- December 19, 2016
The Rev. Robert P. Travis
4th Sunday Advent Sermon – 8, 9:30am Chapel of St. John the Divine, Saunderstown
RCL Year A 12/18/2016
Scripture Text: Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Last week you got to hear
How Mary said yes to God,
And then rejoiced in being a part of that plan,
Even though it was revolutionary,
Turning everything upside down.
Today, as we draw so much closer
to the celebration of the birth of Jesus
we get to hear about Joseph,
And how he made the challenging decision,
To accept Jesus as his son,
To become Jesus’ earthly father.
With our reading from the prophet Isaiah
we get to consider the contrast between
two important men in the story of God’s people,
Joseph and Ahaz.
The important thing about these two men,
is that they had a very different understanding of righteousness.
Now notice that Joseph and Mary were engaged,
but before they lived together
she was found to be with child.
from the Holy Spirit.
But if I were the man engaged to Mary,
I can tell you even if she told me
it was from the Holy Spirit,
I would have thought it was another man’s child.
For any man, today or back then, this would be scandalous.
For a man in Joseph’s time, the law allowed for him
to have the woman publicly humiliated
and killed by stoning.
Because here is where we learn a great deal
of the little we know
about the man whose calling was to be Jesus’ earthly father.
“Joseph, being a righteous man,
and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,
planned to dismiss her quietly.”
Being described as righteous,
means that even though Joseph was a carpenter,
he knew the law,
he might not have been able
to mince words with the pharisees,
but he knew both the letter and the spirit
of the law of God and man,
and followed them with his actions.
Joseph knew that while the law prescribed public humiliation and stoning for Mary,
it also allowed for a more gentle option,
that of returning the girl to her parents and saying quietly,
“I cannot marry this woman because of what she’s done.”
That would have meant that Mary
would have to raise the child alone,
or at least with her parents help,
as long as they were alive.
It also means that Jesus would not have had
An earthly father.
Joseph, knowing the spirit of the Law,
and being therefore a man after God’s heart,
chose to do the more loving action,
even though he was probably
afraid of the consequences for Mary.
Now look at the next sentence.
“But just when he had resolved to do this,”
that means he had made up his mind,
and if he was anything like me,
with monumental decisions it take a while
for me to make up my mind,
he probably made up his mind right before going to bed.
So he probably said something like,
“that is what I am going to do tomorrow.”
That very night, “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,”
The Angel says, “do not be afraid.”
The angel is correctly reflecting Joseph’s own emotions
that he was afraid to make Mary his wife,
because of this scandalous situation.
Now let’s leave Joseph there for a moment and look back,
a few hundred years earlier,
the King to whom Isaiah prophesied.
Ahaz was a king of Judah,
and we know from the book of 2 Kings,
that he was not a good man,
he was not a man after the heart of the one true God,
but he was a religious man.
We know from that book that he liked to worship so much,
that he copied the altar in Damascus,
an altar to another God,
and replaced God’s altar in the temple,
with that Altar.
So he did worship God,
lots of Gods for that matter.
So Ahaz was not a good man,
though he was a religious man.
He liked to think he knew the rules.
He was King of Judah,
descended from David,
and ruling God’s people in Jerusalem.
So it was not that unusual for him to expect,
that God would speak to him,
perhaps through a prophet
as God had done so often in the past.
But look at what happens when God does speak to him.
Isaiah goes to him and says “The Lord says,
“Ask a sign of the Lord your God;
let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
In other words, much like God said to Solomon,
‘ask for whatever you want!’
But Ahaz, thinks that he is a righteous man,
after all, he doesn’t just worship one God,
he worships whatever Gods seem right to him,
he’s the king, and he knows what’s right!
So he says,
knowing full well that one of the commandments
is Thou shalt not put the Lord your God to the test.
Remember that scripture?
Jesus used it correctly when he was tempted in the desert.
Ahab says “I will not ask,
and I will not put the Lord to the test.”
He probably thinks he’s passed a big test,
but what he has really done is refused a gift from God,
so he gets the word through Isaiah,
that God’s going to give his house a sign anyway.
Much later on, Ahaz’s decendents will find out,
“a virgin will bear a son who will know how to refuse the evil and choose the good”
by the time he is weaned,
this will be the son of God
who will be known as Immanuel, ‘God with us.’
God will still accomplish God’s will,
With or without Ahaz.
So we see, Ahaz thought that he was righteous,
Because of his religiosity,
but his way was not seeking God’s heart,
and the spirit of the Law,
of loving God and neighbor,
but simply following the letter of the law
in whatever way seemed right to him at the time.
So Ahaz became the example,
of a man who was not worthy of God’s blessing,
by his own choice,
by refusing the offer of God’s messenger.
He was not worthy of blessing,
even though he was king of God’s people.
Let’s go back to Joseph,
Not a king, a humble man,
but one who also was given the opportunity
to receive God’s blessing.
Because of the Angel’s message,
Joseph knows that the decision he has made,
righteous though it may seem,
is not what God wants.
God wants his son to have an earthly father,
And he’s willing to send an angel,
To help Joseph accept that as his calling.
So when he wakes up from sleeping,
Unlike Ahaz, who stuck to his idea of righteousness,
Joseph changes his mind,
and does what “the angel of the Lord commanded him;
he took [Mary] as his wife,”
(he takes the courageous route,
knowing what scandal he will have to bear)
And Joseph named the child Jesus,
but because the Angel made it clear that name
was to reflect the child’s mission here.
So in order to become the father
that God wanted Joseph to be,
to be the earthly father of Jesus,
Joseph had to give up
his own understanding of righteousness,
and accept a righteousness that was deeper,
and more loving than even the best he could imagine.
Thomas Keating, one of my spiritual fathers, writes,
Joseph “had to surrender his personal vision
in order to become Vision itself.” (Awakenings, pg. 102)
That kind of surrender is necessary for every father,
and indeed, for every mother,
and actually for every person who wants to follow Christ.
Sometimes the transformation that God is asking from us,
is to surrender even our very ideas of what is right,
for the vision that God has for us.
And today we recognize,
That God thought earthly fathers important enough,
To make sure his son had an earthly father,
To bring him up right,
And to teach him what he needed to know to be a man.
So remind those fathers you know,
How important their role in the lives of their children is.
For all of us God’s vision for us is more right
than we can even imagine,
So as we make decisions,
We need to look not just at what the rules are,
But at what is the most loving thing.
By doing that,
Like Joseph, we open our hearts, our dreams,
to the vision of God for our lives.