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Readings: 4th Sunday of Advent

13 December 2013


Isaiah 7.10-16; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-end

God our redeemer, who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son: grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour, so we may be ready to greet him when he comes again as our judge; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.

AHAZ and Joseph were both up against the inscrutability of God. One was a rebellious king who exhausted God, and stood on the brink of disaster; the other was a righteous man, soon to be married, whose carpentry business was all the excitement he expected in life. Both were thrown into turmoil when God came to them.

Ahaz's reign was marked by political and military insecurity. He had declined to join a military alliance of smaller nations who were in the way of the Assyrians' march to conquer Egypt. In retaliation, the other kings threatened to invade Judah. Ahaz and his people were terrified, as God faced him with a crisis of trust.

The story of Ahaz's reign has no redeeming moment, only rebellious disobedience and God's resulting anger: simple cause and effect, it seems. But Isaiah's account throws a spanner into the works, because God offered Ahaz the opportunity to ask for a sign, a down-payment on God's intervention in the situation.

Given the number of times that the people of Israel had been rebuked for testing God, Ahaz's refusal sounds wise, but it masks a failure to distinguish between faithful and rebellious testing of God. His pious answer was a rebellious refusal to risk belief in God, a refusal to experience the love that God longed to lavish.

The invitation to Ahaz to ask for a sign was double-edged: he was invited to test God, to prove God true, but was himself being tested by God's word (Psalm 105.19). In a mystery novel, clues are scattered throughout the book. God does that with Ahaz: a clue here: "Ask me for a sign;" a clue there, "a child's name". But Ahaz, conditioned by a lifetime of rebelliously ignoring God, could not or would not seize this moment of grace.

God asked Ahaz to pay attention to children's names; if he could not hear the subtext of Isaiah's son's name, "A remnant shall return." God spelled it out more clearly through another child's name: "God is with us." The king's actions tell us that he did not believe this, but an unnamed young woman in his troubled kingdom could, and did.

Ahaz's life was marked by rebellion against God. So, given his refractory history, why was Ahaz offered a sign of God's presence and power, while Joseph was not? Joseph was righteous, and it would have been so easy for the angels, visiting several people in the Nazareth and Bethlehem area, to put in an appearance to him as well, and make it all clear from the beginning. Instead, Joseph faced the dilemma of what to do when his uprightness was rewarded with seeming disaster.

Being righteous, Joseph tried to piece his jigsaw puzzle together using the template of what he knew of the law of God and his compassion for Mary. But God was doing something new, and Joseph was working with the wrong picture for his jigsaw. God was putting the finishing touches to a new one.

The God who in last week's Old Testament reading was a highway engineer, making new ways through the wilderness - a gardener turning deserts into flower gardens - was now the artist painting a new perspective of the age-old promise of the Messiah. Joseph had to catch up with God.

The initial silence of God to Joseph was just as demanding for him as was the clarity of God's word to Ahaz. God was testing both. "Are you going to act faithfully? Rebellious Ahaz, can you live with my clear word? Righteous Joseph, can you live with my silence?"

Joseph's fidelity reminds us that times of silence or awkward questions can be the prelude to new works of God in our lives. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of God - a time to pay attention to the clues that God is active; to notice the meaning of things that we might take for granted; a time to practise the scales of fidelity that will enable us to play the new music when God puts it in front of us, when suddenly our night sky is torn apart by angels singing "Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth."

Emmanuel, God is with us. Thanks be to God.

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