4th Sunday of Advent

08 December 2016

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Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-8, 18-end; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-end

 

God our redeemer, who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son: grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour, so we may be ready to greet him when he comes again as our judge; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

ON THE final Sunday of Advent, the thematic scheme that has already considered patriarchs, prophets, and John the Baptist turns to last and most important forerunner of Jesus, his mother. Mary’s place is dramatically demonstrated in Luke’s Gospel, where she is visited by the angel, and gives her consent to the plan presented to her (Luke 1.26-38).

Sunday’s collect, which celebrates Mary as a willingly co-operative participant in the events that follow, leans strongly in a Lucan direction. Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus would not have helped a collect-writer to achieve the elegant turn from the Magnificat (“as she looked for his coming as our saviour”, Luke 1.46-55) to Christ’s return in judgement.

That is because Matthew awards the active part in the drama to Joseph. Mary’s untimely pregnancy is a catalyst, but it is Joseph who must react. He begins with the law, and ends by making a decision on the basis of a dream encounter with an angel.

Nothing in Matthew’s brief description of Joseph suggests that he was impetuous (Matthew 1.19). By marrying Mary, he signalled his belief that her son would be the Saviour promised over many generations. By naming the child, which was the right of the birth or adoptive father, he must have reasoned that the God who was asking him to do something with difficult consequences would be faithful and present as he fulfilled that calling (Matthew 1.20-21).

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It would be easy to imagine Joseph’s recollecting the prophecy of Isaiah 7.14, and applying it to his own circumstances. Matthew arguably dangles that temptation in front of the reader; but it is to the reader, and not to Joseph, that he directs his emphatic reminder that prophecy was being fulfilled, even as Joseph awoke from his dream (Matthew 1.22-24).

Isaiah’s words in this context resonate with hope and confidence. In their original setting, however, they speak into a precarious political scene, and point to restoration that will come only after hardship and humiliation. The prophet advises King Ahaz (c.744-728 BC), as he panics in the face of invasion by a coalition of neighbouring rulers.

Ahaz was not known for his obedience to the Lord, and his show of scrupulousness about asking for a sign of the Lord’s support in war does not deceive Isaiah. If Ahaz will not request a sign, then God will send one that no doubt made a great deal of sense in a culture that attached such importance to the symbolic meaning of names.

The “young woman’s” child, whose name signified the Lord’s renewed presence among his people, would also be a child of the devastation after military campaigns and alliances with the Assyrian king. Delightful as “curds and honey” might sound, this is the food of people inhabiting ravaged agricultural land, and trying to keep alive by maintaining a few dairy cows. It is all they have to eat, not a pleasant dessert after a good meal (Isaiah 7.14-15).

If Joseph reflected on the prophecy at all, he would have known its darker side from his own tradition. He would not have taken from it a guarantee of a protected future, and the remaining narrative of Jesus’s childhood, as Matthew gives it to us, mainly concerns danger and exile. What remains constant is Joseph’s obedience.

In two further dreams, he receives God’s instructions for the care of Mary and Jesus, and acts on them — surely a sign of a life lived in close and prayerful communication with God (Matthew 2.13, 19-20). We celebrate Mary as chosen and set apart by God on this Sunday. There are good reasons to celebrate Joseph as someone uniquely called as well.

Calling and purpose are powerful motifs, as Paul introduces himself to the Christian community in Rome, in preparation for the greeting that customarily begins his letters. Writing to people whom he has longed to visit, he treats his audience as specially called believers, like himself — not as inferiors to be lectured.

Daniel Patte describes his approach as pastoral rather than prophetic: the apostle chosen to carry the gospel is speaking to those “who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1.1, 6, “Three Types of Identity Formation for Paul as Servant of Christ Jesus in Romans” in Reading Paul in Context, edited by Kathy Ehrenspeger and J. Brian Tucker, T&T Clark, 2010).

How do they know that the gospel is truly God’s message about his Son? Paul offers the double assurance of flesh and spirit (Romans 1.3-4). From these two words, his message of hope unfolds to human beings, who are called to enjoy “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8.21).

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