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Fourth Sunday in the Season of Advent

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Readings: Isaiah 7:10–16, Romans 1:1–7 & Matthew 1:18–25

The early Christians believed that today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah was actually a prophecy about the birth of Jesus, and we can understand why when we read verse fourteen that says, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’, which means “God with us”. Matthew quotes this verse from Isaiah in his description of the birth of Jesus in today’s gospel passage. But Isaiah wasn’t prophesying about Jesus.

The historical background to today’s passage from Isaiah, is that Syria and the northern tribes of Israel had formed an alliance and were about to invade Judah. Both Syria and Israel had been conquered and made subjects of the Assyrian Empire, but they rebelled against the Assyrians, and they wanted Judah to join forces with them. King Ahaz of Judah refused, and so Syria and Israel decided to attack Judah and force Ahaz to support their coalition. Ahaz was frightened, and didn’t know how he could defend Judah against the impending attack.

Enter the prophet Isaiah, who was sent by God with a message for Ahaz to put his trust in God, who would not let Judah fall into the hands of its enemies. God even offered to perform any sign that Ahaz asked of Him, as proof of His promise. But Ahaz refused, claiming that he didn’t want to put God to the test by asking for a sign. The reality is that Ahaz didn’t believe that God would save Judah, but he tried to disguise his unfaithfulness by pretending to be pious and holy.

Eventually Ahaz enlisted the support of Assyria to defend Judah against Syria and Israel and, as a consequence, Judah became a servant state of the Assyrian Empire. It remained such until the Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians, who in turn conquered Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including Solomon’s Temple. Judah was then ruled over by Babylon, and continued to be ruled over by foreign powers right up to the time of Jesus, when of course it was part of the Roman Empire.

During this time, the prophet Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets, such as Jeremiah and Micah, continued to prophesy about the Messiah who would come to rescue Judah from oppression under foreign rulers. With its troubled history, we can understand why the people of Judah needed a saviour. But what about people living in Melbourne in 2022? Do they need to be rescued?

Generally speaking, people in our society have reasonably comfortably lives. A lot of people are very happy and contented, and believe that they have all they need for a good life. They have a good income, they have loving families, and they enjoy life in general. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But I wonder if they’ve ever asked themselves life’s big questions: “Why was I created? What is the purpose of my life? Does anything happen to us after this life?” Anyone who asks these questions obviously does have a need that hasn’t been satisfied, regardless of whatever else they might have in their life.

I remember hearing some time ago now, a recovering drug addict on talkback radio. He told the story of the day he began his road to recovery. He had locked himself in a hotel room to take care of his $600–a–day habit as usual. This time though he realised that whenever he turned to drugs to achieve a sense of happiness, he was always alone. He always isolated himself from others. He totally trusted in himself to find happiness in his life through his dependency on drugs.

That was really the downfall of King Ahaz. He trusted in himself, and his own judgement, rather than putting his trust in God. Let’s contrast the response of Ahaz with the response of Joseph in today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew. This gospel is often referred to as the most “Jewish” of the four gospels. Whenever we read it, we must always keep in mind that Matthew was writing to a Jewish community.

It’s an important fact to consider, especially when it comes to today’s reading, because we hear that Mary is engaged to Joseph, and that Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. Understandably, he believes that Mary has been unfaithful to him. Engagement was a legally binding commitment in ancient Judaism, and Jewish tradition required divorce in the case of adultery. So Joseph would have been expected to end the engagement at the very least. There may have even been people expecting him to call for Mary to be stoned to death for her perceived adultery. 

But Matthew tells us that Joseph is a good man, who doesn’t want to humiliate Mary in public, and that he plans to deal with the situation in private. It’s then that an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to go through with the marriage to Mary. The angel assures him that Mary has not been unfaithful, but that she has conceived a child through the Holy Spirit. The angel even tells Joseph that he is to name the child Jesus. In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “to deliver; to rescue”, and the angel tells Joseph that Jesus will deliver, or rescue, his people from their sins.

Joseph is faced with a difficult choice after discovering that Mary is pregnant. He may have thought he only had two options: divorce Mary quietly, or publicly humiliate her, and even have her stoned. But God gives him a third option—marry her. In view of the circumstances, this hadn’t actually occurred to Joseph. However God often shows us that there are more options available to us than we necessarily think. 

Although Joseph seemed to be doing the right thing by breaking off the engagement, only God’s guidance helped him make the best decision. But that did not make it an easy decision.

Agreeing to marry Mary would not only have prompted others to think that Joseph had engaged in sex with Mary before they were married, which itself was not permitted under Jewish law, but it would also have left both of them with a social stigma they would have been forced to carry for the rest of their lives. The easiest thing for Joseph to have done, would have been for him to break off the engagement to Mary and send her away. But Joseph puts his trust in the message from God that the angel delivers to him, even though he knows that many people, no doubt including his family and friends, will disapprove of his decision. 

I know from personal experience that God does send us messages at different times in our lives, particularly when we are faced with difficult decisions. Whether those messages be in the form of a dream, like that which Joseph experienced, or whether they come to us through certain people or situations that we encounter, the important thing is to trust in those messages and not trust that we alone have the answer to all of our problems. Perhaps it’s in those times that we need to be rescued.

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