Reading Ramblings – December 18, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 18, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Context: The final Sunday of Advent, the final week of preparation for Christmas, the final week of emphasizing our continual posture of waiting and anticipation for the return of our Lord. The readings bring to a fevered pitch the emphasis on our Lord’s nearness, first 2000 years ago and still today. We may be sure of his return, because God fulfilled his prophetic promises to send his anointed one the first time.

Isaiah 7:10-17 – Isaiah is mainly thought of in terms of his prophetic utterances, but his writings also include historical narrative as well. Here we have his appearance to the King of Judah, Ahaz. His kingdom is threatened by the northern kingdom of Israel in alliance with Syria. Judah is much smaller, and this threat seems certain to spell the destruction of Judea. God sends Isaiah to reassure King Ahaz. Towards this end, Ahaz is offered a sign from God, a sign of his choosing. Ahaz is no faithful follower of God, however. His words sound demure and faithful, but he is rejecting an overt offer from God through God’s prophet. And Ahaz has an ulterior motive – he already has a plan to deal with the threat of Syria and Israel. He plans to pledge fealty to the King of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III.

God is not fooled, and denounces Ahaz’ false piety. Ahaz will live to see his enemies destroyed by Assyria. But the reprieve will be short-lived, because the danger of Assyria will fall also on Judah (v. 17), so that the friend Ahaz seeks to buy will turn out to be an enemy. But in this prophesy we see a foreshadowing of Jesus. Truly, before Jesus is a toddler – before Jesus is even born! – the threat of Israel and Syria will be long gone. Assyria will have risen and fallen, along with Babylon and Persia and the Greeks. God will have delivered Judah and then sent her into exile and brought her back, all as part of ultimately bringing his Son, Immanuel into her midst.

Psalm 24 – This three-part psalm has long liturgical association with both the season of Advent and with Jesus’ ascension. The first part of the psalm (vs. 1-2) depicts God as the conqueror through his creative energies. He imposed order on chaos, bringing something out of nothing. He maintains this power and control, even incorporating elements of chaos (for the Ancient Near East, rivers and large bodies of water) into his creation. The second part of the psalm deals with God’s people. His people are his first and foremost because He created them, but secondarily because of their praise of the one, true God, creator of heaven and earth – as opposed to worshiping false gods (v.4). This section describes the ideal subject/creation of God in faithfulness and righteousness. The final section (vs. 7-10) describe the entrance into glory of the King of Glory – a term used nowhere else in the Old Testament. It is the victorious God, victorious in creation, that enters into glory. He is the Lord of Hosts – a technical title for God on his throne, surrounded by hosts of his creations who praise him and seek his will. Some scholars think this psalm was used when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the Temple courts on special occasions. It emphasizes the divine right of kingship our God possesses as the creator and orderer of all things and peoples.

Romans 1:1-7 – Paul introduces himself to his Roman hearers/readers, many of whom have not met him personally before, though many of whom have (see Romans 16!). Paul is a brother in Christ to his hearers as a servant, but he also has a special work he was set apart for, the work of an apostle. He has been set aside as a messenger of good news – God’s good news in Jesus Christ. This isn’t new good news, or different good news. It’s the same good news God has been speaking throughout the Old Testament. Good news about a man who would come who would perfectly serve God. A real and true man, literally a descendant of David with a human genealogy, but also the divine, as evidenced by his holiness and his resurrection from the dead. This good news is a person – Jesus the Christ, who has evidenced his role as Lord and the means of God’s grace to all believers, and to Paul specifically in his role as apostle. God’s intent in his specific grace to Paul is that others would come to faith, for the glory of God in all of this. Paul’s readers and hearers – 2000 years ago and today – have been included in this grand project already as they have received faith through God the Holy Spirit. They are called to be saints and are already saints through Jesus Christ, just as you and I are through faith. We have received grace and peace from God the Father, by God the Son, through the work of God the Holy Spirit!

Matthew 1:18-25 – Having given us the genealogy of Jesus back to Abraham in broad brushstrokes, Matthew now gives us specific details about Jesus’ parents. Matthew is unique in providing some insight and perspective into Joseph, Jesus’ non-biological father. Matthew speaks of the reality of the relationship between Mary and Joseph. They are pledged to be married, which means they are effectively, but not intimately, husband and wife. It is a relationship not simply decided on a whim by two young people as it might be in the USA today, but rather worked out through their families. It is a real relationship with a real progression.

But Mary’s pregnancy is one of the few things that could bring that progression to a halt. Joseph has very real legal options available to him once he knows Mary is pregnant and that he can’t possibly be the father. So it is necessary for an angelic visitation, a divine revelation to calm Joseph’s heart and mind and steel him for what might be difficult days ahead. Though he knows he is not the father, everyone else will assume that he is, and he has to bear the stigma of consummating the marriage too soon, or risk exposing Mary to the risk of being accused of adultery. Joseph has to deal with a lot, just as Mary does, and based on his faith and trust in his dream vision, Joseph shoulders that burden. He too must wait to see if his faith has been well-placed.

Waiting is hard and implies suffering by it’s very nature. We may well miss what the Lord is doing in our lives, preferring our own plans and arrangements like Ahaz. Yet there is forgiveness in Christ for this, and God continues his plans despite our weakness, and frankly, because of it. Waiting in faith implies that we might suffer for our trust. We might miss opportunities we would otherwise take. We might be called upon to hold a course of action that looks ruinous from other perspectives, or suffer shame that is not, in truth, shame at all.

But our faith and trust in Jesus Christ are well-placed. The testimonies of his identity and purpose – his fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy, his mighty acts of power over evil, nature, and sickness and disease, even death itself, and his own dramatic resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven assure us that our faith is not blind. We have very good reasons for our faith and for enduring whatever is necessary to cling to that promise in Christ that we are forgiven, we are made whole, and that we do have much, much more to look forward to! Come Lord Jesus, Come!

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