The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)
23 December 2007
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
A few weeks ago I talked about Luke’s particular perspective on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I discussed with you how Luke was addressing a wide, educated, Greek-speaking audience across the Mediterranean with his two-volume, standard format book. I talked about how Luke was especially calling people of privilege to account, helping them transform their lives and conform their will’s with God’s will for them.
On the first Sunday of Advent we switched gears dramatically. The liturgical new year came and not only moved into this season of watching and waiting, but we also moved on to the Gospel of Matthew. No longer are we with professional Roman élites or assimilated Hellenised Jews, but rather we are living with the experience of a Jewish-Christian community whose particular Christian identity is emerging in conflict with other Jewish groups who, like them, are struggling with the dislocation and confusion of the destruction of the Temple and the impact Jesus made upon individuals and communities. In this particular situation, Matthew is concerned with showing the continuity of Jesus’ life and ministry with both the oracles of the prophets and the injunctions of Torah.
Matthew’s project is to legitimise Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection within the world of Jewish life and of Hebrew Scripture so that he can show how the God of Israel, who created the world, called his people to him, and gave them the Land, now has acted in Jesus Christ. He wants to show how this same God has acted consistently in history and is in the process of fulfilling the promises he has made, incorporating the whole world into God’s project.
For Matthew, all the myriad ways that God has acted in history—all real events that happened to real people and not merely shadows or types of things to come—have their chief exemplification, their fullest expression, in Christ. As God has acted in the world in the past through others, he does so again, here and now, himself, in the person of Jesus Christ.
The passage we read this morning from Isaiah was crucial to Matthew’s understanding of who Jesus is. At a time when Israel was (and is) in deep distress, at a time of great trouble, God will send someone who will bring victory to Israel. Isaiah was himself addressing a specific and critical historical situation (see 2 Kings 16:1-20 and Isaiah 7:1). King Ahaz of Judah, reviled in 2 Kings for reviving human sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3-4), was facing the armies of Syria, including those of the conquered kingdom of Israel, and Edom and the possible destruction of Jerusalem. Isaiah comes to the king and suggests to him that he might reach out to God for help, “ask a sign of the Lord your God.” Ahaz in his arrogance refuses, angering both Isaiah and God. In response to (and despite) this hardness of heart, Isaiah pronounces that God indeed will send a sign and this sign shall say something very specific about the nature of God, about how he works and through whom he works in the world. “Behold, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” It is likely that Isaiah was referring to a specific young woman—the use of the word “virgin” here appears first not in the Hebrew, but in the later Hellenistic Greek translation of the Bible that Matthew would have known. It is clear that Isaiah believed the sign was not a function of the mother’s sexual status, but rather that God could bring deliverance, change, new things, in the every-day miracle that is the safe delivery of a child. The sign was that at a very early age—by the time he was eating his first solid foods, curds and honey—he would know the difference between Good and evil and be able to choose for the Good. The sign is that even before this time, his coming, his Advent will signal a change in the political landscape, a change that shall be part of God’s plan for the ultimate deliverance of his people.
For Isaiah, this is how God acts. God acts through children and not kings. God acts decisively in his own way, and not through political machinations. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine that if Ahaz had actually asked for a sign he would have chosen this one. He might have sought a warrior, a storm, something grand, but certainly not the birth of a child to a young woman. Indeed, as Deutero-Isaiah reminded another king, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). This is the sign that was not asked for, this is the sign that God gives. And that sign is the very presence of God in the world, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
When Matthew read this passage, he would have been intimately familiar with the original setting. As a man learned in Scripture, he would have known all about the foibles of King Ahaz and the idea that Isaiah was addressing his immediate situation. Matthew would also have known that he could learn something profound from understanding how God has acted for his people in the past. He would have learned that God is nothing if not faithful to his feckless people and that God acts in patterns of redemptive activity. Matthew would also have had a particularly Messianic interpretation of the passage, because he would have understood the “young woman” of the Hebrew text to have been the “virgin” of his own beloved Greek bible. For Matthew, the sign not asked for, the sign that comes in the form of the little child, is also miraculous and special in the way that it happens. For Isaiah what was special was its ordinariness, but for Matthew its extraordinary quality had special meaning when looking to the coming of the one who changed Matthew’s world irrevocably.
Matthew viewed the coming of God into the world, the coming of Emmanuel, in his generation as the greatest of the signs of God’s steadfast love for his children. Matthew viewed the coming of Jesus Christ, born of a woman, as the ultimate validation of all that God had done before and of all that God would do in the future. God lives up to the ways in which he has acted in the past and now acts with great decisiveness to give the world the Sign that it needed, and not necessarily either the sign for which it was looking or for which it was willing or able to ask. Many would have preferred the sign of God’s power to have come in the form of a warrior, an adult king with worldly political and financial power. No. God gives us the sign he chooses, the sign of the child, born humbly, who is none other than his very self. This child will be the one to change the world, this child will be the one to “save his people from their sins.”
On this last Sunday of Advent, we learn that sign for which we have been watching and waiting throughout this season, will come (as I suggested four weeks ago) in unexpected ways. The sign, God now tells us, will be in the form of a child, born in a manger, to a young woman, a virgin, who is just a teen-ager herself. The sign will come in the form of one who has been dislocated from his home. The sign will come in the form of someone whom society thinks to be the least of all. And this sign, this chief exemplification of God’s power and might, this sign that will and has changed us all, is also God’s very self.
I pray that as we approach the Manger on Christmas Eve, each of us will understand and see and feel and know that the one who has come to save us from our sins, to save us from ourselves, from hardness of heart and, most importantly, for a life of love and relationship is the little, helpless child. Amen.
Andrew Charles Blume+
Saint Thomas the Apostle, 21 December 2007
©2007 Andrew Charles Blume