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This morning's Old Testament and Gospel readings present us with a wonderful contrast between two men, one named Ahaz and the other named Joseph. Both have a real problem that they need to deal with and both make up their mind how they're going to deal with their problem. Both men are also confronted by the Word of God telling them that their plan is a bad one and needs to be abandoned. Both men are given another way to deal with the dilemma that they're faced with – God's way. Let's look at each of these two men before us and see what we can learn from their example.
We begin with Ahaz. Ahaz was the king of Judah. I know we think that Maine is God's country, but really, Judah was God's country and the people of Judah were God's people. It was from Judah that the Messiah was promised to come.
Ahaz's problem was this. The country to the north of Judah was Israel and the country to the east of Judah was Syria. Israel and Syria had made a military alliance with each other and they had plans to attack and conquer Judah. Ahaz formulates a plan for how he intends to deal with this problem. He will enter into an alliance with the nation of Assyria. Assyria had all of the military capability necessary to defend poor, little Judah from Israel and Syria.
The price that Judah would have to pay to Assyria for their protection was a pretty steep price. It would cost Judah lots and lots of money. And Judah would also be obligated to acknowledge the gods of Assyria and include them in their worship.
Several times, the prophet Isaiah had advised King Ahaz that this was a bad plan. Any plan that requires doing what God forbids has got to be a bad way to handle a problem. Isaiah advised Ahaz that the best way to deal with the problem at hand was to listen to God's plan and follow it. God's way of dealing with our problems may not be our way of dealing with our problems, but God's way is always the right way.
I suspect that Ahaz politely listened to Isaiah's advice and probably shook his head in total agreement with everything that Isaiah had to say. But he continued to pursue an alliance with Assyria.
And it's right at this point that we enter into our Old Testament reading for this morning. "Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz." No need to think of this as a disembodied voice from the sky. This is Isaiah who is speaking. Isaiah is the messenger of the Lord whose inspired word is the word of the Lord.
"Ask a sign of the Lord your God." Look how God is humbling Himself before Ahaz. He's begging Ahaz to trust Him. "Let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven." If you had been in Ahaz's shoes, what would you have asked God to do? What sign would you have asked for, to convince you that His way is better than your way and that you should drop your plan and follow His plan?
But Ahaz replied to Isaiah saying, "I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test." It sounds pretty pious of Ahaz doesn't it? But piety can sometimes be nothing more than a cover up for what we want to keep hidden, as if God can't see what's really going on inside of us.
What if Ahaz had taken the Lord up on His gracious offer and asked for a sign as high as the heavens. "Okay Lord, Here's the sign that would convince me to drop my plans to ally with Assyria and rely entirely upon You for protection and deliverance. If you don't want me to ask Assyria to deliver us from our enemies, then You come down from heaven and You protect us and deliver us from our enemies."
But the truth is, Ahaz had made up his mind as to how he was going to deal with his problem and he didn't want to have his mind changed. "I've made up my mind, don't confuse me with the facts." He didn't want a sign from God because the sign might show him his error and he'd be forced to change. "Ignorance is bliss."
Ahaz lived during the 7th century B.C., but there are an awful lot of his offspring who live in the 21st century A.D. A lot of people make up their mind that they're going to handle their problems in a certain way and they don't want to hear God's Word on the matter because they don't want to change their mind.
* "I don't want to hear about God's protection and care, I've already made up my mind to terminate this pregnancy."
* "I don't want to hear about God's forgiveness and reconciliation, I've already made up my mind to get a divorce."
* "I don't want to hear about God's design for marriage. We've already made up our mind to live together."
* "I don't want to hear about God's peace and freedom, I've already made up my mind to be angry and get my revenge."
Even though Ahaz refused to ask for a sign from God, God gave Ahaz a sign anyway. "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." St. Matthew translates that name for all of you non-Hebrew speaking people. It means, "God with us."
