Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 18 December 2022.
• First Reading: Isaiah 7: 10-16 (A sign for King Ahaz: a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and will call him Immanuel)
• Psalm Psalm 80: 1-7, 16-18
• Epistle: Romans 1: 1-7 (Paul – called to be an apostle for the gospel of God)
• Gospel: Matthew 1: 18-25 (Joseph’s story – Mary pledged to him but found to be pregnant)
There are times when no matter how persuasive the arguments, we glaze over, and let the whole issue wash over us. For some the question may be cultural; others political, and others may find it in the high emotions of sport, especially when we are not particularly gripped by the sport in general or the teams or athletes in particular.
There is a sort of haze of boredom and indifference, when we are blinded by the science and statistics of the rival camps, or numbed by the heart-wrenching emotions of the appeals in some human interest situation.
So perhaps we may have some sympathy for King Ahaz. A man of no particular faith beyond what was conventional but beset by neighbours trying to pressure him into an alliance which might be to his disadvantage. Now tempted to appeal to the Assyrians for help – and to offset the influence of Egypt.
This was a political and military dilemma and a man who was spiritually weak might just blow with the wind. Now Isaiah came and invited him to request a sign from the Lord as a means of stiffening his resolve.
That was the politics – but the matter of faith was even more critical. To ally himself with spiritual outsiders to the worship of the Lord was bound to invite disaster and Isaiah was trying to head this off.
So: ‘Ask for a sign.’ ‘Shan’t!’ ‘Very well, here is a sign anyway: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.’
Unlike much of the customs of today, an unmarried girl had no pill to protect her from pregnancy and so every incentive to remain chaste. The sign would be the extraordinary thing – an unmarried girl found to be with child. No boyfriend in view – at least, none that could be blamed.
The sign is not a relief military column – rather a child to be born. Instead of magnificence and might there is the simplicity and helplessness of a baby and its mother. Instead of relying on political and military manoeuvres, there is the simple reliance on God for provision and protection.
But God would indeed come through and while the northern kingdom of Israel was invaded and deported in 726, it would be some 150 years later before the same fate would befall Judah and Jerusalem.
God’s sign was about God’s provision in the face of human impossibility and the lack of viable political options.
Now look at Joseph. Engaged to be married but horrified that his fiancée was pregnant. A girl of good family – how could she possibly have allowed this to happen? And how could Joseph possibly be expected to honour the engagement settlement?
He had no desire to humiliate Mary who might face stoning for her unexplained pregnancy. If folk did not believe in fairies, why would they believe in angels?
Again, the situation was impossible, and Joseph wanted to deal with it quietly and with some discretion. A decision would be needed soon, and he could not hold off too much longer.
Again, God acted. This time it was a dream – far more than the normal dreaming that becomes blurred as we get out of bed and forget altogether within minutes.
This time there is a definite sequence to the events of the dream.
First, he was called by name – and in his family. This was no abstract imagination for Joseph was being called directly and personally.
Second, he was told not to be afraid. Whatever his questions and anxieties, Joseph was being called to find his rest and his peace within the will of God, regardless of external circumstances.
Third, Mary was named. Joseph was being called to hold to Mary. A person and not just a marriage contract or an engagement. She was going to need him and so would the child. Joseph would have to let go of his hesitation and hold to the promise of God.
And so God honoured Joseph in the special ministry to which he was called – to be a father in the world to the baby to be born.
Matthew also points out that Mary and Joseph had a normal married life with its own intimacies and joys.
For us the challenges of faith may not be so dramatic. Yet for both Ahaz and Joseph the social situation was not promising. Each could have looked to their own hesitations and doubts.
Each could have been led by fear of being exposed and then reduced by ridicule.
But each also was given the opportunity to make a stand on their faith in the provision and purposes of God. They might not be able to control or manipulate them but they were both able to trust them.
Today faith seems to be a form of cultural bonding. It has its practices and conventions, its festivals and fasts.
But the Christian hope is about trusting God above all others and in Jesus following His teaching and example.
It can mean being exposed to ridicule and insult. It can be represented as a form of narrowness and backward thinking – certainly as a form of wishful-thinking.
But for us it is also the source of who we are and where we are going. It is a trust beyond power politics or the getting and keeping of wealth or status. More than that it is about being taken up into the mystery of the things of God. And He will never fail us or forsake us.