Year A - Fourth Sunday of Advent


ISAIAH 7:10‑16.  This is another of the many Old Testament prophecies interpreted by the church as predictions of the Messiah. Originally, it was no more than a promise to Ahaz, the King of Judah in the late 7th century BC, that God would deliver his kingdom from imminent danger of invasion.


Matthew 1:22‑23 gave the early Christian church the popular interpretation that the sign of a young woman bearing a son to be named Immanuel was a specific reference to the birth of Jesus.


PSALM 80:1‑7, 17‑19.     The psalm pleads to God as the Shepherd of Israel for help in a disastrous situation, yet also expresses a confident faith. The repeated use of a refrain: "Restore us, O God ..." indicates that it was used in community worship.


ROMANS 1:1‑7.   Paul's commission as an apostle and his authority to write this letter rests on this typical summary of what Christians believe.  Because he had never met this congregation, he found it necessary to state his credentials in the opening address. Note too that Paul had adopted the early Christian interpretation that the Hebrew scriptures prophesied the coming of the Messiah. It is probable that the Christians in Rome would immediately recognize this common confession of the faith.


MATTHEW 1:18‑25.   The two narratives of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke do not agree in any detail. Matthew tells the story as if from Joseph's point of view.  The preceding genealogy attempts to prove that Jesus was descended from Abraham and David. Joseph's dream declares that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The author of the gospel inserted the quotation from Isaiah 7:14 to prove that Jesus' birth fulfilled God's promise of a Messiah.


In the previous passage in Romans 1:3‑4, Paul appears to state a different view that Jesus was born as an ordinary human person, not miraculously conceived by the Spirit. Thus the idea of the virgin birth may have been developed later than the middle of the lst century when Paul wrote his letters.


The essential message of the story is that God was very much involved in the birth of this child.





ISAIAH 7:10‑16.  In the rush to justify or counter this passage as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus, we more often than not ignore the historical situation behind it. These are well attested in 2 Kings 16, 2 Chronicles 28, and in the annals of the Assyrian king Tiglathpileser. The year was 734 BCE. Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel had planned to invade the southern kingdom of Judah and lay siege to Jerusalem during the reign of Ahaz, the king of Judah and direct descendant of King David. Isaiah had encouraged Ahaz to resist, but had failed. Instead, Ahaz emptied his own and the temple treasuries paying tribute to the Assyrians and introduced Assyrian worship into the temple. Tiglathpileser subsequently crushed the rebellious provinces on his western boundaries, including the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but spared Judah.             


The events of this passage occurred a little later than the first meeting of Ahaz and Isaiah described in vss. 3-9. The scene probably took place in the king’s council chamber where the prophet again addressed the monarch terrified at the threatened invasion. (vss.5-6) Isaiah pleaded with Ahaz to ask Yahweh for a sign, but the king refused to put Yahweh “to the test.” The sign would likely have been some event which would prove that Yahweh had indeed spoken through the prophet.


His plea rejected, the prophet uttered this oracle (vv.13-17) warning Ahaz that before a child to be named Immanuel (“God is with us”) soon to be borne to a young woman had reached marriageable age, Israel and Damascus would be defeated and Judah would suffer its worst disaster since the division of the northern and southern kingdoms after the death of Solomon nearly two hundred years earlier (circa 920 BCE).


The Christian dogma of the virgin birth of Jesus rests on a mistranslation of the Hebrew in the Septuagint (LXX). The Hebrew word ‘almah’ could only be correctly translated by the Greek ‘neanis’. Both mean a young woman of marriageable age, not a virgin. The translators of the LXX mistakenly used ‘parthenos,’  the correct Greek word for ‘virgin.’ If Isaiah had that idea in mind, however, he would have used the Hebrew ‘bethulah.’ In this instance, the woman referred to may have been the recently betrothed young wife of either the prophet or the king, but well-known to both.


The quotation of this verse Matthew 1:23 presents a typical example of how the early church found in the LXX, the only Bible they knew, a confirmation of their messianic expectations fulfilled by the birth of Jesus. It is most unlikely that a child born to Mary of Nazareth eight centuries after the events described above would have served as a sign to Ahaz. One must admit nonetheless that many sincere Christians, both laypersons and scholars, still cling to the virginal conception of Jesus because of a literal interpretation of the English and Greek text.


For some Christians, belief in the virgin birth is critical to their faith; for others it is unnecessary and a serious impediment to a mature faith. Those who discount the traditional doctrine adopt the point of view that the stories of the virgin birth do represent a strong conviction that God was very much involved in the birth of Jesus. In several of his letters Paul also affirmed that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” (2 Cor. 5:19 KJV; cf. Col. 2:9) but said only that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4) and “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). The issue of how Jesus’ birth may have occurred was either a matter of ignorance or no concern to him.



