Lectionary Commentaries for December 22, 2019
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent (Matthew 24:36-44) began the new liturgical year at the End (with a capital E), with the expectation of Jesus’ final coming to us.

Advent 2 (3:1-12) and 3 (11:2-11) moved us back (chronologically speaking) to the expectation of Jesus’ coming in ministry in connection with John the Baptist. Now this Gospel lection for Advent 4 moves us back further in time to Jesus’s birth. While we now clearly get a pre-Christmas (or actually a fully-Christmas text), the passage is full of eschatological tones the preacher should not miss.

In the Advent 3 reading from Matthew, the focus was on Jesus’ deeds as a way of establishing his messianic, eschatological identity. In this opening scene of Matthew’s story (the only text before this scene is the genealogy of Jesus), Jesus’s identity is established through the use of names, titles, prophetic texts, and nothing short of the angel of the Lord.

Notice all that Matthew tells his readers about this child in this space of a few short verses:

  • He is of divine origin (conceived by the Holy Spirit) (Matthew 1:18, 21). While we should not read later Trinitarian claims into this language, we should recognize that this language is one of the sources used to make that claim. 
  • At the same time that Jesus is from God, he will be the son of David (a messianic title as well as a genealogical descriptor) by virtue of being claimed as Joseph’s son (verse 20). This language connects the scene with the genealogy in 1:1-17. 
  • His name is symbolic of his role: Jesus (a common Jewish name (Greek for the Hebrew Joshua, derived from the verb to “save”) will save his people from their sins (verse 22). Matthew does not at this point specific who “his people” are or what “their sins” are. By virtue of following the genealogy, the reader is set up to assume “his people” is Israel. This is certainly true, but as the narrative of the gospel unfolds with its attention on the sick, the poor, the tax collectors, the oppressed and finally the Gentiles, we will find this assumption to be too limited. Contemporary readers are likely to assume that Matthew’s understanding of sin is individual based on individualistic themes in contemporary society and individualistic readings of Paul’s theology of justification. Clear here, though, sin is corporate. Thus the salvation Jesus is to bring is social and political (even cosmic) in nature. 
  • Jesus is the fulfillment of scripture. Verses 22-23 comprise the first of many prophecy fulfillment citations in Matthew. 
  • The prophetic text that Jesus fulfills is Isaiah 7:14. As commentators on both Matthew and Isaiah will point out, in the original Hebrew text the emphasis is not on a virgin birth, but simply on a symbolic birth. The LXX translation of the Hebrew changed “young woman” to “virgin.”  This translation was used to shape the story of Mary as Jesus’ mother. 
  • Matthew’s emphasis, however, is not on Mary. It is on Jesus as Emmanuel. Not only does Jesus come from God, Jesus will manifest God’s presence with the people he is coming to save from their sins. This opening reference to Jesus as God’s presence serves as a bookend to the resurrected Jesus’s promise to be with the disciples until the end of the age in the last line of the gospel (Matthew 28:20)

There are some other unique features of the scene of which preachers need to be aware. First, Matthew labels this scene the genesis of Jesus. The word here clearly means birth, but it is the same word used in Matthew 1:1 to introduce the genealogy. The repetition may signal that Matthew is not using the term only in its straightforward definition but to evoke a new beginning parallel to the beginning narrated in the first book of the Bible, whose Greek title is Genesis.

Second, while Luke focuses on Mary as the active parent in dialogue with the angel of the Lord, Matthew chooses Joseph. As interesting as Luke’s choice is of using the female character, so is Matthew’s choice of emphasizing the faithfulness of the non-father in the role of Jesus’ birth. Joseph is a righteous man whom Matthew presents as presuming Mary to be unfaithful when he finds her to be pregnant. But an epiphany sets him straight and he obediently takes Mary as his wife and serves as Jesus’ legal father, even to the point of accepting the responsibility for naming the child in accordance with God’s will.

Third, the Revised Common Lectionary assigns the birth story in Luke 2 for the Christmas Eve and Day readings each year with Matthew’s story of the Magi read on Epiphany (Matthew 2). This is important to note because reading Matthew 1:18-25 before Christmas is an odd practice. We read this scene as an Advent text, but Matthew tells it as Jesus’ birth narrative. The reason it works as an advent text, however, is that Matthew buries the punch line. He mentions the birth in a subordinate clause: “but [Joseph] had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Thus, while it is Matthew’s birth story, Matthew is much less interested in the story of the actual birth per se than he is in the identity of the one being born.

