December 22, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Isaiah 7:10-16||Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19||Romans 1:1-7||Matthew 1:18-25|
by Ron Allen
In theory, as far as the Christian Year is concerned, Advent and Christmas Day are two distinct events. Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas (and for the Second Coming) with Christmas Day itself marking the birth, the first advent. During Advent, the congregation does not sing Christmas carols but sings Advent hymns. The liturgy expresses anticipation, even longing for the redemptive work signaled by the birth and to be completed at the apocalypse. Worship planners today note that the Advent emphases on waiting and patience are correctives in a culture of instant gratification.
In fact, however, many congregations experience tension between the desire of some people to sing Christmas carols during the season of Advent and others in the congregation who want to sing only Advent hymns. Many ministers and worship planners hear the question, “Why can’t we sing the Christmas carols?”
I think this tension has two roots. The more obvious is that outside the church, in the larger culture, Christmas is everywhere — especially on television and radio and in the stores. I saw the first Christmas items in a store this year just after Labor Day. The other root is a function of ecclesial DNA. Like many in my age cohort (I am 70 years old), I grew up in an ecclesial world before the widespread use of the Christian Year and the lectionary. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we began to sing Christmas carols and to move very quickly into “Christmas theology” in other aspects of preaching and worship. We observed the Sunday before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as “Christmas Sunday.” I think something of this DNA lingers in the minds of many Christians.
If I were putting the lectionary together now, I would assign the genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:1-17) to the Fourth Sunday of Advent as a way of setting the stage for the story of the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:18-25) on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. For the genealogy locates Matthew’s interpretation of the significance of the birth and ministry of Jesus in end-time perspective. In Year A, that would maintain the anticipatory dimension of the Gospel readings in Advent and it would provide a “Matthean Advent and Christmas” instead of switching on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to Luke and John. I would put Matthew 1:18-25 on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
However, the fact that the gospel reading on the Fourth Sunday of Advent is the story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1:18-25 does offer a kind of bridge from the weeks of anticipation to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Without going full bore into “Christmas Sunday,” worship planners could frame the liturgy in such a way as to open the door to Christmas without entering fully into the Christmas house.
As noted above, the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17 sets the theological stage in end-time theology for Matthew’s interpretation not only of the birth of Jesus but of the larger ministry of Jesus. Number symbolism was important to the end-time thinkers. These authors often used the number seven to indicate divine presence and control. Matthew organizes the genealogy of Jesus into three groups of names with fourteen names in each group. To state the obvious, fourteen is a multiple of seven, thus indicating God’s control over the process.
The three groups in the genealogy summarize the three phases in salvation history. Matthew 1:2-6a goes from Abraham and Sarah to David. Matthew 1:6b-11 goes from David to the Babylonian exile. Matthew 1:12-17 goes from the exile to Jesus. The genealogy thus presents Jesus as the last piece in the restoring work of God. However, this last work is not complete with the birth of Jesus. It will be complete only at the second coming.
When turning to the birth story itself, my focus here is on how the story function in the larger theology of Matthew. Many people in contemporary North American culture are fascinated by the inner lives of characters, by personality, and by personal details associated with people. For example, what did Joseph and Mary feel? But the biblical writers are typically less concerned with these things and more with characters as vehicles of theological meaning.
The central human character in Matthew 1:18-25 is Joseph. In a certain way, this text is about the instruction of Jesus. Through what happens around Joseph, the text offers instruction to the listening community.
Not so very long ago, the subject of the virgin birth was a hot one in many ecclesial circles. While I do not hear as much concern about the birth as I once did, it is still important to note (per Raymond Brown) that the story is not really about a virgin birth but is about a virginal conception. That observation does not eliminate theological and scientific struggle around the possibility or non-possibility of a virginal issues in relationship to Jesus’ arrival in the world, but it does place the issues in the right frame of reference.
In light of concerns about the virginal conception, it is important to remember that many ancient communities told stories about the remarkable births of central figures. The broad purpose of these stories is to establish the authority of the person who is born. The stories show that divine powers had a hand in the life of the character from the very beginning. These things are true of the story of the birth of Jesus.
