When Isaiah brings his prophecy to Ahaz, the king of Judah is trying to decide between two unappealing courses of action. Does he join with the Assyrian empire that dominates the region and thereby become its vassal? Or does he align himself with Syria and Israel to fight Assyria and risk being destroyed? Either political affiliation means that Ahaz is compromising the kingdom. Being a Catholic in the United States, one can sympathize. No matter which party one chooses, one’s beliefs and values are compromised.
Given his resistance to Isaiah, one suspects that Ahaz knew the prophet would offer at best useless advice and at worst a condemnation. Isaiah was known for denouncing people’s infidelity to God, lack of trust in God’s providence, and exploitation of the vulnerable. Instead of a judgment though, Isaiah offers the promise of a woman having a child. To a king facing a tough political choice, this probably sounded like madness. How could the birth of the child stop impending war or servitude? How could a birth restore the kingdom to God’s ways?
Yet, as so often is the case, what seems politically useless to us is God’s power in the world. What is economically worthless to us is valuable to God. Who is neglected by us is God’s instrument for salvation. The stone which the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone. Thus, Isaiah preaches that a future child will lead the way. In his context, Isaiah is speaking of Hezekiah, but Christians see in this even more. We see in it a different hope, a different way to live, and a different power to rely upon.
Joseph faces a similar situation as Ahaz. Joseph is faced with his fiancé being pregnant and not being the father. I can only imagine how this must have affected him, the feeling of betrayal by the person you loved and whom you assumed loved you in return. Most of us—or maybe I am just revealing something about myself—would be inclined to lash out, denounce the injustice to protect our dignity and sense of worth. Being a kinder and better person, “a righteous man,” Joseph decided to deal with the whole affair quietly, “unwilling to expose her to shame.” Either choice is bad though: public shaming or abandonment of a pregnant woman. Just as Isaiah did, God’s messenger offers a different, seemingly foolish, response: get married, shelter Mary, and take care of the child that is not yours. Unlike Ahaz, Joseph listens.
This is God, always offering some new way, something that transcends the limited options we see. This should not be too surprising for the God who is the author of “the earth and its fullness”, of all the “seas” and “rivers”, knows the depths of creation, knows paths unseen to places undreamt.
God’s ways seem foolish and impractical to us, but, ultimately, they are wisdom that makes crooked ways straight. God’s ways are like an insight, opening up solutions that we did not see before. We think we are stuck between two bad options or without hope, but God calls us to faith, hope, and love and, when we respond, new possibilities emerge.
This is what Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans. Paul reminds his readers that, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit of holiness, we have “received the grace of apostleship” and are “called to belong to Jesus Christ” and “to be holy.” We are called to live out and give witness to the grace and peace of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are to live a life of Christian love that expresses itself in fidelity to God and in service of neighbor. This is God’s way and, if we are faithful in living it, new possibilities will open to us.
Most of the year, we are reminded that the new possibility opened up by God’s way of love is resurrection after death from carrying a cross. In this Christmas season, we are reminded that the way of love can also take the form of caring for those who are neglected, like a small, vulnerable child or a mother in danger of abandonment. These are not acts that offer political success or bring cultural adulation, but they are ones that welcome God and, with the arrival of Emmanuel, move us closer to true peace.