Lectionary Commentaries for December 23, 2007
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

James Boyce

With its focus on Joseph as the chief character, Matthew’s unique story of Jesus’ birth will probably not be the model for any children’s Christmas pageant, in many of which Joseph seems to walk in the shadows as a necessary,

if somewhat embarrassing, appendage. In contrast, Matthew’s narrative takes great pains to identify Joseph as the father of Jesus, tracing out his link to King David in the elaborate genealogy that opens the gospel. And in our lesson, even if Jesus’ birth is clearly a miracle of God’s power through the Spirit, still Joseph is the real father, who by naming the child according to God’s command, in effect adopts this child as his own. That adoption is no mere fiction, but becomes Matthew’s way of ushering us into the mystery of the incarnation, apart from which this Jesus could not stand in the line of Davidic ancestry. If the mystery of the “word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” (John 1:14) were not enough, Matthew’s story is a veritable cornucopia of Matthean themes that could occupy the preacher for this Sunday or through the year.

Genesis and New Creation

Though disguised in translations, twice (1:1, 18) Matthew describes what is happening in Jesus as a “genesis,” a creation. This verbal link invites reflection on the place of this story in the story of God’s creative work from the beginning. In the first story, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep. God spoke and the world came into being. Here again by the Spirit and promise of God a new creation comes into being. How far is God willing to go in order to make good on God’s promises? Even to the point of doing creation all over again? Early Christians frequently imagined the Christ event, especially the resurrection of Jesus, as the eighth day of creation. What would it mean for the preacher to invite us Christians in this modern technologically savvy world to reflect on what happens in this Jesus as God’s continuing act of sustaining creation?

Incarnation and Mystery

If God acts to create, it is precisely in this world that God meets us and works out the particular shapes and stories of mercy. Matthew’s birth story underscores the common places of life-a Mary, a Joseph, the birth of a child; people faced with decisions involving religious traditions, law, and community or having to do with marriage, family or a decision to divorce-as the arenas in which God surprisingly enters human life with creative and transforming power. If God comes among the common and the everyday, the preacher can be the one who is able to point us to those everyday signs of God’s presence which are in some sense an extension of the great sign of God’s coming in the birth of this child of promise.

Obedience and Faith

Joseph, the central character in this story, is no wishy-washy person, but a person of strength and purpose. He is committed and faithful to his religious tradition and ready to act on that commitment. When the call of God comes to him through an angel in a dream, he is not just ruminating; he has already made a definite decision, “resolved” upon a course of action. Told against the backdrop of Old Testament stories of others to whom God’s call has come, this story is noticeably different. When the call comes, Joseph speaks not one word either of question or objection. He simply acts directly and immediately in obedient response to the call. Both in the original and in translation, the story makes this clear by describing Joseph’s actions of response with exactly the same words as used in the angel’s instructions. Joseph becomes visibly and audibly an example of the power of God’s call to transform our decisions and our lives. So here at the beginning, he is a model of faithful discipleship long before we hear Jesus’ commission at the end to “Go and make disciples” of all nations.


Joseph makes his decision to divorce Mary because he is righteous (19). Here in this story we meet explicitly for the first time an important theme of Matthew’s gospel. We are meant to ask, “What does righteousness look like?” And we are given a model of righteousness in Joseph’s faithful response to God’s call. The story also makes clear that this is no easy matter for Joseph or for us. What Joseph initially understands as the righteous thing to do is challenged directly by the call of God to act precisely opposite to what he saw and expected the law to demand. What happens when our notions of righteousness and justice come up against the ways of God’s creative mercy? In Joseph we meet one who risks becoming disobedient in the eyes of the world-becoming an outcast to family and community-dare we say, even becoming sinful and suffering-for the sake of being obedient to God’s call. So the story invites us to think of another in this story who became sin for us, that the promises of God might take shape in new creative power. When law and righteousness or justice seem to clash, how deep do the promises of God go? How far will discipleship lead us?

Of Dreams and Decisions

At every stage of this story, Joseph’s decisions are prompted by God’s intervention through a dream. As we prepare for Christmas and to receive this child we, too, might ask what happens when God is an intrusion into our nicely laid plans and decisions? How do we know when God is speaking to us and when it is just bad food? Depending on your perspective, intervention can be the good news of rescue or deliverance, or it can be just plain meddling. In Advent we pray, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come.” Are we really ready to risk that such a prayer might be answered? To be open to this story means to invite the possibility that obedient discipleship may transform us and lead us in ways we had never imagined.

Promise and Fulfillment

This story is not all surprise. Matthew more than any other gospel writer presents the story of Jesus as fulfilling what was spoken through the prophets. The first of those many references occurs in this story. The miraculous birth and the name “Immanuel,” God is with us, are scripted by God promises. That promise begins this story and stands again at its conclusion, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus is for Matthew the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. And God’s promises frame this story just as they frame each day of our lives.

