Frances writes on next weekend’s readings :-
Our story of Ahaz in our OT reading (Isaiah7:10-14) is about someone, in this case a king of Judah, who resolutely turned his back on God and followed his own warped will, to the ruin of his nation and earned the utter condemnation of our prophet who insists that God will achieve his purpose anyway, regardless of his faithless servant. His story, as recorded in 2 Kings 16 is of a brash young man who turned against the God of Israel and burned his own son as a sacrifice to the Baal’s and made a defence pact with Assyria, against his enemies, stealing the temple treasury in order to do so and attempted forcefully to convert the people from the following of Yahweh to that of the gods round about. The Deuteronomic historians who wrote Kings and the prophet Isaiah portrayed him as a travesty of true kingship and a perverter of the faithfulness of his nation, Nevertheless, they believed that God’s will for his chosen could still triumph despite the apostasy of those in charge of the nation and its beliefs.
Because of this faith and hope that God continued to work through the Davidic line, our gospel, (Matthew 1:18-24) shows us quite a different picture of fidelity to the truth. It portrays Joseph, a dreamer of dreams, one who in ancient thought listened to God, sought him and could be relied upon to be obedient. This was not just a belief of Jews but of many ancient people. The gods were deemed so powerful and awesome that direct contact was thought far too dangerous but dreams were highly valued as ‘the’ way to commune with the gods and pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles to consult them all over the Greek and Roman world. In his dream-revelation Joseph hears God’s reassuring words to his dilemma as to what to do about Mary, his betrothed, apparently pregnant with another man’s child. In the dream Joseph is given precise instruction about the origin of this child and its future and how he himself is to behave; what name to give him and so on. Obedient and faithful as he is Joseph follows out the angel’s instruction, as he would again later, saving the child and his mother from the destructive fury of Herod.
Now I suppose today we would not be quite so smitten if someone told us that the reason for their behaviour was because he or she had received an angelic message in a dream, indeed, so great is our scepticism we would come to the conclusion that the person was completely unhinged or at least deluded. Our way would in general be that of Ahaz, with all its disastrous consequences and we have to get behind the meaning of our gospel to appreciate precisely what is indicated there. Clearly we are meant to understand that Joseph and indeed Mary were people of deep faith and piety, people who prayed frequently and allowed the scriptures to penetrate their hearts and lives, and that it was from within this faith relationship with God that they were able to discern God’s will for them. This is not to suggest that they had no minds of their own, for there are surely occasions in our own lives when, having submitted our selves and our problems to God we can be absolutely certain that we have done the right thing. This will not of course necessarily be the easy thing, as Mary and Joseph discovered; it might well be a choice which completely alters our lives and set us on a trajectory completely unlooked for previously and in which we will be given the necessary grace for the task in hand.
St Paul too was familiar with this huge reversal in thinking and understanding as he turned from the revelation of the God of his ancestors to the following of Christ – the culmination he says of all Israel’s longings. In his account in Romans (1:1-7) he briefly lays out the whole story of this progression whereby the faith and salvation promised so long ago exclusively to Judaism is now accomplished through Jesus, born of the House of David who gained our redemption through his death and resurrection and opened all humanity to a real and dynamic relationship with God. All of us, Paul claims undergo this dramatic shift in our understanding of reality in Christ Jesus since whereas formerly we were all sunk in sin and followed idols which could give us no lasting access to God, now, in Him we are all opened to a previously unheard of dispensation: to all God’s beloved in Rome, called to be saints; here surely is a new way of being, a wholly new way of perceiving the world and ourselves in it. We who formerly seemed cut off from God are now, by grace plunged into the most intimate and exciting of relationships with him. Advent is a time for the transforming of our minds.