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Advent 4, Cycle A

The difference the coming baby makes. The texts prod consideration of new behaviors and attitudes that having Christ in our lives provides. New insights are gained about Jesus, the virgin birth [Christology], Justification, and Sanctification.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

This Psalm is a group lament in prayer for deliverance from national enemies. Reference is made to this being a Psalm of Asaph, who was one of David’s chief musicians (1 Chronicles 6:39; 15:17; 16:5-7). Although it is unlikely, the tradition has been that either this well-known musician composed it or the guild of singers associated with him did.

Ruling out the likelihood of Asaph’s authorship is that the tribes of Israel mentioned in the Psalm (Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh) suggest that the song may have developed in the Northern Kingdom of Israel after its secession from the Davidic line of kings in 922 BC, and perhaps after being conquered by Syria 200 years later. Reference made to a nation’s shepherd was often associated in the minds of the people of the ancient Near East with kings and rulers (Jeremiah 23:1-6). Of course, Yahweh was also identified as a shepherd (Psalm 23), and Christ is the good shepherd (John 10:11). The fact that this shepherd is said to be upon the cherubim (winged guardians of sacred areas) (v. 1) suggests that the reference here to the shepherd can also be construed as referring to God or Christ. The shepherd is exhorted to come and save the people (vv. 2-3). After a lament (vv. 4-6), a song refrain pleading for restoration follows (v. 7), completing the Psalm later (v. 19). A reference to God laying his hand on the one at his right (v. 17) may be a personification of Israel, but the text could also be read messianically. The Psalmist pledges that when this transpires the people will never turn away from Yahweh Elohim (vv. 18-19).

Application: The Psalm provides opportunity to bewail, condemn, or analyze our contemporary situation (Sin), noting that only God in Christ can deliver us (Christology and Atonement). Another possibility might be to take an occasion to praise God for saving us (Justification by Grace), using such praise as an occasion to note how having been saved with such love we can never turn away (Sanctification) and relating these themes to the coming Christmas.

Isaiah 7:10-16

Located in the context of a book that is an editorial compilation of two or three distinct historical strands of prophecy, we consider in this text what is likely a genuine prophecy of the historical Isaiah, an eighth-century BC prophet to Judah (the Southern Kingdom). This text emerges in the context of Judah’s Syro-Ephraimite War (734-733 BC) (v. 2). The Jewish King Ahaz is addressed by Yahweh (as mediated by Isaiah) in the midst of turmoil and concern about the future. He commands the king to ask for a sign to verify the earlier prophecy of the demise of Ephraim (one of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel now aligned with Syria) (vv. 9-10). In a pious-sounding response (perhaps not the reality), Ahaz refuses to test the Lord (v. 12). Isaiah responds by challenging him, suggesting that Ahaz does not trust the Lord (v. 13). The prophet proceeds to proclaim that the sign is that a young woman (almah in Hebrew, though its Greek equivalent parthenos might be translated “virgin”) would bear Immanuel (God with us). This offspring is prophesied to eat curds and honey (choice foods for the newly weaned, but hard to obtain in a city like Jerusalem at this time under siege) (vv. 14-15). The prophet adds that even before the child gains the ability to discern good and evil (is weaned) Judah will be liberated (v. 16). This last point indicates the failure of Jesus to fulfill the prophecy, as Judah remained under Roman bondage throughout his life. But it could also be taken as testimony to the fact that even as an infant his incarnation saved us.

Application: The text affords an opportunity either to explore the prophetic roots of the virgin birth or God’s overflowing kindness in sending Christ to save us (Christology and Justification by Grace).

Romans 1:1-7

The opening verses of Paul’s self-introduction to the church in Rome were probably written between 54 and 58 AD. The great evangelist introduces himself as a servant of Christ, called to be an apostle of the gospel concerning Christ who was promised through the Hebraic prophets, descended from David, and declared Son of God according to the Holy Spirit by his resurrection (vv. 1-4). Through Christ, it is asserted, we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles, including Roman recipients of the letter (vv. 5-6). (Obedience [hupakoe] in faith is not to be understood as a work we do, but literally connotes a submissiveness to God, which is the essence of faith or trust [pistis].) Greetings to the church are offered at the end of the salutation. Recipients in Rome are referred to as saints. References to peace and grace in the greeting were common Greek and Hebraic greetings (v. 7).

Application: Several possible sermon themes emerge from the text. In keeping with the theme of the upcoming virgin birth, one could use the reference to Christ being designated Son of God by his resurrection to note that the virgin birth does not make Christ Son of God, and that Christmas must be understood in light of Easter (Christology and Atonement). The nature of faith as submissiveness to God (Sanctification) is another possible sermon theme.

Matthew 1:18-25

This account of Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s reaction to it has no parallels in the other gospels, just as the Matthean author’s attempt in the preceding verses to link Jesus to David through Abraham and highlight his Hebraic-Davidic roots (vv. 1-17) is unprecedented. This agenda is of course in line with the gospel’s attempt to make clear that Jesus is the messianic fulfillment of the Torah in order to strengthen Jewish Christians in Antioch who are no longer in full communion with Judaism.

In purporting to describe Jesus the Messiah’s birth, the author first notes that Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before living together she found she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit (v. 18). Her fiancé Joseph is described as righteous, addressed by an angel as a son of David. Originally planning to dismiss his apparently promiscuous fiancé quietly when her pregnancy was revealed, Joseph changes his mind after an angel reveals to him in a dream that the child was of the Holy Spirit (vv. 19-20). The angel also reveals to Joseph that the son Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua, meaning “He saves”) would save people from their sins. This would be in fulfillment of the prophetic utterance of Isaiah 7:14 regarding the virgin conceiving a son called Emmanuel, that is, “God with us” (vv. 21-23; see the discussion above regarding the Isaiah text). It is reported finally that Joseph did as the angel commended and took Mary as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she bore Jesus (vv. 24-25).

Application: The text provides occasion to offer parishioners an appreciation of the early church’s insights that the reason for the virgin birth is to make clear that Jesus had a human mother and so is fully human. His humanity (Christology) may be elaborated into reflections on how amazing it is that God finds our human nature good and beautiful enough to make his own. Another possibility is to proclaim Justification by Grace on the basis of the Savior’s names — “God with us” and “He saves.”

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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