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Joseph – Making Right Decisions for God

Isaiah 7: 10-16, Matthew 1: 18-end

A sermon preached by Canon Simon Everett

on Sunday, 18th December 2016

Lady St Mary Church, Wareham

I am sure, like me, you have been horrified and dismayed at the situation in Aleppo and other parts of Syria, that have caused such suffering and misery over the past weeks and months.  There seems to be no end to it, even now that President Assad’s troops have claimed victory.  But if you look across the whole region, and even further afield to Yemen and in the opposite direction North Africa, there is similar goings on, but with different factions fighting and terrorising.  And I am afraid to say that I believe much of it has been caused by Western governments trying to impose western democracy and values on what is a very different culture.

Having said this the history of the Middle East is long and complex, you only have to read the history books going back to the Old Testament to know that Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Egypt have for centuries been antagonistic towards each other (even if the names have changed in the course of time).

In our first reading today, we hear a little about Ahaz the 8th Century BC, King of Judah (which is the southern part of Israel).  Now unless you are a keen reader of the OT, I expect you do not know much about Ahaz.  He is mentioned only a few time in the history books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles and then what we are told above all else is that, ‘Unlike David, his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God.’

In today’s reading we hear from the prophet Isaiah, how he refused to ask God for a sign, giving the same response that Jesus gave when tested by Satan in the wilderness; he will not put the Lord his God to the test.  At face Value this sounds very pious, and the correct answer.  However, from Isaiah’s account we are to understand that it isn’t.  The reason Ahaz exasperates the prophet is because in this particular case God himself has told Ahaz to ask for a sign.  And so his refusal to seek a sign is a deliberate snub to God.

In fact, this is the second time that God has spoken to Ahaz.  You see the nation of Judah was in a time of deep crisis, it was the subject of a double-pronged attack, and Ahaz was a very frightened man.  Two of the neighbouring kingdoms, one of which is Aram (Modern day Syria) are trying to force Judah into an alliance against the King of Assyria (modern day northern Iran and Iraq, what was Mesopotamia), which was the powerful empire of the day.

But God had already told Ahaz that he would be all right and that he has nothing to fear, but Ahaz doesn’t believe God.  So when we come to todays’ reading, we see Ahaz’s real reason for rejecting God – he no longer trusts.  Instead he prefers to trust his own political judgement, he has decided that the best course of action is to submit to the King of Assyria and become a vassal state.

This decision was to have repercussions down through the centuries, indeed it could be said that Judah and Israel never fully recovered.   But before we are too hard on King Ahaz for his lack of faith and dreadful misjudgement, let us just try and imagine what it must have been like – the weight of a nation’s destiny on his shoulders with all sorts of different advisers, all giving different counsel and all under mounting pressure.  It certainly was not easy.  (A bit like Teresa May at the moment).  But the greatest part of the problem stemmed from his desire to chase after other Gods and follow the practices of the neighbouring pagan religions, whilst at the same time giving a nod to the worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, it seems he wanted it all ways.  And this totally compromised his judgement on all matters; in the end leading to the betrayal of his country.

But how different would we be?  How strong is our faith in times of crisis? I am sure that we have all had times when we trust our judgement over God’s guidance?  How many times have you tried to convince yourself that that you are doing what God wants, without spending time finding out?  It is sometimes hard to discern between our thoughts and God’s will. 

The one thing that helps above all else is being faithful in prayer and praise, drawing closer to God day by day, sharing concerns and difficulties with him.  You will find that if you put your trust in God in the small things, when the big decisions come, your faith will have increased to the extent that you can trust all will be well because God is with you.

Which brings me to our Gospel reading.  And in Matthew’s Gospel we have the nativity from Joseph’s point of view, and right at the outset we discover that Joseph is a righteous man – a man who is right with God - and this makes all the difference.  We are very familiar with this story, and that from Mary’s viewpoint told in Luke’s gospel: so much so that there is the danger that we become blasé about it.

So just for a moment put yourself in Joseph’s shoes.  You are engaged/ betrothed to a young girl, but all of a sudden she announces that she is with child.  Imagine the shock and horror of that.  Imagine the hurt and betrayal that you would feel. Imagine all the angry, and possibly vengeful thoughts that would crowd your mind, knowing that you were not responsible for the child in her womb.  Mary had told Joseph that the child’s was the Holy Spirit’s, but just how far-fetched is that!  It must have been a complete nightmare for the poor man, except, he had faith.  This probably stretched that faith to the absolute limit, but being a righteous man, he knew that the answer would not be found in anger or bitterness, but in prayer.

And, I imagine, it would have been after much prayer that Joseph decided that rather than make an example of Mary and expose her to public contempt (or worse), he would divorce her quietly.  What a kind and generous man.  And God rewards his faith by giving him an encounter with an angel in a dream.   But how confusing would that be?  I have never met an angel in a dream, and if I did I suspect it might raise as many questions as it gave possible answers!  Was it the large helping of cheese I had before going to bed?  Was that really an angel? Was that God talking to me, or just my imagination and desires running away with me?  You can imagine the turmoil poor Joseph would have been in.

But being a man of prayer, a man that was right with God, a righteous man, I can’t help thinking that his faith helped him overcame all of his reservations which led him to the conclusion that what Mary said was correct and that her pregnancy was all part of God’s greater scheme of things. 

We don’t know if he thought of Isaiah’s prophecy or whether it is Matthew interpreting the situation through the OT scriptures, but I would not be at all surprised.  ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – God with us.

Joseph would have been familiar with the Scriptures, as most Jewish men of his time would have been.  But he, being considered a righteous man, would have been doubly familiar with them, and so maybe the Holy Spirit planted this verse in his mind to reassure him that this dream, this whole scenario, was ‘of God’ and that all would be well. 

Reflecting on Isaiah’s prophecy, Joseph would have known that by ignoring God, and the signs he gave, King Ahaz of old had let his people down.  But Isaiah had prophesied that there would be one to come who would  never let his people down, born of a virgin - one who would save his people from sin and death.  Immanuel – God with us, this would be his title:  his name would be Jesus, which literally means, the LORD saves.

Joseph is an example to us all.  In faith we can do great things for God, but faithfulness, righteousness, holiness all need to be worked at.  They come by prayer, Bible study and faithful devotion and worship.  They come by trusting God in the small things, so that when the big things come we can be sure God is with us.  They come by leading a Christian life and walking in God’s ways.  They come by knowing God’s love in our hearts, because Immanuel – God is with us through his Son Jesus Christ.

As we approach Christmas may we have open hearts and minds ready to receive afresh the Christ child, and let us resolve to strive for righteousness in our lives that the world might believe and gradually become a better place.  Amen.