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) 


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