Part of a Larger Plan

Part of a Larger Plan

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 18, 2022

Part of a Larger Plan

Homily for Sunday, December 18, 2022
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10–16
Matthew 1:18–25

Finally, we hear about Joseph! If on the Fourth Sunday of Advent and then again at Christmas we usually hear about Mary, this year (with the lectionary in Matthew’s Gospel) we hear about Joseph. And while there is much we could say about Joseph—that he was a “righteous man” unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, that he possessed an inner “watchfulness” or discernment that enabled him to receive and understand the angel’s message, or that he was courageous and not afraid to take Mary as his wife—the lectionary, by the passages it places alongside today’s reading from Matthew, wants us to see something else.

Rather than invite us to focus on Joseph’s righteousness or his watchfulness or his courage, in the scriptures it assigns to accompany this morning’s Gospel, the lectionary draws our attention to how Joseph is part of a rhythm of prophecy and fulfillment. Today’s reading from Romans, for example, speaks from this rhythm of prophecy and fulfillment: “Paul… set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets.” Psalm 80 likewise looks forward to a time of fulfillment in the restoration of Israel: “Restore us, O God of hosts,” prays the Psalmist, “show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” And today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah gives the full passage of the prophecy quoted by Matthew, that “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.’” Though Joseph may be “righteous,” though he may be “watchful,” and though he may be courageous, by the readings it has chosen, the lectionary draws our attention to none of these, but places Joseph in a rhythm of prophecy and fulfillment.

For us “enlightened” readers in the 21st century, however, there’s a catch about the lectionary’s rhythm of prophecy and fulfillment. And the catch is: we know (or we think we know) the exact date of Isaiah’s prophecy; and we know (or we think we know) the exact circumstance of his prophecy. And in light of what we know, Matthew’s claim that “all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet” is—to say the least—highly questionable.

Here’s the deal: The year of Isaiah’s prophecy was 733 BCE. The “two kings” to which Isaiah refers are King Rezin of Damascus and King Pekah of Israel, who invaded Judah to try to force King Ahaz of Judah to join them in revolt against another king, King Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria. Isaiah delivers God’s message to King Ahaz: “Do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (Is 7:4), for their alliance “shall not stand,” prophesies Isaiah, and their victory over you “shall not come to pass” (7:7–8), he writes. Isaiah then—in verses we heard today—tells King Ahaz to ask for a sign to confirm that Isaiah’s message is indeed of the Lord. When Ahaz refuses (“I will not put the Lord to the test,” Ahaz), Isaiah himself offers a sign: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.”

Commentators do not know to whom Isaiah refers in this prophecy. Some say that “Immanuel” of course refers to a messiah (or even “the” Messiah), but in 733 BCE there was as yet no concept of a messiah. Though some say that “Emmanuel,” “God with us” is Ahaz’s God-fearing son Hezekiah, neither does this theory add up. Others suggest that “Immanuel” refers to a son of Isaiah, who did give two other sons prophetic names (Is 7:3, 8:3). Still others say that “Immanuel” refers a new Israel, with the “young woman” being the symbolic figure of Zion. But, in short, “no single attempt at interpretation is entirely convincing” (R. Kilian, in Jesaja, p 62). Could it be that this passage is a “word in waiting,” as the former Pope Benedict calls it? Could it be that this strange passage, waiting to be interpreted, has with Jesus and Mary and Joseph come true? Could it be that we Christians do indeed have this passage’s solution, that “The prophet’s prediction is like a miraculously-formed keyhole, into which the key of Christ fits perfectly”? (M. Reiser in Bibelkritik, p 328)

Possibly; I’ll leave you to your own conclusions. My take-away in regards to Joseph and today’s readings is that—regardless of what we might think about the rhythm of prophecy and fulfillment—Joseph is part of a plan larger than he. What I think the scriptures and lectionary might be trying to show is that, as soon as “we had fallen into sin and became subject to evil and death” God, in God’s infinite love, began to plan our redemption. Though we know almost nothing about Joseph, yet was Joseph part of God’s plan. Joseph was the one to whom a young Jesus could look and see what it meant “to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us”; Joseph was the one who helped raise Jesus such that he became the person who might reconcile us to “you, the God and Father of all,” as the Eucharistic prayer says.

Though we may not be “Marys,” who at Christmas tend to garner the most attention, yet perhaps we can be “Josephs,” who in quiet and hidden ways are watchful for God’s presence, who live “righteous” lives, and who are courageous in following God’s call. Though “Marys” certainly have their place, yet are “Josephs” likewise necessary. As Matthew’s Gospel suggests, “Josephs” are part of God’s plan, who in hidden ways can bring God’s love to a world yearning to be loved, who in quiet ways can help to raise and nurture new life, and who in unheralded but powerful ways can be part of God’s plan to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

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