What’s in a Name?

The angel says, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This is serious business. We belong to God and God will be with God’s people. But just how far God is willing to go is left to our imaginations at this point in the story. But let it whet the appetite of hope. If even just the contemplation of that promise can so radically change of the life of even a righteous person, just imagine what its fulfillment in the story of Jesus might do in your life and mine!

By the Power of the Spirit

Robert Smith sums up this story well in his Augsburg Commentary (p. 36). This Jesus is “pure gift, holy surprise, a fresh act of God, a new genesis, a new creation.” And all it comes about “from the Holy Spirit.” We live with the awareness that God’s power is among us and ready to lead us in ways that we can only imagine. Is that good news, or is the prospect a bit frightening? If we do not anticipate the Christmas event both with hope and with just a bit of anxious fear, then we are not sufficiently tuned to the implications of God’s presence among us.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16

Fred Gaiser

The difficulty of today’s text is perhaps also its genius: God is with us-and the consequences are altogether ambiguous. Properly understood, is that not the ambiguity of Advent itself? God is coming: Rejoice! Or, God is coming: Beware!

Both responses are appropriate and true, and both mark the observance of Advent. God is coming, says Isaiah in our series of Advent readings, bringing a kingdom of peace and prosperity, equality and justice, where all creation joins humanity’s voice in songs of praise. Rejoice! But, God is coming, says John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).

God is coming, and we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Are we eager to meet God? Of course! Are we ready to meet God? Never! A healthy tension between the two will be the hallmark of an Advent that pays attention to the biblical texts.

Now, with Christmas right around the corner, it will be hard to hear the dark side of this text. Things are all so clear. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel” (v. 14 KJV). And it happened! Matthew says so directly: “‘[Mary] 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'” (Matthew 1:21-23).

Neat! But, then, not so neat, for, as we have learned, Isaiah says “young woman” rather than “virgin”-and they didn’t name the baby Immanuel after all, they named him Jesus. What does this mean?

The text itself is lodged firmly in the eighth century B.C.E. Syria and Israel (Ephraim) are in league against Judah, and Judah’s King Ahaz is afraid. Unwilling to trust in God’s protection, he seeks an alliance with Assyria; this will eventually come back to bite him, making Judah a vassal state of the Assyrian empire. The mice invite the protection of the cat at their peril. Ah, if only Ahaz could have believed the promise! God had warned him (and us) through Isaiah: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9)-though, of course, the warning is also a promise: in faith, you will indeed stand firm!

But Ahaz cannot. Can we? It’s so much easier to trust in alliances and arms and investments and securities than in God. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus will say (Matthew 6:25)-but that’s easier said than done. So Ahaz refuses God’s offer of a sign, feigning piety (as little faith often does), only to be given a sign anyway from an exasperated Isaiah. The exasperation shows in the ambiguity of the sign. On the one hand, by the time a child born now to an already pregnant woman is fully weaned, the threat from Syria and Israel will fade away (v. 16). But then, in the verses just beyond today’s reading, things turn darker: the king of Assyria will come as invited, but bringing violence and destruction (vv. 17-20). And, of course, both things are “Immanuel” (God with us), for when God comes it will always mean both judgment and promise. God comes always to bring life and salvation; but God comes always to expose human sin and purge everything that stands in the way of justice and liberty.

The Septuagint, for its own reasons, understood Isaiah’s “young woman” (Hebrew ‘almah) to be a “virgin” (Greek parthenos), thereby delivering the text to Matthew as a ready-made vehicle for his birth story. Did Isaiah have Jesus in mind when he spoke? Hardly, for the text itself gives its own eighth-century explanation. But Isaiah also makes clear that God’s word, once spoken, stays out there accomplishing new things in new days (Isaiah 55:10-11). Still, it takes a daring reinterpretation to make this one work. The word of God is not a simple prediction that will “come true” in a latter day or an equation to be solved to get one final answer-it is a living word that kills and makes alive in every generation, always needing to be proclaimed anew, always carrying both continuity and surprise: continuity in God’s steadfast love and mercy, which never change; surprise in God’s enduring penchant to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), which always stirs things up. And now, says Matthew, Jesus is that unexpected new thing: Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, even if they didn’t get his name right. The details are not the point; the promise is.

But Jesus, too, will be an ambiguous “sign.” Yes, said Simeon to God, he is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32), but to Mary he continued, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). The preacher should help the hearers be clear about the ambiguity: Christmas promises peace and joy and love and nostalgia and hope and wonder; but Christmas brings God to earth in human form (Immanuel), which will change everything we thought about God and challenge everything we thought about ourselves. Do we want our inner thoughts revealed? Only if we want them cleansed-but that’s a hard thing. Do we want a God in diapers? Only if we are prepared to see him go to the cross. For that, too, is Immanuel.

