The Fourth Sunday of Advent, 22 December 2013

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

Background: Jesus in Matthew

Though it is now disputed, it was once thought that a council of Jewish elders met in Jamnia around 90 CE, and made two important decisions.  The first was the determination of the Jewish Canon of Scriptures, and the second was the determination that Christianity was not a Jewish sect, but rather something different and distinct.  Regardless of the veracity of such a council, it is true that developments in Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 CE) Christianity did, whether by external or internal influences, begin gradually to operate as a separate religious entity.  The other influence, namely the increased participation by gentiles in the Christian faith, contributed to this evolution, and it is in the nexus of these various social forces that Matthew is written.  It is a time of unrest and change, themes that we can recognize in the Gospel itself. 

The Gospel refers to Jesus on various guises.  Jesus is described as both the “Son of David” and as the “Messiah of Israel”, yet these phrases should be taken with a grain of salt, leaving the development of “higher” Christologies to a later time.  William F. Albright in his commentary warns us, “It is now clear that the ancestral lines of the Messianic titles of the New Testament are widely diverse, with disparities and similarities existing side by side with contradictions in emphasis.”[1] It is not Matthew but rather Paul who proclaims, “Jesus is Lord.” 

The situation at the time, however, engenders other themes that worked well in discovering who Jesus was, and what it was that the community believed about him.  His use of “Emmanuel – God-is-with-us” (see also the First Lesson, below) serves as a comfort to a Jewish community of believers confronted with an increasing gentile presence.  That God should be with the continuing assembly (the Jewish community) was a principal point for the Matthean community.  Israel is the model of the community that Matthew holds up.  The twelve Jewish disciples, the Jews that come to hear Jesus, and Jesus himself are all faces of the community.  This community continued to praise the “God of Israel.”  The Jewish themes especially evident in Matthew’s Birth Narrative (Joseph the dreamer and interpreter of dreams, the murder of the innocents by “Pharaoh” (Herod) and Flight to Egypt and subsequent return, all point to a continuing Jewish identity.

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."

There is a remove here of which we need to be aware.  This verse has become so connected with the Jesus Birth Narrative and Christian writing and interpretation of it, that we may have lost its original intent and purpose.  We need to remember that Isaiah only experiences his call in Chapter 6, and that the material that immediately precedes these verses relate to the period of the war with Syria and Ephraim (6:1-9:6), which lasted from 735-732 BCE.  Isaiah wants to give the king (Ahaz) a sign that the House of David would continue.  For this purpose, Isaiah refers here (and in the subsequent chapter) to three children with unique names: Shear-jashub (“a remnant shall escape”) (7:3), Emmanuel (7:10-17; 8:8-10) (“God is with us”), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:1-4) (“quick spoils, speedy plunder”).  One can understand Isaiah’s attempt to assure the king through these names.

He notes the birth of the child named Emmanuel.  The young woman is with child” begins Isaiah’s lengthy tale of assurance and of the continuance of the house of David.  The word for “young woman” in Hebrew is ‘almah.  In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, this word is translated as parthenos, or “virgin”, certainly not the intent of the Hebrew.  It is this that attracts the Christian eye, and so a new level of interpretation and connection is added to the text.  It is a connection that does not escape the eye of the Evangelist (Matthew) and is quoted in the Gospel for this day.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Does Isaiah’s actual intent and purpose defeat Matthew’s use of this passage for you?  Why or why not?
  2. What are your thoughts about the Virgin Birth?
  3. How is “God-with-you”?

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.

This psalm, although technical language in the dedication might make of it a “treaty obligation” or “precept”, is devoted to the Northern Kingdom.  The clues which lead us to this distinction are the phrases “leading Joseph like a flock”, and “in the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh” all tribes in the northern part of the country.  It looks forward to future problems “you fed them bread of tears”, rather than commenting on them in the present.  In fact, the measure of these tears is harsh, “and made them drink triple measure of tears”, a rendering of the text that is not mirrored in the BCP translation.  It is not this, however, that attracts the attention of the lectionary.  Rather it is the concluding verses that speak of “the man of your right hand”.  In this, the psalm bears some resemblance to Isaiah’s reassurances to Ahaz.  Threatened by an unnamed enemy, the psalmist turns to YHWH to stand beside and protect the people.

Breaking open Psalm 80:
  1. Have you “drunk tears”?  How so?
  2. How did, or how does God relieve you of your tears?
  3. Who is your “man at the right hand”?

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.

In these initial verses of the Letter to the Romans, Paul makes clear his intent and purpose to speak about Jesus “who was descended from David.”  In his introduction to the Romans, he completely identifies himself with Jesus Christ, and speaks of his call, and his being set-apart.  From thence we have almost a creedal cascade of words about Jesus and who he was.  He speaks of himself as having received “grace and apostleship”, a notion he will soon extend to all of his readers.  In a way the reading is an introduction to the final days of Advent and the up-coming celebrations of the Birth of Christ.  They provide answers to any who wonder, “who this child might be”, and connect him with the destiny of those who believe, or as Paul says it, “are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Breaking open Romans:
  1. How has God called you?
  2. To what has God called you?
  3. Where is Jesus in your call?

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.

The Matthean community needs to be certain of its connection to Jesus, and of Jesus’ connection to them.  Thus the Gospel begins with a Genealogy that connects Jesus to Abraham via David (cf. Mt. 1).  Thus Jesus is extraordinary in this narrative on two counts, Davidic, and born of a miraculous conception by the Virgin Mary (“for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”).  Joseph appears in the genealogy as the legal father of the child Jesus.  There are no other Christological claims being made here – it is really quite human in its scope.  Matthew takes pains to see Jesus as the fulfillment of promise, and an embodiment of God’s presence with his people. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.      Why does Matthew want to connect Jesus to David?
2.      What is Joseph’s rôle in Matthew’s Birth Narrative?
3.      What is your favorite part of this version of the Birth of Jesus?

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Albright, William F, and C. S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew, Introduction, Translation and Notes, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, page cli.


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