FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I don’t put much stock in dreams. More than half the time I can’t remember them on waking. The only dreams I do remember are the recurring ones. The most frequent of these is my dream about being back in college. An exam is coming up in a class that I have neglected all semester. I find myself in my dorm room or in the library or the student lounge surrounded by books and articles I have not read and some scribbled notes from the few classes I attended. Somehow, I must extract enough knowledge and understanding to survive the final examination. But there is too much to absorb in too little time. I wake up in a state of high anxiety.
Not surprisingly, this particular dream seems to afflict me at times when I am behind in my work with a looming deadline on the horizon. The interpretation is obvious. I am under stress. The dream doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. Or does it? Thus far, I have been fairly successful in meeting life’s deadlines. In spite of procrastination, some poor planning and my tendency to bite off more than I can chew, somehow I always have managed to finish up with the important things. But that won’t always be the case. Time finally will run out on me and I will be left with tasks undone. So perhaps my dream is telling me something. Maybe this is a subtle message about priorities. “You cannot finish everything. So what are the tasks that must be completed in the time you have left? What should be the focus of your time, energy and resources for the last couple of decades (God willing) of your life?”
In today’s gospel lesson Joseph has a dream that throws a monkey wrench into his well considered plans to break off his engagement to Mary quietly so that she can marry the father of her child. It seemed like the best solution to this embarrassing and painful situation. Mary could be with the man she truly loved. Her child would have a home. Joseph would be able to get on with his life. But Joseph’s dream reveals to him that things are not what they seem. The Spirit of God is deeply involved with what appears on the surface to be just another story of betrayal and unfaithfulness. There is more here than meets the eye, a mystery compelling Joseph to abandon his well considered plans and take Mary as his wife.
The Spirit of God is forever challenging us to look beneath the surface and discover the truth often concealed by our careless judgments and hastily drawn conclusions. Dreams and visions rescue us from our bondage to a two dimensional universe where dialogue is increasingly cramped into shallow texts, tweets and Facebook posts. They challenge us to look past the news mediated through sound bites and interpreted for us by the angry rhetoric of talk show hosts. They call us to discern in what we see and hear the complex, layered and nuanced stories of real people in real life contexts. The gospel lesson reminds us that the truth is always more than the sum of the facts; that God is at work in all human affairs-even the scandalous, tragic and horrific events from which we instinctively turn away in anger, revulsion or disgust. In the midst of the worst imaginable catastrophe, God is at work striving for redemption. Emanuel. God is with us.
Imagine that you are a twenty year old prince growing up in a nation that has not seen war in a generation. Of course, you have heard rumors about the growth of the Assyrian Empire and its expansionist policies. But Assyria lies far to the north. Several nations stand between your country and the empire. Assyria is not seen as an immediate threat. Suddenly, your father dies and you find yourself king. No sooner do you ascend the throne than you are confronted with a military crisis. Several of your neighboring kings hand you an ultimatum: join with them in a military coalition against Assyria or face war with all of them. You have three choices, none of them good. You can join the coalition, which seems doomed to defeat, and then face the destructive wrath of Assyria. You can resist the coalition and stand your ground against the bellicose threats of your neighbors-a doubtful proposition for a nation whose army is practiced in little more than marching in parades. Or you can act preemptively. You can reach out to Assyria and offer to become its vassal state. That way, you gain Assyrian protection from your enemies and preserve your throne. Such protection comes at a cost, however. Assyria will demand a punishing tribute that must be financed through taxation of your people. You will also be required to erect a shrine to Assyria’s god Asshur in the Temple of Jerusalem. That will offend the priests and rile up the prophets. But they must be made to understand that these measures are diplomatic necessities, matters of national security over which the crown exercises sole authority.
Enter, the prophet Isaiah. There is a fourth way, he says, that you have not considered. Do you not recall how God intervened to give Sarah and Abraham a son when their line seemed doomed to extinction? Do you not understand that you live and breathe only because God faithfully kept his promise to this patriarchal couple? Do you not remember how God intervened to rescue your ancestors from slavery in Egypt and bring them into the land where you now live? How then is it that you have come to believe in a world driven solely by geopolitical forces? How is it that you have made your decisions in such a way as to leave no room for the saving intervention of the God you have to thank for the land you live in?
That is precisely the situation in which we find King Ahaz in our lesson from Isaiah. He has chosen to seek refuge from Assyria and accept all of the attending consequences. This, he maintains, is the least offensive of three bad choices. Isaiah urges the prophet to reconsider. There is another choice the king can make; a faithful choice; a life giving choice. “Take heed, be quiet, and do not fear.” The prophet begs the king to ask for a sign of God’s faithfulness, but the king replies: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Vs. 12. This seemingly pious response is in fact a curt dismissal. The king is a Niebuhrian realist. Faith has no place in geopolitics. The Sermon on the Mount is all well and good when it comes to governing behavior at church picnics. But it has no place in determining how one should deal with the likes of Al-Qaeda and Kim Jong Un. Real world threats call for real world solutions.
Of course, that begs the question. What is more real for you: the specters that threaten your security or the covenant promises of your God? For Isaiah, God was the overwhelming reality. His graphic encounter with this God in the Temple of Jerusalem governed Isaiah’s outlook on all else. (Isaiah 6:1-5) There Isaiah recognized that neither Israel’s king nor the king of Assyria reign over history. The Lord of Hosts is King and he alone deserves ultimate allegiance. This God is the only one worthy of trust. So what would have happened had the king listened to Isaiah, refused both the anti-Assyrian alliance and his counselors’ urging to seek Assyrian aid? We can never know where the road not taken might have led. But we can confidently say that if Ahaz had put his trust in God’s covenant promises, his decision would have made room for yet another saving act of God. What shape that act might have taken we will never know.
As I have said in previous posts, it would be a mistake to characterize Isaiah as an idealistic dreamer whose visions were divorced from reality. Isaiah understood the geopolitical landscape better than Ahaz and his advisors. He could see that the dawning age of empires held no place for small, autonomous kingdoms like Judah and Israel. But that did not mean there was no place in that future for the people of God. Far from it! In the coming age of violent imperial warfare on a scale the world had not yet seen, a light for the nations would be needed more than ever. More than ever before, a faithful covenant people would be necessary to show the world that life does not have to be the way we have made it. There is an alternative way to be human, a social reality different from the hierarchical model of master and slave. The challenge for Israel: how to be this people of blessing in the age of empire.
Though he refused a sign under the pretext of humble piety, Ahaz receives a sign anyway. “The young woman* is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Vs. 14. Though as we shall see, Matthew recognizes in the birth of Jesus the fulfillment of this prophecy, the immediate meaning for Ahaz is quite different. Biblical scholars continue to dispute the identity of this promised child. It has been argued that Immanuel must be 1) a child of Ahaz; 2) a child of Isaiah; 3) a general reference to all Judean children born in this time of crisis. For numerous reasons, the discussion of which would be far too tedious, none of these interpretations really fits. Nor is it clear what is meant by Isaiah’s declaration that the child shall be eating curds and honey by the time he knows how to distinguish between right and wrong. It is clear, though, that by this time the nations now pressuring Ahaz to join their anti-Assyrian coalition and threatening Judah with invasion will no longer exist. The implication is that Ahaz need only have waited and trusted in the Lord. God would have seen to the destruction of his enemies. There was no need to seek Assyrian aid. But now that Ahaz has ventured down this faithless path, he and his nation will bear the consequences-Assyrian oppression and tyranny. According to verse 17 (not in today’s reading) “The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” Though couched in terms of realism and practical necessity, Ahaz’ decision to seek Assyrian protection was in fact short-sighted and foolhardy. So far from preserving the liberty of his nation, he exchanged one tyrant for another that would in time prove far worse.
