Readings Advent 4 (Year A)
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
The readings for this Sunday in Advent, particularly the passages from Isaiah and Matthew need to be read in the wider context. The full force of the connections aren't fully obvious. Terms like Emmanuel, God with Us, are hard to read through the lenses that we have inherited from the experence of Christendom in which monarchy came to be equated with arbitrary power. what we need to anticipate and open ourselves to is that in this week in Advent our expectations will be turned upside down.
Walter Brueggeman, the Old Testament traces this turning of our expectations upside down in his compact reflection on the readings for this Sunday.
The two central texts, the gospel narrative of Matthew and the Isaiah text to which Matthew alludes, speak about the biology of this evangelical event. The biology does not leave much to argue about. Let us say simply and at the outset, "Yes, born of a virgin." And we say that in the innocence of Christmas without quibbling over translation problems of which something likely could be made. We simply follow the creedal way of the church and leave these niceties undisturbed.
But the biological event does not stand as a bald medical claim. In the context of Isaiah 7:10-15, the birth of the unnamed child points us to two other considerations.
First, the child is given to King Ahaz as a notice that the present world should not be feared, trusted, or credited. The virgin birth is a sign that the known world, the one we treasure, is not permanent. It is in jeopardy, under assault by the power of God, and it will soon be terminated.
The scholarly inclination is that the years before the "knowing good and evil" are to be reckoned at two years. That is how long it takes a child to learn. So this odd birth is a time bomb. In two years, O king, the landscape of the human world will have completely changed. It is not to be treasured or relied upon.
The season of Advent invites us to imagine what in the landscape of this world will change in two years because God is God. What threats will dissipate? What evil will be overcome? What chances for obedience will be take—or missed? And if we take Isaiah 7:17 seriously, under what threats will we be in two years?
The whole passage reminds us that the present world is not locked into a safe or predictable mode. It is open and on the move, precisely because Yahweh is Lord. We must not be so fascinated with the biological as to miss the news that is here, good and bad.
Second, the name of the child, like so many names, is an anticipation: Immanuel—God with us! That is the evangelical claim of the biological event. Immanuel could be royal propaganda, a throne name. Or it could mean the most important new reality ever made available in creation.
The God who has been far off draws close. The one who is enemy and judge becomes comrade and friend. The calculus of heaven and earth is changed, and earth becomes the place of God's governing presence. This is cause for celebration.
In the epistle lesson, Paul begins with reference to the same gospel (Romans 1:1). It is far from clear that Paul knows anything about virgin birth. If he does, he makes nothing of it. But he does know about and makes a great deal of the odd reality of Jesus. He uses a barrage of titular terms to try to express it. What all the listing of names and the celebration of Jesus yields for Paul is a call to be set apart for the gospel, a call to obedience and apostleship (verses 1,5).
Advent and the birth are not events that happen and just sit there. They are events with futures. They open new lives and establish fresh vocations. They call baptized folks to live lives as odd, abrasive, and unacceptable to reason as any biological miracles. A World on the MoveYes, the world is not safe or predictable, as we have had reason to be reminded this week with the shipwreck and drowning of refugees within sight of, note the irony of the title of the geographic feature, Christmas Island.
The passage from Isaiah comes at a time of empires clashing, people being uprooted and dispersed. The promise recorded in the encounter between Isaiah and the king is a ticking time bomb for those in power trying to play it safe. An openness to the future of God's salvation is paradoxically risky and uncertain, played out in the reality of women giving birth and empires on the march.
I find no easy comfort here in these readings. It does not offer salvation as something spiritual disconnected from the world of politics and the wonder of the birth of a child. It offers to us a way in which salvation has to be lived, not an intellectually constructed creed to be believed.