Lectionary Commentaries for December 18, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

Ronald J. Allen

Strictly speaking, the Fourth Sunday of Advent is the last Sunday in the season of preparation for celebrating the first advent (coming) and anticipating the second advent (apocalypse, second coming).

However, some congregations effectively regard today as “Christmas Sunday.” While liturgical purists bemoan this development, it has something to commend it. The worshipping community that gathers on the Fourth Sunday of Advent is likely made up primarily of the local congregation whereas on Christmas Eve and Day, the worshipping community includes many visitors, while many regulars are themselves visiting elsewhere.

Matthew 1:18-25, like the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, is intended to address the congregation as people who are bound together for long-term life and witness. Of course, others can benefit, but “Christmas Sunday” affords the congregation an opportunity to consider the birth of Jesus as community. From this point of view, the story has several dimensions. The preacher might develop one of them, or might find a way to bring several into the sermon.

The story reveals the identity of Jesus. Matthew introduces the birth of Jesus with the genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17). The names in the genealogy are arranged in symbolic sets of 14 (a multiple of seven), thereby signaling that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom God will bring about the manifestation of the Realm of God. The birth of Jesus, for Matthew, is thus an apocalyptic event, the first step in the transition from the old age to the new. The congregation is first and foremost a community of the new age whose purpose is to point to the new in the midst of the old.

The story establishes an important credential of Jesus. A number of communities in the ancient world used remarkable birth stories to show that an important person was under the divine hand from the beginning. Matthew explicitly says that Mary was a virgin (parthenos) when Jesus was born. This unusual dimension of Jesus’ birth indicates that God has had a hand in Jesus’ life from the very beginning.

Listeners, therefore, can trust that Jesus represents the reign of God, and can see God’s apocalyptic purposes in his teaching, actions, death, and resurrection. The preacher might ask, “What qualities would people today find authenticating about Jesus and the church?” Given increasing non-interest in the church in the larger world, and even the disdain of the church in many places today, this question is important.

The story alerts the reader to the presence of the Spirit animating Jesus’ birth, preparing the reader to recognize the Spirit animating the work of Jesus’ ministry and extending to animate the ministries of the later Matthean community. The immersion of Jesus not only publicly demonstrates that the eschatological Spirit is in Jesus but that event is a model for those who come into the community of Jesus (Matthew 3:11, 16). Just as the Spirit is with Jesus in the temptation, so the Spirit is with Jesus’ followers when they are tempted to turn away from the way of the Realm and in other life settings (Matthew 4:1; 10:20; 18:16-20).

Just as the Spirit is manifest through an itinerant rabbi repeatedly in conflict with some of the respected leaders of his own community, who was murdered, and whose last words instructed the disciples to welcome Gentiles into the eschatological community — the picture of the Spirit stirring life in the womb of an unmarried peasant is a paradigm of the Spirit manifesting the Realm of God in circumstances that end-time thinkers might not ordinarily expect.

The story indicates how Matthew wants people to respond to the message of the Realm. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, not yet fully married. Neither party in a coming marriage could have sexual relations with an outside person. Mary’s pregnancy catches Joseph by surprise. According to Deuteronomy 22:23-27, Mary could be tried publicly and then executed. By resolving to “dismiss her quietly,” Joseph seeks to avoid public humiliation while also fulfilling the law.

An angel, however, points out that Mary’s pregnancy is the work of the Spirit as part of God’s transformation of the old age into the new. The angel admonished Joseph to embrace his role as Mary’s husband. Joseph responded positively to the admonition.

Matthew thus presents Joseph as a model for all who encounter the message of Jesus through the church. Per our comments on the Spirit (above), Joseph was face to face with an unlikely manifestation of the Realm of God. Matthew wants those who encounter this message and this movement in similar fashion to do as Joseph did: To believe the message is of God and to become part of its movement. The preacher could help the congregation identify places in their world where the Realm is becoming manifest in ways as unlikely as Joseph’s circumstances. What can help the congregation embrace such manifestations of the Realm?

The story invites listeners to expand what it means to call Jesus “Emmanuel” (“God with us”). I usually hear Christians use this expression to speak of God’s intimate presence, especially in difficult times (such as the death of a loved one). The element of comfort is certainly part of the meaning. But Matthew calls something more to mind by citing Isaiah 7:14.

According to the prophet, the nation faced a significant threat. However, the birth of a child demonstrated God’s intent to save the nation from Assyrian domination. The name “Emmanuel” and the expression “God with us” signal both that significant social transition is about to occur and that the community can live through the anxiety of transition because they believe that it comes from God.

The birth of Jesus, similarly, signals that the end-time transformation is underway and that the community can remain faithful even in the face of conflict and chaos because they can believe the transformation takes place under the aegis of God. The preacher might not only help the congregation recognize such signs in our world, but consider how ministry of the congregation can become such a sign.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16

Michael J. Chan

This is a very challenging chapter to interpret, much less to preach, in part because it requires that one be familiar with a number of related texts (Isaiah 7:1-9; 8:1-8; 2 Kings 16).

Given the importance of the Immanuel promise (Isaiah 7:14-17) to Christian theology, however, this text needs to be preached — with great care, discipline, and passion. If we are patient in listening to this text, we will recognize in it a God who is both comforting and disturbing, threatening and assuaging. The God of Isaiah 7 is the God we know in Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 7:10-16 is the second movement in a larger “sermon” offered by Isaiah to king Ahaz of Jerusalem. To more fully appreciate these verses, then, let us first consider the immediate literary context. Verses 1-2 set the scene:

“In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (verses 1-2).

These verses indicate that this text is set against the larger backdrop of 8th century BCE international politics. Three main actors are mentioned: the king of Judah (Ahaz), the king of Israel (Pekah), and the king of Aram (Rezin). As a reminder, the kingdoms of Judah and Israel are two segments of a formerly unified kingdom which, was divided shortly after Solomon’s death (1 Kings 12). An alliance is formed between Israel (the northern kingdom) and Aram (a non-Israelite kingdom) to attack Judah, whose capital is Jerusalem. They do this, because Judah apparently refused to participate in a coalition against the northern Mesopotamian power of Assyria, which wanted control over the region (2 Kings 16; 2 Chronicles 28).

Not surprisingly, this crisis incited terror in Ahaz and his subjects, who suddenly found themselves on the dangerous end of two enemy spears. Isaiah is called to enter into this high stakes mess. Unlike Hezekiah who trusts Isaiah’s words (Isaiah 36), however, Ahaz responds with unbelief to God and his prophet. As Christopher Seitz has shown in his excellent commentary on Isaiah, in the larger context of Isiah, Ahaz and Hezekiah are paradigms of unbelief and trust respectively.1

Isaiah’s first oracle to Ahaz contains both words and a sign. Concerning the words, Isaiah is given the following: “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah” (verse 4). The sign is Isaiah’s son, Shear-yashub (“A remnant shall return”), who accompanies Isaiah to his meeting with Ahaz. That a child-sign is used in conjunction with a promise is unsurprising in these early chapters of Isaiah, where children often function as signs (Isaiah 7:14; 8:1, 18). In this case, the child Shear-yashub seems to guarantee that, while Ahaz may experience some suffering, God will remain faithful to God’s people as a whole.

According to the faith-filled words of Isaiah, the attacking kings are not legitimate threats but rather are “smoldering stumps” — hot, but harmless. The Judahite king is further told that this “evil” attempt to conquer Jerusalem “shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass” (verse 7). God accentuates the urgent need to trust in these promises by issuing a threat: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (verse 9). Isaiah’s words underscore the urgent need for the king to trust God, and the inherent danger in failing to do so. Whether Ahaz stands or falls depends entirely on trust in God’s word.

The second movement is Isaiah’s address to Ahaz beginning at verse 10.  God offers yet another sign to the distressed king, only this time, one of Ahaz’s own choosing: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (verse 11). The statement is stunning, for in it God makes divine power available to Ahaz in a seemingly limitless manner. Ahaz, however, refuses this opportunity (verse 12), and in the process wears down God’s patience.

Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign is likely also tied to his Realpolitik decision to seek protection from the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser (see 2 Kings 16:7). Ahaz submits himself to the Assyrian king, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” Ahaz also took the silver and gold found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house, and sent a present to the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 16:7-8). From the perspective of Isaiah, Ahaz’s decision to trust in Tiglath Pilser instead of God was a grave and foolish one indeed.

In frustration, Isaiah tells Ahaz that, despite his refusal to ask for a sign, God is going to give him one anyway. Isaiah begins by addressing Ahaz according to his dynasty’s name: “O House of David!” (see 2 Samuel 7). From there, God issues a number of promises and threats.

  • The “young woman” shall bear a son, “Immanuel” (“God is with us”) (verse 14).
  • The child shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse evil and choose good (verse 15).
  • Moreover, before the child knows how to refuse evil and choose good, the land of Ahaz’s two enemies will be deserted (verse 16).
  • God will bring upon Ahaz, his dynasty, and his people the king of Assyria.

The obstinate response of Ahaz in verse 12 results in an ambivalent series of responses from God. On the one hand, Immanuel’s birth will mean the end of Ahaz’s enemies (see Isaiah 8:1-4, for a continuation of this promise against Israel and Aram), which is clearly a boon for the Judahite king. The flipside, however, is that God will bring against Ahaz and Judah the violent power of “the king of Assyria” (see Isaiah 8:5-8 for a continuation of this threat).

