Lectionary Commentaries for December 19, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

Ben Witherington

This lection is, of course, one of the prime passages used and preached on during the Christmas season. The challenge is to say something fresh but yet familiar and reassuring about it.

An important exegetical perspective that needs to be kept in mind is the Matthean text tells the story more from the angle of Joseph’s perspective, while the Lukan birth narrative tells the tale from the perspective of how things affected and were seen by Mary. What the two narratives have in common is interesting: 1) a birth in Bethlehem, even though the family is from Nazareth and Jesus would be called Jesus of Nazareth; 2) a virginal conception; 3) a pregnancy during the engagement period caused through the agency of the Holy Spirit; and 4) Joseph resolves to accept Jesus into his life and family, as is shown by subsequent events.

Though it has become fashionable in some scholarly circles to suggest the story of the miraculous conception of Jesus has analogies with the stories about the births of Emperors or Kings, in fact this is not really accurate. A story about a god coming down and raping a human woman is of a very different ilk than the story of a miraculous virginal conception through the power of the Holy Spirit, not through any sort of intercourse.

Furthermore, the story in Isaiah 7 about a virgin conceiving, while compatible with our story in Matthew 1, does not in fact specify a virginal conception. It simply says a nubile woman of marriageable age, who was indeed a virgin, would conceive and give birth to a child. Unlike Matthew 1, that text does not specify the means by which the virgin is impregnated, and all indications are that early Jewish were not looking for, nor did they think, Isaiah 7 predicted a miraculous conception.

This explains the shocked reaction of both Joseph in Matthew 1 and Mary in the Lukan account. The assumption a Torah-true Jew like Joseph must have made is Mary got pregnant in the usual manner, hence his decision to divorce her quietly. It took further divine intervention in the form of a dream to head off that disaster, and the disgracing and shaming (not to mention the potential stoning) of Mary.  In short, the potential scandal in this story, and the lack of a clear prediction of a virginal conception in Isaiah 7 or parallel in other birth narratives, means this story arose from an historical incident in the life of Mary and Joseph, and then was explained with the aide of the text of Isaiah 7. The First Evangelist uses Isaiah to provide proof that this surprising and unprecedented event was, in fact, a fulfillment of Scripture and all along a part of God’s plan for human redemption.

Some background information about early Jewish marriages helps the exposition of this text. In the first place, engagement in this culture was a formal contractual matter, usually decided on by the two fathers in question (i.e. it was an arranged marriage), and was, in fact, the first stage of the marriage itself, to be complete some months hence by the formal wedding ceremony. The reason Matthew says that Joseph had resolved to “divorce” a woman he was only engaged to, is because engagement then was a legally binding contract, unlike engagement in the West today.

Secondly, we need to understand in that patriarchal culture, the birth of the first born son was all important and crucial to the family line and property transfer. The fact Joseph is prepared to give up the right to sire his own first born son and accept and even name Jesus (Yeshua/Joshua means “Yahweh saves”) says a lot about the character of Joseph. It leads to the oddest genealogy ever in Matthew 1:1-17 in which Jesus is shoehorned into Joseph’s genealogy by putting Mary into that genealogy despite the fact that it is a patrilineal genealogy (x begat y…). 

This is a narrative of surprising and unexpected events and suggests a God of unexpected actions. Finally, Matthew 1:25 is a crucial conclusion to our passage and suggests Mary and Joseph did not have marital relations until after the birth and naming of Jesus. The stories thereafter (see e.g. Mark 3:21-35 and Mark 6 and the parallels in Matthew) suggest Mary and Joseph, being good early Jews, went on to have numerous children, both boys and girls the natural way who are rightly called Jesus’ brothers and sisters. In short, Matthew’s Gospel affirms the virginal conception of Mary, but not her perpetual virginity, or for that matter her own immaculate conception by her mother. Those ideas are found only in much later Catholic traditions.  

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 7:10-16

Anathea Portier-Young

Here is the promise: God is with us, so that we might live.

God is with us, so that we might believe. God is with us, because it is hard to believe, and God knows it.

“And the Lord kept talking to Ahaz” (Isaiah 7:10). This first detail tells us we have entered a story well underway. It is a story of national crisis and a king’s gut-wrenching fear.

This scion of the house of David, king in Judah, has a responsibility to seek the welfare of his people. He must make political judgments that will lead to national security, health and life. External threats to national security seem to require military or diplomatic resolution.

But there is tension. The king also has a responsibility to learn and keep God’s law (Deuteronomy 17:18-19). Moses promised that the king who resists pride and never turns from the law will have a long reign (Deuteronomy 17:20). God promised to the house of David an eternal dynasty, so long as his descendants hold fast to the covenant and to God’s teaching (Psalm 132:12). Military and diplomatic resolutions do not always accord with covenant teaching. Alliances with foreign nations might lead to worship of their gods. Seeking help from nations more powerful than Judah might signal lack of faith in Judah’s God. It might look an awful lot like hedging bets.