As story begins, we meet two characters who epitomize the quality of life in old age. Mary and Joseph are living as peasants under the Empire conditions described in the “Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew” (First Sunday of Advent). By today’s standards both were young, Mary perhaps in her early teens and Joseph slightly older, though these ages were typical of marriage in antiquity. Given the patriarchal structure of the time, marriage was one of Mary’s best chances for long-term security.
As the story gets underway, the listener knows something that Joseph does not: the Holy Spirit is responsible for the pregnancy of Mary. End-time authors often think of the Holy Spirit as an immediate power source for the transformation of the world from the old to the new (Matt 1:18). As a side note, I mention that I still hear Christians say that the Holy Spirit was silent after the close of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings until its reappearance with Jesus. According to Jewish writings from the period, that claim is not true. Such writings portray the Spirit as continuing to be active. Some of the end-time writers did anticipate that God would pour out a special measure of the Holy Spirit as the end-time came about. That seems to be the case here: God uses the Spirit to activate the renewing ministry of Jesus by bringing Jesus to life in the womb.
Matthew describes Joseph as “righteous” (Matt 1:19). In some circles today, the word “righteous” has a negative connotation, especially through association with “self-righteous.” But in Matthew’s time, it had the very positive meaning of “living rightly” according to the covenantal principles of Judaism.
Judaism held that when a woman and a man were betrothed, relationship was contractual and had the same exclusivity as marriage. If a woman betrothed to one man had sexual intercourse with another man, she violated her relationship with the first man. The community regarded her as committing adultery. In an earlier day, she could have been tried and given capital punishment (Deut 22:23-27), though by Matthew’s time this practice ended. Nevertheless, the contract would be negated, and the woman would be subject to public humiliation and shame. Since the culture of antiquity was a shame/honor culture, this penalty was significant.
While Joseph seeks to do the right thing according to Jewish tradition by cancelling the agreement with Mary, he seeks to do so “quietly,’ that is, with minimum public cost to Mary. One hesitates to make too much of this detail, but it does suggest that one can do a right thing with compassion, even when a right thing has a hard edge.
From end-time perspective, to be righteous is to do what is right according to the values and practices of the Realm of God. In this theology, the righteousness of God is the pattern for human righteousness. For God to do what is right is for God to replace the broken creation with one that is not broken. The essence of the Realm is relationships that are mutually supporting in the context of a world of abundance. This is what happens when Joseph marries Mary.
In Matthew 1:20, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream. Today’s congregation will immediately recognize that the reference to the angel authenticates this message as coming from God. The congregation might less immediately be aware that writers in the Bible sometimes employ the dream motif in a similar way.
The gospel writer describes Joseph as in the lineage of David. Many in Judaism remembered David’s rule as the high point of Jewish history — when the nation not only had independence but had a powerful military and was a shaping force on the stage of the eastern Mediterranean. Some regarded the rule of David as a prototype for the world that God would bring about in order to complete God’s promises to Israel. Matthew’s reference to David serves two purposes. First, it does attach the authority of the Davidic memory to Jesus. But, secondly, as the gospel story unfolds, it becomes apparent that while the Realm of God through Jesus comes through a person in the lineage of David, the new Realm is very different. From end-time perspective, the new world sets aside the old world (even empire-like) associations with David points to a new cosmos in which behavior takes place according to the values and practices of the Realm.
The angel does not force Joseph to marry Mary. The angel presents Joseph with a possibility for relationship that Joseph had not realized was possible. This is paradigmatic for understanding the ministry of Jesus—and for the ministry of the church. A key element in the Realm of God is mutually supportive relationships. The angel invites Joseph into the mutually supportive relationship of marriage when Joseph did not think that could happen. In a similar way, Jesus invites others into the possibilities of the Realm of God when they are living under old creation assumptions and not realizing that the Realm is available. Similarly, at the climactic meeting with the disciples in Matthew 28:16-20, the resurrected Jesus commissions the disciples to invite “the nations” into the possibilities of the Realm.
