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Advent 4, Cycle A

by Norman Beck

The comforting message of each of these texts selected for us for the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year is that God is present with us. The expectation level for this is very high. It is almost Christmas, but not quite. Something must be held in suspense in anticipation of Christmas.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
The plea for God to save the nation and people of Israel is eloquent, desperate but at the same time confident, in this group lament. We should consider using verses 8-16 also because of the vivid analogy in them of Israel being like a vine that God brought forth out of Egypt, planted it, and caused it to flourish. We have here a biblical fruit-bearing tree that in many ways as a predecessor of both the Christian Christmas tree and the Jewish Hanukkah symbol unites us as Christians and Jews.

Isaiah 7:10-16
The “God is with us” theme is explicit in this text as a bearer of the message of Isaiah in a specific historical situation in which the Judean king Ahaz was afraid of the combined power of Syria and of Ephraim. Instead of using a prosaic statement that within fifteen years Judah will no longer have to fear the military threat of Syria and of Ephraim because by that time Judah will have a much more serious problem (Assyria, the mighty empire that utterly destroys everything in its path), the writer used the illustration of a young woman conceiving, bearing, and rearing a child. The name to be given to the child, as is typical in the Israelite tradition, carries a message. The message is that even within this terrible impending situation “God will be with us.” Therefore, “Be strong! Be of good courage! Do not be afraid! Hang in there! God will be with us through it all!”

The historical situation of this Isaiah 7 text is unrepeatable, but the message is timeless. It is important that we understand the historical situation of the text so that we do not try to insist upon narrowing the application of the text to a single specific time later. The text should be applied to every time, so that in every crisis we may believe that God will be with us; certainly where we are this year just before Christmas in Series A.

Romans 1:1-7
Although it is implicit rather than explicit in this text, here also God is present with us, which is gospel for those who welcome God’s presence. In this text God is said to be present in Jesus Christ our Lord raised from the dead, the bearer of the grace of God for people of all nations, both for people from a Jewish background and for those who are not from a Jewish background.

Matthew 1:18-25
We should be aware that the beginning, origin, conception, and birth of Jesus were not matters of special attention within the letters of Paul that are accessible to us in the Newer Testament. For Paul, from what we have to read, Jesus had obviously been born to a woman within a Jewish culture (Galatians 4:4), born in the likeness of all people (Philippians 2:7), born as a human descendant of David (Romans 1:3), who for Paul became the Lord and Christ, God’s designated Son when God raised Jesus from the dead. The death on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus were of prime theological importance for Paul, not Jesus’ conception and birth as a human being. Within the Pauline literature it is only in the reaction to the speculations of gnosticizing Christians that we see in the Pauline Colossians 1:15-20 hymn attention given to Jesus’ unique origin. The Gospel According to Mark has nothing about Jesus’ conception and birth. By the time the Gospels According to Matthew and According to Luke were written, however, the beginning, origin, conception, and birth of Jesus had become matters of theological interest and reflection. In Matthew 1:18-5 and in Luke 2:1-20 we see the somewhat different ways in which the Matthean and the Lukan writers and traditions depicted Jesus’ unique background. The Matthean way of portraying the divine origin of Jesus was to develop and use a story about Joseph. The Lukan writer developed and used a story about Mary, a more fully developed literary drama about the Virgin Mary, a story more attractive than that of Matthew. Who of us can imagine Advent and Christmas cards and pageants based on the Matthew 1:18-25 account, except perhaps for the etymologies of the names “Jesus” and “Emmanuel” in 1:21 and 23?

In order that we may have a better grasp of this Matthew 1:18-25 text, let us employ a simple exegetical methodology with attention given to structure, genre, life situation, and meaning components.

