Fourth Sunday of Advent

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.

Matthew 1:23
"[T]hey shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." Photo by Cory Bouthillette on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 22, 2019

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Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

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.