Advent IV: Is. 7:10-16, Rom. 1:1-7, Mt. 1:18-25
What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever made? How do you make decisions in general? Who do you trust to provide the right kind of information? What sorts of things do you fear? Our readings today focus on significant choices, comparing the obedience of faith and the disobedience of unbelief and fear.
Faith in the Promises
Ahaz faced a crucial political decision. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had made an alliance and were threatening to conquer Judah (Is. 7:1), and Isaiah was authorized by God to tell Ahaz not to fear (Is. 7:4). The threat was not only an immediate national disaster; it was ultimately a threat to God’s promises to Israel, going back to Adam and Eve and Abraham and David (Gen. 3:15, 15:5, 2 Sam. 7:12-16). When we get to Ahaz in Isaiah 7, the question has everything to do with whether the “house of David” is going to actually endure (Is. 7:2, 13). This was not the first time the promise had been in jeopardy: Cain killed Abel, Abraham and Sarah were old and barren, Israel was enslaved and their sons were killed. God repeatedly asked His people to trust Him, to believe Him with very little to go on. And now God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, “deep as Sheol or high as heaven” – which may point to the fact that God recognizes the gravity of the situation. It’s a heaven or hell moment. However, Ahaz refuses to ask, feigning piety “I will not put the Lord to the test,” but Isaiah says this is “wearying” to God (Is. 7:13). And so God gives Ahaz and the “house of David” the sign of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son named Emmanuel (Is. 7:14). There is clearly some kind of immediate fulfillment of this prophecy as the “two kings you dread” were gone very soon thereafter and the Assyrians overran both lands within 10-20 years of this prophecy (2 Kgs. 16-17), but given the promises, there is clearly a distant fulfillment as well.
Part of the important context here is that we know that Ahaz sends for help to the Assyrians as a direct result of the threat of Israel and Syria (2 Kgs. 16:7ff). And Ahaz proceeded to look to Assyria as a model and protector (2 Kgs. 16:10ff). In the following verses in Isaiah, it becomes clear that the Lord is seeking to shake Judah’s confidence in political maneuvering altogether. At one time, they rejoiced in Samaria and Syria, so the Lord has turned that into a thorn in their flesh, and when they become infatuated with Assyria, that too will become a flood coming up to the neck of Judah (Is. 8:5-8). “Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Is. 8:12-13). God is calling Judah to walk by faith, to make decisions by faith.
Faith in the Gospel
When Paul sets out to write to the first Christians in Rome, he faces a precarious situation where there is significant tension and uncertainty in the capital of the Roman Empire, where they are marginalized, feared, ignored, and persecuted. The pattern in the rest of the Empire was for Jews to accuse the Christians to the Romans as being trouble-makers and rabble rousers (see Acts) – they worshipped a man who had been crucified for being an enemy of Caesar, after all (Jn. 19:12). This added to the already tenuous union between the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. Would the newly converted Jewish Christians betray their Gentile brothers? Would newly converted Roman Gentiles betray their Jewish-Christian brothers? And where was Paul anyway, the great leader of the international Church? Wasn’t it a bit suspicious that he hadn’t come to visit them himself yet (Rom. 1:8-15)? This helps to frame how bold and fearless Paul’s opening greeting to the Romans truly is. Paul affirms his own apostolic calling, reaching back to the ancient Hebrew prophecies to the Jews, affirming the Davidic dynasty fulfilled in Christ, with the central declaration being found in His resurrection from the dead, affirming Jesus as King on David’s throne forever (Rom. 1:1-4). And it is this reality that has driven the mission to the Gentiles, affirming the calling of all the Roman Christians, who are called to belong to Jesus the King and called to be saints (Rom. 1:5-7). All of this is a set up for a sixteen-chapter case for remaining steadfast in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ (remember Rom. 15:4ff, cf. 16:19, 16:25-27). The subtext running throughout Romans is the temptation to put their trust in the systems of the flesh through alliances, loyalties, and quid-pro-quo bargains. But the gospel of King Jesus is the good news that God has broken through all of it and proven its folly in the cross and resurrection, and therefore we are called to believe and obey.
The Gospel gives us a wonderfully brief glimpse into the life of Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, and captures the simple, courageous faith of a man who feared God and obeyed him no matter the appearances, no matter the consequences. We see his courage and judicious character in his initial intention to put Mary away quietly, without rancor or bitterness (Mt. 1:18-19), but his character shines even more when he receives the message of the angel in a dream, believes, and obeys (Mt. 1:20-25).
Christian obedience flows from faith in Christ. In fact there is no other kind of faith, except for the faith that obeys. While it is true that we are justified by faith alone, that faith “is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF IX.2) and that faith obeys the commands of God in Scripture, “trembles at the threatenings, and embraces the promises of God for this life and that which is to come” (WCF XIV.2).
What choices do you face? What decisions are you already making each day that are leading you down a path? Do you have sin to confess? Are there people you need to confront or forgive or reach out to? Do you need to stop being half-hearted and be all in for Christ? Are you afraid of the consequences or what might happen? Everyone lives by faith. The only question is whether the object of your faith will always be faithful. Ahaz trusted in Assyria, the Roman Christians were tempted to trust in ethnic and political alliances, but Joseph believed God, obeyed Him, and was blessed to become the father of our Savior.