Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year A
The time of our celebration of the birth of Christ draws nearer and the readings for today focus more particularly on the anticipation of the coming of the Anointed One. The thinking behind the readings is that humanity was in a critical situation spiritually and needed the action of a saviour to be delivered.
In the reading from Isaiah, King Ahaz, who reigned in Jerusalem (736-716 BC), was under threat of invasion by a combined force of invaders from the north. He was tempted to form an alliance with Assyria in order to get help, but the prophet advised him to trust solely in God. Ahaz was not sure about this course of action so Isaiah told him to ask God for a sign that would convince him that his kingdom was not about to be destroyed but that his dynasty would continue. The king did not trust enough in the word of God that came via the prophet and he hesitated with a statement of pious cant. The result was that Isaiah became quite angry and said that God would give a sign regardless of whether Ahaz asked for one or not.
The sign was that a child would be born; a child who would be God among his people.
The Hebrew immanu means ‘with us’ and the el at the end is one of the names for God. The ancient Hebrews would have regarded their kings and spiritual leaders as emmanuel, i.e. God with us or God among the people.
Such leaders and spiritual guides were seen as God’s representatives who spoke for the Almighty. In Isaiah’s prophecy the child was a sign that the dynasty of David would not be wiped out by the impending invasion. Scholars debate about the identity of the child that Isaiah was referring to, but since prophets speak with reference to their own times the child would have to be a contemporary of Isaiah. Hezekiah, who became king after his father Ahaz, is the most likely candidate. The prophecy states that by the time the child grew old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong the two threatening armies would be no more. This means that Isaiah’s prophecy was to be fulfilled in 4-8 years’ time. In fact, this is just what happened because Assyrian armies invaded Syria and northern Israel in the 700s BCE. Jerusalem was never invaded and overrun by these two armies. However, Jerusalem did become a vassal nation to Assyria. The child, then, was not only a sign of continuing prosperity but was a sign that God was with the chosen people. There is no cause for fear or insecurity when we are assured that God is with us.
Today’s psalm was probably written during the Babylonian exile because it expresses the dream of God restoring the people of Israel. The reply to the question, ‘Who is worthy to stand before the Lord?’ is the upright person who has not gone after worthless things. In the context of Advent, the answer is Jesus. He is the one who has received blessings and is worthy to ascend into the Lord’s presence.
For Paul the ultimate good news is that Jesus has rescued us from the power of evil
Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, opens his letter with a declaration of the nature and mission of Jesus Christ. He points out that as a descendant of David, who stood as the supreme anointed one or messiah in Jewish tradition, Jesus was recognised as the unique Son of God in virtue of his resurrection. Through Jesus we have been rescued from the power of evil, and for Paul this is the ultimate good news. He then goes on to tell the Roman community that he has been called to preach this good news of salvation to the pagan nations and states that this in itself is God’s way of working in human nature.
The gospel reading from Matthew deals with the betrothal of Joseph and Mary and the message given to Joseph. The early part of the reading only makes sense when we can understand something of Jewish customs of the time. Marriages were arranged by families for the economic and political advantage of the families. Often, parents looked for partners for their son or daughter within the extended family so that a man or woman may well be marrying a second or third cousin. Marriages were not contracted out of consideration for the individuals. A wife would not necessarily expect love, companionship or comfort from her husband. These things might come in time but, unlike affection, love and romance in today’s western society, they were not always the bases of a marriage.
To highlight the early Christian belief that Jesus was the unique Son of God, Matthew draws on the passage where the prophet Isaiah connects the righteous king Hezekiah with immanu-el (God is with us). In fact, Matthew does not translate the Hebrew accurately, which says, as we saw in the first reading, ‘the young woman is with child’. The young woman is clearly not a virgin if she is with child. Matthew offers a pretty free rendition to mark the statement as a prophecy in the future tense, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son...’. This is not what Isaiah wrote.
But Matthew is not being dishonest here because he is giving emphasis to the early Christian conviction that Jesus was conceived by divine intervention. In addition, he is underscoring the reality that the person and life of Jesus is very definitely God amongst us.
Matthew is using a typically Jewish way of commenting on a passage of Scripture by interpreting it in the ancient style of midrash, that is, interpreting a passage of Scripture so that it applies to another time and context, and very often quite different from what the writer originally intended.
Matthew has taken the passage from Isaiah and adapted it to a different period and a very different situation. He has found fresh insights in this ancient text – insights gained from meditating on the person and work of Jesus. So, while the contexts are different the spiritual insights are parallel and equally rich. Reading Scripture this way Matthew can quite plausibly say that the events in the life of Jesus are fulfilling Scripture.
The point of Matthew’s story is to highlight a theological issue. We need to remember that the nativity stories of both Matthew and Luke contain key statements about Jesus as the Christ and are not primarily saying things about Mary. Neither are the narratives really concerned with the physiology of Jesus’ conception and birth. The questions we need to ask of the stories are: what are they saying about Jesus the Christ? What are the spiritual messages here?
The most important message from Matthew is that Jesus is the unique Son of God
The most important theological statement is that Jesus is the Son of God. In the ancient Hebrew view of family and inheritance, the name and property inherited by a male child were determined by the father. In fact, all that was necessary for life was provided by the father. The woman’s role was to grow the male seed so that knowledge of male and female complementarity in the reproductive process of fertilisation was non-existent. Put simply, this means that in the eyes of the early Christians Jesus was the Son of God and his divinity comes from his father. To be consistent with a prime tenet of faith the first Christians would have argued that if God was the father of Jesus then there was no room in the equation for a human father like Joseph. So, the conception and birth of Jesus were seen as the result of a direct intervention by God.
When we read the gospels we get an overwhelming sense that Jesus represents all that we need to know about God and our relationship with God. It is clear that ‘godness,’ that is, all that we could understand by the idea of God, is perfectly reflected in the person of Jesus. The gospel writers tell us very plainly that if we want to know about goodness, mercy, compassion, the right way to live quality lives and how to relate to God and neighbour then all we have to do is look closely at the life, personality, attitudes and values of Jesus and do our best to imitate them.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’ and then gave them an example of how Jesus took on the form of a slave in order to serve God and his fellow human beings. Jesus himself said that he had come not to be served but to serve and he gave good example when he performed the symbolic action of service by washing the feet of his friends.
Jesus was motivated by the realisation that each person is an emmanuel, each person is God with us. We don’t have to wait for Christmas to realise and appreciate God’s presence in our lives, we only have to look at the natural world and the people around us to see God among us.
Life without purpose is a drifting thing. Every day we should renew our purpose; make each day a new beginning. Our growth to wholeness is in proportion to our purpose. Anonymous
Life is too brief to waste even one moment in useless regret or vain expectation. Dorothy Strange (20th century English novelist)
Woman: Did you know that women are smarter than men?
Man: No, I didn’t.
Woman: See what I mean?
What does it say on a blues singer’s tombstone?
‘I didn’t wake up this morning...’