The Fourth Sunday in Advent - 19 December 2010

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

St. Matthew’s Birth Narrative - The Gospels of Mark and John aren’t interested in the birth of Jesus.  Mark begins his Gospel with the Baptism, and John retrojects the “birth” of Jesus (as the Word) to the beginning of time, as he uses the Creation story as a model for telling the story of Jesus.  Matthew and Luke, however, both have elaborate narratives that strive to develop a context for Jesus, and his appearing.  Both wish to tie their narratives to the stories of Israel, and both use genealogies to initiate their claim.  Of the two, Luke’s is the most familiar, while the Matthean version is less well known, with the exception of the visit of the magi.  Both of these narratives use archetypes from the Hebrew Scriptures to paint a background for Jesus and the beginning of his ministry.  Matthew uses two tales to grant context and meaning to his largely Palestinian audience.  The story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, the interpreter of dreams, and the savior of Egypt becomes a model for Joseph, the husband of Mary.  The Annunciation, in Matthew, is to Joseph and it is told in a dream that clues him into the divine intentions.  The other model is the story of Moses, for Jesus is the new Moses.  Saved from the murderous efforts of an evil king (Pharaoh/Herod), replicating the movements both in and out of Egypt (the Family of Israel/the Holy Family) Jesus is shown to be a Savior of his people in the same way that Moses is. 

Isaiah 7:10-16

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."

Isaiah prophesies to King Ahaz

The heart of this passage is an oracle that has earned a significant place in Christian theology, and yet to truly understand it we must hear the words that Isaiah wanted Ahaz to hear.  The political situation is tense.  Judah’s northern neighbor, Israel, has aligned itself with Aram (Syria) and has threatened Jerusalem with destruction and the imposition of a foreign king.  Isaiah wants Ahaz to understand that if the Davidic dynasty is to stand, he must accept a sign from Yahweh.  Ahaz will have nothing to do with it, and the oracle that Isaiah gives begins with a warning to Ahaz to not “weary” a God who is willing to help.  The “sign” that Isaiah lays out involves a new child (perhaps King Hezekiah), born of a young woman (the Hebrew word only indicates a marriageable young woman).  The honey and curds (a nomadic delicacy) indicate a time of prosperity and grace.  These words will appear in the Gospel for today, where they will (like the lives of Joseph and Moses) be viewed from a particularly Christian context.

Breaking open Isaiah
  1. Do you think that God intervenes in human political history?  How?
  2. What do you think of the notion that biblical passages can have several layers of meaning?  What does this passage mean to you.
  3. How is Jesus Immanuel – God with us?

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.

In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?

You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.

You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Psalm 80 illustrated from the Anglo-Catalan Psalter

This psalm is intended to speak to the situation in the northern kingdom of Israel, indicated by the mention of Joseph, and the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.  In the Greek superscription, it is called an eduth, a pact, or a treaty obligation, and may give a covenantal context to this poem.  Israel was being threatened by Assyria, placed in a similar situation to Judah as indicated in the first reading.  The poet comments on the large measure of tears and sorrow that the nation is forced to endure, and then prays for restoration.  In language similar to Isaiah’s oracle to Ahaz, the psalm talks about “the man of your right hand” perhaps the next in line, the successor to a failed kingship, a promise of restoration and continuing kingship.  These would be familiar thoughts to both Isaiah, and St. Matthew.

Breaking open Psalm 80
1.     The comparison of God to both shepherd and to one “enthroned on the Cherubim” is a description at the extremes.  What other descriptions of God see aspects of God at extremes?
2.     What do you think of the notion that God fed the people with “the bread of tears?”  Have you ever partaken of such a meal?
3.     How does God restore peoples and nations?  How has God restored you?

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.

A page from the Book of Romans

In this rather formal introduction to the people of the Church at Rome, St. Paul not only describes his own role to a people that do not know him (servant, apostle, set apart), but also summarizes the proclamation of the early church.  This kerygma (proclamation) has several points that Paul will later develop in his epistle to the Romans.  The points are: the promise of the prophets, the human descent of the Son from David, along with the divine intervention as the Son of God, and the resurrection from the dead.  From this succession of graces, even the gentiles are called to faith and into the company of those who gather around Jesus Christ.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. What does it mean when Paul describes himself as a “servant of Christ”?  How have you been such a servant?
  2. What does it mean to be “called to be saints”?
  3. What are your thoughts about Paul’s points of belief?  How are they incorporated into your faith.

Saint 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.

Whereas Luke’s attention in the Christmas story is centered on Mary, Matthew clearly focuses on Joseph, the dreamer.  Matthew sees him not only one who is tuned into the divine message, but also as a “righteous man”, and then evidences his holiness by citing how Joseph wished to treat Mary.  The angel intervenes and discloses what the purposes really are, and Joseph then becomes the obedient servant.  Matthew quotes the passage from our First Reading from Isaiah.  There is a difference, however, Matthew using the Septuagint (The translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek) and its translation of “young woman” as parthenos (virgin).  This suits Matthew’s purpose well, for like Luke, he wishes to establish the virgin birth as a point in his narrative.  Here the passage from Isaiah takes on a new meaning.  Now the words are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, son of Mary.  And like Isaiah, the child Jesus is indicated as God-with-us.  Isaiah looked forward to a period of a restored and messianic kingdom under a new “son of David”.  Matthew looks forward to the same thing, but it is the Kingdom of Heaven that will be described in his Gospel, not a David Kingdom.  Matthew’s program of “spiritualization”, of taking common ideas and giving them a divine and heavenly meaning (compare his Sermon on the Mount with the version in Luke) under girds the story of a child born to a common couple who then becomes the Savior of the world.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Matthew calls Joseph “righteous”.  What does that mean to you?  How are you righteous?
  2. Why is the naming of Jesus important?  What does the name mean?
  3. How do you feel about Matthew’s use of the passage from Isaiah?

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.


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