Preachers may experience two very different homiletical hurdles as they approach this text. The first is that congregations have heard it so many times, they already know (or at least they think they already know) what it is about. The second is that the passage is so chock-full of christological goodness that it is difficult to pick a singular homiletical focus. 

Both of these hurdles can lead a preacher to stay in the ancient setting of the narrative talking about Jesus’s birth and identity in past tense. Preaching this passage on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, however, calls preachers to raise questions of Christ’s eschatological, saving presence in today’s world. The promise that God-with-us (until the End [with a capital E] of the age) will save us (corporately) from our sin is good news that is always in need of being heard and experienced.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16

Rachel Wrenn

As preachers, you may be feeling a bit of sermon burnout at this point in Advent: how many sermons have I preached in the past few weeks?

How many times have I preached on the story of Mary and Joseph? What could I possibly find new to say? Such preachers might find energy in approaching the Gospel text for today from an entirely different angle, one more ancient, and because of that, all the more profound in the insight it has to offer.

This particular passage from Isaiah is a perfect entrance into today’s Gospel story of Mary and Joseph. However, the lectionary entrée into this passage is awkward and confusing, which diminishes the delicious connections between the First Reading and the Gospel. Preachers would do well to look beyond this seeming incompatibility. The Isaiah story of the bumbling, fearful king Ahaz is an invitation to faith, a faith which is a divine gift from God and which moves mountains because it refuses to react in fear. Advent echoes, anyone?

If you do decide to take this route, I commend to you Walter Brueggemann’s Isaiah commentary1 — beautiful and succinct, Brueggemann offers deeper insight into the context of this passage, and he scatters sermon helps like apple seeds throughout his work. With regards to preaching this passage, preachers would do well to take a step back and include in your reading more of Isaiah 7. In it, we hear of foreign kings marching to attack Jerusalem (verse 1). It may feel strange to call the king of Israel a “foreign” king who is attacking Judah, but the relationship between the northern and southern Israelite kingdoms was nothing if not fraught, and they traded attacks throughout their history. In the face of this military onslaught, the hearts of King Ahaz and his people “shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (verse 2). God sends Isaiah to offer reassurance that the looming disaster will not, in fact, come to pass, using words as ancient as Israel and as powerful as Mary’s womb: “do not fear” (verses 3-9).

But the seed of hope does not take. In Isaiah 7:10, the beginning verse to our assigned text, God offers Ahaz a sign — any sign! — and Ahaz refuses. Now, at first blush, this sounds like a pious and humble king. But God reads his reaction differently: a slippery character who knew how to hide behind a veil of piety, choosing not trust in the divine power, but slinking away to court the powers of earthly empires, Egypt and Assyria. So God responds, to paraphrase, “Pshaw!” (verse 13)

God takes the matter into the Divine hands and offers up a sign, un-petitioned. A couple of things to know about this sign:

  • In some ways, this is almost a prophetic sign-act, a call from God to the prophet to do something physical to communicate God’s Word to the people.2 It is almost a prophetic sign-act because it is not the prophet who is called to act, but a young woman (echoes of Mary, anyone?).
  • Some translations may say that a “virgin” is with child. The Latin and Greek use the word “virgin,” which is not entirely incorrect, but not entirely on point either. The point of the Hebrew word ‘almah is a young woman who is of marriageable and thus childbearing age. The status of her previous sexual life is not of Isaiah’s concern: ultimately, he’s making a point that a child is about to be born.
  • This prophetic sign-act, the child to be born, is called GOD-WITH-US. This is God’s way of saying, “LOOK, feckless king! If you can’t hear my message of reassurance, then maybe you can see it: this child is named God-Is-With-You, and by the time he is two years old (the roughly agreed upon age that kids knew good from evil), these two fly-kings who are buzzing around your head will be swatted away, and in will roll an age of curds and honey.”3

“Trust me!” God says, cries, proclaims, even shows. “Trust me.” But, as we learn in the next few verses, the king could not or would not take up God’s invitation to trust. The long-term result of his decision to court the help of Assyria was ultimately the conquering of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria. Ahaz’ reaction of fear instead of action of trust sowed the seeds for his very kingdom’s destruction.

But God’s message through Isaiah did not go unheard. Indeed, it echoed throughout the centuries, until Matthew recorded this same invitation to trust issued to Joseph — and accepted by him. More importantly, this same invitation was issued to Mary when the angel Gabriel came to her in Luke. And there Gabriel said not only “Do not be afraid,” but he took and intensified the Immanuel promise of Isaiah with the intimate proclamation, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Thanks be to God that Mary and Joseph responded with faith to God’s invitation to faith. Moreover, thanks be to God for the child born from them. This child was Immanuel, God-With-Us, and he not only intensified the call to trust, but embodied it through an act of self-sacrifice that ultimately saves us all.


1 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 1998.

2 Brueggemann, 69.

3 Brueggemann, 70-71.


Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Jason Byassee

Advent and Christmas never fail to stir up a vast range of emotions.

There is holiday cheer and family warmth and commercially-catalyzed retail therapy aplenty. There is also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in full blast, and nearly constitutionally-mandated trips home that can end in ruin. Church might be one of the only places where we can name these contradictions. And Psalm 80 is perfectly placed to help us name them.

God is praised in this psalm, no doubt. He is the shepherd-king over Israel, as in the beloved Psalm 23. He is splendid on the cherubim, and savior of the tribes of Israel, and so of the cosmos (Psalm 80:2,10). He is the only one who can save just through the shining of his face (verses 3, 7, and 19, in the psalm’s refrain). 

Yet God is also absent. Israel is desolate. Scholars think this psalm originated in the devastation of the northern kingdoms in 722 BCE and then touched again by later editors’ fear of Judah’s pending devastation in the early 6th century. These twin bookends of Israel’s misery are the points of origin for a psalm seeking salvation. 

The psalmist prays remembering God’s one-time mighty acts of deliverance and wondering where those acts are now, when the people could really use them. Aren’t you the God who defeated Egypt and drove out the nations? Can’t you lend us a little help? Psalm 80:14 asks God to “repent,” shuv in Hebrew, to remember again the surprising saving work he has done before and repeat it anew. “Then we will never turn back from you,” the psalmist promises ( verse 18).

It is hard to imagine Christmas-crazed consumers hearing God-talk this searing anywhere else this time of year: “How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (Psalm 80:4). That is, God rejects those prayers before they even reach heaven. “You have fed them with the bread of tears.” “Our enemies laugh among themselves” (verses 5-6). No more mighty hand and outstretched arm, just a busy signal when we pray and opponents who mock our stories of God’s Exodus and world-making power. Anyone who has ever found prayer barren has a friend in Psalm 80.

It has become common for mainline Protestant churches to offer a Blue Christmas service around the winter solstice—the darkest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. The idea is for those who have suffered particular trauma that year or anytime to gather and lament and maybe dare to begin to look for hope. As a pastor I found folks reticent to come to this. It would be akin to admitting misery, which feels like the violation of a commandment of some sort. Plus it just sounds depressing. 

This psalm shows the Bible is way ahead of us. It dares to name its worst fear. Not only are we defeated, perhaps about to be erased from history, but even God has abandoned us. It is remarkable that God’s people include such raw and honest expressions of misery in the Bible itself. God is teaching us to pray with skepticism about whether God hears prayer! 

And yet who is still here after such colossal military and civic disasters as the destruction of the northern tribes, the defeat and exile of Judah? Who is still praying these prayers? The people Israel, and by Christ’s surprising act of including us, the Christian church. God hears, and records those tears, and teaches us to pray that he would “stir up” his might anew, that his face would shine, and we might be saved (Psalm 80:1). 

The psalm’s closing offers several excellent arguments for why God should remember his might and stir it up once more. One, God likes praise (Psalm 80:18). This is akin to Moses reminding God on Mt. Sinai that he is vain, and cares what people think—does he want the Egyptians to say he led the Israelites into the wilderness just to kill them? “No, you’re right, I care about my reputation.” 

The psalms often offer a sort of bargain with God: you deliver us, and we will praise you. Israel likes being alive and God likes praise. Can’t we get together and make this happen? Dust can’t praise. Only living, redeemed people can. So we need the living, redeeming God to work anew. 

This psalm also includes the man at God’s right hand (Psalm 80:17), the one made strong for God’s sake. The psalms rarely identify these figures. James Mays suggests the right-hand-man is Israel itself, God’s own chosen and beloved in the world.1 The Jewish Study Bible suggests the man is the king, God’s regent in Israel.2 The psalm is non-specific for a reason, we trust. But for Christians the one at God’s right hand is, of course, Christ, the one whose birth we commemorate in just a few days’ time. Israel longs for a messiah to lead the people and usher in a new age of unmatched peace. Christians long for a messiah to finish his work of gathering unlikely people into an upside-down kingdom where the first are last and the last, first. The earth is full of longing. One day God will satisfy the longing he stirs up and make all things new.

The refrain in this psalm is particularly striking: that God’s face would shine, that we may be saved. 

There is no non-metaphorical language for God, of course. Moses cannot see God face to face, neither can anyone else. God does not “actually” have a face any more than a beard or a bum to sit on a throne. And yet these anthropomorphisms form the church’s imagination about a God in our flesh. 

Not only that, but Paul imagines all Christians standing in the place of Moses, in God’s presence, with faces shining (2 Corinthians 3). God will always work anew. That is what he shows again each Christmas. We long and wait for his coming, and as we do, our faces shine—and so do everyone else’s, if we look aright.


1 James Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 264.

2 The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd ed., ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1359.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

Orrey McFarland

The opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans may seem an odd choice for the final Sunday in Advent, but upon further inspection the selection makes sense.

In this richly theological greeting, Paul begins to lay out the main elements of his gospel, declaring that he comes as an apostle not with a Gospel of his own making, but one that was promised beforehand in the holy scriptures and has been fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Given the proximity to Christmas, one might focus on how Paul sets forth the identity of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God descended from David.

Jesus, the Son of God with power

In the Old Testament Israel was called God’s Son (for example, Hosea 11:1) as was Israel’s King (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7). By the Second Temple period, “Son of God” could be used for the coming Messiah. Wesley Hill has drawn attention to the use of this title in the Psalms of Solomon (early Jewish writings not in the current scriptural canon).1 The psalmist envisions a future time when God will raise up a new Davidic leader to judge evil and establish righteousness among God’s people. He calls on God to “raise up for them their king, the son of David, at the time which you chose, O God, to rule over Israel your servant” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21).

As Hill notes, Paul seems to be conversing with these kinds of traditions. He declares that Jesus is of Davidic descent as would be expected of the Messiah. For Paul and the psalmist, the activity of the Messiah is dependent on the working of the Holy Spirit (see also Psalms of Solomon 17:37: “… God has made him strong in the holy spirit.”); and both see the Messiah as appearing in God’s timing to bring about salvation—to establish justice in a world gone wrong. Accordingly, by calling Jesus the davidic “Son of God with power,” Paul “very likely means to say, ‘Jesus is the anointed eschatological agent of God’s final redemption of his people Israel.’”2

But there are differences. For the psalmist, God raises up one as a “son of David” to uphold the line of David. For Paul, the Son who “was declared to be Son of God with power” was already the Son. He does not gain a new identity but is appointed as the Son “with power” in the resurrection. God’s work in raising him from the dead through the activity of the Holy Spirit declares him to be what he truly has always been but would not have always been so evident: the Son whom the prophets prophesied, who lived in humility, suffered, and died as God’s Son, is now risen and reigning in power over all creation.

Jesus the Jewish Son of God — for Jews and Gentiles

To return to the Psalms of Solomon: the “son of David” whom God raises up to rule is meant to purify Jerusalem “from the nations” and to “destroy the lawless nations” (Psalms of Solomon 17:22-24). Indeed, his rule means that Gentiles will “flee from his presence” (17:25). The Gentiles that are brought back in will be “subject to him under his yoke” (17:30).3 Furthermore, he will deal with sinful Jews by “driv[ing] out sinners from the inheritance” (17:23).

Set against this backdrop, Paul’s announcement of the Son of God descended from David seems upside down: Paul the Jew names himself a “servant of Christ Jesus” for the sake of the Gentiles (Romans 1:5-6). Paul’s Son of God does not achieve God’s victory through military triumph or subjugation of the nations, but through death and divine vindication in the resurrection (1:4). The Gentiles are indeed brought under the reign of this Son of God (1:5)—but this Lord gives grace and peace (1:7) and died even—or specifically—for his enemies (5:10). This is not a message of a terrifying new ruler who is coming to quash the nations; this is a message of hope, that these Gentiles “belong” to this Son of God.

Paul ends the opening with an opening wish: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Rather than subjugating you, Paul implies (and will explain later), the Lord Jesus has defeated the true enemies of sin and death in order to liberate all people, Jew and Gentile, to live under his lordship. This is not simple a wish, but a declaration of a reality. Just as Paul was called to be an apostle, the Roman Christians have been called to be saints who belong to a new ruler, Jesus Christ. May our proclamation of the text deliver such grace and peace to our hearers in the name of Christ, the risen Son of God in power, so that they know themselves to be saints who belong to Jesus.


1  Wesley Hill, “Psalms of Solomon and Romans 1:1-17: The ‘Son of God’ and the Identity of Jesus,” in B.C. Blackwell et al (eds.), Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 31–37.

2  Hill, “Psalms of Solomon and Romans 1.1-17,” 34.

3  Hill, “Psalms of Solomon and Romans 1.1-17,” 35.