In the end, the fact that Isaiah 7 is a text that both saves and condemns may be fitting, considering that it is featured in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 1:22-23), whose Jesus is messianic in the fullest sense of the word — saving, teaching, exorcising, forgiving, and judging. In this advent season, we would do well to remember that, the king whose return we long for, will one day come in full apocalyptic glory, as both judge and savior. At this time in the liturgical calendar, we are invited to hope, pray, and long for this revelation.


1 Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39 (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1993).


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

Paul S. Berge

When a psalm is divided up, like the one for this Sunday (verses 1-7, 17-19), the integrity of the psalm is lost.1

Then the beautifully intertwined words of lament to God and praise of God are lost. First of all we need to respond to these concerns.

In the case of Psalm 80, the structure easily discerned as a common refrain is repeated after each of the three sections of the psalm:
“Restore us, O God;
           let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, 19).

The three sections of the psalm are thus defined as a cry to God to save (verses 1-3), followed by the identity of the plight of the northern kingdom (verses 4-7), and concluding with the familiar imagery of Israel as the vine planted by God (verses 8-19).

The psalm is identified in general as a lament in response to a national disaster. In this case it would appear that this is the fall of the northern kingdom of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. This is supported by references to the northern tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh (verses 1-2).

The opening cry of lament comes as a plea to God:
“Give ear. O Shepherd of Israel,
     you who lead Joseph like a flock!” (verse 1).

The image of God as shepherd is a beloved image of God in Psalm 23 and elsewhere is an image that is the focus of Jesus’ identity in John 10:1-18. In these verses Jesus expresses his identity in the “I, I AM” shepherd passages: “I, I AM the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11), and “I, I AM the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep” (10:14-15). Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the Shepherd of Israel.

Another image in these opening verses recalls God’s presence with the cover of the ark of the covenant on which two cherubim face each other, symbolizing the living presence of God enshrined in the ark of the covenant:
“You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
     before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (verses 1b-2).

Having claimed the saving power of God, the psalm concludes with the first of the three refrains claiming God’s presence to save:
“Restore us, O God;
      let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verse 3).

The second section of the psalm identifies concern for the plight of the northern kingdom. The psalmist envisions that God’s anger has been kindled against distrusting king Ahaz who refuses to accept God as his only ally:
“O LORD God of hosts,
      how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?” (verse 4).
The lament of the psalmist is expressed in the imagery of God’s refusal to evenaccept the prayers of the people that ascend to his nostrils.

The imagery of “the bread of tears” indicates the depth of the psalmist’s lament as the sustenance of bread and water is identified with the people who have turned from God:
“You have fed them with the bread of tears,
      and given them tears to drink in full measure” (verse 5).
Even their neighbors have joined in the rejection of God’s people with scorn and laughter:
“You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
      our enemies laugh among themselves” (verse 6).
In the midst of their despair we hear the refrain for the second time calling forth the presence of God’s face to shine upon them in the gift of salvation:
“Restore us, O God;
      let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verse 7).

The intervening verses omitted in the lectionary reading for this Sunday (verses 8-16) bring forth the third section of the psalm. These verses focus on the imagery or allegory of Israel as the vine planted by God. The story begins with the Red Sea deliverance of the people from Egypt (verse 8), and leads into the blessing of being rooted and branching out in prosperity from the sea to the River throughout the land to which they are led by God (verses 8-13).

The cry of the psalmist returns to call forth God’s favor to look down upon the vine and have regard to its favor after being burned and cut down (verses 14-16).

The lectionary returns to the concluding three verses of the psalm to hear the plea for God to once again reveal his right hand of honor, favor and strength:
“But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
     the one whom you made strong for yourself” (verse 17).
With this request the psalmist promises faithfulness by the people:
“Then we will never turn back from you;
     give us life, and we will call on your name” (verse 18).

The closing verse of the psalm repeats for the third time the prayer of the psalmist for the face of God to shine in favor upon the people:
“Restore us, O God;
      let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verse 19).

Through this psalm we hear the all too familiar story of people falling away from the God of salvation and trusting in human reliance. The lament is real and the depth of rejection is deeply felt. The plea to God to save is desperate. The lament and agony of these words and the hope of returning to God’s promise of life is to be heralded in this season.

In the companion reading for this Sunday from Isaiah 7:10-16, we hear the word of the prophet warning king Ahaz against putting his trust in a foreign alliance with Assyria. The promise of deliverance from threatening powers will be in a sign of a young woman who “is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). In our gospel reading from Matthew 1:18-25, the evangelist receives the words of Isaiah the prophet as ultimately brought to fulfillment in the birth of Jesus the Messiah:
“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.”‘ (1:22-23).