Ahaz faces a threat. Two neighbors to the north, Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and Syria, with its capital in Damascus, are forming a coalition. Their kings, Pekah and Rezin, are vassals to the mighty Assyria. They have surrendered tribute, dignity, and human life. They are ready now to throw off the yoke. They press Ahaz to join them and lend Judah’s armies to their rebellion. He refuses. They respond with aggression. In 734 BCE the troops of Israel and Syria invade Judah (cf. 2 Kings 16:5). Their plan is to gain control of Judah’s capital city, Jerusalem, and replace Ahaz with a new king, the son of Tabeel, who will back their bid for independence (Isaiah 7:6).

Pekah and Rezin propose to make Judah sick with dread and break this nation open to serve their purposes (Isaiah 7:6). It is a manipulation. The prophet Isaiah calls it what it is, and shows Ahaz the future. These two kings, says Isaiah, are smoldering stumps (7:4). These kings who make you sick with dread are nothing to you; in two years their lands will be empty (7:16). God has already decreed against their plan (7:7). The Lord reveals to Ahaz that Israel has embarked on a path to its own destruction (7:8). What path will the king of Judah choose? If you want to see your kingdom stand, if you crave a descendant on the throne of Judah, one thing only is needed. Believe (7:9).

This is the story we have entered. “And the Lord kept talking to Ahaz” (Isa 7:10). The summons to faith is hard to answer, and God knows that if God stops talking, Judah doesn’t have a chance. The power of God would be too incredible to believe if there weren’t signs of it everywhere. 

Ask me for a sign, says God (Isaiah 7:11). Ask me anything. What can you imagine? What can you not imagine? I will show it to you. Dig deep into the earth, sink your mind as low as the pits of hell, and I will give you a sign there. I can work such salvation that the dead come to life again and the underworld itself gives birth (Isaiah 26:19).

Turn your face, turn your mind, turn your hope upward, and I will show you a sign there in the sky. I put sun and moon and stars in the sky for signs (Genesis 1:14); I put my bow in the clouds as a sign of my covenant with creation (Genesis 9:12).

I gave Moses signs, and the people believed (Exodus 3:12; 4:3-31). I worked signs in Egypt (Exodus 7:3, 8:18, 10:1-2; Deuteronomy 4:34-35; 6:22; 7:19) to make it known that I have the power to save. I can save and I choose to save. Believe it. I know that you need a sign. I am ready to help you believe (cf. Isaiah 65:1). Ask me for a sign (cf. 1 Kings 3:5; 2 Chronicles 1:7; Psalm 2:8).

Ahaz refuses. Ahaz refuses because God’s signs are too good. If he sees a sign from God, how will he be able to discount it? No, says Ahaz, “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord” (Isaiah 7:12).

On the surface this refusal sounds righteous. Moses had commanded Israel, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested God Massah” (Deut 6:16). The test at Massah grew from Israel’s incapacity to trust in God’s plan, sustenance, and miraculous provision. Israel failed to believe in God’s saving presence among them (Exodus 17:7).

Now, if Ahaz does not need God’s help to believe, we might applaud his show of deference. Isaiah does not applaud. He accuses the house of David of wearing out humans and God alike (Isaiah 7:13). So much has been entrusted to them, and they are using it up. When God offers to replenish the well (cf. Psalm 68:10), they refuse. Isaiah slams Ahaz for his pretense of faith, and calls him out of his unbelief (cf. Isaiah 1:14).

According to 2 Kings, Ahaz sent a petition to Assyria’s king, Tiglath Pileser, declaring himself the king’s slave and asking the king to “save him” from the threat posed by Israel and Syria (2 Kings 16:7). He bought his salvation with gold and silver from God’s temple and the royal treasuries (16:8). When Tiglath Pileser neutralized the threat against Judah, Ahaz went to meet his new lord in Damascus and there saw Tiglath Pileser making a sacrifice on the altar (16:9-10). Ahaz had a copy of this altar made for Jerusalem’s temple, and put it in the place of the bronze altar of the Lord (16:10-16). “On account of the king of Assyria” he stripped precious metals from the furnishings of the Lord’s temple (16:17-18a). These actions do not testify to a surplus of faith.

This is the story behind Ahaz’s refusal. Ahaz already has a plan and does not want to believe. It is easier to sell himself to Assyria than wait for salvation from God. But God still gives even when we will not ask. “Therefore the Lord will give a sign to you.” It is still a sign of salvation. It is still a sign of God’s power to save. It is a security for every promise even when faith fails.

