, which by the way would have ended up in Mary’s stoning or, the second option was that he could quietly divorce her.
I think we can safely say that Joseph had a tough decision to make. It was not the circumstances that he had ‘signed up for’. He thought he was going to marry a nice young woman, eventually have kids with her and happily live out his life. But this? This news was a huge upheaval in his life and in her life too. They had planned ‘happily ever after’ but that wasn’t to be.
I can only imagine the heart wrenching discussions they had when she found out she was with child. The anger, the sadness, and the betrayal – you see this story that we all know and love has this element of torment in it that is rarely talked about. Yet if we linger here a bit we can imagine this part too because this unsaid part of the narrative is, I think, what makes this narrative very powerful.
I’m pretty positive that we all can relate to the sadness of unmet expectations. A business opportunity that you’ve been working on falls through, you were counting on someone being there for you but in the end they flat out weren’t, you thought your life was heading in one direction but then it takes a turn off of the main road down a bumpy dark path. You name it, times like these are incredibly damaging to one’s spirit. But we mustn’t despair.
In spite of Joseph’s disappointment, public disgrace and unmet expectations he was still a good man, a righteous man, a kind man, a man who endeavored to do the right thing so that they could move on, he opted to divorce her and spare her life. Not that life after divorce for Mary would have been easy but at least she could live out her days, his integrity in tact. He didn’t despair.
As soon as Joseph made the decision to divorce her, one of God’s angels came to him in the nick of time. And of course we know that the angel instructed Joseph to hang in there, that Mary’s pregnancy is very special, that the Lord Immanuel will soon be here. God’s saying to Joseph just wait, be patient, don’t make any moves or take drastic actions, I know what I’m doing here and of course God did know exactly where this relationship was going to end (or begin). Not in divorce but rather in a fruitful union bearing Jesus the Christ, which changed the course of human history.
It’s funny how God seems to show up in unexpected places just in the nick of time helping us get to where we need to be or helping us out of a jam or maybe just enabling us to endure a hardship without giving up. These stories both from Isaiah and Matthew bid each generation to seek God’s unfailing presence in all sorts of and any circumstance of our lives. And when we seek, we will find it. Because God is there, God is always in those places we least expect God to be showing up, when we need God the most.
The face of a friend, the words of a stranger, in the snuggling of your pet next to you or perhaps just a walk in the woods, or the cessation of turmoil, in the nick of time, when you need God the most, God is there. As God was there for Ahaz, for Joseph and for all of those who have gone before us God is there for us now too. Be open, be alert, be attuned and seek.
Unmet expectations are met just in the nick of time. Remember, if you will as a mantra the last line of the first verse in the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” because it so beautifully illustrates how God shows up amidst life’s disappointments. “Our hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”. Just just can’t resist being with us.