This might raise a question for the sermon. Where is the angel — figuratively speaking — inviting the congregation into possibilities for the Realm that had not been on the congregation’s screen, perhaps even possibilities that tradition had regarded as impossible?
According to Matthew 1:21, the couple is to name the child Jesus, “for [Jesus] will save [the people] from their sins.” The name Jesus is from the Hebrew “Joshua” which means something like “God saves.” The name itself indicates what God is doing through him.
Christians have typically understood “from their sins” in terms of personal disobedience. Jesus saves us from the effects of our personal immorality. However, an intriguing interpretation is now in play: the sins in view here are the sins that led to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and the consequent disintegration of many aspects of the Jewish social world. In broad Jewish end-time perspective, sin has two interrelated parts. It is violation of covenant. Sin is also a power that operates in the world. Sin as power thus prompts many in community to violate covenant. Some end-time theologians—especially the community at Qumran, and others as well—thought that many Jewish leaders and many in the wider Jewish population had accommodated too much with the Roman Empire. They had compromised the attitudes and actions that God wanted to characterize living in covenant. Other groups, such as the Pharisees, had similar reservations. While Roman rule was explicit and often harsh prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, that rule become even more brutal in the wake of the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE that led the Romans to sack Jerusalem and to destroy the temple. For Jesus to save the people from their sins, then, is to re-create the world as the Realm of God. To be honest, I am still trying on this idea, but it does seem consistent with the overall pattern of end-time perspective.
I can easily imagine a sermon that takes advantage of the Fourth Sunday of Advent to use the immediately foregoing perspective as a way to orient the congregation to a comprehensive understanding of the work of God through Jesus. Since preaching from week to week often goes from text to text, many congregations seldom get an overview within which to place individual texts.
Matthew 1:22-23 moves in the direction just noted. To the disappointment of some progressive Christians, I have to say that I think when Matthew speaks of Jesus “fulfilling” something stated by one of the prophets, the gospel has in mind that the earlier prophet had Jesus, or some central figure, in mind. I do not share this view. But one can note how Matthew uses the fulfillment texts to interpret Jesus without buying into the idea that the prophet had Jesus in mind.
In this case, Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14 to signal what God is doing through Jesus. In order to understand Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 7:14, we need to see the verse in its larger context in Isaiah 7-9 (see comments below on Isaiah 7:10-17). Ahaz, ruler of Judah, felt threatened by an alliance of Syria and Israel who wanted to take over Judah and place a puppet on the throne. Ahaz wanted to enter into an alliance with Assyria in order to provide for security for Judah. Isaiah, however, wanted Ahaz to avoid the alliance with Assyria and to trust only in God for security.
Through the prophet, God invites the monarch to ask for a sign which will confirm that the prophet is correct (Isa 7:10-11). The ruler, however, refuses, saying, “I will not ask” because “I will not put [God] to the test” (Isa 7:12). This sounds quite theologically sound, but Isaiah sees it as false piety, as a mask for Ahaz’s real desire. Isaiah sees the monarch “wearying” God with this kind of deceptive talk (Isa 7:13). According to the prophet, God will provide the sign anyway: a young woman who is with child will bear a son and name that child Immanuel (Isa 7:14). While scholars debate the identity of the woman, the important thing is that the child is a sign that God can be trusted.
Similarly, the important thing for Matthew is the function of the birth of Jesus: it is a signal that God is present and at work in a promising way through the ministry of Jesus (and the church). The birth is also a material means whereby that work is taking place. Beyond the difficulties of the moment, God is again at work to set the world right. The ministry of Jesus morphing into the ministry of church demonstrates the nature of the new world and invites people into the eschatological community (the church) through repentance.