What a sign. A pregnant virgin. God is the only One who can say, "the virgin shall conceive and bear a son," without it being an oxymoron. Only God could do such a thing as this. So if you ever hear of such a thing as a virgin giving birth to a son, then let there be no doubt in your mind that this must be from God – a sign to convince you to listen to Him.
The son of the virgin shall be called Immanuel – God with us. God was promising Ahaz the sign that Ahaz should have asked God for. The Creator Himself would enter into His creation to defend His people against their enemy and deliver them from all evil.
But poor Ahaz had made up his mind. He didn't want to have his mind changed. In the end, the sign of Immanuel would condemn Ahaz because he rejected it.
The other man before us this morning is Joseph. Joseph was certainly no king. He was a carpenter who lived in the village called Nazareth that was located in the country of Judah. He was engaged to a woman named Mary. Actually, they were 'betrothed," which is not quite the same thing as 'engaged.' 'Betrothal' was much more binding than our 'engagement' is. Even though the 'betrothed' didn't live together or consummate things before the wedding, if either one of them got cold feet or was unfaithful to the other and the wedding had to be called off, it required a formal divorce to do so. Mary and Joseph were "betrothed."
Before the wedding, Mary had a dream and an angel of the Lord told her that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and therefore the child in her would be, not the son of Joseph, but the Son of God. And when Mary awoke from her dream, she was pregnant.
Mary quickly left Nazareth to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was already 6 months pregnant. She stayed until Elizabeth's baby was born, who was John the Baptist. When Mary returned to Nazareth she in her 2nd trimester. Just try to imagine the conversation between Mary and Joseph. Mary trying to explain things to Joseph; Joseph trying to process all that Mary was telling him. If you were Joseph, how would you have reacted?
Don't go putting Joseph on a pedestal here. Not yet anyway. Joseph didn't believe a word that Mary was telling him. Matthew writes, "Joseph resolved to divorce her." He RESOLVED. That is, he made up his mind. He had a plan for how he would deal with this problem. He would divorce Mary "quietly." He would be gentle with her, but one thing was for sure, there would be no marriage.
"But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."
There's God once again, down on His hands and knees, begging this mortal man to trust Him. "Joseph, don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife." And then the incredible explanation, "that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." God was asking Joseph to accept the same sign that he had asked Ahaz to accept. "Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son."
As we know, Joseph does not respond like Ahaz did. Joseph listened to God's Word and he lets God's Word rule over his heart and mind. He changes his mind and his plans and realigns them with God's mind and God's plan. There's a very special word in the New Testament that is all about this 'change of heart and mind' based on the Word of God. It's the word, 'repentance.' 'Repentance' literally means, 'change of mind.'
When Joseph woke from his dream, he repented. "He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son."
The same sign is given to both men. The one refuses the sign and will not change his mind, the other believes the sign and repents. The same sign condemns one for his lack of faith and justifies the other by his faith.
The same sign given to Ahaz and Joseph is given to you and me. "The virgin has conceived and has given birth to a Son. And He is Immanuel. God with us." His name is Jesus. He is the greater than Ahaz for He listens to the Word of the Lord and He has no other desire than to obey it perfectly. God's way is not the easy way for Him. It leads right to rejection and suffering and ultimately, death on a cross. But His way is the right way. On the 3rd day God raised this Jesus from the dead to be the sign for the world to see – He is the way, the truth and the life.
Nobody ever said that God's way is the easy way. Just ask Joseph. Think of all of the trouble that Joseph could have avoided had he stuck to his plan and divorced Mary. God's way is not the easy way but it is always the right way. We should never be afraid to change our mind and ditch our plans and handle our problems God's way, trusting that He can and He will defend us and deliver us.
So, this Christmas, we should examine our life and the problems and issues that are confronting us and we should up our plans for dealing with them against the Word of God and His Will and repent that this virgin born, crucified and risen Immanuel may deliver and preserve us.