4th Sunday – Year A (December 22nd)
Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14
Next Sunday is the final Sunday before Christmas; sometimes that is a signal for hysterical bouts of shopping and packing and menu-planning, but life might be easier if instead we were to pay attention to the readings for the day, which offer us a useful reminder of what the Coming of Christ is really about.
Our first reading is recycled in Sunday’s gospel to help us understand what that Coming means; but it also has a life of its own, in the original setting. The situation there is that the prophet Isaiah is trying to help the King of Judah (do you remember the time in this country when religion was supposed to keep out of politics? It can never happen.) to cope with the threat posed by the alliance for war against Judah on the part of two Northern Kingdoms, Syria and Israel. Isaiah wants the King to ask for a sign that God is acting in the midst of the crisis. King Ahaz, whether for motives of piety or for other reasons, such as wanting to go his own way, says, “I shan’t tempt the Lord”. Isaiah will have none of it, and makes a prediction about a child that is going to be born, apparently to the royal house of David, within the next few months. And before the child “can tell the difference between right and wrong” Syria and Israel will no longer be a threat to Judah. That prophecy came true, for Israel and Syria were defeated quite soon by Assyria; and Ahaz, who had foolishly gone to war with them, against Isaiah’s advice, had to pay enormous damages. There is more to the prophecy than that, however, as we shall see when we come to the gospel.
The psalm reminds us of the lesson that Ahaz refused to heed, that “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, the world and those who live in it”; but not just anyone can approach the Lord: “Who is to go up on the mountain of the Lord, and who can arise to his holy place?” Then the familiar list provides the answer to his question: “the one with clean hands and pure heart…that one will receive blessings from the Lord, and justice from the God of their salvation”. We might reflect on that as we write our last frantic letters to Santa Claus for all those things that we (wrongly) imagine will make us happy.
The second reading for next Sunday is the powerful opening to what was arguably Paul’s most influential letter, that to the Church in Rome. He begins by identifying himself (nothing arrogant about this, you must understand; this is how letters always start in the ancient world), “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus¸ called as an apostle, set apart for God’s good news”. In the next line he emphasises that it is the same God speaking “through his prophets, in the holy Writings”, but that all God’s speech has a destiny and a subject, “his son, who was born of the offspring of David according to the flesh” (and the reference to David here picks up the “house of David” of the first reading); then Paul looks ahead, as we must do at Christmas, to the “Resurrection from the dead”, and then explains to “all those who are in Rome, beloved by God, called to be saints, grace to you and peace”. So the message is not dead words about long ago, but uttered to us, in this country, today, as a living inspiration.
The gospel for next Sunday is our first encounter in Matthew’s gospel with Joseph and with Mary, and the embarrassment that Mary is pregnant, when she is only engaged, and they have not yet come together; Joseph, a decent man, knows that he has to divorce her, but does not want to make a public scandal out of it. However the story goes off in a rather different direction, with a message from God (an angel in a dream) telling Joseph that “what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”, and giving instructions about how he is to name the child, and why (“because he will save his people from their sins”). Then Matthew does what he will do many times in his gospel, and cites Scripture, in this case from our first reading. He makes two changes: first, that instead of the “young woman” of the Hebrew text, Matthew cites the Greek translation, in which she is “a virgin”, which better fits Mary’s situation. Secondly, he gives the meaning of the name “Immanuel”, “God with us”. And if you look at the last words of Matthew’s gospel, you will hear Jesus proclaim “I am with you, until the consummation of the age”. That is a very remarkable claim, and we shall do well to ponder it as Advent rushes to its end.