Prior to the formation of the Davidic monarchy the tribes of Israel were bound together in a lose confederacy. It was customary for the people to assemble at a central sanctuary located at Shechem (See Joshua 24) and later at Shiloh. See I Samuel 1. Three such assemblies were required by covenant law: Festival of unleavened bread (later associated with Passover); Festival of first fruits (also called “weeks” or “Pentecost”) and the festival of ingathering (also called Tabernacles). See Exodus 23:14-17. Of the three, the most significant was the Feast of Tabernacles which evolved into a covenant renewal ceremony in which Israel recited God’s faithful acts of salvation and pledged her allegiance to this trustworthy God. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) pp. 168-69. This tradition persisted after the division of the Davidic monarchy into the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel following the death of King Solomon. According to I Kings, Jeroboam, the first king of Israel in the north, instituted an ingathering festival “like the feast that was in Judah.” I Kings 12:32-33. The liturgies from these festivals naturally found their way into the psalms, the hymnals of the worshiping communities in both Israel and Judah. It is believed that verses 8-11 of Psalm 80 (not included in our reading) constitute the portion of the liturgy in which Israel recites the saving acts of God.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
After the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C.E., its psalms, scriptures and worship traditions were brought into the southern kingdom of Judah by refugees and incorporated into Judah’s worship. Psalm 80, which references the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, was one of the psalms so transmitted from north to south.
As it now stands, Psalm 80 is a prayer for national restoration. Unlike Judah in the south which benefited from the presence of Israel and the Phoenician states to the north acting as buffers against Syrian and Assyrian aggression, Israel was exposed to the brunt of such aggression. Israel did not enjoy the stability of a ruling family such as the line of David which provided a measure of political stability for Judah. Israel’s government was volatile, unstable and subject to frequent coups and revolutions. Such violent changes in leadership were sometimes viewed as acts of salvation and were even instigated by prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. Divine leadership for the nation was sought more in charismatic individuals raised up by God’s Spirit to meet national emergencies than from dynastic succession. Hence, the prayer that God would “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” Vs. 17.
A prayer for God to raise up a savior for God’s people is an appropriate one for Advent. Yet if we would read this psalm faithfully as Jesus’ disciples, we must juxtapose this prayer for deliverance to the kind of savior Jesus is and the powers from which he saves us. Rightly understood, this psalm brings into sharp focus the scandal of the cross: the Messiah is Jesus the crucified one. If we are looking for a more powerful, more effective and more efficient savior to implement the new creation by force of arms or other coercive means, we are bound to be disappointed. Jesus implements the kingdom of heaven by the slow process of limitless compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking. That means his disciples must live also in this slow and often seemingly ineffective process. Such a life tests our patience and endurance. That is why we have the Book of Psalms.
Why would our lectionary include a reading that consists only of the formal opening for Paul’s letter to the Romans when we will not hear from this letter again until Lent? The only rationale I can see is that Paul’s reference to Jesus as descended from David according to the flesh” sort of fits in with the gospel lesson-if that gospel lesson had included the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 (it does not). Otherwise, I am tempted to conclude that this Sunday in Advent came rather late in the day for the lectionary makers who at 4:45 p.m. wanted only to call it a day and go home.
The reading constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style. It begins with the name of the sender and that is important when you consider that these letters were originally produced as scrolls to be opened and read from top to bottom. If the letter were merely signed by the author at the end as we do today, you would not know the identity of the sender until you had finished reading the letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader understands from the start the audience being addressed.
Paul expands on this classic form by using it to express the content of his faith and to give us just a hint about what is to come. First, Paul establishes his credentials as an apostle set apart by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Vs. 1 Second, he articulates his understanding of that good news as the proclamation of Jesus as God’s Son through the testimony of the scriptures and the testimony of God expressed by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vss. 2-4 Finally, Paul zeros in on his particular calling to bring about “obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” Vs 5
Paul calls himself a “slave” of Jesus Christ (translated as “servant” in most translations). He understands himself therefore to be the property of Jesus. It is not lost on Paul that Jesus exercised his Lordship through servanthood. That is why Paul can also say that he is a slave of the church for Jesus’ sake. II Corinthians 4:5. Paul’s understanding of the church is radically anti-hierarchical. Though Paul is not at all shy about asserting his authority, he emphasizes that such apostolic authority has been given him for one reason only: to serve and build up the church. II Corinthians 13:10.
Paul refers to himself as having been “set apart” for the gospel of God. The Greek word he uses, “aphorisemenos,” has the same root meaning (translated from the Hebrew) as the title “Pharisee,” which means “one who is set apart.” That linguistic link could not have been lost on Paul, himself a Pharisee. The irony here is that through his calling Paul has been set apart, not to be isolated from the rest of the world, but to be propelled into it. He is set apart for the mission of bringing together the new people of God under Christ Jesus. This expanded salutation is a great wind-up for the pitch Paul is about to make: his lengthy discussion of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant relationship with Israel through the faithful ministry, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus.
