Today’s readings on this Fourth Sunday of Advent present us with a contrast between two men, each of whom is asked to do something risky and difficult, with very different results.
First we have our first reading, from the Prophet Isaiah. It involves a King of Judah known as Ahaz. The events depicted in this reading took place around 735 BC. It was not a good year. The situation was one of international politics and conflict. The superpower in the Middle East back then was the Kingdom of Assyria. The Assyrians were a mighty military force, and utterly ruthless. Historians call them the Nazi’s of the ancient Middle East. And they were conquering all the countries around them.
One of the countries in their path of conquest is the little Kingdom of Judah, where Ahaz is King. His idea is to play ball with the Assyrians and make an alliance with them. If you can't beat them, then join them!
Now the Prophet Isaiah goes to the King to urge the King NOT to make an alliance with Assyria. Because when they allied with Assyria they would have to accept and worship Assyria’s gods. Isaiah’s message to King Ahaz was rather than ally with Assyria, instead to trust in God for help. Follow God, trust in God, and God will deliver you from this powerful and aggressive Kingdom of Assyria.
But Ahaz doesn’t want to do that. He is a realist. Ahaz can see how strong the Assyrians are, their thousands of warriors, their war horses and chariots, their latest technology in siege engines and so on. He is impressed by their might. So the Prophet Isaiah, to bolster Ahaz, says ask for a sign. Let God show you His power. Our reading states: “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!”
The Prophet wants Ahaz to ask for a sign so he can trust in God alone and not get entangled with the Assyrians.
But Ahaz plays phony piety and false humility and states “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” Ahaz does not want to take the risk of trusting in God’s protection and care, and so he doesn’t want the sign. He wants to follow his own plan of trusting in political and military power.
Needless to say, it ends badly. Ahaz brings in worship of false gods, institutes slavery, tramples justice, oppresses the poor to pay the Assyrians, and leaves the Kingdom vulnerable to attack. Ahaz goes down in history as one of the worst Jewish kings. Under his successor, Hezekiah, the Assyrians besiege Jerusalem, but that is another story.
In any case Ahaz will not put his trust in God, and things go badly wrong.
Now let’s jump ahead 735 years, in the same part of the world, to a carpenter named Joseph. And Joseph is betrothed. He is so happy. He is to marry Mary, his sweetheart. But a terrible thing happens. Before they actually get married, Mary gets pregnant. What a shock! What a disappointment! Poor Joseph can hardly believe it! Mary is the last person he would have suspected of fooling around. But the evidence is there, and so Joseph decides to call off the wedding. However, Joseph still has feelings for Mary, and he is a good man who doesn’t want to make trouble for anyone, even if they have disappointed him like Mary has. So he decides to divorce her quietly, with no fanfare, very simply, to not expose Mary to shame. An awful day.
Then he goes to sleep. In his sleep he has a dream; a crazy dream. An angel tells him it is alright. That Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that she will bear a son who will save his people from their sins. And finally, that Joseph should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
The next morning Joseph awoke. What did he think? What did he feel? What’s he going to do? He could have gotten up and said to himself, “oh man, what a weird dream! I have to go easy on the jalapeno matzohs. They give me such crazy dreams.”
Joseph, like Ahaz, could have ignored the call from God. Like Ahaz, Joseph was being called to take a big risk, to do something that would look foolish from the outside. Joseph was being called to make a great act of trust in God’s care and concern for him. Joseph knew God would not leave him hanging, and so the Gospel succinctly says: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” Joseph did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him in a dream. Joseph, unlike Ahaz, was open to the crazy, if demanding, ways of God. And good for us that he was.
So two men asked by God to trust and do something that in the judgement of the world was crazy, something wild, something foolish. Two different responses with two very different outcomes.
What about us? Do we act more like the hard-bitten political realist Ahaz, or more like Joseph the crazy dreamer? Are we so responsible that we don’t respond to God’s call?
How willing are we to take a risk in trusting God’s call to us? Perhaps a call to volunteer for some ministry at church? But, it might mess up my weekend schedule. I am too afraid to read in public, what if I drop the chalice, I’m not holy enough to do that. //Today’s readings urge us: Take the risk!
Or maybe the Holy Spirit wants you to take the risk to be the first side to reach out to heal a rift with a neighbor or family member. To risk forgiving someone who hurt you. But what if I get shot down, what if I am rejected, what if I get taken advantage of, what if I get hurt again? // Take the risk!
Or perhaps for our college and high-school students here maybe God calls you to investigate being a religious sister, a brother or a priest. Maybe God calls you to serve His people in the Church. But that is not my plan for me life? // Take the risk! It’s not so bad, believe me.
Or maybe God calls you to be a teacher, or to marry that particular person, or to volunteer for a mission trip, or do something wildly generous, or to speak the truth when no one wants to listen, or in some other way to trust in God and take a risk.
We read these stories in the Scriptures from thousands of years ago because God is still the same, and still acting in the same way today, after all those years. Still alluring and inviting and calling us to follow in God’s way even when it looks crazy and ridiculous. God is still calling you and me. Take the risk.