PSALM 80:1‑7, 17‑19.   This community lament with its congregational refrain (vss. 3,7,19) may have been used at a time when the nation was in dire straights, yet the faithful still put their trust in Yahweh. Although the specific occasion of its composition remains unknown, the period cited above in Isaiah 7 is not impossible. The reference to Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh in vs. 2 would favor the 8th century because these were tribes of the northern kingdom which disappeared in 705 BCE.


The psalmist prays that God will turn from anger and save the nation based upon the understanding that Israel's existence is Yahweh's work, and because of that, Yahweh will not abandon them.  The term “Shepherd of Israel” appears nowhere else in the OT except possibly in Gen. 49:24, but the idea is quite familiar (cf. Ps.23:1; Isa. 40:11; Ezek. 34:17). 


The phrase “let your face shine” recalls the “shekinah” (“glory”) or shining presence of Yahweh in the cloud and pillar of fire in the wilderness, in the tabernacle and the temple. It also appears in the blessing given to Aaron to recite to the assembled people in Numbers 6:24-26. A shining face communicated pleasure and favor, particularly that of a royal person. One can quickly make the connection to nativity story of Luke where “the glory of the Lord” shone upon the shepherds of Bethlehem.



ROMANS 1:1‑7.   As is so common in his letters composed in Greek, Paul put a great deal into a single convoluted sentence. This sentence serves several purposes: as the apostle's introduction to the Roman congregation whom he had never met; as a summary of his mission to the Gentiles; and as his testimony of who Jesus is and his role in the salvation history of the people of God. The last intent takes precedence over the other two. It is also possible that Paul was quoting a contemporary confession of faith which would have been familiar to the Roman Christians.


Jesus is the Messiah/Christ promised by the prophets of the OT whose writings Paul had studied thoroughly under Rabbi Gamaliel.  Jesus is also the Son of God, a title common in the OT in referring to the monarch (Ps.2:7) and adapted for christological use in the early preaching of the apostolic church as well as in the gospels .


There is an interesting juxtaposing of the birth and the resurrection of Jesus in this christological formula. He is “descended from David according to the flesh,” thus qualifying as the expected Messiah of David’s line. This follows the genealogies of both Matthew (1:6) and Luke (3:31) though the two differ as to which son of David had been Jesus’ direct ancestor, Solomon or Nathan. Jesus is also declared to be the “Son of God,” not because he had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, but because he had been raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit.


Note too the sequencing of Paul’s apostolic commission: grace brought about his apostleship which charged him to bring others to obedience to the faith. His vocation and ours spring from the gracious gift of the Spirit of God, discerned by the Christian community, not according to human qualities of character and ability required for professional recruitment.



MATTHEW 1:18‑25.      The familiar stories of Jesus’ birth read more like rabbinical midrashim than poetry. A midrash was a story told by the rabbis to explain the meaning of scripture but without the abstractions of later theological terminology. The fact that Matthew quoted the LXX three times in his birth narratives indicates that he may well have had this literary form in mind as he began his very Jewish gospel.


When Matthew wrote in the 80s CE for second generation Christians, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah had been expelled from the synagogues by the dominant Pharisees. The hostility between Jews and Christians so clearly expressed in Acts and the Pauline corpus had reached into every community where Jewish synagogues existed. As well as confessing the Christian faith in Jesus as Messiah, Matthew may well have had a secondary purpose in telling his story: to counter the defamatory rumor that Jesus’ had been conceived out of wedlock. In a much simpler way than Luke, Matthew described the spiritual conception of Mary’s child (vs.20).


The story also portrays Joseph as a devout and sensitive man. His decision to divorce Mary had sincere intent, but it also gives force to the controversy concerning the nature of Mary conception. Joseph believed that she had conceived in an inappropriate relationship. The dream sequence in vss.20-21 and 24-25 is a typical Hebrew literary device to describe divine intervention preventing Joseph from carrying out his plan contrary to the purposes of God.


Behind Matthew’s narrative is the LXX version of Isaiah 7:14. As the creator of this midrash he states his interpretative purpose unequivocally in vs. 22.  

Many will protest this deconstructionist attitude toward the mystery of the Incarnation and reject it as Enlightenment Age demythologizing. Even if one accepts the birth narratives as they appear on the page, one cannot escape the need to understand why Matthew and Luke alone felt it necessary to inscribe them at the beginning of their gospels.


Writing perhaps twenty years earlier, Mark apparently did not know anything about the birth of Jesus or did not need to say anything to confess Jesus’ humanity. At he end of his story in which he maintained a secretive attitude toward Jesus’ messiahship, he used the confession of the centurion overseeing the crucifixion to declare Jesus’ divinity (Mark 15:39). A decade or so after Matthew wrote, John used the Hellenistic motif of the embodied Word (Greek = logos), a concept adapted from Stoic philosophy and Philo, the Jew of Alexandria, to express the same faith that Jesus was both human and divine. Matthew preferred the narrative style of the imaginative midrash to express the true, spiritual nature of our transcendent God’s intervention in human history in the person of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, this unique man from Nazareth.