On this final Sunday of Advent we are presented with two men, Ahaz of the Old Testament and Joseph of the New Testament. One trusted the other did not.
Our first reading from Isaiah is one of the most descriptive prophesies foretelling of the future Messiah. Ahaz is a descendent of King David and he is the king of Judah; he’s a young and inexperienced king. And he’s expecting his country to be attacked from the combined forces of Israel and Syria. Ahaz is not in a good spot and he’s wondering whether to trust in God or to depend upon the neighboring army of Assyria, who he’s asked to help him in defense of his country. God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, but Ahaz refuses. He’d rather decide his own fate and that of his kingdom rather than trusting in God. He says, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!”
Now Ahaz might appear to be holy and pious when he says, “I will not tempt God,” but actually what he’s saying is that he doesn’t want anyone telling him what to do; he wasn’t going to allow this prophet of God to determine his plans.
God was inviting him to ask for anything no matter how big or how grand, but Ahaz was afraid to trust God, and so he refused. Isaiah, frustrated responds, “Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God!”
Sometimes I think we react a lot like Ahaz. We’d rather put our trust in ourselves and in those around us who we can see rather than to trust in God, whom we can’t see. Maybe God seems too out of reach for us, and in our weakness or fear, we just push Him aside and put our trust in our self or in others.
We are sometimes tempted like Ahaz to trust in our own ability to solve problems and to find happiness. We do this rather than being vulnerable by trusting in God. We do this because God might lead us down a path that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. We are not ready to reject the so-called happiness that the world offers. Fr. Cantalamessa, the papal preacher, points out that the problem with this age (those who don’t follow Christ, and often even many who do), is that they’ve turned upside-down the manner of finding happiness. Instead of making God their happiness, they’ve made happiness their “god.” When you make God your happiness, God gives you happiness. You find both God and happiness. But when you make happiness your “god,” that is, when you seek happiness (in money, power, pleasure, honor) rather than God, you lose both – you lose both happiness and God.
There is a story of a young man who had avoided going to Church because he knew that if he started taking his faith seriously, he’d have to change his life. It took him years to realize that his immoral lifestyle did not bring him happiness. When he finally took the step to return to the Lord, everything changes. Others told him that he wasn’t the same guy. He agreed, “That’s right,” he said, “I’m happy now.” Perhaps there are times that we think that embracing God in our lives would cost too much. And, consequently we end up avoiding happiness. There is a temptation in all of us to act like Ahaz.
Even after Ahaz rejects God, God tells him – I will give you a sign; the virgin will conceive and bear a son. She will name him Emmanuel: Emmanuel meaning God is with us. God is telling Ahaz, just as he’s telling us: do not be afraid, trust me; I am with you.
In our Gospel from Matthew we have our second Advent man, Joseph. And Joseph like Ahaz is also a descendant of David and he is told by an angel, “Do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, into your home.” What might he be afraid of? There was the fear of what others might think. Perhaps Joseph was fearful and worried about what this Mary was really like. He knew he wasn’t the father of the child she carried. Perhaps he was fearful of the religious authorities. What if he was caught protecting Mary and she was viewed as violating the Law of Moses. Her pregnancy could be viewed as an offense punishable by stoning. Or maybe he was afraid that he couldn’t love this child as a father.
But the angel told him- do not be afraid. Trust God, for this child is special and so is his mother. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid, trust in God. And so, unlike Ahaz, Joseph puts his complete trust in God. God would figure out how to deal with the gossip, god would figure out how to deal with the Law of Moses, and God would figure out how to deal with his concerns about the child.
So: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. In His earthly life, Jesus truly showed Himself to be God-with-us. As He healed the sick, and raised the dead, He visibly brought about salvation.
But what about now? Is He still today “Emmanuel, God with us” in so great a way? Yes! Just as He is announced as “Emmanuel” at the beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 1:23), so His final words at the end of Matthew are: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus comes to live even more intimately in you than He did during the whole of His time on earth. And He wants each of you to know Him just as intimately.
In the Eucharist, He comes to you now in a way even more intimate than the way He was present, in the flesh, on earth. He comes to you now, not only from the outside, as He did when He walked the earth; He comes to you now also on the inside, as you take Him in, and “God-with-us” becomes “God-in-you.” And that is something we can trust.
Fr. Christopher Ankley