Let’s start by recalling the setting of our first reading. Solomon’s splendor and power: that’s about 200 years in the past. Israel is split between the larger Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the smaller Southern Kingdom (Judah); Ahaz is the Judean king. For everyone in the region the question is how to respond to the Assyrian Empire (modern Iraq). It’s something like having Russia as your next-door neighbor. Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Aram (modern Syria) want to fight, and, since Ahaz doesn’t, they plan to invade Judah to effect regime change.
In our text Isaiah is imploring Ahaz to trust the Lord. And, despite Ahaz’ refusal of a sign, the Lord offers one anyway: a young woman is now pregnant and will bear a son who will be named Emmanuel (“God with us”). The child will serve as a sort of calendar: before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, Israel and Aram will be non-issues. That’s the good news; the bad news—the last verse we heard—is that they’ll be non-issues because Assyria will be right at Ahaz’ doorstep. For Ahaz doesn’t trust. From the account in Kings: “Ahaz sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying, ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me’” (2 Ki. 16:7). Servant and son, no longer of the Lord of Hosts, but of Tiglath-pileser. What a fall!
Nevertheless, the question that hangs in the air: Emmanuel (“God with us”): what will that turn out to mean? (That’s one reason the Book of Isaiah is long.)
Some 700 years later the question is not how to respond to the Assyrian Empire, but how to respond to the Roman Empire. (The factions we meet in the New Testament, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, etc. also separate by how they answer that question.) And in the middle of all that in a village formerly part of the Northern Kingdom, now in Galilee, the upper part of Herod’s kingdom, Mary is pregnant. For Matthew it’s an Ahaz moment, with Joseph and his generation facing the same choice Ahaz and his generation faced: trust or not. Emmanuel (“God with us”): what will that turn out to mean?
As Matthew tells the story, Joseph is the first to have to choose. Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man, and that’s important, because the argument about what counts as righteousness runs through Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). For Joseph, “righteous” means not exposing Mary to disgrace, but quietly dismissing her. Ahaz had Isaiah; Joseph has “an angel of the Lord,” who redefines “righteous” behavior. And Joseph—thank God—trusts, and takes Mary as his wife.
“Emmanuel” (God with us): whatever that means, it doesn’t mean “business as usual.” Business as usual for Ahaz was a matter of arithmetic: how many divisions do we have? How many do Israel and Aram have? How many does Assyria have? Emmanuel? Hard to quantify that. Business as usual for Joseph meant the most compassionate of the possible righteous responses to Mary. But “Emmanuel” significantly shifted “righteous.”
Now, a sidebar. What did I just do with Matthew’s “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet”? There are plenty of examples of prophets speaking about the future and those words later proving true. Isaiah’s words in today’s reading about the fate of Israel and Aram—and Assyria’s arrival—are examples. But that’s not the only way “fulfill” works. In the case of Isaiah’s young woman, the text falls apart if the pregnancy is in the future, because then Ahaz doesn’t have a “calendar” for Israel’s and Aram’s defeat. So Matthew’s just taking advantage of the Greek text’s translation of “young woman” as “virgin” to support his Jesus-fulfills-prophecy agenda? But why assume that? What Matthew has recognized, I think, is that the situations Ahaz and Joseph face are similar, and that this time around God’s action is even more breathtaking. This time around “Emmanuel” points to a far more profound “God with us,” and Matthew writes his Gospel also to help us discover some of what that means. Isaiah’s words have been filled fuller than he could have imagined.
Paul does something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians: the situations faced by Israel in the wilderness and the believers in Corinth are similar, and the believers need to pay attention. In daring overstatement Paul writes “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (10:11). We let the texts themselves show us how words like ‘fulfill’ work.
Notice, by the way, the narrative choices Matthew has made in this paragraph. “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” sets us up to expect an account of the birth. But the birth appears only in a subordinate clause at the end of the paragraph. It’s the choice Joseph faces that occupies center stage. Why’s Matthew telling it this way? Perhaps because Matthew’s audience is in a similar situation. For the Jewish Christians in Matthew’s audience “righteousness” had meant having as little to do with the gentiles as possible. But Emmanuel, and now they’re part of a renewed Israel in which Jew and Gentile call each other “brother” and “sister.” They might be excused for thinking Joseph had it easy.
“Emmanuel,” we might say, can mean going off the familiar maps. We meet this in a different way in the opening paragraph of Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” Jewish timelines had the resurrection of the body in the last days; Greeks mostly thought the resurrection of the body a hairbrained idea: one progressed by escaping the body. But Emmanuel: the resurrection starts in the middle of our history. That wasn’t on anyone’s map. Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will talk about fresh wineskins for new wine.
Where am I going with this? Since 1966 I’ve been a Star Trek fan: “boldly go where no one has gone before.” That’s not a bad weak analogy for the journey to which the Christmas story invites us. The Messiah, the Christ, has come. There were plenty of scripts for how that was supposed to play out. But since this is a matter of Emmanuel (“God with us”) it’s not about following a script, and the first one who has to deal with this is not a scribe or a Pharisee, but Joseph. Sometimes, as in our Gospel, there’s a direct command to be obeyed. Sometimes it’s a matter of Spirit-led discernment. Paul in Romans: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Or, more tersely in Ephesians: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:10). We continually turn to Holy Scripture for nourishment, not because it’s the script, but because—under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—it enables us to faithfully improvise as we follow our risen Lord.
Joseph’s feast day is March 19; let’s use the collect for that feast to take us out:
“O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”