The context from Isaiah also invites a comparison between the situation in Isaiah’s day, the situation in Matthew’s day, and the situation today. The future of Matthew’s community is not through accommodation to Rome and to old-age assumptions and actions but is through faithfulness to the Realm of God. A future of blessing today is not through continuing—even reinforcing—old age ways of thinking and acting but in moving towards the values and behaviors of the Realm.
Matthew rightly points out that the name “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” This expression is important for Matthew, coming as it does here, as an opening parenthesis to the ministry of Jesus, and as a closing parenthesis to the earthly phase of his ministry in 28:20. Over my years of ministry, I have typically used the phrase in a comforting way, especially with people in situations of illness, as well as in unsettling situations in the community. “God is with us” was the main theme of a sermon I once preached on a Sunday after a tornado.
But in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, the expression “God with us” (and similar expressions) is often used to indicate that God is doing something transformational. A person or community needs to know that “God is with us” during the travails of change. For example, Exodus uses a form of this expression when God calls Moses to go down to Egypt and confront Pharaoh (Exod 3:12). This name, then, shows that God is at work similarly through Jesus.
Matthew 1:24-25 points toward a prime point for a sermon. Joseph does what the angel says, and things come out as angel said they would. Joseph is example for listeners: if listeners welcome Jesus and the Realm of God in the way that Joseph does—if they do what is right by the Realm—they can expect things to come out as Jesus says they will at the final apocalypse.
There is a risk, of course. By doing what is right by the Realm, Joseph sidesteps what was considered right by prevailing custom. Such decisions can lead to conflict.
A preacher might use the story to show that God can invite the world to move towards Realm-like qualities in ways that are as non-obvious as the ways depicted in Matthew 1:18-25. At the same time, I want to register a personal reaction. Preachers have highlighted the “unexpected” nature of the Realm of God so much, that I now expect the language of the unexpected. I find this particular language tired even as the underlying idea is still important. The preacher might seek more vibrant language.
A preacher who is in a context where the virgin birth is an issue might focus the story on what to make theologically of that aspect of the text. The preacher would certainly point out that word rendered “young woman” in the Hebrew of Isaiah is almah which, as the translation implies, is not loaded with respect to whether she has had sexual relations. The Greek translation of Isaiah in the Septuagint does use the technical word for virgin, parthenos, and Matthew cites the latter. If I were taking this approach, I would point out that while parthenogenesis does occur, the real point here is not the surface matter of the technology of the conception of Jesus but the deeper question of how the story functions. For those who do not put much stock in the possibility of an actual virginal conception, the deeper function of that motif in the story still points to the distinctive work that will unfold through Jesus in manifesting the Realm.
At first glance, this may seem like an odd text for preaching in general, much less for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. As I heard someone say once, “It is, after all, just the introduction to the letter.” But here, as is the case in some other letters, Paul places a significant theological claim before the listeners.
We assume the same background for the Letter to the Romans here as on the First and Second Sundays of Advent. Readers may turn to those places for a more detailed presentation. It is enough here to recall that Paul was writing to a congregation made up of both Jewish and gentile peoples and directs the letter particularly to the gentiles, urging them towards eschatological community with the Jewish members of the church.
From a Jewish perspective, gentile culture is marked by idolatry, multiple forms of injustice, such as exploitation, and violence. According to Paul’s end-time theology, God has condemned gentile violations. But gentiles have the opportunity to turn away from idols and to repent from the manifold forms of violation of God’s purposes for community that are part and parcel of gentile life. Through the church, gentiles do not need to convert fully to Judaism, but they do need to worship the one living God and to live according to Jewish principles of covenantal community as adapted in the church. Because the Parousia is imminent, the church functions as a kind of emergency shelter for gentiles as they await the final transformation.
According to the school of interpretation that I follow regarding Romans, the gentiles in the community had developed a superior attitude towards the Jewish members and treated the Jewish member in a similar, disrespectful way. Paul writes the letter to the Romans with a particular eye towards speaking to the gentiles to encourage them to stop diminishing the Jewish members and to move towards living in eschatological community. Indeed, the Jewish community is the tree into which God is grafting the gentile members through Jesus (Rom 11:11-24).
