Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent 4

What should I do next? It's a real question that most of us need to
seriously ask ourselves from time to time. Living as we do in a
hyper-individualistic culture that places huge value on freedom of
choice, the irony is that most of the time we don't seem to have any!
Mostly we get about our business from one day to the next doing the
next thing that has to be done, attending to our responsibilities at
work or in our family lives, exercising real choice over nothing of
any greater importance than what brand of cereal to buy or where to go
for our next holiday. But every now and then, at pivotal moments of
our lives it hits us – 'what I do next is going to make a real
difference to the rest of my life'. For example, 'should I marry (and
if so – is this person right for me? Am I right for them?)'. Or,
'what should I do for a living?' 'Should we emigrate?' And when we
make the big choice then we commit ourselves to a new direction, we
don't know what our lives would have been like if we had chosen the
other path. But – how we choose is the question.

Sometimes the choice seems to be about what is right – the contest
might be between what we might prefer and the good or the ethical
thing to do. It comes down to who we know ourselves to be, and who we
actually want to be. Other times the choice might be between what we
feel like doing right now and what might lead to more lasting
contentment. That's also about self-knowledge, and having a clear
understanding of where our lives are based. Or it might be between
our own self-interest and the good of somebody we love. That's a hard
one. Or simply about which direction might lead to the better
outcome, in a situation when – well – we can't read the future. As
Christians, we know our choices aren't arbitrary, and that God's Holy
Spirit does lead us and nudge us, that God does want our lives to open
up and flourish in a particular direction. Sometimes we really do
know deep down what God wants for us and we rebel against that. Other
times we honestly don't know what God wants for us, and we pray for a
sign. A really clear one, please God. Sometimes we reflect on what
lies ahead, and we ask the advice of trusted friends, and we pray –
and we still make the wrong choice! How do we learn to be sensitive
and to discern correctly the signs that God gives us?

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 word tekton
basically means tradie - Joseph wasn't necessarily a carpenter, he
could have been a stonemason for example – but both Ahaz and Joseph
are practical men, realists, and as it turns out, men who aren'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 which way to turn.

King Ahaz had the dubious privilege of being born into what the
Chinese call 'interesting times' and finding himself on the throne of
the southern kingdom of Judah at the ripe old age of 20 surrounded by
the dangerously charged-up kingdoms of Moab, Aram 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 with the northern kingdom, Ephraim or Israel,
Ahaz 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 in effect is 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 even though it wasn't often applied in the first century
was still well and truly on the statute books in Deuteronomy.

But as soon as both Ahaz and Joseph have worked out their course of
action, each of them receives a visitor who challenges him 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. Making decisions is his
business. 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 and Judah as well. They besiege Jerusalem and decimate the
northern kingdom, seizing its treasures and enslaving its peoples,
while Judah also stands on the brink of destruction. Ahaz should have
listened.

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 simply 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.

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 signs? Like Ahaz, we find
ourselves in a world global alliances and economies are fraught with
danger and human lives are filled with anxiety. The path to peace is
just as elusive as ever, and we watch in helpless frustration as
millions of refugees from the miserable war in Syria huddle in
makeshift tent cities against the freezing winter. 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. The answer to our questions is a baby.

So what sort of sign is a baby? 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 overwhelmed by anxiety because from now on human history belongs
to God, just as Creation itself belongs to God, so now the future also
belongs to God.

Like every baby, the arrival of this baby means we have work to do.
The future doesn't make itself, trusting God's promises isn't an
excuse for passivity but on the contrary, a reason for committing
ourselves wholeheartedly to the future that the baby both promises and
needs. Nobody cares more passionately about the future, nobody works
harder for peace or equality or for the environment than parents of a
newborn child. The meaning of Christmas, is imagining the possibility
that the Child of Bethlehem, who lets face it comes every year around
this time, change us and renew our love.