While I can understand why you would not want to include the lengthy genealogy preceding this week’s gospel lesson in the readings, I also believe that it is impossible to appreciate Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth without it. That genealogy traces the ancestry of Joseph all the way from Abraham and through the lineage of King David. See Matthew 1:1-17. Then, after having established Joseph’s Abrahamic and Davidic credentials, Matthew goes on to explain that Jesus’ conception had nothing to do with Joseph. We are told that Joseph’s espoused wife was pregnant with a child not his own. So what was the point of the genealogy? If anyone’s genealogy matters in this story, it would be that of Mary, and we don’t know squat about her family tree.
I think Matthew is doing a couple of things here. For one thing, he wants to make it clear that God is doing a new thing. The Holy Spirit is again brooding over the waters and the birth of this child is a new creation. God does not need Abraham to produce his Messiah. The Baptist has told us already that God can make children of Abraham from stones. Matthew 3:9. Neither does God need the line of David to produce a new King. To be sure, the Messiah is first and foremost Israel’s Messiah and is given according to the covenant promises made exclusively with her. But the Messiah is a gift of grace to Israel no less than to the Gentile believers who will follow.
Mary’s virginity and the miraculous conception of Jesus have become foundational in so much thinking about the Incarnation. These topics are far too complex for this brief post (and this preacher) to tackle. Nevertheless, I believe it necessary to take a close look at what Matthew is saying (and not saying) here. It is obvious that Mary is pregnant and that Joseph is not the father. It is also clear that the child conceived in Mary is “from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 1:20. That means quite simply that the Holy Spirit was active in bringing about the conception of Jesus. Matthew does not tell us how the Spirit operated in this case, whether by some human agent or through what we would call “miraculous” means. The Spirit, we know, can work either way. Furthermore, it is well known that the Hebrew text from our Isaiah reading, cited here as having been fulfilled by Jesus, states only that a young woman will conceive and bear a son. Isaiah 7:14. It says nothing about her sexual history or marital status. This does not rule out either Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception or that the conception constituted a miraculous intervention without any other human involvement. But one cannot look to Matthew for support in arguing these assertions.
Finally, although the genealogy preceding our gospel lesson is not a part of the appointed text, I think a couple of comments are still in order. First, anyone examining them with care will soon discover that they contain significant discrepancies from the genealogical records of the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t believe Matthew found that at all problematic as his use of them was not intended to provide a credible pedigree for Jesus. As noted earlier, Matthew did not believe such genealogical grounding to be necessary. For him, the genealogy is a literary device intended merely to show that the Messiah, though born into Israel, is not a product of Israel and his mission extends beyond Israel. For a very thorough discussion of where this genealogy came from and how it might have come into Matthew’s possession, see Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 69-70.
What I find most interesting about the genealogy is the inclusion (in addition to Mary) of four women. Such inclusion of women in an ancient Jewish genealogy is itself unusual as lines of ancestry were traced exclusively through male descendents. Even more intriguing is the choice of women singled out. First is Tamar, the rejected wife of Judah’s several sons who posed as a prostitute in order to conceive Judah’s child. There was Rehab, the friendly prostitute of Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies in scouting out the city in preparation for attack. According to Matthew’s genealogy, she became the wife Boaz, the husband of Ruth, a woman of Moab, whose own seductive measures won her marital status. Finally, Bathsheba is noted as the one through whom the ruling line of Davidic kings proceed. For the story of David and Bathsheba, see II Samuel 11-12:25 or refer to my post of Sunday, June 6, 2013. These women have the dubious distinction of being outside the lineage of Israel or of having borne children outside the legal bonds of wedlock. One cannot help but wonder whether their inclusion is intended to reflect on Mary’s situation and illuminate the work of the Spirit in her life as in theirs.
I must also confess that I have often wondered whether the Gospel of Matthew was not composed or edited by a woman’s hand. Perhaps the inclusion of these women, all of whom played active and often assertive roles in the divine drama, was the author’s way of reminding us that “we are in this too, you know.”