Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Ahaz is King of Judah and an adversary of the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah. At one point he wickedly sacrificed his own son to pagan gods. He also added an idolatrous altar to the Temple (See 2 Kings 16).
In this passage, Ahaz refuses Isaiah’s request that Ahaz ask God for a sign. It is likely that Ahaz did not want any outside interference and feared that Isaiah might persuade people to believe God wants them to rebel.
When Ahaz won’t take Isaiah’s bait, Isaiah supplies the answer:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Christians see this passage as talking about Jesus. Those who chose it for the lectionary for today, the last Sunday in Advent, did not do so haphazardly. “The young woman” (or if you insist on Matthew’s version of the Isaiah text, “The virgin”) is getting ready for the end of this week.
Yet there is nothing in the text itself that forces the interpretation that Jesus is the messiah. Many Jews still expect a messiah but do not view Jesus as the one.
Dr. John Gibbs notes regarding this verse:
The main emphasis of Isaiah 7:10-16 is that "God is with us," which is what the Hebrew word "Immanel" means. God is present not only to the prophet in a special way inside the temple (Is. 6). God "the Lord" over the depth of Sheol and the height of heaven (7:11) is no less present in blessing (7:16; cf. 7:17) within the entire "house of David" (7:13).
A fundamentalist obsession with virginity does not exist in the Hebrew text, for the child's mother appears there as "a young woman" (rather than as a virgin, as the Septuagint Greek has it). Instead, the all-important "sign" is the "son" named "Immanuel." It is by the presence of God in a society that it "knows how to refuse evil and choose the good," and the function of this son is to maintain that distinction within "the house of David.
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
One of the great treats of the psalms is that you can find several that will match your need for any occasion. If you are sad or depressed and God seems afar off, today’s Psalm 80 will fit the bill.
O LORD God of hosts, * how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?
If you are festive and feeling blessed, Psalm 146 (page 803 in the BCP) will fit the bill: we used it last Sunday.
The Book of Common Prayer manifests this same versatility. When close friends or family are sick or in any other adversity, we can go to church certain that something in the liturgy will speak to their condition and to ours. Just as certainly will we also encounter something in the liturgy that counterstates our condition, that witnesses to the reality of joy even if we are sad and to the reality of sadness even if we are joyful. The liturgy honors our experience but not does not put it at the center of all attention.
Poet W. H. Auden (a gay Anglican) made the same point about contrasting reality manifested in the art of Old Masters:
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
At any moment what we see clearly and completely in focus may not be the reality seen by the person standing next to us focused on a different part of the same scene.
We desperately need one another.
These seven verses make up only one complete sentence (129 words). The selection is an elaborate salutation which begins with “Paul…” and closes with: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the lead up to this apostolic “hello” Saint lays down his credentials to be addressing gentile Christians in Rome. Note how the passage looks when we break out the grammatically subordinate material and restate it in declarative sentences:
- I am a servant of Jesus Christ.
- I am called to be an apostle.
- I have been set apart for the gospel of God.
- God planned good news before any of us were born.
- The prophets foretold the gospel in holy scriptures [i.e., the Hebrew bible, a.k.a. “The Old Testament.”]
- God’s son Jesus descended from King David according to the flesh
- Jesus was declared to be the Son of God.
- Jesus has power according to the spirit of holiness.
- Jesus’ resurrection from the dead demonstrates that he is the Son of God.
- We received grace and apostleship through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- I am called to prompt the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.
- I work for the sake of Jesus and in his name.
- I call you Romans to belong to Jesus Christ.
- You Romans are called to be saints.
Saint’s 129-word sentence is an elaborate rhetorical set up for the serious concerns he will express to the Romans in the rest of this chapter and in the fifteen other chapters of this long letter.
Today is the last Sunday of Advent. Next Sunday we Episcopalians will be able to use the “C” word that most other protestants have been using since Thanksgiving, some even earlier.
I am not talking about “He knows when you have been good or bad so be good for goodness sake!” We’re not poised for our God to come down the chimney on Friday night. We are poised for God to enter our hearts. Saint’s opening salvo to the gentile Christians in Rome sets us up for the Arrival we will celebrate here on Friday night and all day on Saturday.
This is the beginning of “C” week. One t-shirt puts it flippantly: “Jesus is coming: look busy.”
The birthday party which we will celebrate Friday night, Saturday, and all day on Sunday the December 26th and Sunday January 2nd is not a surprise birthday party. Matthew deliberately spoils any surprise effects for the “C” word by beginning” Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way:…”
Matthew uses only 201 words to tell the entire “C” story: compare that with the 129 words that Saint uses just for the salutation in his letter to the Roman Christians.
Matthew’s narrative is lean and pointed. In it he does not duck controversy. Some in Matthew’s original audience surely would have noticed that Jesus’ birth came less than nine months after Mary and Joseph married. Matthew emphasizes that Joseph married Mary because as a religious person he did not want her to be disgraced as an unwed mother. Matthew stresses that Joseph had no sex with Mary before Jesus’ birth. We do not know whether they had sex afterwards. Joseph quietly steps out of the biblical narratives at that point.
The Inn Keeper’s Focus on “C”
The Bethlehem Holiday Inn, 9th Janus, 0001
I hereby evict you, effective tomorrow noon, for obvious reasons:
- You did not father the baby, as you claimed.
- You and your woman have kept up a perpetual racket in our stables, disturbing our animals.
- You have wasted hay not required by your small donkey.
- You have lured undesirables to the neighborhood, including mephitic shepherds from the hillside, some of whom had the audacity to hide on the roof and sing as "angels." Many of our better guests complained.
- This week three rich sissy foreigners (one of them black!), who should have booked in the Inn, slummed out back with you, to avoid paying us.
- We hear that Herod is out to get anyone who traffics with parents of new-born boys.
Be on your way back to Nazareth by noon if you know what's good for you. Let's have no more talk or singing of Joy to the World.
“The Bethlehem Holiday Inn has appeared :
- Whosoever 6.1 (July 2001)
- Ruach 27:1 (Winter 2007): 25
- South Jersey Underground Issue #5 (2009
- Studio [Australia] No. 38 (Autumn 1990): 15. Used penname Li Min Hua