1. Analysis of the external structure of Matthew 1:18-25 indicates that it is preceded by a genealogy rather artfully fashioned into three fourteen-part segments. The genealogy culminates surprisingly with Jesus’ human origin traced to Joseph, although Jesus’ human origin is then attributed to Mary. Matthew 1:18-25 is followed by other stories similar to 1:18-25 in that, in them also, the events included in the stories are said to have fulfilled that which had been spoken by various prophets. In terms of internal structure, Matthew 1:18a provides the introduction to the story with the words, “The genesis (beginning, birth) of Jesus Christ was like this.” Matthew 1:18b opens the story plot with a problem: Mary is pregnant, but Joseph, to whom she is committed by a binding betrothal, is not the person who has initiated her pregnancy. The hearer of the story is told that the pregnancy of Mary has been caused by the Holy Spirit of God. The cause of her pregnancy is still unknown at this point by Joseph. It is said that Joseph was a dikaios man (Greek), that is, a tsaddik man (Hebrew) who was trying to be faithful and just in all of his relationships. Even a tsaddik man did not always do what is right. No human being does. The point is that as a tsaddik man Joseph did not want Mary to be humiliated or killed. While Joseph ponders about what would be the just and righteous way to resolve this difficulty, an angel of the Lord provides a special revelation in a dream (1:19-20). The next verse supplies a more full resolution of the problem (1:21), along with an etymology of the name Jesus. Joseph’s obedience and the accomplishment of the angel’s instructions complete the story in 1:24-25. There remains 1:22-23, a somewhat extraneous intrusion into the story, a use of Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible to provide another, different name for the child, a name not used elsewhere within the Newer Testament.

2. The text is in a story genre, a narrative with considerable human interest. It is similar to other stories about the origin of a founder of a religion through a human mother and some type of divine action or manifestation. It is similar to the story of the origin of Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian religion, whose mother was said by his followers after his death to have been impregnated by the Spirit of Ahura Mazda that came over her. This Matthean account is closer to the Zoroastrian theological explanation of how Zoroaster came to be the Divine Son of Ahura Mazda than is the Lukan account in which the Holy Spirit of God is said to have come by means of the angel Gabriel, the chief angel in Daniel 8 and 9. The Matthew 1:18-25 account has much interest in etymologies, both of the name Jesus and of the name Emmanuel. The narrative in Matthew explains how a parthenos (a designation in Greek for a virgin woman) could become pregnant for a very special purpose, to bear the divine-human founder of a great new religion. To put it another way, the question of how Jesus could be both human and divine was answered by developing and using a virgin mother story, and the Septuagint translation of the Isaiah 7:14 text was used to provide a biblical basis for the story. The wife of Joseph and mother of Jesus and of his brothers and sisters (Mark 6:1-6a and Matthew 13:54-58) was thus “virginized” theologically. Theologians can do things like that.

3. The life situation in which this story was developed and told was the Matthean church, perhaps in Antioch, Syria, approximately 80-85 CE. For the members of the Matthean church the Risen Christ was perceived to be much more than a man. They expressed what they believed about Jesus as the Risen Christ, his origin and his nature, by using this storytelling method, employing a motif of conception caused by the Divine Spirit known in the Near East during this period. Therefore, the story would be accepted readily in that life situation as typical of the origin of a great religious leader. The Isaiah 7:14 text was utilized to provide the biblical proof text for authenticity, even though it brought a different name, Emmanuel, into the picture. As elsewhere in Matthew, the Israelite Scriptures were used to suit the purposes of the Matthean church, with little regard for the context from which the portion was lifted or interest in the original setting of the Israelite Scriptures text.

4. The meaning or purpose of the text is to indicate that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is the Son of God and the Son of man, God with us. The text provides what was considered in that life situation to be a rational explanation of how this occurred. It provided one explanation, with no intent to exclude other explanatory possibilities. The Lukan account provided a somewhat different story, an explanation in a more fully developed literary drama genre, with many more scenes of Mary and Joseph on the road, at the inn, in the feedlot with the animals, of shepherds in the fields, the appearance of angels, and the visit of the shepherds to see the baby.

This Matthew 1:18-25 narrative provides the same meaning and serves the same purpose for us as it did for the Matthean church. It helps us to express what we believe about Jesus and about God. It challenges us to tell stories also by which we express our faith, to prepare and to share sermons, messages from God about what we believe about the Risen Christ. Matthew 1:18-25 provides a biblical basis for us, a basis on which we can tell other people about Jesus our Risen Savior. It provides a biblical basis on which we can and should tell others about how God in the Risen Christ is with us and will be with us in our future. With these four texts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent we can tell others about how God in the Risen Christ is with us in our joys and in our sorrows. The message of next Sunday is that God is coming in new and surprising ways. The story includes an important element of suspense, of anticipation. It is a message that there is still more to come.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen