For Dec. 22, 2013: 4 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-16

In the eighth century B.C., Jerusalem is under threat. Isaiah has advised fearful young King Ahaz to let God deal with it; here the Lord offers a grand sign as proof. Ahaz piously refuses—his faith is in an alliance—but he is given the sign anyway: a baby who won’t yet be weaned before the two enemy kingdoms are no more.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Psalm 80, written in the time of Isaiah, is a corporate lament: all God’s people are suffering—in the striking metaphor of verse 5, eating and drinking tears by the bowlful. They ask for the light of God’s countenance. Christians tend to think of “the man of your right hand” as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it actually means us?

The Epistle            Romans 1:1-7

The letter to the Romans is one of five epistles that is agreed to be by the apostle Paul. At the beginning of the letter, Paul introduces himself in a complex paragraph that sums up his mission: to declare to the Gentiles the salvation that God promised in the scriptures and delivered through the death of Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 1:18-25

The gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent relates the familiar story of Joseph, legally bound to Mary but both worldly and righteous enough to assume the usual explanation for a child he knows he hasn’t fathered. He is prepared to break the contract—privately, to spare Mary further shame—but God has other plans.

Ponderables

Signs loom large in today’s readings: signs rejected and signs accepted.

In the reading from Isaiah, King Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign: he has plans for an alliance with Assyria against the twin threat facing him, and he is not interested in any proof of God to the contrary. He fails to realize that allying with Assyria will make Judah an enemy of Babylon and lead to exile and the destruction of the Temple. The baby in the sign is most likely Ahaz’s own son, and was not named Immanuel, or ‘God with us’.

Psalm 80, from the time of the exile in Babylon, laments the suffering of God’s people: the metaphor in verse 5 suggests not only that the people are weeping tears by the bowlful, but also that tears are all they have to eat or drink. Suffering and darkness were taken as signs of God’s displeasure, so the psalm begs repeatedly for the light of God’s countenance. We think of “the man of your right hand” as Jesus—but what if it actually means us?

The epistle is a litany of signs in the scriptures. Unlike Ahaz’s faith, Paul’s is real, so he has accepted the Lord’s sign—the miraculous encounter outside Damascus—even to the point of abandoning his old life to bring the good news of Jesus to people with whom, as a proper Jew, he should never even have associated. And who are those people?  Well, we are.

The gospel, in telling the story of Mary and Joseph, takes the previously unremarked verse 14 from Isaiah 7 and elevates it to a prophecy of Jesus. Like Paul, Joseph is genuinely righteous; he intends grace in dealing with Mary, he is open to God’s signs, and he is willing both to receive grace and to give it in ways he had not planned. What a remarkable Abba or daddy for Jesus to grow up with! And what a model for us to follow!

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