You are wondering through the cold winter night with the thoughts and worries of the year gone by running through your head and see a glow from behind some barn doors. Intrigued, you approach it. You notice it is ajar and as you peep inside you see a group of people gathered around something. They notice you and beckon you in. The warmth of the light and fire is matched by the welcome you receive. Your eyes take in the smiles before they descend upon a young couple who seem to glow with joy. They invite you to come closer. As you approach you become transfixed on a new born baby the lady is holding. She lowers the baby into your arms and he nuzzles into you: a new life full of new promise and possibilities, lying happily in your embrace.
The big cause for celebration that we’ve been looking forward to all year has finally come amongst us. Yes, the latest Star Wars film is now in the cinemas! The first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, is a tale of light overcoming darkness but the hope but we are counting down the days to celebrate the greatest gift of hope ever to have been given to us. And after the difficult year we are coming to the end of we could do with some hope, but the hope we have is not a new hope, it is a hope from the past, present and future. Is a hope that Isaiah knew was coming, a hope that Joseph lived out when Mary most needed it, and a hope that continues to echo throughout the world to this day.
The Book of Isaiah was written at a time where hope was sorely needed: after some 50 years respite from aggression rulers were changing, borders were shifting and people were fleeing in the face of an uncertain future. Assyria took Israel captive and controlled Judea; and Babylon was becoming stronger and ready to usurp Assyria as the dominant force of the area, looming over and threatening both Israel and Judea politically and spiritually.
The book unveils the full dimensions of God’s judgement and salvation: God, the ‘Holy One of Israel’ is ready to punish and correct, but also to guide and redeem. Humanity had lost their way and needed help to find the right path, and hope that they would not just get to it but stay the course as well. They needed hope that there would be a righteous ruler coming to save them, and through the Book of Isaiah God says that He will send just what is needed and what is needed is not something that transcends borders and people groups. God through Isaiah spoke of hope being offered across borders and people groups, of a promise that the Earth would be restored to the original and divine ideal.
There are many signposts throughout Isaiah to how this new hope will be fulfilled. Hope was going to come in the form of a child, but not just any child or any birth. Hundreds of years before it came to be, Isaiah prophesied that the sign that God’s hope had arrived would be a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son (Isaiah 7:14 ). And though George Lucas co-opted that prophecy for the Star Wars films hope didn’t arrive with a boy called Anakin Skywalker, hope arrived through a boy with many names: Immanuel, God with us and Jesus, the Lord saves to name but two. And this hope would not be a normal boy, a political or mighty warrior but a messiah that would deliver people into God’s Kingdom.
Prophecies and pointers to how and where the Messiah God’s new hope would manifest itself in Jesus abound in the Book of Isaiah:
- He will have a ministry in Galilee (Isaiah 9:1-2); He will counsel and heal (Isaiah 9:6 and Isaiah 61:1-2); and be a substitute for our wrong doing (Isaiah 53).
- He will be spat on and struck (Isaiah 50:6), disfigured (Isaiah 52:14), and rejected (Isaiah 53:3)
- He will be exalted (Isaiah 52:13); an heir to King David’s throne (Isaiah 9:7); and be buried in a rich man’s tomb (Isaiah 53:9).
And that’s just a few of them. The picture God paints through Isaiah is one of a messiah who won’t do things the way it had become normal for humans to do. Rather than overthrow oppressive and violent regimes with yet more violence the messiah would do it with words (Isaiah 11:4). People were told to expect the unexpected.
And though Isaiah had given many signs of the hope that was to come people still needed to look out for them. If they limited their focus to a literal understanding and fulfilment of the prophecies they heard they may well have missed other signs of hope God was sending them. They needed to look out with for signs of the hope coming in ways they had not understood in case they had not understood the prophecies themselves.
Hope before The Hope
God’s signs of hope for humanity were perfected in Jesus but God didn’t and doesn’t limit hope to a birth we’re counting down the days to celebrate. Hope for humanity can be found throughout the Bible. Hope can be found in the courage and willingness of Mary and in the love and integrity of Joseph.
I feel for Joseph, not just because I’m a father. He is often overlooked or passed over at speed, but when we stop and consider his part in the Christmas story (see Matthew 1:18-24 for example) we see a man offering hope of who and how people can be in times or trial and tribulation.
Here was a man in love and destined to marry. His future was full of the hope of unknown but exciting possibilities, of a imminent marriage and having a soul mate by his side for the rest of his life. But his world was shattered when he found out that Mary was pregnant. So where is the hope in this?
