09 December 2016

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, 18 December 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
Saint Matthew 1:18-25

Background: Parthenos, young woman, and virgin and other problems.

One wonders whether students of the scriptures, either professional or lay, are drawn to study the first reading from Isaiah apart from its use during Advent/Christmas. If our study is limited to this time only, we will have deprived ourselves of other theological perspectives that can aid us in our appraisal of religion and culture. Oddly enough, the day on which I opened this text to write on it has as its commemoration Karl Barth, the preeminent theologian of the last century. His contentions about the role of theology as it assesses the culture and politics of the time, seem to be spot on with what Isaiah is attempting to communicate as well. Thus it follows that Otto Kaiser should write in his commentary on Isaiah 7:10-17: “An evangelical Christian has neither the authority nor the commission to intervene in political decisions in the manner of the prophet Isaiah; though of course he has no right to his peace in the face of wrong and violence.”[1]

The understanding that Christians have of the “young woman” and of “Immanuel” does not release us from Isaiah’s purpose and insight. The God-with-Us should impel our conversation with the society around us to see the classic needs met by the Messiah. How we got to this point doesn’t matter. How we act, based on that understanding, is of importance.

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

The issues here are several, and largely political. The discussion centers on how God can be persuasive and bind the house of Ahaz to the will God has for the people. A sign to Ahaz is refused, for it would have bound him more firmly to God’s will. The sign itself is confusing and lends it self to a variety of interpretations (is the young woman an undisclosed other wife of Isaiah, is “Immanuel” his son, or is the whole image a metaphor?). There is one aspect that lends itself not only to this Advent season, but also to any theological wrestling that one might want to do with this passage, and that is that God acts here. The act is more than symbolic, but fleshy and world-wise. All of the issues of human creatureliness are evident here, “he knows how to ruse the evil and choose the good.” The last line of the pericope, however, quickly brings us face to face with the political issues and concerns of Isaiah’s time.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          What do you hear in Isaiah’s comments on the “young woman”?
2.          What is threatening Ahaz?
3.         How must Israel respond?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Qui regis Israel

     Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
2      In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
4      Lord God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
5      You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6      You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
16    Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.
17    And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
18    Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

In this psalm our gaze is turned to the north, specifically to the Kingdom of Israel, and to the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh. A note in the Septuagint notes that this psalm is concerned with the Assyrians, the empire that would not only decimate the northern kingdom, but also utterly destroy it. That is only anticipated here, but the dangers seem to be on the horizon.

It might prove helpful to anyone preaching on or teaching this text to read the entirety of this text. Verses 9 through 15 speak of a vine that is transplanted from Egypt into the land now being besieged by Assyria. This vine (Israel) gives rise to a shoot (remember the readings and images from the Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Advent – the stump of Jesse) that is picked up in verse 16, “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand.” Like Immanuel, this seems to be a God-with-Us presence, given for the purpose of saving Israel, and restoring the relationship with God.

Breaking open Psalm 80:
1.     What are the shepherding characteristics of God?
2.     In what way are you in the flock?
3.    Who do you think is the “man of your right hand?”

The Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

          Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The wisdom behind the choice of this pericope as a reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is elegant. In it we meet Paul, the person who will shape the story handed down to him, and make it available to both Jew and Gentile.  This is no doubt our Advent and Christmas duty as well. In his greeting and introduction to the Christians at Rome, we also get a forecast of what he is to espouse and pronounce.  He does not do this blindly, however, neglecting to authenticate himself for this new audience. He uses titles to describe his relationship to Jesus, “slave”, but also to describe his relationship to the Body of Christ, “Apostle”, and finally his relationship to the message itself, “set apart for the gospel of God.” This message is formed in rather simple, logical terms; a matrix that will hold the greater arguments that he will make in the course of his letter. This Jesus is called “Son”, first of David, and secondly of God, “with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” For all of the above, Paul can then call him “Lord”, and describe the gifts that he (Paul) brings in his (Jesus’) name.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Of what does Paul try to convince us?
  2. How is he different that the people to whom he is writing?
  3. What is his purpose?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In his absorbing commentary on the Birth Narratives, Raymond Brown poses an important question for us as we approach Matthew’s telling of the tale. “Methodologically, it is imperative to ask oneself: What would I learn about Jesus’ birth if I possessed only Matthew’s Gospel.”[2] In a world that has conflated much of the Christmas story for the purposes of commercialization and simplicity, it is a difficult task to separate these two narratives in order to discover what each of them separately contributes to the telling of the Gospel. Preachers will need to convince their hearers of the necessity of this enterprise.

Both narratives include genealogies, and each has similar and yet different character. Both describe Jesus as a in a lineage with David, and in that lineage through Joseph. Matthew’s genealogy, however, has a broader purpose other than only describing the genesis of Jesus. In it, Matthew describes a whole new order or line in salvation history. This birth records something new.

In Matthew the central organizing character is that of Joseph, who occupies a chief interpretive role in the narrative.  We can divide the narrative into several scenes, each held in place by a separate dream of Joseph:

Introduction: 1:1-17, the genealogy
Scene 1: 1:18-25, First Dream of Joseph
Scene 2: 2:1-12, The Visit of the Magi
Scene 3: 2:13-15, Second Dream of Joseph
Scene 4: 2:16-18, The Innocents
Scene 5: 2:19-23, Third Dream of Joseph

Each of these (excepting the genealogy) has a corresponding connection to a text from the Hebrew Scripture. For that is Matthew’s program to model on and argue from the witness of the ancient scriptures. Although the genealogy describes Jesus’ relationship with David in legal terms, his birth is also described in miraculous terms, born of a virgin. Matthew assembles his traditions without regard for any logical consistency. Readers interested in exploring the whole problem posed by the Virgin Birth may want to refer to Raymond Brown’s article, The Virgin Birth: Historical Fact of Kerygmatic Truth?[3]

The preacher will want to emphasize the good news of this narrative. Jesus is called Messiah, His birth is made possible through the agency of the Holy Spirit, and Joseph relies on his dreams as good news from God. Jesus is “God-with-Us”. That’s more than enough material to bring Christmas back into focus.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Why is it important to read Matthew separately?
2.     What did you learn?
3.    What Old Testament character is Joseph based on?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Kaiser, O, (1972), Isaiah 1-12, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 106.
[2]Brown, R. (1977), The Birth of the Messiah – A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, page 45
[3]Brown, R. (1957), The Virgin Birth: Historical Fact or Kerygmatic Truth? Biblical Research (Volume: 1) 

07 December 2016

The Third Sunday of Advent, 11 December 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 15 The Magnificat
James 5:7-10
Saint Matthew 11:2-11

Background: The Magnificat

Those of you from the liturgical churches will recognize this canticle that is sung at Evensong (Vespers) following the first reading. Anglicans will be especially familiar given their tradition of saying both morning and evening prayer every day. The song that Luke puts into Mary’s mouth is related to and a bit reliant on the song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10). A quick read through of Hannah’s song would reveal many similar themes and phraseology. Hannah’s circumstances are different. Her song is a cry of thanksgiving following the gift of son, while Mary’s is a song of thanksgiving in anticipation of the gift of a son. The first is a cry to God, and the second is sung as she visits her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. These songs of Luke, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Gloria in Excelsis, and the Nunc Dimittis, are bound into and make for a cohesive whole in his Birth Narrative. Each of them offers commentary on the holy history that is happening about them.

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

You may want to take time to read the chapter that immediately precedes this pericope, Chapter 34. In it, a later Isaiah describes the wrath that will fall upon Judah’s enemy Edom. In chapter 35, we have a description that is in sharp contrast to the destruction described in 34 – the restoration of the land of Judah. The vision begins with the land itself. Whereas Edom’s land would soon be filled with pitch and desolation, Judah is described verdant and fruitful. It sets the scene for a renewed society and offers those peoples a prescience of not only a renewed land but a renewed self as well.

That given, the prophet then outlines the messianic program that accompanies the dreamland. This listing of benedictions to come will become an outline of what the Messiah will do: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, and the speechless are given a song. The renewed people and the renewed land become a place for holiness and joy, an anticipation of what God desires for all God’s people.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          When has your world been remade or renewed?
2.          Have you seen this in the lives of others?
3.         How has God healed you?

Psalm 146:4-9 Lauda, anima mea

     Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! *
whose hope is in the Lord their God;
5      Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;
6      Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
7      The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; *
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
8      The Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9      The Lord shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

In this psalm we see a reiteration of what we discovered in the reading from Isaiah, a rehearsal of the hopes of Israel made real in God’s actions. The list is familiar, beginning with the gift of creation itself and then moving on to justice, freedom, and sight. It is more expansive in scope that Isaiah’s listing, and serves as song of praise to the God of Jacob.

Breaking open Psalm 146:
1.     What acts of God, described in the psalm, have you witnessed?
2.     Did it happen to you or to someone else?
3.    How does God sustain you?


Canticle 15, The Song of Mary Magnificat

Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

For comments, see the background material above.

Breaking open the Magnificat:
1.     What are Mary’s emotions here?
2.     What is she anticipating in this child?
3.    What do you anticipate about Jesus?

James 5:7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

This reading from James reminds us that we are still in Advent – the Christmas celebration is still in the future. It is a text that anticipates, and describes our behavior as we look forward to the future of things. The pericope urges patience and uses the example of the patience and persistence of the farmer. Patience is described as not only an attitude toward self, and the times, but to the neighbor as well, “Do not grumble against one another.” There will be judgment in the end, but it is not the judgment of one person against another, but rather the judgment of God who will review all of life. His final example of patience (and he must have been thinking of Jeremiah) is the prophets.

Breaking open James:
  1. About what in life are you impatient?
  2. How do you deal with your impatience?
  3. What are you truly waiting for?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

In chapter eleven we wrestle with an essential question in the Gospels – who is this Jesus, and what is his role in our lives. The people of faith in the bible were not immune to this inquiry, and so John the Baptist sends off his disciples to quell his doubts. John asks the question from prison, and so realizes that there have been consequences to his preaching and to his acceptance of Jesus. He wants to know, Are you the one who is to come?” The answer is drawn from Isaiah and from Psalm 146 – where we see the messianic virtues that have become familiar to us in these readings: sight, movement, healing, hearing, and resurrection – all good news.

In the next segment, the focus shifts away from the “professional”, John’s disciples, and moves to ordinary people, the “crowds”. Here Jesus is posing the question. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” What might they have been anticipating? Like the disciples in the Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus suspects that they are really concerned about the restoration of Israel, and the enthronement of a new king, “Someone dressed in soft robes>” The hope is that they have come to see and witness a prophet. Here Jesus looks back at John, the John who posed the question. In the inquiry and asceticism of this man came the knowledge of who Jesus was.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How do you describe Jesus?
2.     What does it mean to believe in him?
3.    What do you expect of Jesus?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller