“The Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [God is with us].” (Isaiah 7:14)
I used to be such a good navigator behind the steering wheel of a car. Given a map with enough detail, I could locate almost any address. Even a few lines drawn on a scrap of paper indicating key highways or cross streets most often led me to my destination. And I used to have an intuitive sense – without any map at all – of whether to turn left or right, drive up and over or around and across. GPS and Google Maps and other technologies have changed all this. I have changed. I have developed quite a serious electronic dependency. Oh, I still get where I need to go. But following that bright arrow on the screen and listening to those synthesized, pre-recorded voice commands, I am led passively, almost blindly. I fail to see the signs along the way, let alone heed them, signs that used to be vital in navigating.
Ahaz and Joseph. Two men in this morning’s scripture readings who nearly failed to see the signs. Signs reading: “God is with us.”
Ahaz was king of Judah when unprecedented political and military disaster befell his nation. The other Hebrew kingdom, Israel, turned against their siblings in Judah, entered into an unholy alliance with traditional adversary Aram, and attacked Jerusalem. Earlier in Isaiah 7 we are told that when “the house of David” learned of this alliance, “the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (7:2). King Ahaz responds to this existential threat by blindly following the political and military GPS of his day. Ahaz connives his own unholy alliance with an even greater power – the Assyrian Empire, sending a huge treasure of gold and silver removed from the Temple in Jerusalem as tribute, and rebuilding the Hebrew house of God to mimic an Assyrian temple in Damascus. (2 Kings 16)
Given Judah’s fearful situation, you might think it would be Ahaz beseeching God for a sign. Just the reverse. In our first reading, God begs Ahaz to request a sign – one as potent as possible: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as the underworld or as high as heaven” (Isaiah 7:11). Ahaz refuses, locked up blind in his own schemes for national survival: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test” (7:12). Well then, Isaiah replies, expressing God’s weariness that the king would dismiss what God freely offers, which was just what Ahaz tried so frantically to accomplish through his political and military maneuvers: “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel….For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (14, 16).
Immanuel. God is with us. Not an aggressive, masculine sign of conquest, but a feminine one like the moon’s gentle, inexorable tug on the tides, or the cycle of the seasons – summer, followed by fall and winter, and only then spring. A domestic sign. A pregnant young woman. God is with us. Not a sign of distance or delay, that God will be with Judah later after they have shored things up politically and militarily. No, here and now, in fearful and unprecedented times, God is with us. Not a sign subject to a range of probabilities. Instead, a most urgent, unmistakable sign. The young woman is with child, very pregnant. The baby is on its way, with that heavy, downward movement. And you shall name him Immanuel, God is with us. A sign of new life, rather than defeat or an ending.
Joseph is a righteous man, our gospel reading from Matthew tells us. (1:19) Wide awake in the noonday brightness of conventional morality and social conformity. Following pre-recorded voice commands not just according to the letter of the law, but also its deeper spirit. Then disaster strikes Joseph, as it did Ahaz. Joseph’s may seem to be just a domestic emergency – but there are public consequences at stake, life and death ones. For Mary, the young woman to whom righteous Joseph is engaged to be married, turns out to be pregnant – and the child is not Joseph’s. In a traditional society strictly controlling women’s sexuality, Joseph quite literally has Mary’s life in his hands. He has every right to pursue charges of promiscuous infidelity against her. Instead, amazingly, Joseph chooses to go way out on a limb and beyond all expectations. Unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, he resolves to dismiss her quietly. Joseph’s moral and social GPS is functioning at its very best. The situation seems perfectly under control. As a man, Joseph has available to him the choice to separate from Mary and go on living without her. He cannot imagine a way for them to stay together, what with a child who is not his own. But even at his very best, even at his most righteous, especially at his best and most righteous, Joseph nearly fails to see the sign: God is with us.
Breaking into his masculine, noonday moral clarity comes an angel. In a dream. At night. “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear you a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:20-23). And so Joseph’s life changes forever. To see and heed the sign: God is with us, Joseph must stay with the vulnerable young woman and marry her. Joseph must partner with Mary in parenting the child who would otherwise have been orphaned. And Joseph must give the son who is not his own a name: Jesus. Emmanuel. God is with us.
I wonder what angels appear to us when all that we resolve to do in fearful and unprecedented times of disaster falls asleep – whether unholy alliances or righteous accomplishments? What night time dreams break into our noonday clarity? What feminine signs of emergence beckon by way of the darkness, not despite it? And where might the sign: God is with us, lead, anyway?
Words about “God in Disguise” from a blog post by a woman identified only as Lisa might help us begin to navigate these questions. She writes, “In this season of Advent we continue to make our way through a broken, painful world. We are watching and waiting for Jesus but we can’t make sense of the happenings around us. All the decorations and the signs that say we should be rejoicing seem pale in comparison to the news of the day. I drive by a colorful nativity scene on someone’s front lawn and it seems so irrelevant. I hear the music all is calm, all is bright and I cringe.”
“As I cleaned my house yesterday,” Lisa continues, “I listened [on the radio] to…a love story between two very broken people who longed for hope. I saw their lament and their celebration. I was surprised at how alive I felt as I listened. Here is this expletive filled tale about a junkie and a prostitute. Here is a story of people on the fringe of society. Here is a story of life and death. Here is the story of AIDS and abandonment by friends. But yet! when he talks about Franny’s last [motorcycle] ride and the wind on their faces – I could see God. As he explained the feeling of the hospice workers cheering them on and the last ride of freedom – I could feel God. As he talked about two people who life didn’t know what to do with – I knew God.”
“We want to keep our ideas and beliefs pure and separate from the ugliness of life. But what if that is exactly where God is? What if [God] really is in the messiest places?...I don’t think it matters if you are a junkie or a prostitute;…that you are mad at the world;…that you are stuck in lament. I don’t think it matters if you lose your cool with the kids;…if you can’t find God in church. I don’t think it matters how our life comes to us. I think God is in it, especially in those places we can barely see.”
Lisa concludes: “Where could God be today? Has [God] come to you, disguised as life?...Holding joy and lament, holding loss and life:
Light a candle.
Tell someone you love them.
Find small glimpses of hope.
Make a new friend.
Carry the hard stuff together.
Take that [motorcycle] ride and feel the wind on your face.
God is here. Find [God’s] disguise.”
[https://acitygirlacountryworld.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/god-in-disguise/; accessed Dec. 14, 2016.]