Reading Ramblings – December 22, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 22, 2019

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

Context: The final Sunday of Advent and the Christmas story begins to emerge in earnest. The Old Testament reading from Isaiah is the context understanding the virgin birth of Jesus – in both cases an unlikely event precedes the rescue of God’s people. The psalm calls us to prepare for the king’s entry, while Paul writing to the Roman Christians emphasizes the continuing work of Jesus as King in commissioning his ministers and evangelists. Matthew details Joseph’s preparation and call to obedience in continuing his engagement and marriage to Mary despite her pregnancy. God is with us, true uniquely in the incarnation of the Son of God, and true to God in the abiding presence of our Lord through his Holy Spirit!

Isaiah 7:10-17 – The news is bad – the northern kingdom of Israel has allied with Syria to fight against Judah in order to force Judah into an alliance against Assyria, the empire growing in dominance to the east and north. However Judah has already made a treaty with Assyria, recognizing the futility of trying to fight against Assyria. But she faces the very real and present threat of a combined Israel and Syria here and now, a coalition which could be disastrous against the much smaller Judah. What is to be done? King Ahaz of Judah counts on Assyria to protect Judah. But God sends Isaiah with another message to King Ahaz, a message of reassurance. God protects his people, and Israel and Syria will not succeed in their efforts against Judah. God offers King Ahaz the rare option to request a sign from God to give him greater confidence. In false humility Ahaz declines, but God will not be thwarted. He gives a sign of a virgin giving birth. Some think this refers to a young woman present in the group Isaiah is speaking with. Perhaps a wife or consort of the king, or a well-known young woman of marriageable age. If the sign is to be of value to Ahaz, it must be demonstrably, measurably true. It can’t simply be a promise of Jesus’ birth 700 some years later. Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, sees this however as also prophetic of the Son of God’s birth, a connection earlier Jewish scholars and rabbis did not make.

Psalm 24 – This psalm deals with the kingship of God. It begins with an assertion in vs.1-2 that God’s sovereignty is grounded in his unique and absolute role as creator. God rules because God created. By definition then, any other claims to ownership are false. Verses 3-6 deal with the confessing congregation. Verse 3 questions who has the right to stand in the presence of God the Creator and absolute sovereign. Verse 4 answers the question – only the righteous may do so. Verse 5 is a promise of God’s blessing to and on such a person, and verse 6 is an affirmation of this blessedness. God’s people are always to strive for cleanness of hands and pureness of heart, but our confidence lies not in our imperfect efforts but the perfect obedience of the Son of God conveyed to us through our faith in his atoning death and resurrection on our behalf. The final four verses of the psalm form an entrance liturgy, a call and response exchange identifying the king of glory. The king seeks ceremonial entrance to his people, and is identified by his strength and power. As the sole creator and therefore the only and ultimate king, no other power or rival can stand against him and his victory is demonstrative of his identity. The people of God are to take comfort and courage from our God’s strength and dominion!

Romans 1:1-7 – Paul introduces himself to the community of Christians in Rome, some of whom he knows from other settings, and all of whom he hopes to meet when he arrives in Rome to have his case heard by the emperor (Acts 25). As such he sends this letter as a means of introduction that they might better know him and what he preaches. Every word in this introduction is laden with meaning we easily overlook! To summarize, Paul both identifies with the Roman Christians (as a servant of Christ) but also as one with apostolic authority. That authority is directed towards sharing the gospel which belongs to God, and which God himself promised and disclosed beforehand through the prophets and their words that foreshadowed and prophesied Jesus and his work and ministry. It is this Jesus that gives Paul his authority, authority Jesus derives from his dual identity as a descendant of David as well as his divine nature as the Son of God. Paul, furthermore, is directed in his apostolic work to speak the gospel to those beyond and outside God’s chosen people the Hebrews. An introduction that says immense amounts in very sparse terms, and which foreshadows Paul’s great theme in Romans of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25 – Joseph is in an awkward position. To marry a woman suspected of infidelity would be a dark blot on his good name. He could ask for her to be punished, which at one point in time would have meant death for her (Leviticus 20:10) as well as her paramour if he could be identified. Under Roman occupation she likely could not have been given a death sentence even if that practice was still expected by the Jews. Given the turn of events in John 8, it is likely more a matter of public humiliation and shame rather than execution. And Joseph wanted to spare her even that. But in what might be one of the most compelling dreams in all of recorded human history, Joseph is assured by a messenger from God to go ahead with the plans to finalize his marriage to Mary. Part of this is via an unlikely passage in Isaiah 7, a passage that no Jewish authority apparently ever viewed as relevant to the Messiah prior to Matthew’s gospel. But it is given to Joseph as evidence Mary’s situation is not a matter of lust but rather prophetic, divine action.

Joseph, convinced the message was real, responds in obedience. He goes through with the marriage but refrains from consummating it until after Jesus is born. Joseph takes on the responsibility of earthly father to the Son of God, providing for Mary and Jesus and their other children. He disappears from the Biblical narrative very soon after Jesus’ birth and childhood in Luke 2. While there are many apocryphal stories elaborating what happened to Joseph beyond what Scripture mentions, there is no way to corroborate them. Despite assertions of a long life by the apocryphal document The Story of Joseph the Carpinter as well as be St. Epiphanius in the 4th century, and despite claims by the Venerable Bede writing in the 7th century that Joseph was buried in the Valley of Jehosophat, it is far more likely he died prior to Jesus’ public ministry (less than 30 years after Jesus’ birth) and was buried in Nazareth.

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