... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Advent 4 Year A
Message December 22, 2013

Faces of Faith

Text: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

How many have seen the movie, “A Walk in the Clouds” starring Keanu Reeves? It’s a wonderful love story about a WWII soldier just returned from the war and picking up his life as a chocolate salesman. As he boards a train he literally bumps into a beautiful grad student on her way back to her family. It turns out she is pregnant by one of her professors and she is returning in shame and fear. The two decide to play a ruse on her father pretending to be married and after a day or so he would leave ostensibly for his work and then not return, thus preserving her honour and giving her a measure of safety. The problem is the grandfather suspects the ruse and entices the young man to stick around. Things become further complicated as the two young people fall in love. Eventually obstacles are overcome, relationship are healed and the whole family is able to look forward with hope. It is a great love story!

The fourth Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of love and the Gospel reading from Matthew is indeed a love story – a love story with a twist. It is a love story founded on and strengthened by faith. Faith in God’s promises, faith in a covenantal tradition and faith surpassing obstacles of law.

While Matthew begins the narrative for today declaring, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way”, it is obvious that the intent is not so much about Jesus’ birth as it is about who Jesus is, and the action of God in the establishment of faith. As such we see that there is an immediate but concise telling of Mary’s pregnancy, its discovery and the resulting conflict posed for both Joseph and the families. The law in Israel from earliest times concerning betrothed couples was that even though they might be what we would refer to as engaged, it was usually an arranged union and neither person in all likelihood would have known the other much less dated prior to the wedding. Shock added to shock Mary is pregnant and by law she would have been considered an adulteress and her crime punishable by public stoning, or if the husband to be opted she would be divorced and cut free not only by him but her family and left to fend for herself on the fringes of society – shunned, shamed and segregated.

It was this second option that Joseph had in mind, perhaps out of fear for his own honour, perhaps out of respect for the families, or perhaps out of an inward emotion that he had for Mary. We are told that he was a righteous man and had wanted to avoid disgrace. But we are also informed he was a god-fearing man and open to hear the word of God. That word not only affirms his emotions for Mary but clears the air for their life together. The child is not a child of adultery but a child of God through the Holy Spirit and that he, Joseph, was to name the child thus signifying his acceptance of Mary and adopting the baby as his own.

Theologically this simple account describes and affirms several important concepts. First the child is no ordinary child. Jesus is a child of a fresh new divine act pointing back to the very creation of humanity. Jesus is a new Adam born of the lineage of Abraham the original Patriarch of Israel. Here is a new king as distinctive from previous kings as David had been from Saul. Here was a child of faith who would be with God. This is an important point as we are told his title will be Emmanuel.

The second point is the stress on Mary’s virginity as a way to connect the old prophecies to the personhood of Jesus as well as validating the title of Emmanuel. This Matthew accomplishes with a reference to Isaiah 7:10-16. And herein lies both the twist of the unexpected and the obvious work of God’s hand.

The Isaiah passage which Matthew references does not say virgin. Rather it says, “the young woman” and probably refers to Isaiah’s wife. But to appreciate the connection we need to know the context of this Isaiah passage and then the link back to Matthew. Thus let us look at Isaiah. The prophet is confronting King Ahaz, a king of Judah in the South who is embroiled in a war with the northern kingdom of Israel and its ally Samaria. King Ahaz had been an apostate encouraging worship of foreign gods and not at all interested in a politics guided by or governed by a theology. His war is purely political and social. Isaiah confronts him with his faithlessness and tells him he has only to trust in God and the war will cease. Ahaz, unwilling to listen – either out of fear of loss of self-control over the situation or truly a lack of faith – is unwilling to listen to the prophet. Isaiah in turn invites Ahaz to ask for a sign to which Ahaz feigns a piety by quoting Deuteronomy not to put the Lord to the test.

We are to see this not just from the previously described character of Ahaz but because Isaiah shows this test as an invitation from God rather than a test initiated by human initiation. Isaiah goes on to give a sign anyway and that sign probably was the description of his wife’s pregnancy and imminent birth and naming of the child. That son would be called Immanuel meaning God with us. This was not an uncommon thing among the prophets – often the children of the prophets were named with names signifying an oracle or omen for the nation. Indeed such was the case here for the oracle had both an imminent good-news/bad-news omen for Ahaz. The usual time for a child to be weaned or to know “good from evil” was considered two years and the good news was that the timing was to correspond with the ceasing of the threat from the Northern kingdom. The bad news, however, was that this two years was the foreshadowing of the overthrow which was to come at the hands of the ensuing Assyrian Empire which would follow the Israel-Samarian retreat from Judah’s borders.

What had been the failed test of faith given to Ahaz by the prophet Isaiah, becomes the highlighted faith of Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel.

How the prophecies concerning “the young woman” came to be “virgin” is a twist of fate only God could have orchestrated. The Hebrew word for a young woman in the Septuagint, the Greek version of Scripture, was mistranslated as an “unmarried woman” and hence “virgin” in the Latin and subsequent English translations. A literary twist which would turn an oracle from an ancient imminent political prediction to a messianic prophecy pointing to the true identity of Jesus. Thus Immanuel of Isaiah become Emmanuel of Jesus’ title and which Matthew continues later on in Jesus’ farewell discourse – Lo I am with you always to the end of the age.”

The other twist is in the name of the child Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew or Aramaic name Joshua which means, salvation and when linked with the title Emmanuel becomes salvation as God is with us, and as Matthew would want us to be aware Jesus is God with us.

And finally we come back to the aspect of faith. As Ahaz was faithless, Joseph is faith filled – he sees the vision, hears the angel and is moved by love. He no longer has doubts and so an awakening from his sleep goes on to marry Mary, name the child and do as God has and will direct.

The story of Joseph and Mary is a love story founded on faith directed by God for the purpose of salvation of all. May we enter into the Christmas season with this in our hearts that our faith also will be strengthened grown and made manifest!