Posture: Responding to Fulfillment
As we near the climax of this Advent season, we have already reflected on many different experiences:
How does anticipation position us so we are ready to serve God and each other?
In what ways do we resist the confrontational nature of the gospel?
How do we reconcile faith with our inner questioning and uncertainty?
And now today……How do we respond to the fulfillment of our hopes?
What goes through our minds?
What changes in our physiology—in our body’s language and composition?
And how does the fulfillment of our hopes impact our lived-out faith as disciples of Christ?
The scripture reading today is well known among Christians. Now, the Sunday before Christmas Day, we have begun our move into the Christmas narrative itself, inserting ourselves as a fly-on-the-wall into these intimate, fearful, and joyous moments of Mary and Joseph’s relationship.
Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married……or so we would position them in today’s rituals and rites. In their own time and culture, it would be more accurate to say Joseph had contracted to wed Mary. While Joseph is certainly painted as a compassionate and caring individual here, the fact is that marriage in that day and age had nothing to do with love and everything to do with economics, social aspiration, and the cold, hard realities of a thoroughly patriarchal society.
Mary—throughout this episode—is not afforded a voice. Her opinion is not consulted. Her perspective is not presented. The version of Jesus’ birth told here in Matthew is not about Mary—it is about Joseph. It is about the hope of Israel. And it is about the fulfillment of that hope in an unexpected way.
As we begin, I think it’s important to realize that while we know Mary is “with child from the Holy Spirit” (v.18), no one else seems to know this at the time. Of course, as Luke will tell, Mary has an angelic visit of her own—but (as I said) Mary gets no voice in Matthew’s gospel.
Joseph, in resolving to divorce her in v.19, reveals that he does not know about—or believe—any spirit-impregnating mumbo-jumbo. He only knows that a pregnant fiancée is scandalous, that the child is not his, and that an unfaithful fiancée is likely to be an unfaithful wife. Since the covenant has been violated, he intends to quit the covenant.
Yet still, as a godly person, he does not intend to cause irreparable harm. Unlike so many separations today, Joseph is not intent on lashing out and destroying the one he perceives has wronged him. He does not want Mary to suffer for her unfaithfulness; he just doesn’t want that kind of trouble in his life any more. Whatever hopes he had for this marriage have been dashed—and dead hope brings its own kind of grief, as we mourn a life we were invested in but will never breathe a breath.
Out of this grief—and out of this quiet wrestling—an angel invades Joseph’s contemplation. Like most angels, this one begins with an instruction to not be afraid. The angel tells Joseph to go ahead with the wedding, that Mary has not been unfaithful but that her baby is brought into being by the Spirit; and the angel tells Joseph something about this baby’s future: call him Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins” (v.21).
There is……one more thing we learn here in Matthew, too. It’s an answer to the question that is first on our lips when our own hope is dashed. It’s the question we most want answered when our grief peaks. It’s the question “why?”
Why?……Why?……Why?…… How many times must Joseph have asked that question in the hours and days before the angel appeared? How often must he have shouted it at the heavens, or prayed it with the same intensity as will Jesus pray at Gethsemane?
How many times have we prayed “why?”, crying out in grief to the sky, or falling on our knees, or having it echoing around inside our empty soul?
How many times have we ourselves earnestly desired an angel break into our despair, offer us words of peace, and promise the fulfillment of all our hopes?
But alas, while such experiences happen, they do not happen to everyone, everywhere, or every time. They are, in truth, exceptions to the norm—as befitting their exceptional nature.
The answer to Joseph’s “why” is certainly an exceptional one. This boy who will be born in such exceptional circumstances has an exceptional fate—even more exceptional than his name alone suggests. This Jesus will not just be the one who will “save his people from their sins”; he will also be “Immanuel… God with us” (vv.21, 23), the presence of God promised by Isaiah hundreds of years and a nearly equal number of pages ago.
Now, there’s some interesting history behind this prophecy of Isaiah, not the least of which is that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed these words of Isaiah had already been fulfilled.
Here’s what Isaiah 7 is actually about. In the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with other small states for protection against Assyria, the region’s 800-pound gorilla. Judah refused to join the alliance. Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy at its rear, moved to conquer Judah.
God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judah that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah tells the king to ask God for a sign of this prophecy, but the king refuses to put God to the test. Isaiah [then] sees this as a lack of faith, scolds the king, and gives him a sign: “The [maiden] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.
In other words, in five years or so, your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel [prophecy]. The boy simply acts as a clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe the impending conquest of Judah by Assyria and…[the] painful future [that awaits].