The hope is in the way Joseph acted against the cultural norms, that he did what was loving and right. Joseph went against the accepted norm of the time. Like Isaiah foretold of Jesus (Isaiah 7:15-16) Joseph knew enough to reject the wrong and choose the right from wrong,
His fiancé is pregnant, and the baby isn’t his. He must have been heartbroken but despite that he didn’t want to bring attention to the situation. It wasn’t that he wanted to simply protect Mary from the scorn of the public, and clearly wanted to avoid carrying out a cultural norm of the day where women found or thought not to be a virgin before marrying could be publicly beaten and stone to death. If it had been today how many of us might have broadcasted our indignation across social media, daytime tv or the newspapers? In the way he acted, he showed that life need not conform to a cultural expectation. And in the love he showed despite his heartbreak Joseph offered Mary a glimmer of hope that her life might not be as bad as he feared or knew it could be. That he loved her is clear, so the foundation for the Angel’s message had been laid.
So having decided to help Mary give birth under the radar, He has a dream where an angel speaks to him and tells him the truth. That the Joseph we read about clearly believed the message speaks a lot about the strength of his faith and character. But it wasn’t as simple as Joseph confidently believing the baby to be God’s son. He believed but who would believe him? Would you believe it if someone told you that they or their partner was not only pregnant but that God was the father?
Joseph would have known that he would face scorn and ridicule for standing by and supporting Mary. He would have known what slurs would be thrown at her and how tough it would be for her to be pregnant. He and Mary were partners in the mission and his supportive actions and attitude would help Mary fulfil her part in it.
Joseph is a reflection of good and God in humanity. We too can act like Joseph we do what is loving and right when the cultural norms may suggest a different and darker way. As Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled as refugees after the Magi brought gifts and a warning they must have been encouraged by those who came to worship in the stable. And they would have taken hope from the refuge they received during their exile, just as the refugees who were welcomed into Germany with cheers, teddy bears and homes would have found hope not just of a place to rest but of a place of welcome.
Echoes of Hope
Like Joseph, Mary, the Magi and the friendly faces in Germany, there are many others who continue to echo the hope Isaiah spoke of in the scarily uncertain time we live in now. These are people who continue to demonstrate that which Isaiah said Jesus would enable:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Whilst fear and uncertainly existed before this year, 2016 has brought it afresh and in large measures to many more people. Black lives mattered before 2016 but when the US President elect was openly backed and encouraged by the Ku Klux Klan it is understandable that African Americans are more afraid than they were this time last year. And whilst racial and political tensions existed in the UK before 2016 Jo Cox’s murder and the EU Referendum brought them out into the open to disturbing levels.
But despite the fear and fractures we may feel or perceive, hope has not died; the light of Christ has not and will not be extinguished. This Christmas hope will shine out brightly but it is not limited to 12 days of celebrations, just as it was not limited to a baby lying in a manger. Christmas reminds us of a a hope we are offered and can carry with us and share every day of our lives.
To give or receive hope we need to open our eyes to what and where it is needed, even if that is within ourselves and our own lives. We need to be alert not just to the difficulties we and others are experiencing but to the hope we or they might miss. We are called to be open and alert to signs of Jesus coming back but also to those that need the Holy Spirit until he does. We are called not just to see things for what they are but what they could be.
Just as Joseph acted with integrity and compassion so has Brendan Cox since the death of his wife, the MP Jo Cox, living with a dignity that gives us hope that fear need not set one person against another. Similarly Antoine Leiris refused to give the terrrorists his hate when they took the life of his wife Hélène in the attack on the Bataclan in Paris; the courage of both men has given hope that we too won’t be overwhelmed by fear.
The recent protests in the Standing Rock reservation in America give hope that though there are people in the world seeking to set people against each other people will continue to seek to be united. Although the intention of the police at Standing Rock was to facilitate a safe construction of an oil pipeline across an environmentally and culturally sensitive landscape, the consequence was to bring together Native Americans, colonial Americans and others in acts that produced repentance, peace and unity.
When the actress Sally Phillips made a documentary about Downs Syndrome she gave hope and a voice to those with Downs Syndrome and their relatives. But she also gave a much wider hope of life being valued, loved and appreciated despite the challenges that may be faced. And the Paralympics has not just provided hope for those with disabilities but to all facing challenges to overcome – they’ve even inspired people to make equipment so that those with 2 legs can fun on blades like those with 1 or none!
We can be like Sally Phillips, like those at Standing Rock, like Antoine Leiris and like Brendan Cox. We can be like Joseph, we can be like Jesus. Jesus not only helps us to see the reality of a situation but helps us not to fear it. He helps us to replace hate with hope and see strangers as family.
What Isaiah said about Jesus opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf is still true, but it doesn’t just help us to see the needs of others and ourselves, it helps us see and feel hope. He gives hope to the disenfranchised that they will be empowered. He gives hope to the voiceless that they will find their voice and that they will be heard.
Hope is not saying everything will be fine, hope is knowing that we can influence things to become fine and that is what Jesus asks us to do.
This Christmas time we will be invited back to the baby at the beginning of this post. We will be invited to embrace the hope found in a manger and to look out for the new promises and possibilities which radiate from that hope. It may feel dark outside the stable but the stable cannot keep the light and hope contained within it. It is something to be celebrated and there’s less than 7 days left before the party can begin!
Until then, here is a musical tribute to Joseph: