Lectionary Commentaries for December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

Arland J. Hultgren

Coming so close to Christmas Eve, the reading for this Sunday prompts thoughts of the festive worship services that are to come.

There are good reasons, however, to practice restraint and continue the mood and message of the Advent Season. The text serves to announce the forthcoming Nativity, but it holds us in suspense and even portends a possible disruption of what is to come as Joseph deliberates his relationship with Mary.

Mary is said to be “engaged to Joseph” (1:18, NRSV), but the English word “engaged” hardly captures the meaning of the Greek word that it represents (mnesteuo). The variety of translations in some of the most widely known English versions show how translators have struggled to render the word appropriately. The RSV says that Mary “had been betrothed to Joseph.” The KJV says that she “was espoused to Joseph,” and the NIV says that she “was pledged to be married to Joseph.”

The problem with the word “engaged” (NRSV) is that an engagement can be broken off informally; there is no need for a legal action. But the situation of Mary and Joseph was more complicated than that. According to the custom of the day, there were two stages for a couple to go through in what can be called a marital process.

First came the betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin), a marriage contract, typically arranged by the parents, that could be broken only by divorce (cf. 1: 19, where apoluo is used, rendered as “divorce” in the RSV and NIV; the NRSV has “dismiss”).

That was followed by a second step (Hebrew nissu’in) considerably later (sometimes a year later), often including a marriage feast, after which the groom took his wife to his home. The verb paralambano (“to take”) in 1:20 and 1:24 can actually mean “to take home” one’s wife, thus referring to what happened after the second step. The drama of our text, however, takes place between the two events in the lives of this young couple. The first step had taken place; the second is in jeopardy.

Joseph’s reaction, when he hears that Mary is pregnant, is to suspect her of adultery, one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish law.In light of that, Joseph “planned to dismiss [RSV: “divorce”] her quietly” (NRSV). It may seem surprising to many in our day that Joseph is called “righteous” as he contemplates divorcing Mary in her time of need (1:19), but the accent must surely be upon the clause saying that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” wanting to keep the whole matter quiet. Moreover, law and the culture of the day would virtually say that Joseph had no alternative but to divorce Mary.

That might not satisfy some hearers of this text today, but at least it softens the seemingly harsh treatment of Mary by the man who is said to be “righteous.” Fortunately, May knows nothing about his deliberations. In any case, it all becomes a moot point when an angel intervenes, telling Joseph in a dream not to refrain from going through with the second step of the marriage custom.

The angel also tells him how it is that Mary is pregnant and announces Jesus’ forthcoming birth.

Joseph is to name the child “Jesus” (Iesous in Greek). The Greek name is derived from the Hebrew Yehoshuah (Joshua in English), which means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.”

The child born to Mary is to be given that name as a designation of his function, which is to save his people from their sins (1:21). The way that is envisioned by Matthew is that Jesus not only grants forgiveness of sins in his earthly ministry (9:2) but does so also in his post-resurrection reign where he has all authority (28:18), and from where he exercises that authority through the ministry of the forgiveness of sins by his disciples in the church (16:19; l8:18; 26:28; cf. 9:8).

The first of Matthew’s “formula quotations” is expressed in 1:22-23. In those formulations the evangelist declares that an event has taken place to fulfill what a prophet has spoken, followed by a quotation from the Old Testament (others are at 2:15, 17-18, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 27:9).

The quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 is based on a Greek version of the Old Testament, in which the term parthenos (“virgin” in English) is used. The wording is exactly like that of the Septuagint, except that in 1:23 Matthew has “they shall call,” while the Septuagint has “you shall call.”

The Hebrew word here (‘almah) means simply a “young woman” of marriageable age.

The context of Isaiah 7:14 is an encounter between the prophet Isaiah and King Ahaz of Judah during the Syro-Ephraimite war (735-732 B.C.) when Syria and Israel attacked Judah. Jerusalem and the royal family are under siege. But Isaiah expresses hope with a promise. He declares that the Lord will give Ahaz a sign: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Before that child reaches the age of discernment, the threat to Jerusalem will be over.

The evangelist Matthew sees the coming of God’s Son into the world as the fulfillment of the promise given through Isaiah. What Isaiah promised in the eighth century B.C., expecting it to be fulfilled in his time, Matthew saw as having its ultimate fulfillment in his day. Or to put it another way, what Isaiah foresaw as a new era to come, Matthew saw as present. The birth of Jesus is the sign of God’s presence, “God with us.”

Incidentally, the spelling Immanuel is the customary way to transliterate the Hebrew word in the Old Testament; the spelling Emmanuel (sometimes spelled Emanuel) is the customary way to transliterate the word from Greek in the New. The difference can be seen in the NRSV at Isaiah 7:14 (Immanuel) and at Matthew 1:23 (Emmanuel).

The reading closes with attention on Joseph (1:24-25). He takes Mary into his home as his wife, and then, after the child is born, he names the child “Jesus” in obedience to the command. Verse 1:25a functions to emphasize the virginal conception by the Spirit.

Preaching so close to Christmas Eve, but trying to keep the restraint and anticipation of Advent, it is possible to develop a sermon that shows (without technicalities) how the relationship of the testaments works in this case.

The First Lesson for this Sunday is Isaiah 7:10-16. It contains the verse (7:14) that Matthew quotes at 1:23. One need not necessarily dwell on the Hebrew and Greek terms and their meanings for the woman who is pregnant, and one need not get into the details of marital customs of antiquity.

Each preacher has to decide the matter and the extent that one wants to go. The main thing would be to stress that Isaiah of the eighth century B.C. foresaw a new day of peace and security for the people of God, and he spoke of the forthcoming birth of a child as a sign of it. The evangelist Matthew, in turn, who was a student of the Scriptures, saw the birth of Jesus to be the culmination of the hopes of the past, the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, and for the sake of the world as a whole.

One could also focus on the meaning of the Emmanuel theme heard in both Isaiah and Matthew. The coming of Jesus into the world is the sign of God’s being with us. There is no greater sign. Other signs — whether they are in nature, history, or personal experience — can be ambiguous, but this one is not. Jesus came into the world to reveal and to redeem — to show us the true character of God, and to “save his people from their sins” (1:21).

In addition, Jesus gathered about himself a community of witness in his earthly ministry, and he continues to do so in the era after his resurrection and Pentecost. The people around Jesus, both ancient and modern, are to be a sign in the world that “God is with us,” Emmanuel! Many congregations are named Emmanuel (or perhaps Immanuel or Emanuel) for good reason. Every congregation, no matter what its name, is appropriately called by that name — at least in spirit and mission — even if not on its sign out front, in the weekly bulletin, or on its website.

Among ancient Jewish texts on this is the Mishnah tractate Gitin 9.10.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16

Barbara Lundblad

Again, the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “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.”


“You have spoken well, King Ahaz,” said God. Well, no. That’s not what God said. But isn’t that what God should have said? Surely God knew the commandment from Torah, the commandment Jesus remembered in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7) So why not commend King Ahaz for getting it right?


But there is no applause for Ahaz. The word God speaks through the prophet Isaiah is a different word entirely:


Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?

Therefore, the Lord God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman

is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.


Isaiah questions the king’s sincerity. Who does King Ahaz mean when he speaks of “the Lord?” Isaiah claims a different deity: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?” My God and your God may not be the same. Perhaps the king had become like those of us who live in these latter days who have given up looking for any signs beyond those we can make ourselves. We’re in charge. Perhaps we’re afraid that if God gave us a sign, it would not be what we wanted. Better not to ask at all. Right, King Ahaz?


Wrong, says God. I myself will give you a sign even if you don’t ask for one. A child. Immanuel. O my people, are you still waiting for the Warrior God — and now you are terrified that the gods of Syria are greater than I am? Must I be like you, only bigger? Must I be vengeful in a world obsessed with getting even? I myself will give you a sign: “a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall call him Immanuel.”


Can we see this sign? Perhaps this is the day to place a baby crib near the pulpit or at a place where people enter the sanctuary. Isaiah marked the child’s birth within his own history. The prophet says it clearly: “Look, the young woman is with child…” She’s pregnant now and she will give birth to a son. By the time this child is weaned — not nursing, but eating curds and honey — the nations whose kings you fear will be deserted. Isaiah’s prophecy had meaning within his own time. These words were not written for those who live on this side of the New Testament.


Yet, it was not wrong for Matthew to hear Isaiah’s prophecy pointing to Jesus as “Immanuel, that is God-with-us.” Matthew found Jesus in Isaiah, even though Jesus’ name isn’t in the text. The stories of God’s movement in history invite each generation to enter the story. African slaves in America heard stories of God delivering the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. They heard themselves in that story in a way their slave masters did not. The exodus became an African American story and Miriam’s song became a freedom song of deliverance from the auction block. Every generation enters the pages of scripture with longing and need, expectation and hope. This is why we call the Bible a living word.          


Of course, Matthew also found a virgin rather than a young woman. He was working with a Greek translation of the Hebrew text and the Greek translator had chosen parthenos, a word that could mean either “young woman” or “virgin.” For some people this will be a huge discrepancy.


Mary has to be a virgin no matter who that young woman was in Isaiah. “I understand why some people become grim when the virginity of Mary is questioned,” writes John Vannorsdall. “Somehow they conceive of the Bible as a house of cards which, when one is removed, the whole of it collapses. I find the Bible to be made of sturdier stuff… pinned with the pegs of insights, and bearing within it the yearning of God to disclose himself.”1[i] The focus for both Isaiah and Matthew is the child, Immanuel. Let’s not spend so much time on virginity that we miss the child.


My colleague Brigitte Kahl teaches New Testament at Union. She grew up in the former East Germany. Like many ordinary Germans, her father had served in Hitler’s army. When that army invaded Russia the German soldiers wore belt buckles inscribed with the words “Gott mitt unz.” God with us.Unless we see the sign of the child it is all too easy to turn “Immanuel, God-with-us” into a call to defeat our enemies.


God’s sign of a child surprised a king and an unwed father named Joseph. This sign matters in a world that continues to worship a vengeful God who can crush our enemies. Seeing the child as sign of God-with-us paints a different picture:


The Word comes as a child who can be received and cannot hurt us; a Word that does not make us afraid. I am prepared for the anger of God; I believe that God has a right to wrath. What is so amazing is that when God does come among us, whatever God’s hurt or indignation, God comes not with violence, but as a child, vulnerable to our further hurt that we might receive rather than fear him.2


On this last Sunday of Advent we invite the congregation to recall the images shared throughout this season. You may decide to sing the four stanzas of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” shared through the season or this last verse about the child:


O come, dear child of Mary, come,

God’s Word made flesh within our earthly home;

Love stir within the womb of night,

Revenge and hatred put to flight.

Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,

God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

John Vannorsdall, Dimly Burning Wicks: Reflections on the Gospel After a Time Away (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1982), 25.



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

Henry Langknecht

Don’t be a lectionary basher; respect the brothers and sisters responsible for the lectionary for the hard choices they’ve made.

For unless we’re committed to reading the whole Bible every Sunday, someone has to decide what really good stuff to leave out.

But about preaching on Psalm 80 I want to say this: Even if photosynthesis doesn’t make it into the sermon, you, the preacher, should enjoy the implicit petition for photosynthesis embedded in the psalm. We know from the omitted vv. 8-16 that the singers of the psalm adopt the classic metaphor of vineyard for the people of God.

How lovely that the repeated refrain (verses 3, 7, and 19) is the cry to “let your face shine, that we may be saved!” Sure, the mention of light works in general against the encroaching darkness during Advent (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) but the relationship of light and plant growth here is too cool not to mention.

Psalm 80 is a typical community lament — God is addressed and credentialed, the people’s troubles are laid out, God’s trustworthiness is rehearsed, and finally there is “the big ask.”

A few turns of phrase are worthy of contemplation. The NRSV renders verse 4 to say that God is angry with the people’s prayers — suggesting that maybe the prayers were deficient. Some versions prefer to frame verse 4 as God being angry against the people’s prayer — suggesting that the prayers are fine, but even so, God’s anger is unmoved by them.

Neither is an appealing prospect; both invite contemplation of the community’s failures. We learn nothing from this psalm about the specifics of the failure (as is the case with about half the corporate lament psalms). From one heavily cloaked clue in verse 18 (the phrase, “Then we will never turn back from you”) we could infer the community’s admission that they have turned back from God in the past.

In the reading and hearing of this psalmody, the parallel mention in verse 5 of “bread of tears” and “tears to drink” gives us poignant but elusive imagery. The word “bread” and the plucking of the vine from Egypt (in the omitted verse 8) together evoked for me the diet of manna during the Exodus. A Eucharistic sermon launched from verse 5 might explore how God moves us from lachrymose intolerance toward the feast on, in, and with suffering of which we partake at the Lord’s Table.

The “big ask” of this lament psalm begins in verse 14; on Advent 4 we will pick it up in the middle at verse 17. The psalm as performed, juxtaposed with the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7, might have Christians thinking that the “one at your right hand” refers to Jesus.

Another possible referent (and the one that emerges from verses 14-18 as a unit) is the people of God themselves. They/we are the one at God’s right hand, whom God makes strong for God’s own self. In this sense, the “ask” tracks with prophetic themes of God’s people being purified, refined, and threshed for God’s mission.

Individual lament psalms are easier to preach; they have the capacity to connect with trouble at many levels of our lives. A challenge for interpreting corporate laments in the contemporary, white, North American church is claiming the “we” with integrity. Not being allowed to put a crèche on the town square is not “bread of tears” level persecution.

Yes, testimony about the post-Constantinian decline of the mainline names a real phenomenon, but many welcome that as a “correction,” God’s means of bringing the church to the way of the cross (for that sermon you’ll have to wait for Psalm 80:7-15 to be appointed … in October!).

Another approach to preaching Psalm 80 would be to refer the “we” in the psalm to those in our culture (or world) who are quenching their thirst with tears. Even if they are not people in official covenant relationship with God, the poor are always “God’s people.”

Here the church accompanies the poor as God shines and puts God’s hand upon them and gives them life. In this, the church might even hope to be a body about whom the poor would testify, “Immanuel!”

When I’m sitting in the pew on Advent 4, I’d like to hear a sermon empowered by God’s promised photosynthesis at the solstice. When God’s face shines, we are saved. The sermon could develop God’s anger at us covenant people for our typical ways of turning away from God or finding our anchor in worldly powers. Or the sermon could develop God’s reliable mercy for the downtrodden.

In either case, I long to hear how God is organically and essentially with us (as per our testimony about the Incarnation!). When God’s face shines, there is power to bring to life to that which has been trampled. And as Psalm 80 testifies, God’s power is sovereign, no quid pro quo; God alone acts. God shines and God empowers and directs the chemistry in us that produces lifeblood from God’s light and food.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

Valérie Nicolet

The opening of the letter to the Romans contains, in seven tightly packed verses, a summary of the themes that will be discussed in the rest of the letter.

It describes who Paul is and how he gets his authority. It presents the content of the gospel and its implications for Paul’s addressees, and it describes who these addressees are.

The first seven verses of the epistle are as good an introduction as any to some of the main elements of Paul’s thought. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben even goes as far as to say that the first verse of the epistle contains the letter as a whole: “… each word of the incipit contracts within itself the complete text of the Letter, in a vertiginous recapitulation. … Understanding the incipit therefore entails an eventual understanding of the text as a whole.”1

The opening sentence in the Greek is twelve lines long and encloses all seven verses. It intertwines elements about Paul, Christ, and the Roman community. When Paul writes to the community in Rome, he addresses a community he has not founded, contrary to the other communities to which we know he sent letters. Because of this particularity, Paul needs to justify why he writes in order to prepare his visit and then ask for support for his mission. Thus, in the opening section of his letter, Paul is able to show how he and the Roman community are interconnected and therefore have some obligations to each other.

Paul begins his letter by giving some information about himself, and from the very beginning, he weaves his own life with the life of Christ. After indicating his name, Paulos, he immediately follows it with an apposition that defines his own identity much more precisely, slave of Christ Jesus. This designation indicates who Paul’s master is and thus, in whose authority he addresses the congregations in Rome.

In the Roman world, a slave was considered good if he or she reflected the will of his or her master and adapted his or her own will to the will of the master.2 Paul is not speaking out of his own mind, but, as a slave, reflects the will and authority of his master, Christ. In addition, the designation slave is precisely one of the identities that the members of the Roman churches are invited to adopt for themselves (Romans 6:22). Paul is modeling a self-understanding that he hopes his addressees will also accept.

Having established through the designation “slave” that he is doing the biding of a master, Paul then clarifies his purpose, which is here coined in terms recalling the vocation of prophets: he is called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel or good news of God. The purpose or direction of his call is towards (eis) the gospel of God. In this brief section, Paul has conveyed that he is not his own master, that he is writing on behalf of Christ and is acting with a purpose, towards a goal which is the gospel of God. His name, Paulos, is eclipsed by his obedience to his master and by his purpose as an apostle.

His next move is to complicate his self-presentation by developing what he means by gospel of God. This is done in a long relative clause, which describes the good news as having been announced in the scriptures through the prophets and being about the son. The son is described as being of the seed of David, according to the flesh. He is then established as son of God as a result of his resurrection from the dead and identified as “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4). The language that Paul uses about Jesus is anchored in the Jewish tradition, and respects the Jewish notion that the messiah comes from Davidic descent, while also giving Jesus his “superhuman” dimension as son of God. The good news is thus about the Davidic son, made son of God through his resurrection.

However, Paul is not so much concerned with the events related to Jesus. These events (his life, death and resurrection) happened in the past, and what interests Paul is to show how they affect not only his own life (they set him apart as slave of Christ and as apostle) but also the life of the Roman community. The gospel about Christ makes Paul who he is, but it also calls into existence his addressees. They also are called to belong to Jesus Christ (umeis klêtoi Iêsou Christoû). Because of the good news of Jesus, both Paul and the members of the Roman house churches have received grace and apostleship. In the union with Christ, Paul is able to address the recipients of his letter, whom he does not know personally, in the first person plural. Christ unites them in the gift of grace and apostleship.

Finally, he reaches the end of his sentence with a more specific description of the community in Rome. Here he switches to the second person plural and addresses the Romans directly. He describes them first in relationship to their connection to Jesus Christ (klêtoi Iesou Christou), echoing both his calling as belonging to Christ and as apostle.

He adds that they are beloved of God and called saints. In these words, one detects some rhetorical exaggeration probably aimed at ensuring the benevolence of his addressees (captatio benevolentia); yet at the same time, the description corresponds to what the good news is for Paul. The identity of the Christ-believers is one that is defined by God’s love, something that Paul will present more fully in chapter eight, and this identity needs to be translated concretely in the behavior of saints, who are in the world but not of the world.

In an extremely dense paragraph, Paul has established the key identity of the Christ-believers: slaves of Christ. He has shown the connection of the good news about Jesus with the Jewish Scriptures and has put into place a relation of mutual obligation and respect with a community he does not know. They are all children of God, and Paul counts on this kinship to build a community that will receive him with hospitality and support him in his missionary efforts towards Spain.

 Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains. A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (trans. Patricia Dailey; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 6.

J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social and Moral Dimension (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 21, 23 and 29.