(The previous paragraphs copied with slight alterations from HERE)
You see, from the perspective of Joseph and his peers, this is a prophecy that had already been fulfilled. It had been fulfilled when an otherwise unimportant boy was born to the house of the King of Judah, and when Syria and Israel were destroyed less than five years later. This otherwise unremarkable child is called “Immanuel” because his presence reminds ancient Israel that God has not forgotten them, and that God is at work to save them.
It is this meaning, I believe, that led Matthew to see a connection to the infant Jesus. Like the Immanuel of centuries prior, the presence of Jesus reminds us of the presence of God. Like his namesake, Jesus will help us see that God is working to save us. Perhaps too, Jesus serves as a kind of clock for us, marking both the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God at his birth and its fulfillment when he returns.
But with Jesus, there’s more to it too. When Matthew says that Jesus’ virgin birth is the fulfillment of prophecy, we remember this is not the only prophecy Jesus will fulfill. A big part of the purpose of the gospel of Matthew is to connect as many of these prophetic dots as possible.
But “prophecy” and “fulfillment” are not fatalistic concepts in the New Testament, despite how we have read them over the years. For Jesus to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 7 is not to say that he and only he is what Isaiah 7 intended. Rather, the fulfillment of prophecy takes place when faithful people choose to embody the hoped-for reality. Jesus is familiar with the scriptures of his Jewish religion—which was made up of the bulk of what we now know as the OT. And in particular places we can read about Jesus deliberately choosing to live into an OT text—deliberately choosing to “fulfill” an OT prophecy.
It’s obvious and mysterious and earthy and supernatural all at the same time. But it’s also the same sort of task that is presented to faithful disciples of Jesus over and over.
Fulfilling the Kingdom
Jesus spends most of his teaching and preaching ministry talking about the same thing. Know what it is? It’s the same thing John the Baptist talked about: the kingdom of God.
John will proclaim that the Kingdom is “near” (Matt 3:2).
Jesus takes it a step further to say it is “in you” (Lk 17:21).
Paul will talk about how we are to live in the world but according to a different set of laws and standards (Titus 3:1-8 and others);
and Peter will show how we “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
They’re all talking about the same thing—inching and pushing and plodding and fighting their way forward as they seek to bring the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God into the world.
So it is with us, as well. We are citizens of this nation, tasked with upholding justice and peace, and with praying for our leaders.
But this nation is not where our allegiance lies.
Each one of us must live the Kingdom of God into being.
Each one of us must contribute toward its fulfillment.
Each one of us has roles to play in order for “thy kingdom” to come, and “thy will” to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The past fulfillment of hope in Jesus reminds us of God’s presence, love, and desire to deliver us from the bonds that oppress us—both within and without. But that past fulfillment also drives our future hope, and our present labor.
In a world so deeply divided, who will know unity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.
In a world filled with such pain, who will know comfort?—unless it is lived out by the Church.
In a world driven by consumerism and greed, who will know generosity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.
In a world where facts have become irrelevant in public discourse, who will know truth?—unless it is lived out by the Church–the people who embody the way, the truth, and the life—that is Jesus the Christ.
We have a role to play in the world, sisters and brothers. God is not finished yet. The Kingdom is not yet fulfilled. The cause of Christ is still advancing.
But are we advancing with it? Are we fulfilling the Kingdom of God through our choices and engagements? As we do what we call “the Lord’s work,” is good news being preached to the poor? Are captives and prisoners being set free? Do the blind now see? Are the oppressed liberated?
These are the things Jesus indicates are fulfilled in his life and mission. Are they fulfilled in ours?
Letter from Birmingham Jail
For some weeks and months, I have discovered my mind recalled a particular writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963. In so many places, Dr. King seems to speak straight to the circumstances of our world today, to the criticisms used against those pursuing justice, and to the difficult task that committed followers of Jesus are likely to have in the future.
As we reflect on “fulfillment” today, I regret that we have lived into the prophetic fears expressed by Dr. King instead of living into the life of Christ and Kingdom of God. Near the end of this substantial letter, Dr. King says this:
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
From dashed hopes, to fulfilled hopes, to dashed hopes again. This is our history. And this is where we stand today.
But it is not where we have to remain.
Each of us—one by one—can choose to fulfill Jesus’ life with our own.
Each of us—one by one—can choose to live in the Kingdom of God even now.
Each of us—one by one—can choose to stand with God against the injustices of this world, actively fighting the “powers and principalities” that crush the lives and spirits of those on the margins.
In doing so, we fulfill the life of Christ and advance God’s Kingdom.
Sisters and brothers: Gird up your loins. We’ve work to do.