Innocence Bearing Witness
Here we are at the end of the season of Advent. Next Sunday is Christmas, which you well know if you have an Advent calendar, especially one administrated by children or grandchildren nearby. Seriously, our four year old has been giving us an accurate countdown for the last week or more. The expectation of a child counting down the days to Christmas morning is a picture not unlike the people of God waiting for the coming of the Messiah. And as we continue our journey through Advent, the prophet Isaiah reveals another picture of hope, and with it, a corresponding need.
Isaiah is delivering his prophecy before King Ahaz. The wickedness of Ahaz’s reign and those of his forebears was considerable. The kings had worshipped foreign gods, placing their images in the temple. Sexual and other wickedness was allowed at pagan and syncretistic shrines across the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Passing infants through fire, burning them, was a form of worship being offered to the foreign god Molech. Those sorts of things were all allowed. They permeated society. But, as we’re hopefully all aware, just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s right in the eyes of God. Today, I fear we may see this principle play out more and more vividly, if the Spirit of God does not move to restrain evil in the world. Something to keep in your prayers. Seeing wickedness flourish and wanting things to be made right was something the remnant of the faithful in Israel would have dearly yearned to see. And it’s in this context that the prophet Isaiah delivers a prophecy of judgment. He gives a sign, not of a dragon or a sword or an army, but of a young girl, one barely of marriageable age, conceiving, presumably for the first time, and giving birth.
The way prophetic signs often worked was that the prophet would see or do something that would serve as the sign, a visual aid for the prophetic words. Isaiah could well have seen a young woman walking by. Imagine you’re a young girl walking by as Isaiah the prophet is prophesying. And he says, gesturing to you, “I give unto you a sign, the virgin shall conceive and give birth.” “My goodness,” you might think, “What does this mean for me?” An experience shared hundreds of years later by another young girl.
Isaiah’s prophecy of judgment does not begin with a general commanding armies with siege instruments, though he does mention one later. No the sign is a little girl and her little bitty baby. While judgment for Jesus’ disciples when they were still learning might have have looked like calling down fire on a wicked world, Isaiah gives Ahaz a picture of a young mother and her child as a catalyst to setting things right.
The hope of Isaiah is pure and innocent and that focused purity and innocence will bear witness to the world into which the baby will come. In this particular passage, Isaiah’s hope is purity and the need was an end to societal wickedness, a culture not living in a way that honors God. The chosen people were acting the same and even worse than the people who had never heard a thing about Yahweh or his Law. The need was not only personal but national. A systemically corrupt and defiled culture had made the people of God needy of a systemic cleansing and restoration, a restoration of purity and innocence. We almost always get it wrong when we try to change society by ourselves. So many unintended consequences cascade on and our best intentions to reform society often make things worse. We need help. If we try to fix things ourselves, we find ourselves lost in the weeds of culture wars and winning becomes the primary focus over changed hearts. Ahaz was in need of a recalibrated heart. The whole nation was. God knew this. Isaiah knew this. And in our Gospel lesson today, Joseph knew this.
If Joseph was about winning, if he had worldly eyes for winning, he wouldn’t have married his pregnant fiance’. But he was given a piece of the secret plan of God and he rejected the risk-adverse desire to appear perfect to the world, and he took up his role and saw it through. He thought not only of others, but also, even primarily of God. Joseph had his heart and mind set in the right place, on God and his will. And this allowed him to see clearly what love really is, what love actually looks like, and he showed love to Mary.
And indeed, what winning looked like is redefined by God’s kingdom. What is your concept of winning? What does it look like to you? When we recalibrate our hearts to God and his glory, winning looks like a young woman saying, “May it be done to be as the Lord has spoken.” Winning looks like setting aside advantages in order to do the right thing for others’ benefit. It looks like faithfulness to God. Imagine cheering about faithfulness to God like we do watching a Seahawks playoff game, or on election night. The incarnation of Jesus lets us see what winning truly looks like.
The only way that the purity of a young mother bringing a newborn into the world could be made any purer is if that young child was the source of purity and innocence itself. The purity and innocence of the Son of God coming into the world, the mere contrast, casts judgment on the wickedness and the defilement of the world. But judgment was not coming only in the form of a concept, but in the form of a person as well. Judgment of the wicked came that day in part, as a deposit of the judgment of wickedness that will fully and finally come at the end--at the end of our life, at the end of the world. But because that judgment comes as a person and not a concept only, he can be approached. In fact he approaches us in love and reconciliation, before the judgment comes. His innocence is in contrast with the wicked world, and he calls us living in the wicked world to come to him and to be changed: to be made clean in the presence of his innocence. To exchange the filth we’re covered in with his very righteousness. And he will have to die to make the exchange. The baby Jesus whose birth we celebrate next week will come to bear witness to innocence, to the love of God for those living wickedly in a wicked world, and by his death, he comes to remove our filth, to clothe us in his righteousness, so that when the judgment comes, the righteous judge will look at us and see the righteousness of Jesus.
The world, falling apart, defiled, wicked is being infiltrated by the kingdom of heaven. The king himself is about to arrive. He will overturn the oppression of the demonic. He will change the hearts of the wicked. He will open the eyes of the blind. And he will establish an eternal peace and righteousness. Prepare yourself for his coming. Look to his gracious offer to cleanse you from sin and to be called one of his own and to play your humble part in helping build the kingdom that Israel should have been building. The one that we should have been building. The one that will surely come. And give humble thanks.