Isaiah to Joseph: Watch out for leaders who rely on political/military alliances over Immanuel

Isaiah and Ahaz

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. Isaiah 7:14-16

What happened in Isaiah:  Ahaz made an alliance with Assyria and traveled there.  He liked the altar he saw there and had one made to use in Jerusalem—he may have been required by the treaty to erect an altar for Assyrian gods.  Israel became a dependent of Assyria.  During the time it took the young woman’s son to reach twelve, the kings threatening Ahaz and Judah were defeated and, one of them, Israel, ceased to exist as a nation.   (See the story of Asa for the prophet’s pronouncement of judgment because Asa made a military alliance with a foreign nation, rather than trusting God as he had in the past. 2 Chron. 16:7-10)

What would have happened if Ahaz had trusted in “God with us”?

Five hundred years later

 Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what did the Lord through the prophet speak would be fulfilled: 23 Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel,” which means “God with us.  Mt. 1:20-23 (NET) [Emphasis from NET]

Was the angel was reminding Joseph of Isaiah’s word to Ahaz of the consequences of not trusting “God with us”?

We might conclude that part of the message was that Joseph’s trust in God (Immanuel) was essential in the days to come. Challenges included social disapproval due to Mary’s pregnancy, immigration to Egypt under the threat of death, and a son would be born into a world hostile to the message of “God with us.”

For Isaiah, Immanuel meant trusting God, rather than turning to military alliances (violence).    The freedom fighters of a century and a half before Joseph, the Maccabees, decided that only by a violent revolt against Syria and a military alliance with Rome could the people of God practice their religion as they should. Their contemporary, compiler of the Daniel experiences, called for faithful living like Daniel and friends, teaching wisdom, and trusting the visions of God’s control of history.

However, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time were part of the ruling class which gained power after the successful revolt against the Syrian (Seleucid) government.  The Jewish leaders had chosen violence as a way to protect the temple and their way of worship.   After the Hebrews gained their independence, the Romans used the treaty with them as a pretext to take over Judah.  Some of the chief priests and legal experts maintained their alliance with Rome for personal economic advantage as well as to protect their religious freedom.

Later, the legal experts were frequent opponents of Jesus during his teaching ministry.  At the time of Jesus’ torture and execution, we know that the chief priests collaborated with the Romans to seek the death of Jesus – Immanuel.  Did the angel bring a word of warning to Joseph because they, like Ahaz, had made accommodations with a pagan nation of the day, rather than trusting Immanuel?

The Wisemen

This collaboration of the religious leaders with political shows up in another part of the birth of Jesus events.  The Persian priests came following a star, looking for a king.  But, then they went to Jerusalem.  It is not clear that the star led them to Jerusalem.  I wonder if it was their assumption that religion and government/politics (a king) went together led them there, not the star.  When Herod consulted “the chief priests and experts in the law”, they gave him the location information he requested.  Surely, they found the passage about “Immanuel” as well as the Micah passage they quoted for Herod and the Persians?  When they left Herod the text of Matthew is “once again they saw the star” which suggests to me that they did not see it on their way to Jerusalem. The bias (only the political/governmental capital would house a king) of the Persian priests about a king which may have led them to go to Jerusalem, rather than keeping the star as their guide.   That and the Jewish leaders’ alliance with Herod, the Romans ruler, resulted in the death of many young boys in Judea and forced Jesus’ family to be refugees.  Could it be that the rest of Isaiah’s words (not quoted in Matthew) warned Joseph?   He knew that the rulers of his time, like Isaiah’s, would prefer a foreign military alliance to trusting Immanuel, so he was ready to flee to Egypt


 

Advent:  Learning about the other side of Christmas?

Our congregation is beginning the Advent season worship observances. Do these make our Christmas different from that of the rest of the world, Christian and otherwise?  The bright side of Advent has always been well represented.  There will be candles, bright lights, “Joy to the World” and angels, all as they should be.  Most of these we see and hear when we venture outside our church or home where the world is bright with lights, filled with inflated animals, birds and machines; busy with shoppers and noisy advertisements.  How might we use Advent to make our Christmas focus different from what we see and hear at the Mall?

Mary’s Role

Perhaps to get away from the negative attitudes of neighbors who wondered why she was pregnant before marriage, Mary left Nazareth.  She traveled nearly ninety miles, perhaps by herself, probably on foot to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, to exchange news of their pregnancies.  (Mary would have been six or more months pregnant by the time she returned.)  When Mary arrived, Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Spirit, praised God for blessing Mary as the mother of the Son of God.  Mary responded by praising God for his promise to bring salvation, to bring down the rich and powerful and to feed the hungry.   Not long after that, Mary and Joseph experienced the effect of the oppressive government.  To fund their oppression of the people of Judah, the Romans were collecting a tax that required Joseph and Mary to go to Joseph’s hometown.   They traveled ninety miles (probably more) from Nazareth east to the Jordan down the Jordan valley to Jericho, then up into the hills to Bethlehem.

Jesus birth

Did nearly nine-months-pregnant Mary repeat her prophecy of the downfall of the rich and powerful of her time to Joseph as she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem?  Because many people had arrived in Bethlehem for the taxing, the couple could only find shelter in an animal pen.  They may have found the warmth of animals for their comfort there or the animals may have been out in the field because it was warm at the time. Due to the Roman occupying army, Mary had none of the comforts of home, presence of family and friends and may or may not have found a midwife.  After the Jesus birth, Mary may have placed Jesus in a feed trough of stone.

The lights, bells and cheery greetings of the season as we celebrate it do not remind us of the words of Simon reported by Luke.  Simon’s words to Mary “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35).

Herod’s role

Then after somewhat less than two years, Persian wisemen/astrologers/priests stumbled into Herod’s schemes.  A violent ruler who had killed several relatives who he feared wanted his throne, Herod saw Jesus a threat to his rule.  Jewish leaders located scripture that they probably could guess Herod would use to find and kill the child.  To try to eliminate Jesus as a threat to his throne, Herod ordered killed maybe 10 to 30 young boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area.  God had already warned Joseph to take his family away; so, by night they were started their trip to Egypt when the massacre happened.  For several years Jesus’ family were immigrants in Egypt.  So, Joseph, his teenage wife, and son had been away from home probably five years.  Murders, forced immigration and hardship due to the efforts of the political and religious leaders to maintain their power and privileges are nothing new.

Advent vs Christmas?

Perhaps the old Anabaptist idea of “separation from the world” needs dusted off and used here.  Perhaps our Advent observance should be used to balance the world’s (including much of contemporary Christian world’s) Christmas focus?  Maybe we need a sermon on occasion from the Revelation 12 Christmas story on the dragon and the woman.  Do we recognize that turmoil and suffering will be a byproduct of Jesus coming (and probably of our proclamation of his coming), but redemption and peace is the goal of the season?  Mary, mother of Jesus spoke of a time when the rich and powerful would be brought low and the poor and hungry would be cared for.  Thirty years later her Son spoke very similar words in his first sermon at Nazareth (see Luke 4).  This, too, was Jesus Advent.  Is this our Advent proclamation?

 

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