The fractiousness between gentile and Jewish peoples, from the end-time point of view, is part of the brokenness of the old age. The Realm of God includes a reunion of the divided peoples of the world, including, of course, Jews and gentiles. A significant part of the problem at Rome is that hostility between the two groups in the congregation makes the congregation nothing more than a reflection of the old creation. As noted already, Paul writes to encourage the congregation at Rome to embody eschatological community. In this way, people within the church experience partial eschatological reality while still in the transition time between the ages, and people outside the church have an opportunity to see how to live together in ways that benefit all.
With respect to preaching, the issue of fractiousness of community both in the church and in the larger world is as contemporary as the last news report.
Almost everyone in the ancient world believed that every human being served some higher power. The question was not, “Do you believe in God?” but, rather, “In which god(s) do you believe?” Paul identifies himself as a “servant” of Jesus Christ, By “Jesus Christ” the apostle means not just the person but the work of God through Jesus,, the work of transferring the creation from the old exploitative structures to the new regenerative ones. (Rom 1:1).
The word “apostle” means “to be sent with a commission” (Rom 1:1). That is exactly Paul’s situation: he believes that God has sent him with a commission to announce the gospel, especially to gentiles. To draw out the obvious, the gospel, for Paul, is the news of what God is doing through Christ to bring about the end of the world as it is in its broken state and to announce the world to come, the Realm of God.
According to Paul, God made the promise of the Realm “beforehand,” that is, long before Jesus, through the prophets in “the holy scriptures,” that is, the Torah and Prophets (Rom 1:2) At the time of Paul the Writings were highly respected but the Jewish community had not yet made the decision to include them in the canon. Regarding the situation at Rome, Paul emphasizes to the gentiles that the work of God through Christ is continuous with God’s work in Judaism.
Romans 1:3 is likely a theological statement — perhaps a fragment of a hymn or creed — that existed before Paul and that the apostle uses to summarize the identity. The parallel is not exact, but in a sense Paul uses that fragment as a text in a way similar to the preacher using this passage from Romans as a text.
The language of “Son” here likely derives from passages like Psalm 2:7 where the psalm declares that the prince becomes God’s son when the prince is elevated to the monarchy. The monarch’s responsibility is to see that God’s purposes take place in community after the manner of Psalm 72, on which we commented on the Second Sunday of Advent. Jesus descended from David, who, we noted in connection with the Gospel reading for today, was widely regarded as a model for an eschatological agent. In light of the gentile/Jewish divide in Rome, these titles both remind gentiles of the Jewish nature of the identity of Jesus and the Jewish origin of the eschatological hope which they seek through participation in the church.
The central point of Romans 1:4 is to call attention to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. In end-time context, he was not simply resuscitated but emerged from the tomb with a resurrection body, that is, the body that he will have from now through the apocalypse and into Realm of God in the future. For Paul, the resurrection is the “first fruit” of the coming world (1 Cor 15:20).
Romans 1:4 also calls attention to a central category of end-time thinking, and of the Bible more generally: power. The resurrection reveals the extent of God’s power. Death is greatest power at the hands of the rulers of the old age. But resurrection shows that God’s power vastly overrides death and the world it represents. Death did its worst, but life persisted.
This notion of power is suggestive for preaching. In early twenty-first century United States, power is, as always, a central category. Political groups are, perhaps, the most visible entities grasping for power so they can bring their will into public life. But every group has dynamics of power, including the church. Indeed, I have known ministers and lay leaders who exercise power in the church pretty much like people exercise power in the wider broken old world. According to Paul’s thinking about power, people and other entities use it appropriately when they use it for the values and purposes of the Realm of God, but they misuse it when serving the attitudes and actions of the old age. Where does the preacher see each use of power? And how can the congregation encourage appropriate uses of power?