Jesus is God with us, bringing both the wonder and the worry of that reality. God is in Christ-so close we can touch him and taste him; so real he can forgive and make us new. God is in Christ-so close we cannot escape his scrutiny; so real he cannot escape the world’s suffering. Jesus is God with us, and every day we are amazed.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

Susan Eastman

In this last Sunday of Advent, we circle back to the beginning of Romans, revisiting the themes that resound throughout the letter and culminate in Romans 15:4-13 (Advent 2).

It is difficult to preach on a text that introduces so many weighty matters in such a short span: God’s good news concerning God’s son; the witness of Israel’s scriptures; Jesus’ identity as descended from David and designated Son of God in power; Paul’s mission to the Gentiles; the obedience of faith.

One fruitful approach is to focus on the question of identity-Paul’s and ours. Verses 1-6 are one long sentence in Greek; if we diagrammed it, we could trace every clause back to Paul, the subject of the sentence. Does this mean Paul is an egomaniac? No, although some have made that claim! Rather, Paul simply cannot introduce himself without telling his story, and it turns out that the only story that matters to him is the news about Jesus the Messiah1. Paul knows who he is only in and through his calling to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • He is “a servant of Jesus Christ.” The word translated “servant” is literally “slave.” To be a slave in the ancient world was to have every part of one’s life all at the disposal of his or her owner. Paul’s owner is Christ (see Galatians 6:17). What are the ways we experience being “owned” by and “belonging to” another person? How can that belonging be experienced as liberating?

Paul taught that one was either a slave of Christ or a slave of sin (see Romans 6:5-6, 12-14; 7:22-23). What are the ways we experience “slavery to sin” today? We might consider various forms of addiction, destructive relationships, our consumer culture, and so forth, and the ways these kinds of “bondage” shape and mis-shape our identities.

  • Paul is “called an apostle.” “Apostle” means “one sent out.” God is the one who has called Paul; he didn’t decide to become an apostle, but rather God commissioned him and sent him out.
  • He is “set aside” for the gospel. Elsewhere Paul says that he was “set aside” from birth by God (Galatians 1:15). The prophet Jeremiah also described his call as being “set aside from my mother’s womb” (Jeremiah 1:5). The Pharisees, among whom Paul once numbered himself (Philippians 3:5-6), were self-described as “set aside;” “Pharisee” meant “separated one.”

Paul’s self-description picks up on his given identity at birth, and at the same time distinguishes him from what he once was – a Pharisee. Once he separated himself from society, and certainly from Gentiles, in order to be holy. Now (like Jeremiah) he has been set aside by God precisely to take good news to the “nations” or “Gentiles” (1:5; Jeremiah 1:5).

After telling his “story,” Paul tells his readers who they are: “called to belong to Jesus Christ,” “God’s beloved in Rome,” “called saints.” Like Paul’s call, theirs (and ours) is done by God, and therefore it is not something we do. We don’t make ourselves holy; that’s God’s business. And that transformation takes place through the outpouring of God’s love (Romans 5:1-5).

Paul’s hearers belong to Jesus Christ, but they still live in Rome. They are in Rome, but no longer of Rome; like Paul, their new identity and work derives from the one who now owns and loves them. This new identity as Christ’s slaves potentially sets them on a collision course with the Roman imperial cult, which proclaimed that the birth of Caesar Augustus was “good news” for the world,” and that all Caesar’s subjects should serve him.

Paul’s description of himself and his hearers leads us into the mystery of identity. What are the sources of our understanding of who we are and what we’re about? A short list might include:

  • Our personal history. This might be nuclear family stories, or it might include larger social, political or ethnic stories.
  • Our primary relationships, the people to whom we “belong,” by whom we are loved and whom we love in turn.
  • Our work, our goals in life, the achievements that matter to us, whether related to our income or not.

The challenge of today’s lesson is that each one of these is radically reoriented by an encounter with the God of Jesus Christ. The closest Paul gets to giving an account of his own personal “history” and “accomplishments” prior to that encounter is in Philippians 3:4-6, and he quickly labels it “rubbish.” As for his primary relationships, through belonging to Christ he has been brought into close fellowship with people who formerly were strangers and even enemies.

But Paul cannot completely turn his back on his former identity; by using the language of prophetic call, he identifies himself as profoundly shaped by his Jewish history and community. God, made known to him in the revelation of Christ, has never been absent from his life. Rather, his calling returns him to his roots, even while setting him at odds with elements of his past. Similarly, our task as preachers is in part to help people identify the ways God is calling them to newness of life in service to Jesus Christ, and at the same time to see the ways God has never been absent from their lives.

1 For an insightful discussion of this topic in relationship to preaching and teaching, see A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans (Louisville: WJK, 2002), xix.