What do you do if you’re driving your car through the streets of Perth and you come up to an intersection with a red octagonal sign on the corner? Well, I hope you know. In fact, I hope you’d be preparing to hit the brakes as soon as you see the stop sign, because if the meaning of the stop sign isn’t second nature – if you have to read it and think, ‘now, what page of the road rules book did I see that on, and what did it say I have to do about it?’ – well, by then it might be too late. Which of course is the reason that there’s some international standardisation about road signs, if you’re driving in downtown Dlakarta and you come up to an intersection with a red octagonal sign saying, ‘Berhenti’, then don’t bother with the phrase book. Just stop.
To get by in life, we need to pay attention, and we need to need to be able to read the signs. We live in an individualistic society, a society that encourages us to put ourselves first, to be self-sufficient, a society that admires decisiveness and success, and of course the downside of that is that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that all the time, without even being aware of it, we do depend on the web of relationships that connect us to one another. I think one of the tragedies of the individualistic, competitive age we live in is that we start to forget how to read the signs.
Today’s readings focus on two very different men – one a king of the ancient kingdom of Judah eight centuries or so before the birth of Christ, the other a nondescript tradesman – the Greek tekton could mean Joseph was either a carpenter or a stonemason – but both of them practical men, realists, and as it turns out, men who weren’t afraid to make decisions and act on them. The other thing they have in common is that we find both of them at the cross-roads wondering what that red octagonal sign is all about.
King Ahaz did have the dubious privilege of being born into what the Chinese call ‘interesting times’ and finding himself on the throne at the age of 20 surrounded by the dangerously charged-up kingdoms of Moab, Aram and Ephraim who had formed a political alliance and were eyeing off a Judah weakened by decades of political infighting. It was essentially local trouble, but Ahaz, ignoring all the best political advice, decides he needs to take decisive action and so he decides to ask the super-power of the day, Assyria, to come on over and sort out his troublesome neighbours. Ahaz is a man of action – something clearly needs to be done – this is something, therefore I’m doing it – unfortunately he hasn’t read the signs very clearly.
Joseph’s dilemma is a bit more personal, but equally sticky. He’s just found out his fiancée is pregnant, and he knows it isn’t him. Marriage in the ancient world was a bit different to our modern custom – Mary had probably been promised in marriage since early childhood and the first stage of the marriage process – the betrothal – had already taken place so Mary was in a sense already Joseph’s wife though she still has to live under her father’s roof until she’s old enough to be taken into Joseph’s house. Knowing that he isn’t the father of her child, and knowing that with the paternity of the child under doubt he risks losing his own honour just as much as Mary seems already to have lost her own, Joseph’s dilemma is not so much whether to divorce his wife as how to go about it. Being a compassionate man, Joseph opts for divorcing her quietly, let her slip away without asking any more questions. The alternative might have meant a public accusation which could have led to her being stoned to death – a penalty that was well and truly on the statute books in Deuteronomy.
But as soon as both Ahaz and Joseph have worked out their course of action, however, they each receive a visitor who challenges them to think again.
Ahaz finds the prophet Isaiah on his doorstep with a message from God –
“Don’t do it, Ahaz – ask God for help instead – whatever you like – as high
as the heavens or as deep as the grave…” Ahaz, however, is too proud, too stubborn to look to God. He’s the king. This is his problem. He can sort it out. Unfortunately, he turns out to be mistaken. The Assyrians are more than happy to come and deal with his neighbours. They obliterate them. But while they are in that neck of the woods they think they might as well obliterate
Israel as well. They raze it to the ground, steal its treasure and take its
people as slaves. And that was pretty much the end of Israel.
Joseph’s visitor is an angel, who appears to him in a dream, but the message
is the same – think again. “It may not make much sense, Joseph, but actually
this is God’s work. Stick with Mary – God knows what God is doing…“ But
unlike Ahaz, Joseph decides to listen, to wait, to trust God, even if he has
no idea how it is that God can bring any good out of this whole sorry mess.
And we all know what happens next.
The reason of course that we read these two stories today is because they are connected by the strange words of the prophet Isaiah, which Matthew quotes, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” What sort of a name is that? It means, “God is with us’. Bible scholars still argue about what Isaiah means by this - almost certainly he is referring to a real woman who is pregnant right now, and he is saying, look, by the time this baby is ready to be weaned the enemies you are afraid of now are going to be dispersed – but this is more than just a roundabout way of saying all this will happen within 12 or 18 months – for Isaiah the baby itself is a sign of a new beginning, a new relationship with God. The baby itself is a sign, a message from God.
Matthew takes those words and uses them, rather out of context and with a
few twists, to refer to Mary. Because he’s using the Greek manuscript of Isaiah instead of the Hebrew one his quote from Isaiah uses the word ‘virgin’ instead of translating the original Hebrew word ‘almah’ which means ‘young woman’. It probably wasn’t a huge distinction at the time but it has thrown the Church into overdrive ever since with endless arguments about whether or not the virginal conception of Jesus is an absolute necessity of faith. The danger with getting too hung up on this is that we get distracted from what really important, the really crucial point about these strange words. You see, it isn’t really the mother that is the point, it’s the child. God’s sign, says Isaiah – his message to faithless Ahaz and frightened Joseph, is the baby itself.
So what sort of sign is a baby? For a start it’s not a stop sign! A baby is a symbol and a reminder of newness, isn’t it? It is a new life, a new
personality. When a child is first born its future is a mystery, its character is
a mystery – unknown and unknowable. It is not a repeat of an old pattern,
even if it does have its mother’s eyes or its father’s nose, and it’s not a clone, it’s something that has never been seen before, a completely new beginning. Having a child is an act of faith – you don’t know what will happen to it or how it will change you.
Every baby, everywhere, is a sign of the wonder and the miraculous underpinning of life, a sign that the everyday world we live in is woven through and through with God’s own life. But this baby, born at this time and into this intersection of historical circumstances – if we are willing to see it, this baby is the sign of God with us, the sign that we no longer have to be self-sufficient, we no longer have to be afraid of ... because from now on human history belongs to God, just as Creation itself belongs to God, so now the future also belongs to God.
It’s a sign that Ahaz doesn’t want to read, and he decides to stick with the DIY model of international relations – history tells us that he crashes a bit further down the road. Joseph, the man of action who also pays close attention to the truth of dreams, reads the sign and acts on it.
The point, of course, is how do we read the sign? Like Ahaz, we find ourselves in a world global alliances are fraught with danger and human lives are filled with anxiety. The path to peace is just as elusive as ever, even in our own wealthy country where with all our resources we find it impossible to guarantee that children born today in remote communities will grow up in safety. We live at a time of unprecedented concern about the very future of the planet we live on, and we increasingly have cause to question our own judgement about the use of its resources. Like Joseph, our lives are filled with anxiety over personal dilemmas. We find it hard to live with integrity and trust, we find it hard to believe in the future when we also have to live with bad news – the job we so badly wanted, the relationship that should have been for ever. Where is God in the middle of all that?
And God sends us the same sign this year. A baby with a funny name. Immanuel, God still with us.