Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
When big things like this happen, they can’t be ignored because they affect us all deeply; nor should they be ignored. To paraphrase Karl Barth, the best preaching is done with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. I can’t tell you how many times have I read or heard from my colleagues via Facebook or in conversation that if a pastor isn’t preaching this Sunday about the shooting or the protest or the whatever-it-was that happened this week, they’re not really preaching.
We need to know what God is going to do about this, what God wants us to do in the midst of this. Faith is inherently political because when we fully live out our faith, it affects how we conduct ourselves in society and how we choose to govern ourselves. We need to know what God has to say to us in this moment about these things.
Isaiah preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. His words to King Ahaz today were exclusively about a political situation. The nations of Aram and Israel were threatening Judah with war, and Ahaz and his people were “shaken like trees in the wind.” Isaiah came to the king and said, “Ask God for a sign, ask God for reassurance and guidance about what to do.” When Ahaz refused, Isaiah gave him a sign anyway: “Look at this pregnant young woman: by the time her child is old enough to eat solid food, the lands of the two kings you fear will be deserted.” The name of that child was Immanuel—God-with-us.
The Immanuel prophecy was originally a political one, delivered to a king regarding a matter of state. If you think that God and politics don’t mix, then you haven’t read the bible. In our historical moment of uncertainty and anxiety, of polarization and fear, I would love to be able to stand up here and say to you, “Thus says the LORD” and tell you exactly what God has to say to us in this “big moment”—but I’m not going to do that. It’s not because I’m afraid of upsetting someone, or because I might run afoul of the IRS rules about getting too involved in politics from the pulpit, but because I can’t. As much as I would like to give you all “the answer,” I simply don’t have it.
I have my opinions, and I have my reasons for those opinions—good, biblical reasons, well thought out—but I’m just a simple sinner like the rest of you. The truth is I’m not wise enough to have this all figured out. As much as we might want it to be, the Bible is not an instruction manual with answers to every question. In the end, we’re all in this together, just trying to muddle along and do the best we can with what we have.
Thankfully, that is where the gospel meets us. The long arc of Scripture is full of people just muddling along, trying to the best they can with what they’ve got. God uses those people again and again to proclaim good news and hope. One of those people was Joseph, the fiancé of Mary and the guardian of Jesus. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man,” which simply means that he did what was right. This is quite the claim, considering the first thing we learn about Joseph is that he violates Biblical law not once, but twice.
According to the Law, betrothal was as binding as marriage; if a woman was found to be with child during this period of betrothal, it was considered adultery, a crime for which the penalty was clearly laid out. By Joseph and Mary’s time, the death penalty for adultery was seldom practiced, but the consequences still required a public dissolution of the marriage contract. Instead of doing this according to the Law, Joseph planned to quietly end the relationship and save Mary and her family the humiliation of a legal divorce.
More shockingly still, when he awakes from the dream, he chooses not to end the relationship; to go through with the marriage anyway and claim the child as his own. To us, this may seem simply kindhearted, but remember that Mary and Joseph do not live in 21st Century America. Marriage and divorce weren’t simply a matter of personal choice; there were families involved here. Joseph’s decision affected both his and Mary’s entire families, for good or ill, and he acted unilaterally without consulting any of them. He has a duty to his own family to protect himself and them from dishonor by divorcing Mary, but he doesn’t; and Matthew calls him righteous.
Joseph is only the first example of many in Matthew’s gospel of the question of what it means to be righteous, to do the right thing. As we sit here in the midst of this “big moment” with all these worries and concerns swirling around us, wondering what is the right thing to do, we in the company of people like Joseph and Mary Magdalene and Peter and Judas. They are asking many of the same questions we are, and like us, they are groping for answers.
Although I can’t give you a sign from God today, God has already given us one. Remember that the story Matthew tells us today isn’t actually about Joseph. Joseph doesn’t even have a speaking part; he only does what he is told. The real actor in the story is God. God is the one who sends the child; God is the one who reassures the doubting father and ensures the child’s protection; God is even the one who gives the child his name, even if it is Joseph who bestows it. And this child is called Jesus—the salvation of the LORD—and Immanuel—God-with-us.
That’s why Matthew pulls out this old political prophecy from Isaiah and dusts it off to introduce the story of Jesus. He sees in Jesus the sign God has given to guide us forward through the uncertainty of life. When you are looking for an answer, Matthew says, look to Jesus. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, he will speak and preach with authority greater than that of Isaiah or even Moses as he interprets the Law and fulfills it. He himself will show us what righteousness is: even though dies a criminal’s death, he is vindicated by a Judge greater than the scribes or priests or Pilate himself. He does not do these things to give us a new law to follow (although we do look to him as an example of righteousness) but rather to remind us that the kingdom of God does not come through us, but to us. Jesus was not born because Mary committed adultery or because Joseph had marital relations with her, but because God chose to come into the world.
Ultimately, that is where our hope rests. That is what we wait for during Advent, and that is what we proclaim as the good news every day of our lives: God is the one who saves us. With all that is going on, we may not know what is “right.” Unlike Joseph, we may not experience any angels coming to us in dreams telling us what we have to do. But we do still have God whispering in our ear, inviting us to step out in faith and try something new, something dangerous, and to expect to see God-with-us.
The actions we take now to reduce carbon emissions or address the stream of refugees seeking entry into our country or to hold accountable our elected leaders through elections and impeachment hearings are all important because they will affect our lives and the lives of everyone around us, especially the most vulnerable of society. Because of this, these actions should be undertaken with the utmost care and with humility and prayer, but we will make wrong decisions and our actions will have unintended consequences.
There is only One who is able to save us, only One who can judge justly what is right and what is wrong, only One who has the authority to speak for God and the power to turn back death itself. That One is the one for whom we wait. That One is not me, nor any other pastor or prophet or politician. He is coming at an unexpected hour, with his winnowing fork in his hand to separate the grain from the chaff. Blessed are those who take no offense at him, for they will see the blind regain their sight and the lame walk and the dead raised. And so we continue to pray: stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come!