Based on Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
We are spending this liturgical year in the Gospel according to Matthew. It is important to understand that this Gospel was written for a primarily Jewish audience. It doesn’t waste time explaining many things that were considered common knowledge among God’s chosen people. The first 17 verses of the Gospel, however, are spent giving the audience a recitation of the genesis of Jesus from the Patriarch Abraham through 42 generations(!) to Joseph and Mary. This listing of begets, if you will, is important to an audience who all trace their roots back to Father Abraham. Thus, a Messiah (or Christ) who did not descend from this root stock would not be taken seriously and would not be able to convince the Jewish believers that the Promised One had indeed come. Consider that all that waiting time, that Advent time, was what God needed to do to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Christ.
Now, 42 generations represent a timespan of somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300 years. This is not inconsequential and should be seen for what it is…the deliberate speed of God’s love at work. Through all those generations from Abraham to Jesus, many things both large and small occurred. Think about just these highlights: there was Abraham’s wilderness trek from Ur to the land of Palestine, all of the back-and-forth between Abraham and God, many barren women becoming miraculously pregnant, enslavement and salvation, another trek in the wilderness, giving of the Commandments, conquering of the Promised Land, the Davidic reign, prophetic witnessing, apostasy and Exile, redemption and return with rebuilding, and then more oppression. Through all of these activities of God with God’s chosen people one thing remained the same…God’s steadfast and unconditional love. The ultimate act of love in this narrative was when God decided in the fullness of time to send God’s love to earth in the form of a human child. The fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love toward us. Let us go to God now in praise and thanksgiving that God’s Almighty love came and will come again…
The Apostle Paul’s opening salutation in his letter to the believers in Rome is one that has been hard won. He has gone from a zealous servant of the Temple and Jewish law, to an equally zealous servant (slave) of Jesus the Christ. How did this transformation occur? We know that the love of God came to Saul as he journeyed along the road to Damascus on his way to prosecute and persecute followers of Jesus. The transformative love of God also came through God’s Holy Spirit and those believers who schooled Saul/Paul in the gospel of Jesus. Thereafter, Paul was sent out by our loving God to bring God’s grace and obedience to the Gentiles, including all of us. God’s love came down and transformed a zealot of the law into a servant of the Christ.
The reign of King Ahaz, who came 17 generations before Jesus, was an unmitigated disaster due to the consistent disobedience of that King. If you want to read more about this hard-headed and hard-hearted monarch I point you to the Books of Kings and Chronicles. Suffice it to say that the rebellious disobedience of Ahaz frustrated, wearied and angered God to the point that the reign of Ahaz was on the very brink of disaster. Kings and Chronicles are clear that King Ahaz was dancing on God’s last nerve and there was a reckoning about to happen. Our reading from Isaiah today offers another look at this wayward King and his relationship with God. The first nine verses of Chapter 7 have the prophet seeking out the King to tell him not to be afraid of the kings of Aram and Ephraim as God was going to “shatter” them. All Ahaz had to do was to stand firm in faith. God asks Ahaz to request a sign from God – large or small. Ahaz does not want to test God and so rebelliously refuses to ask. God sends the King a sign anyway telling King Ahaz that a young woman (in Greek ‘a virgin’) is pregnant and will deliver a child who will be called “Immanuel” (God is with us). While the child is still very young, the land of the two kings who assail him will be deserted. God’s love is coming to live among the people to deliver on the promises made to King David in spite of King Ahaz’s, and many others, disobedience.
Our reading from Matthew starts in a very matter-of-fact manner, “Now the birth of Jesus the Christ took place in this way….” No angelic visits to Mary, no joyous leaping, no Holy Spirit insights and songs, no shepherds visiting – the focus instead is on Joseph who was engaged to Mary, but not yet wed to her. Joseph, descended of Ahaz, David, and ultimately Abraham, discovers that his wife-to-be is pregnant and because he is a moral and upstanding guy, he is going to dismiss her quietly so she is not publicly humiliated (and potentially stoned to death). Then he gets a visit from an angel of God telling him that this pregnancy is all part of God’s great Advent plan and is the fulfillment of what God promised to Father Abraham. Joseph truly is righteous and faithful and does what the angel instructs so that God’s love (Emmanuel) could come into the world.
We are in the final days of the Advent season of 2019. We have spent these last four weeks waiting and wondering as we hear the familiar narratives again about all that God accomplished in the 42 generations between Father Abraham and Joseph. We have spent our Advent time talking and wondering while we wait about the twin mysteries of our faith: the mystery of the love of God that came to us as Jesus and the mystery of our longing for God’s love in Jesus to come again in glory. We wonder as we wait because the coming of God’s love in Jesus after 42 generations of steadfast hope-filled waiting actually inaugurated another Advent season which has now lasted twice as many generations as the first. Did God just tease us with the end of the first Advent and the inauguration of the second, or is there something fundamentally different between the two we wonder?
Really good question – glad you are thinking in that way! There is a significant difference between the two long Advent seasons – and that is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God through the death and resurrection of God’s Word made flesh. There now was no need for a priestly intervention on behalf of God’s people once a year, they could at any time into the presence of the Holy Spirit to pray for forgiveness and redemption directly to God through Jesus. Though over time a priestly class did arise along with a Church infrastructure, the essence of “The Way” of Jesus was to be a body of believers who lived into the mind and heart of Jesus – guided and informed by God’s Holy Spirit. God’s love came to our ancestors as Jesus and continued to be poured out as the Holy Spirit after the resurrected Jesus ascended. Through our baptisms in the name of the Triune God, we came to be the Body of Christ – the enfleshed love of God, blessed and given to transform the world.
The reality of this current long Advent season is that while we await the second coming of the Christ, we have the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit available to us to act as a guide and source of empowerment. Through this continued activity of God’s love we are able to accomplish all that we have been instructed through the Bible to do. God’s love continues to transform us as we grow in our discipleship towards the mind and heart of Jesus – that is, towards salvation. During this December 2019 Advent season, and for as long as the current Advent interval lasts, let us remember that God’s love came to earth as Emmanuel and never left us. This is good news indeed – news that deserves to be shared far and wide. To paraphrase the final doxology of Paul to the Romans, may the gospel according to Jesus, and God’s great love which came to be made known in and through Him, continue to transform your hearts and lives that you may live as obedient and faithful witnesses while we all await the second coming of the Christ! Amen and amen!