Romans 1:5 is a key to relating this passage and the letter as a whole to the reconstruction of the Roman situation that I mentioned above. The risen Christ gave Paul grace and apostleship (per above) “to bring about the obedience of faith among all gentiles, including yourselves.” Paul here explicitly identifies the main thrust of his ministry as reaching out to gentiles. From Paul’s perspective this is a rescue mission. As we learn from Paul’s larger corpus, and especially from Romans 4, Paul regards the gentile mission as nothing less than God keeping God’s promises to Sarah and Abraham to bring about the blessing of “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3).
Christians often so associate grace with the work of God through Christ that it is easy for today’s listener to miss the Jewish connection to the notion of “grace.” The Torah, Prophets, and Writings speak often of the “graciousness” of God meaning the unmerited favor of God. We should recognize that the gracious work of God through Christ is not a novel thing but extends the graciousness of God for Israel to gentiles through the ministry of the apostle. In other words, the gentiles are in eschatological community because of a decision on the part of the God of Israel. The Jews enjoy the same grace as the gentiles. There is no cause for gentile superiority.
“Obedience” is a quintessential description of the aim of Jewish life. To be obedient is to not to be legalistic nor to engage in works righteousness. In the Jewish orb, to be obedient is to act out the purposes that God has graciously given the community and for which God has provided guidance through Torah. The event of God through Christ makes it possible for gentiles to join Judaism in obedience, albeit as interpreted through Jesus Christ.
Christians—especially Protestants—of think of faith as a matter of intellectual belief. Such folk see it as an act of trusting what God has done, is doing, and will do through Christ. However, the word “faith” in Greek, pistis, can also mean “faithful” in the sense of living faithfully, that is, living in ways that honor the living God and that support others in community.
The optimum situation for preaching is to focus a single sermon on this text, drawing from its depth. However, the preacher could use it as an illustration of the consequences of the birth and ministry of Jesus. The events set in motion by the birth of Jesus lead to the inclusion of gentiles through Paul.
This text has a direct word of address to white supremacy on the rise in the United States. It also has such a word for anti-Semitism, also on the rise in the US. While Paul lived before Islam, the text has a word for address for Islamaphobia, and for the superiority with which Christians and others view other forms of religious, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.
A preacher could reflect with the congregation on the degree to which the congregation—and the wider church—represent the kind of eschatological community as in Rome, that is, bringing together people who are as different in our day as gentiles and Jews were in Paul’s time. What could the congregation do to attempt to move towards becoming a more eschatological community?
For Paul, as for Matthew, the work of God through Christ was not an end in itself but was an intermediate step between the end of the old and the finale of history, the final and complete manifestation of the Realm.
As I have said elsewhere in these Advent comments, the relationship among the lections on particular Sundays is often arbitrary. However, the opposite is the case today as Matthew directly cites part of this passage from Isaiah. There is a direct literary relationship between Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22-23.
This passage presumes events that occurred in 733-732 BCE that are alive with political intrigue. Assyria (comprised of portions of modern-day Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq) loomed over Judah, Israel and Syria. Ahaz, ruler of Judah sought safety. Two nations that were often enemies of one another — Israel and Syria — had united to oppose Assyria and to place a puppet in the. Ahaz found himself in a tight spot. Judah was under threat from these “two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (Israel and Syria) (Isa 7:4b-9). He could make coalition with Israel and Syria and oppose mighty Assyria. Or, he could seek to make an alliance with Assyria itself.
Ahaz wanted to enter into alliance with Assyria. Like many leaders then, across the face of history, and now, Ahaz looked for the route that had the best chance of preserving his own power. As we learn from Isaiah 7:11, Ahaz willingly compromised himself in order to do so.
Isaiah came to Ahaz accompanied by his child, Shearjashub (a name that means “a remnant shall return”.) As we pointed out in connection with Matthew 1:22-23, the prophet offered the ruler an alternative: “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint.” The prophet explains in Isaiah 7:15ff. that, after the Assyrian invasion and a very difficult period, the child will grow up into the leader who will eventually preside over Judah during a season of remarkable prosperity.
