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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year A
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7,17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman ( of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year A

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 lay persons 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.  

copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.

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