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Advent 4 Year A RCL December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7: 1-16
Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19
Romans 1: 1-7
Matthew 1: 18-25

In our opening lesson, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to King Ahaz of Judah. The year is about 734 or 735 B.C.  The powerful Assyrian Empire is threatening the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Syria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Israel and Syria want King Ahaz to join with them in a coalition against the Assyrian Empire.

This is a situation in which it is easy to be completely overwhelmed by fear. Isaiah is encouraging Ahaz to remain neutral in this conflict and to trust God to lead him and the people through this crisis.

Isaiah points out a young woman. Some scholars think this woman might actually be Isaiah’s wife. The woman is pregnant. She is going to bear a son named Immanuel, God with us. Isaiah is trying to help King Ahaz see that, even among the machinations of enemies and empires, faith is the most important thing. As it turned out, Ahaz did not follow Isaiah’s guidance. He actually made an alliance with the Assyrian Empire, which was even bigger than Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Assyrian Empire eventually invaded Jerusalem.

As Christians, we think of this passage as foretelling the birth of Jesus, our Emmanuel, God with us. What does it mean to realize that God is always with us, leading and guiding us?

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that God promised through the prophets, to send God’s Son, who opens new life to us and gives us grace to minister in his Name.

And then we have Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. This story focuses on a most courageous and faithful and wise man, Joseph.

Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, but he knows that the child is not his. Back in those days, women were routinely stoned to death for such offenses. We recall what Jesus told some folks who were about to do just that. He said that those who were without sin should cast the first stone, and they all walked away.

Joseph makes up his mind not to make a public spectacle of Mary. In such a situation, the law says that the proper thing is to divorce the woman, but Joseph plans to do this quietly. He wants to spare her disgrace. Even in this very awkward situation, he is very respectful toward Mary.

But then Joseph has a dream, and in that dream an angel of the Lord appears to him and tells him that the child is indeed from the Holy Spirit. The angel tells Joseph that he should name the child Jesus, and this means that Joseph is in effect adopting Jesus. Some commentators point out that, on a purely human level, Jesus was an illegitimate child. Joseph adopted him, but, until then, he did not have an earthly father. Scholars point out that there may have been talk around Nazareth about this situation, that, among the many difficult things Jesus went through was the experience of having questionable parentage. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus also experienced what it meant to be refugees when they fled into Egypt.

The text says that Joseph is a righteous man. “Righteous” means that he had a right relationship with God. Righteous does not mean holier than thou or rigid in theology. It means that Joseph was close to God, He turned to God for help and guidance and insight and inspiration. As we follow the role of Joseph in Jesus and Mary’s lives, it becomes clear that he was always open to God’s direction.

Just think for a moment: what if Joseph had not been the person he was? Anyone who knew Mary would know that she would never be unfaithful, She kept her commitments, She followed Jesus to the foot of the cross. But a lesser man might have just taken a look at the superficial appearances and made a different decision. Not Joseph. Even before he received that direct communication from God he had made the most loving decision he could have made under the law.

They made the trip to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born in David’s city. That was a grueling journey. Always, always, Joseph was the protector. Afterward, when Herod decided to murder all the baby boys, Joseph took Mary and the baby into Egypt. Always, he was there to take care of them. Always, he was respectful toward Mary and this precious little baby. He took major risks in order to care for his adopted son. This is a wonderful role model for fathers in all ages and places.

We are now very close to that wonderful time when we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

And so, I go back to that question: what does it mean to realize that God is with us? It means that we realize that God loves us enough to come and live among us. And when we think of God as being with us, we also remember that we need to be with God. We need to seek God’s guidance and help. We need to be more like Joseph and less like King Ahaz, who just ignored Isaiah and God and went off and did his own thing.

Joseph is someone who knew that God was as near as his breath. He turned to God. Back in those days, people often received guidance from God in their dreams. Even when Joseph was asleep he was open to God’s leading. Do we seek God’s direction? Do we, like Joseph, know that God is as close as our own breath? Would we have the courage that Joseph had? Courage that only God can give? Would we step beyond our comfort zone and into the growing kingdom of God as Joseph did? Would we assist at this birth of a new thing? A new order? A new world?

Emmanuel, God with us.  May we prepare for his birth in us and in the world he made.  Amen.

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