Fourth Sunday of Advent

The last Sunday of Advent makes a transition from anticipation of God’s restoration to confidence that this restoration is actually under way. The first reading, from the book of Isaiah, presents the birth of an unnamed child as a sign that God will redeem Israel. While the prophecy is cast within its own historical period, later readers of Matthew’s Gospel found in it a picture of God’s deliverance that validated their own experience of Jesus. Although Psalm 80 is set in circumstances of national defeat, its tone of confidence suitably underscores Advent’s theme of patient expectation. Paul’s greeting to communities of believers identifies Jesus as son of David and sees in Jesus’ resurrection his appointment as the Son of God.

The First Reading
Isaiah 7:10-16
A Sign of Deliverance

In the first of today’s readings, the nation of Judah and its king, Ahaz, face a profound threat from two kings to their north, Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel. In the midst of the political crisis, Ahaz refuses to receive Isaiah’s word, perhaps in fear of its implications. Isaiah nevertheless declares that word, a sign of deliverance from the immediate threat. The promise is set within the span of time marked by a pregnancy and the newborn’s weaning. The fulfillment of that promised deliverance will confirm for the king and people what the child’s name declares, that “God is with us.” The Gospel according to Matthew, which serves as today’s Gospel reading, invokes the promise to suggest that Jesus’ birth accords with God’s faithful pattern of deliverance.

The Lord spoke again to Ahaz: “Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, be it as deep as Sheol or stretching high above.” But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask, so that I do not test the Lord.” 

So Isaiah said, “Listen, then, House of David: Is it not enough for you to exasperate people, that you exasperate my God, too? Therefore, my Lord indeed will give you a sign. Here—this young woman is pregnant and will give birth to a son. She will name him, ‘Immanuel.’ He will eat soft cheese and honey, even know how to reject evil and choose good; before the lad knows how to reject evil and choose good, the land that you loathe because of its two kings will be abandoned.”

The Psalm
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
A Lament over the Destruction of the Kingdom of Israel

The psalmist bemoans the Israelites’ loss sovereignty over their land, with special reference to the Northern Kingdom (including the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh), which was conquered by Assyria in 722 BCE. In the Psalms, the one at God’s right hand (see, e.g., Psalm 80:17; Psalm 110:1) is the Israelite king. Here the king is the Davidic messiah, whom God has assigned to restore Israelite sovereignty. In some Christian interpretations, verses such as those of Psalm 80:17 have been understood to refer to Jesus, whose use of “son of man” to refer to himself can resonate with a literal reading of the Hebrew idiom in the verse: “…on the son of man you made strong for yourself.” Routinely in biblical Hebrew and early Judaism, however, the term “son of man” means, simply, “a person.” Thus, as a psalm of Israel, this psalm pleads specifically for the renewal of the Kingdom of Israel.

  • To the conductor, according to “lilies,” a testimony of Asaph, an accompanied psalm.
  • 1. Shepherd of Israel—listen!—
    leading Joseph like a flock,
    astride the cherubim,
  •      unveil your splendor,
  • 2.          before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
  •      Awaken your might,
    and come as deliverance for us!
  • 3. God, restore us;
    shine your face towards us so that we shall be rescued!
  • 4. Lord, God of heavenly divisions, for how long will you remain angry at your people’s prayer?
  • 5. You have fed them the bread of weeping,
    and made them drink a full measure of tears.
  • 6. You have made us an object of reproach to our neighbors,
    and our enemies snicker to themselves.
  • 7. God of heavenly divisions, restore us;
    shine your face towards us so that we shall be rescued!

 

  • 17. Let your hand be on the one at your right hand,
    on the one you made strong for yourself.
  • 18. We shall not turn away from you;
    give us life so we might call upon your name.
  • 19. Lord, God of heavenly divisions, restore us;
    shine your face towards us so that we shall be rescued!

The Second Reading
Romans 1:1-7
God’s Victory Proclamation of the Anointed Lord Jesus

Paul begins his letter to the Romans with a lengthy and unusual salutation. Having not yet visited Rome, he introduces himself and asserts his authority as a called Apostle. This assertion establishes his right to address the Roman believers and to communicate God’s victory proclamation—the gospel concerning Jesus. This salutation includes an early creedal confession, which originated in a Jesus-believing Jewish community. Paul emphasizes the scriptural grounding of Jesus’ identity, as one descended from David and announced by the prophets. He then adapts the creed with his own additions in order to articulate his particular view of God’s proclamation concerning Jesus as the appointed Son of God, which is itself an echo of the combined sonship and kingship language found in the Psalms, e.g., in Psalm 2. Paul extends grace and peace to the believers from both Jesus the Anointed and God, whom he calls “father,” invoking the father’s particular role within the Roman household.

Paul, called Apostle, a servant of Jesus the Anointed, having been set apart for God’s victory proclamation, which God announced beforehand through the prophets in the holy Scriptures concerning God’s Son, who was:
          born David’s descendant according to the flesh,
          appointed Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness—
                    through resurrection of the dead.
          This is the Anointed Jesus, our Lord,
through whom we have received grace and apostleship to accomplish faithful obedience on behalf of God’s name among all the nations; among those you too are called to belong to Jesus the Anointed. 

To all of God’s beloved who are in Rome, called and holy: Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Anointed Lord Jesus. 

The Gospel
Matthew 1:18-25
The Birth of Jesus

In recounting Jesus’ birth, the Gospel according to  Matthew characteristically refers to texts from Israel’s Bible. The Gospel, thereby, describes the birth in accord with expectations about God’s faithful deliverance that the prophet Isaiah has portrayed. Isaiah’s prophecy, quoted in this reading from the Greek version rather than the Hebrew, used the birth of a child to a young woman to assure Israel in perilous times that “God is with us.” As the Gospel applies the prophecy to Mary’s pregnancy, it assures Matthew’s community again that “God is with us.” An angel also directs Joseph to name the child “Jesus,” which means that God “shall save.”

The Anointed Jesus’ birth happened in this way: when his mother, Mary, was promised in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be pregnant by divine action. Her husband, Joseph, who was decent and did not wish to disgrace her, considered releasing her from the marriage privately. But as he pondered what to do, look: the Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, because what is conceived in her is from divine action. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, since he will save his people from their sins.” All this happened in order to accord with what was said by the Lord through the prophet who said, “Look: the young woman will become pregnant and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel (which is, translated, ‘God is with us’).” Joseph was raised from sleep and did as the Lord’s messenger directed him: he took his wife and did not know her until she bore a son. And he named him “Jesus.”

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