Engaging the Word: Readings for 12/18/16 (The Fourth Sunday of Advent)

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 By Barbara Klugh

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text. This is the last Sunday before Christmas, so it’s not surprising that our readings point to the birth of Jesus.

Painting detail by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Painting detail of Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci c.1483. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Isaiah 7:10-16: Setting the scene: The year is around 735 BC, Ahaz is king of Judah, and his kingdom is under attack. The kings of Aram (Syria) and Ephraim (Israel) wanted Ahaz to join their coalition against Assyria. When he refused, they attacked Judah. God sends Isaiah to meet with Ahaz and give him a message that God will destroy Judah’s enemies.

In this week’s reading, Isaiah delivers God’s message to Ahaz. Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign to confirm that this is a true prophesy. Ahaz refuses, saying he “will not put the Lord to the test.” Isaiah says, “the Lord himself will give you a sign.” The sign will be the birth of a child, and the child’s mother will name him Immanuel (God with us). By the time he knows right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.

For the past few years, my Advent to Epiphany devotional is an anthology of 45 readings called Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. In one selection, William Willimon, Methodist preacher and pastor, reflects on this week’s text from Isaiah.

“The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” Willimon talks about the context: “Isaiah has been pleading with King Ahaz to put his trust in God’s promise to Israel rather than in alliances with strong military powers like Syria….Then the prophet tells the fearful king that God is going to give him a baby as a sign. A baby. Isn’t that just like God, Ahaz must have thought. What Ahaz needed, with Assyria breathing down his neck, was a good army, not a baby.”

Willimon notes, “This is often the way God loves us: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be.” We want our religion to confirm our self-sufficiency, but “Then this stranger comes to us, blesses us with a gift, and calls us to see ourselves as we are—empty-handed recipients of a gracious God who, rather than leave us to our own devices, gave us a baby.”

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18: Our psalm is a community petition, praying to God to deliver and restore Israel. Because three northern tribes—Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh—are mentioned, some scholars think this psalm was written before Assyria conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC; others think it was written after its defeat. “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

St. Paul attributed to Lucas van Leyden, c. 1520. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul attributed to Lucas van Leyden, c. 1520. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Romans 1:1-7: Sometimes Paul’s letters can difficult to follow, but maybe that’s because he dictated them to an amanuensis—Tertius in the case of this letter. Paul had not yet been to the great city of Rome and he wrote this letter to the believers in Rome (both Jews and Gentiles) to give a complete statement of his faith and belief.

This week’s reading is one long sentence, beginning with Chapter 1, verse 1. Here is the complete sentence, which is easier to grasp if we read it slowly, clause by clause.

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,
called to be an apostle,
set apart for the gospel of God,
which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,
the gospel concerning his Son,
who was descended from David according to the flesh
and was declared to be Son of God with power
according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
through whom we have received grace and apostleship
to bring about the obedience of faith
among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,
including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

So right from the beginning, we see many of important words and themes of the essential elements of Christianity that Paul will develop in this letter: servant, Jesus Christ, apostle, set apart, gospel, promised beforehand, grace, obedience of faith, Gentiles, called to belong, God’s beloved, called to be saints.

The Dream of St. Joseph by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1773. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Dream of St. Joseph by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1773. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Matthew 1:18-25: The gospel of Matthew is the only one that begins with a genealogy to show that Jesus is a descendant of David through Joseph, his adoptive father. The lectionary skips the three sets of 14 generations: from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian exile, from the Babylonian exile to Christ. Each of the people mentioned has his or her own personal history, and often it’s not the best and the brightest, but the cheats and the sinners who are mentioned in the genealogy. Also, the narrative of Jesus’ birth is mostly dedicated to Joseph’s dilemma upon finding out that Mary is pregnant.

In this week’s reading, we’re told that Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph planned to dismiss (divorce) her quietly. But an angel appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” As some of know the prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” I think we could also pray, “Hail Joseph, full of grace,” such was his virtuous behavior.

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