Learning to Trust in the Journey
Perhaps you, too, have become suspicious of your GPS. You’re following the directions to a destination where you have never been. Then you’re directed to make a turn that doesn’t feel right. You’re in an area of the city that doesn’t look right. The directions keep coming, but they don’t seem to be on the right path. It is hard to keep trusting the disembodied voice telling you how to get to your destination. We might want to give up. Or turn it off and “use the force, Luke,” which often means just do what feels right. And that is a recipe for disaster more times than we’d like to admit.
Isaiah and Matthew give us contrasting tales of trusting. Our Hebrew Scripture text is an odd little exchange between the prophet and Ahaz, the king of Judah. If you read from the beginning of chapter seven, you’ll see that Ahaz’s problem is that he is under threat from friends and enemies both. The king of Israel and the king of Aram made a pact to attack Judah and Jerusalem. Though the attack was not successful, it caused Ahaz and all his people to shake in their hearts (v.2). So, God sends Isaiah to Ahaz to tell him to trust in God’s protection. Apparently, Ahaz isn’t quite convinced, so God speaks through Isaiah and says, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or as high as heaven” (v.10). A virtual blank check. But Ahaz says no; he’s not going to ask for a sign. He says, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”
A pious response, or so it seems. It sounds like the right thing to do—especially for those of us who have the words of Jesus in mind. It was during the temptation in the wilderness that Jesus said the exact same thing. The difference is, Jesus was responding to Satan; Ahaz was responding to God. Big difference. When God wants you to ask for a sign, you’d better ask for a sign. But Ahaz was saying he didn’t need a sign; he would handle it on his own. He wasn’t willing to trust in God; he wanted to trust in himself, in his armies, in his defenses.
This lack of trust “wearies” God, according to Isaiah. God has heard it before, seen it before, many times. And God presents the sign, already in the works. There’s a woman already with child, and that child is a sign of God’s presence in the world. God tells Ahaz to pay attention, to see that life continues, even in the face of war. No one is really sure what child Isaiah refers to. Some think it is a son of the king who is about to be born. Others claim it is Isaiah’s own son that his wife is carrying at the time. Maybe it was a random child, and Isaiah’s point is there is hope if you choose to look for it.
We Christians, of course, hear something more profound in that promise. That’s why we read this text on the last Sunday of Advent. Isaiah may or may not have known how God intended to use this sign a few hundred years later, but we can see it clearly. Or can we?
Joseph couldn’t. At least not at first. On his own, he was planning to walk away. Trusting in his own wisdom, he was on the brink of saying no. No to his marriage, no to this wild story, no to playing a secondary role in the story of salvation. He wasn’t going to make a fuss, but he was going to say no.
The funny thing is, Matthew tells us that Joseph was “a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” The problem was that those two things clashed, at least they used to. Calling people righteous meant that they were obedient to the law. And the law called for public disgrace—at least as it was practiced at that time—so that the shame wouldn’t rest on Joseph and his family, but on Mary and hers. So, though he had resolved to dismiss her quietly, he was at war within himself as he went to sleep that night.
It was in this inner conflict that the dream came and the angel spoke. And suddenly Joseph knew what to do. The dramatist would want a little more inner debate as Joseph came to this new understanding. But Matthew doesn’t indicate any struggle. Joseph woke up and did it. Did what? He went against the law in favor of love. Or maybe better, he went against a rigid interpretation of the law in favor of the covenant between people and God.
He decided to trust in the leading of the Spirit, to trust in the journey of faith. He trusted enough to name the child, which is the eternal invitation.