When Isaiah and Ahaz are face to face, God offers Ahaz the opportunity to ask for a sign that will show God’s promises to be true (Isa 7:10). But the monarch insincerely mouths conventional piety in the saying in Isaiah 7:12. The prophet replies that such insincerity wearies both mortals and God. I understand Ahaz. I think if I had been Ahaz, I, too, would have played the card of political expediency rather than trust in God because I could see and measure the armies of those with whom I could enter into a typical political alliance. I cannot see the security that God offers in the same way.
Isaiah then declares that God will provide a sign to Ahaz, anyway. This act, of course, is one of pure grace. Ahaz deserves the opposite, but God offers the monarch the opportunity to take a way to safety (trust in God) that seems most unrealistic to the ruler. The sign is even more unpromising: a young woman who is already with child will bear a sign and call the child’s name “Immanuel.” This is everyday event: the birth and naming of a child in the context of covenantal community. How can this become a prophetic signal that God’s word can be trusted? And yet, this is just the point.
Isaiah asks Ahaz to recognize that the birth of the child is a sign that God’s processes are underway. The child will quickly mature to the point of being able “to refuse the evil and choose the good,” that is, the child will grow up. By that time, which is coming soon, the threat represented by the two smoldering stumps will have ended and curds and honey will become available (Isa 7:15-16). But, if Ahaz fails to “be quiet,” Assyria will sweep through the land placing it under great distress (Isa 7:17). Further, the Assyrians will make an alliance with Egypt (Isa 7:18) leaving the land devastated with many killed and few survivors (Isa 7:19-24).
Isaiah continues the theme of judgment at the hands of Judah’s enemies through Isaiah 8. Intermixed in the same chapter is the confidence that God will preserve a remnant.
But, beyond the judgment, the child will continue to mature into the time when the child can lead the community into the world described by Isaiah 9:1-7. As so often in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, God does not intend punishment as an end, but as a means to cleanse the land and prepare it for restoration. This is part of the umbrella of meaning that goes with the name Immanuel. God is with these processes, that is, God presides over these processes of transformation.
While I do not believe God has the absolute control over history that Isaiah assumes, there are important starting points here for preaching. As we have said in connection with other passages, contemporary parallels to the situation of the days of Ahaz and Isaiah are easy to find. Indeed, the current international economic and relative stability and peace is based on alliances that are often little more than convenience. This is true of groups within nations, and, indeed, within all kinds of groups, including within the church. This situation invites a sermon on the motif of trusting in God in the sense articulated above, that is, not abstractly have a vague feeling of trust, but actively working with others in the kind of community that provides for all so that the kind of intrigue and compromise represented by Ahaz is no longer seen as necessary or even expedient.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Psalm 80 is a community lament. The ancient communities used these psalms when something occurred in community life that caused grief and lamentation. Although they are called “laments,” these psalms begin with an address to God and include a statement of lament, a confession of trust in God in the midst of the lamentable circumstance, a petition for God to act, words of assurance that God will act, and a vow of praise.
The lament offers the preacher two immediate homiletical possibilities. First, the lament provides an excellent way for the community to voice grief and to place it in a theological context. Second, the very form of the lament can provide the outline for a sermon.
The community laments are natural texts from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings for Advent. They voice a longing for things to be made right. At the same time, the preacher needs to be careful not to set up a sharp dichotomy that focuses on the longing and pain in the world of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings and fulfillment through Chris. This kind of old/new, then/now, longing/fulfillment thinking only reinforces prejudice against the Torah, Prophets, and Writings and does not take adequate theological account of either God’s providence in that earlier literature or the “unfulfilled” nature of much of the Gospels and Letters.
The event(s) that called for the lament of Psalm 80 are not certain. However, Psalm 80:8-13 (not assigned for today) implies that the community violated covenant and prompted God to punish it. Psalm 80:12 suggests that an enemy nation may have been the actual instrument of punishment.
But the preacher could relate the feelings in the psalm to almost any congregation that finds itself in a situation of lamentation today. Indeed, as I write in November 2019, there is much to lament in the national life of the United States and in the lives of many nations.