Look, says Isaiah. “Here: the young woman is pregnant, and she is giving birth to a son. And she will call his name ‘God is with us'” (7:14). The Septuagint translator of this verse projects the birth into the future, as does the evangelist Matthew (Mattew 1:23). The Hebrew text calls attention to a present reality (cf. Genesis 16:11; 38:24; Jeremiah 31:8). The impossible miracle of God’s saving power is evident in the birth Isaiah shows the king taking place at this very moment. Stop looking away from the miracle. This woman is wracked with pain. She is laboring in faith to bring forth life. In a moment you will hear an infant cry. The woman will feel a flood of fierce love that binds her to this child as his guardian and protector forever. Listen closely when she speaks his name and you will hear her name the ground of all life and hope: God is with us.

There is much more to the story of Immanuel. In your Advent preaching I invite you to explore how the proclamation of the birth of Christ reveals the persistence of our God who knows how we struggle with faith and will give any sign, any grace, to help us believe and live.


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.

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.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

Dirk G. Lange

This is a surprising choice for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

Juxtaposed to the readings from Matthew and Isaiah, one may be tempted to simply ignore it and focus on the prophecy of a birth (Isaiah) and its fulfillment (Matthew). This would, however, also focus the attention of the gathered community on what they already expect. Advent is simply about getting ready for Christmas, a Christmas “count down.” And the expected Christmas, of course, is very culturally defined. But what if Advent is really preparing for us for the incarnation, God’s incarnation into human flesh, the infinite into the finite, God fully embodied? Then obviously Christmas is more than just a story about a birth in a manger… though it is also and always that story.

Reading Paul’s introductory words to the church in Rome along with the Matthew and Isaiah reading provides a perspective that changes both our understanding of those two texts and of Paul’s text. These opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Romans establishes the context, we might say, the plot of the whole story. Using what was probably a recognized formula, “traditional” already in his day, Paul greets the community of faith in Rome with a (perhaps liturgical) greeting that summarizes the faith. Christ is identified in these 2 short verses as the one who is both human (descended from David) and divine (declared Son of God). The resurrection is the ultimate declaration or seal. This resurrection is God’s work, “with power according to the spirit of holiness”. The Trinity is present and invoked.

With this greeting, Paul not only establishes his own credentials — that is, he shows himself familiar with the formula, he is an adherent, called and set apart as he describes it himself. But he frames, if you will, the plot of the entire letter. I would also argue that he frames not only the plot of this letter but, in the context of the Fourth Sunday of Advent (and the corollary readings), Paul provides the “scenery,” the space in which we are to understand both the Matthew and the Isaiah texts.

The child named Immanuel announced by Isaiah to Ahaz and the house of David; the child, “God-is-with-us,” foretold to Joseph in a dream is this child who is born in the flesh (real body), dies, and is resurrected from the dead. It is this child who calls Paul, sets him apart for the gospel in view of bringing the obedience of faith to all people. It is this child who also calls the Romans into the same plot: new birth, declared child of God, living in the obedience of faith, dying and rising in Christ. It is this child who calls every community of faith, who calls us today (“including yourselves” verse 6) into this same reality, this baptismal reality. We are all called to belong to Christ, which means not just wearing a nametag and our Sunday best but actually living out the same plot.

Martin Luther explained the same idea in a more vivid way than I have just done: the wood of the manger is also the wood of the cross. That for which we have been preparing ourselves through Advent is, yes, a birth, but a birth that will also be a death, and the transformation, the radical transfiguration of birth and death. We have been preparing ourselves for the cross, for the whole incarnation (and not just one moment), for the surprise of a God made body. Or as the Magi ask in T. S. Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi, “This set down / This: were we led all that way for / Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, / We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” (We must remember that historically Paul does not know a celebration of Christmas as we do today, Christmas having entered the Christian calendar only in the 4th century. The incarnation, the revelation of God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, is the revelation of God to the world, light to all nations, epiphany.)

The birth in a manger, this incarnation of God in the flesh, creates a new time and space. The plot of life has changed. It is strangely not about success or happiness or security but about receiving grace and the obedience of faith, about being called to live this baptismal adventure.

The advent for which we have been preparing, the event of Christ, is not just for us, in the community of faith, but its trajectory is the whole human race. Paul’s apostleship is in view of the obedience of faith among all people. But, this apostleship would seem to belong to all the baptized. God inserts the baptized into a vast plan, God’s plan! The greeting (and our pericope) ends with the inclusion of all the beloved, all those who are called to be saints. This is not a designation we easily claim and yet, through baptism, it is the reality in which God holds us.

Our lives are marked, since baptism, by the Holy Spirit, the sanctifier, who directs us continually to our neighbor, to the other to live in harmony, everyone attentive to the needs of others (as we have witnessed in the three previous pericopes from the epistles). The plot in which we have been immersed and which makes of us “saints” is the obedience of faith, a plot that continually brings us into an encounter with God embodied.