Sunday December 18 Advent 4
This Sunday's readings all speak of the presence of God that we may discern in the events of our daily lives.
The presence of God flows through history like a great current.
It is demonstrated in the existence of the Davidic monarchy, and it grows in strength and scope as the Bible witness unfolds through the centuries.
The prophet Isaiah is speaking, in chapter 7, to a devastating political situation.
In the divided kingdom, the Arameans and the Israelites had allied themselves and tried to force Ahaz, King of Judah to join them in an alliance against Assyria.
Instead, Ahaz had, against the advice of Isaiah, allied himself with Tiglath-pileser, the King of Assyria.
Ahaz had done what he thought to be the most prudent thing, but in doing so he had missed the deeper imperative of God.
In homage he made an enormous gift to Assyria, he had paid for by flogging off some of the bronze accoutrements of the Jerusalem temple. He had also installed an Assyrian altar in the temple. The resulting war threatened to destroy both kingdoms and the Davidic monarchy.
Isaiah arranged to meet Ahaz and challenged Ahaz to ask God for a sign.
Ahaz, knowing that God was unlikely to speak favourably of the actions he had taken, refused.
Isaiah’s reply was this passage, made so familiar to us because of its congruence with the Christmas story.
God’s sign is that a young woman (which young woman we do not now know, but the best guesses are that it was Ahaz’s wife) will conceive and bear a child. In other words, the threat to the kingdom was not permanent and the line of kings would continue in the person of someone who would bless and lead Judah and Israel in all the ways in which Ahaz had so spectacularly failed.
The passage points us to the locus of God’s activity, namely the real, messy world in which we find ourselves: hence the name of the new child, Emanuel, God with us.
It speaks of the ongoing stream of God’s presence flowing through Israel’s history: a stream Ahaz had tried in vain to ignore and to improve on with his foolish scheming.
This psalm speaks into situations like the one in which the Isaiah passage was spoken. The foolish schemes of people have been implemented and have wrought their inevitable consequence of misery and devastation. No matter how big a mess we have made of things, however, the purposes of God are not vanquished. Even at the point of hopeless destruction, the finding of that deep current of God’s presence can bring restoration and healing.
Our best guess is that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans from Ephesus in the year 57. Having settled some issues in the churches he founded in Galatia, Paul was anticipating a return to Jerusalem, and following that a trip to Spain, which was the traditional Tarshish, the end of the world.
On his way to Spain he needed to pass through Rome and he is writing to explain himself to the church which lay at the centre of the empire.
Paul uses the everyday First Century conventions of letter writing, so he begins with today’s passage which is the introductory paragraph containing the names of sender, the intended receiver and good wishes, followed by thanks for the relationship and a prayer. In the ordinary conventions of a letter, the great themes of Paul’s Gospel are outlined.
Paul identifies how the promises expressed in and fulfilled by the Davidic monarchy continue with Jesus Christ.
The validation God had given to the monarchy by its continued existence ( as exemplified in Isaiah 7:10-16) are now seen with greater clarity and power in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul makes clear that Jesus is, by all natural reckoning, the continuation of the ancient Davidic line. But that with the resurrection, God is strengthening the witness made by the inextinguishable monarchy, and demonstrating its power to save and heal beyond the people of Israel, to all the people of the world.
Matthew’s Gospel makes a conscious connection between the prophecy of Isaiah 7:10-16 and the birth of Jesus Christ.
After a genealogy which links Jesus to the major recipients of the promises of God (Abraham and David) and with four strong women who are all in some way marginalised, and which gives us the whakapapa of Mary and Joseph, Matthew takes time to outline the relationship of Jesus with Joseph.
( it is interesting to note that Matthew specifically says there are 14 generations between the exile and Jesus, though he only lists 13. One possible solution for this puzzle is that the Joseph of 1:16 is not Mary’s husband but her father, which would make Matthew’s genealogy that of Mary alone)
The text shows Joseph’s response to a situation which must have been, for him, devastating. His fiancée was pregnant and he knew he wasn’t the father.
His reaction, to end the engagement as discreetly as he can, shows a man of great integrity. He is able to look beyond his own sense of hurt and his rights under the law and see a deeper imperative: that of compassion for Mary and a wish to preserve her dignity.
Joseph soon learns that there is an ever deeper stream: that God is doing something profound with a reach and depth that will extend well beyond Joseph and his family.
He is told in a dream that something cosmic is being wrought within Mary’s body, and he, like Mary before him, is invited to give assent and play a role in that great task.
He is invited to set aside his own reputation and his own sense of hurt and to trust God who is acting against all the precepts of common sense. Joseph is, like Ahaz, invited to discern the deeper imperative, but unlike Ahaz, he sees it and he acts on it.
Joseph’s response is one of death and resurrection. He dies to his conventional wisdom and his own sense of betrayal, and he finds in its place a role in the new life which is being offered in Jesus to all the world.
His role is to be a supporter and protector of Mary as she undertakes her great task, a role which he fulfilled to the great blessing of us all.