The psalm addresses God as a shepherd. In using this figure of speech, the psalmist ascribes to God the many-faceted relationship of the shepherd for the sheep. Christians often focus on the tender, solicitous care of the shepherd for the sheep, but the work of the shepherd also involved the routine responsibility to find pasture and water, as well as fending off enemies and disciplining the sheep. All aspects of the figure apply to the relationship of God and the community
The address “Shepherd of Israel” implies that the community trusts God through all aspects of the relationship in the way that sheep trust the shepherd in the field.
The initial plea, “Stir up your might, and come to save us,” indicates that the speaker of the psalm believes that God has the power to save, that is, to reverse the situation that has prompted the lament. This theological theme is also behind 80:3, “Restore us o God; let our face shine that we may be saved” (Ps 80:3, 7, 19). I imagine few readers of this resource are in this particular theological corner with the psalm. While I do not think God has can simply “save us” in a singular dramatic way, I do think the awareness that God is with us in trouble, that God suffers with us, provides the kind of solidarity that enables many to make their way through such situations. Moreover, God is present in every situation offering the highest possibilities of love that are possible in the constraints of the situation at the moment.
Psalm 80:3-6 offers a significant possibility while coming with a significant theological issue. With respect to possibility, these verses offer feelings with which many in the congregation can identify: feeling the bread of tears, drinking tears in full measure, feeling the scorn of neighbors as enemies laugh among themselves. A preacher could help the congregation identify situations in life in which people feel these things and help the congregation not only name but consider the depth reach of such feelings in individual hearts and in congregation as community.
The theological issue, of course, is the direct way in which the psalm states that God is the source of these things. Indeed, God is angry with the prayers of the people, and the evidence seems to be the continuing presence of these negative circumstances in community. I refuse to believe that God is so angry with community prayers that God does not consider them, much less that God feeds people the bread of tears or gives them tears to drink in full measure. To be sure, people experience such things, but not because God causes them. We experience them for a variety reasons that all have to do with choices that people make or with the way in which elements of nature respond to one another.
The reading for the day concludes by asking God to place God’s hand upon the community. When that happens, the community will be faithful. The psalmist certainly does not have a simple quid pro quo in mind, but I would prefer for the psalm to have taken a slightly different theological tack here, and one suggested by process conceptuality. We do not wait for God to reach out. God is already present Indeed, God is ever faithful, doing all that God can do in every situation, which, itself, can prompt us to trust in God even in the midst of circumstances that are cause for lament. God gives us the kind of life that, even in the midst of forces that oppose life, we identify with God’s name and with what God is seeking to do for us and for all.
Ron Allen taught preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary from 1982 to 2019. Prior to that, he and his spouse, the Reverend Linda McKiernan-Allen, were co-ministers of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Grand Island, Nebraska. He loves leading Bible studies in congregations.
He has published more than 40 books, most recently: I Will Tell You the Mystery: A Commentary on Preaching from the Book of Revelation (2019). Three of his books are widely used in small group studies in congregations: A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Really Believe, Reading the New Testament for the First Time, and The Life of Jesus for Today. He was an editor for the pioneering Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Commentary on the Lectionary, which comments on every reading in the lectionary and introduces 22 new Holy Days for Justice (e.g. , Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Peace in the Home, Yom haShoa, Gifts of Sexuality and Gender, Sojourner Truth Day). With O. Wesley Allen, Jr., he urges thinking of preaching as conversation, as in Allen and Allen, The Sermon Without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching.
Allen and his spouse have five young adult children: Canaan, Genesis, Moriah, Barek, and Sabbath, as well as five grandchildren. He and his family spent summers teaching in Zambia and Jamaica. He has also traveled in Israel, India, South Korea, Belize, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Aruba, Canada, the countries surrounding the Baltic, as well as Mexico, Spain, the Canary Islands, Uruguay, Argentina, Greece, Italy, Croatia, and Antarctica.