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent we hear in these scriptures the promise of Isaiah, the hope of the psalmist, and the word of fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.


1 This commentary was originally published on the site on December 19, 2010.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

Elizabeth Shively

We commonly think of calling in terms of vocation.

An overwhelming number of resources offer help for discovering your calling, from Oprah to Forbes to the Huffington Post to at least five TED talks, and countless Christian websites and books. There is a common denominator in these: the key to discovering your calling is to know your passion.

The letter to the Romans opens with a greeting (Romans1:1-7) that offers a concept of calling that is more fundamental than even discovering your passion. Paul tells these Christians that he is “called” to be an apostle (kletos in verse 1), and that they are “called” to belong to Jesus Christ and to be holy (kletoi, twice in verses 6-7). This double calling of Paul and his audience both frames the introduction and sets the agenda for the whole letter.

In between this frame (Romans 1:1 and 6-7), Paul gives the qualifications for his calling by explaining the gospel he is commissioned to preach (Romans 1:2-5). The ideas in these verses have a knock-on effect. Paul introduces himself as a servant — or slave — of Jesus Christ whom God has called to be an apostle, which means he has been set apart for the gospel that comes from God (verse 1).

Then Paul explains more about this gospel: it was promised beforehand in the scriptures about God’s son (verse 2). And then he explains more about this son: he was born of David’s seed according to the flesh but appointed Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit by resurrection from the dead, so that he is now Jesus Christ our Lord (verses 3-4).

Finally, Paul returns full circle to his qualifications: this Jesus — the man who lived and died as one of us but became Lord though resurrection — is the one through whom Paul received grace and apostleship (verse 5). For Paul, the key to discovering his calling was to know the risen Christ. Christ revealed himself to Paul and powerfully took hold of his life to dispatch him to preach to the Gentiles, and so to preach to this very Roman community (Romans 1:5-6; see also Acts 9:17; 26:16-17; Galatians 1:11-17).

These opening verses of Romans not only tie the coming of Jesus to Paul’s calling, but also to the calling of the Roman Christians. Paul contrasts two modes of Jesus’ existence, one through a birth that is kata sarka, and the other through a new birth according to the Spirit of holiness by means of resurrection from the dead (verses 3-4). That Jesus is “born of the seed of David according to the flesh” establishes a Jewish context for Paul’s gospel, but also a material context; he was born as a man with a physical, human body.

On the other hand, the phrase kata pneuma refers to the Holy Spirit who creates new life. By his resurrection, Jesus has gone from one mode of existence to another. Though “flesh” (sarx) is neutral here, referring the human body, this contrast anticipates Paul’s antithesis between “flesh” as “sinful nature” and “Spirit” later in the letter and is suggestive of a new, defining existence not only for Christ but also for believers.

Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:15-16 provides a helpful analogy. There, he highlights the correspondence between Jesus’s death and resurrection and the believer’s as the basis of a new way of living. He concludes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh (kata sarka); even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh (kata sarka), we know him no longer in that way. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (verse 15).

Believers are to see each other in a new way — as a new creation — because they identify with Christ. Paul develops the same sort of idea in Romans, laying the groundwork in Romans 1:3-4: while death decisively ends life according to the flesh (mortality), the power of the resurrection generates new life. This resurrection power also generates a new way of holy living now. Believers have died and risen with Christ so that they might be transformed in their daily habits (Romans 6:4, 13-14). The Holy Spirit that raised Jesus (Romans 1:4) dwells in believers to replicate the life of the risen Christ in and through them (Romans 8:4-11).

Because of the death and resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul can renew his initial call to his audience (to belong to Jesus Christ and to be holy) by imploring them to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy (hagian) and fully pleasing to God (Romans 12:1-2). The key to discovering their calling is, then, to know the risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit for holy living. The call to holy living is a call to offer their body for the body of Christ, that is, to love others in humility just as Christ did (Romans 12-15).

Traditionally, the fourth candle of the advent wreath represents love. God showed his love for us in sending his son, born of the flesh as the son of David and born anew in power through resurrection from the dead. Jesus showed his self-giving love for us in his life and his death. As Christians, we are called to belong to Jesus Christ and to be holy by the same power that raised Christ from the dead.

It is not wrong-headed to pursue the discovery of our particular calling or vocation. Indeed, we ought to be diligent and responsible and passionate about how we use our God-given gifts. But we are fundamentally called to be Christ’s and to be holy, and we express that holiness through a Spirit-empowered way of life marked by self-giving love, which drives every other pursuit.