Note re Christmas: I am not going to post about Christmas services. The possible themes and the appointed readings are, let us say, familiar! But if stuck for a theme, here is one, pinched from a colleague: "Joy". I hope to be able to sustain posts through Sundays 29 December and January.
Theme(s): A better future / Jesus our saviour / God's plan for us /A God near at hand
Sentence: You heavens above rain down righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up. (Isaiah 45:8)
God of all hope and joy,
open our hearts in welcome,
that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming
may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
At a difficult time for God's people, God promises King Ahaz a sign of a better future: the birth of a son to a young woman (Isaiah's own wife? See 8:3. Or Ahaz's wife?).
We read this passage in conjunction with today's gospel reading because this birth foretold centuries beforehand is taken by Matthew to look ahead to the birth of the eternal king of Israel, Jesus Christ.
As Matthew tells the story of that birth he tells the story of a virgin conceiving the baby who will become the Emmanuel of Isaiah's prophecy.
Some scholars get (in my view) a bit stuck on an old record of "originally Isaiah didn't envisage it was a virgin". That is true as far as it goes: the NRSV for Isaiah 7:14 accurately, according to the Hebrew, has 'young woman' rather than the particularity of 'a virgin(al young woman)'. That particularity is captured in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. Matthew uses that text rather than the Hebrew version of Isaiah. Why would he do that? Presumably not to prove that Mary was a virgin. There is no reason for Matthew to emphasise Mary's virginity unless he believed her to be one. Certainly there is no pressing reason from Isaiah for Matthew to invent such a statement.
The simpler approach is to recognise that Matthew, telling a story of Jesus' conception and birth which involved divine paternity, recognises that the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 neatly foresees such an event, so he invokes it and includes it in his narrative. He could just as easily have made no reference to Isaiah. After all, the odd thing about the reference is that Emmanuel as a name for Jesus is never again used in Matthew's Gospel (or any other gospel for that matter).
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
In this psalm there is a strong plea for restoration. For God to do a work among his people which not only saves God's people from their plight but also restores them to the splendour and goodness they once enjoyed.
This plea is well made by us through this reading three days out from Christmas. Jesus came to save us, to bring new life and to establish the kingdom of God.
Paul launches into his most famous epistle. When all the great books and commentaries on this epistle are digested the simple fact is that Paul sets out to tell us what the gospel of Jesus Christ is in a world in which the message of a Jewish rabbi has spread beyond the confines of Judaism. The gospel went global and now the question arises, what is the global meaning of the gospel?
In this launch into the subject Paul says something simple and directly relevant to the Christmas story: the gospel concerns the Son of God and the Son of God was 'descended from David according to the flesh ...'. There is more to say (and linked to the Easter story). But vital to the gospel is the birth of Jesus as a real flesh and blood descendant of King David. Even in a globalization of the gospel, this fact is important.
One reason for this importance is that it underscores the importance of God's previous words to humanity, to Israel in particular via his prophets: a messiah/king in the line of David would come to bring salvation. That has happened: God's Word is true.
It may seem a bit odd reading this reading when it is not Christmas Day but don't worry, there are Christmas readings in the lectionary for Christmas Day!
In this brief reading we do not need to get stuck on any particular point (though preachers do do that!). Essentially Matthew tells us three salient facts: the conception of Jesus was a divine act according to a divine plan; the name of Jesus meant something important: it summarised his purpose, to save people from their sin; Jesus was born as a baby with a mum.
What response could we make to this baby?
(1) We could celebrate and rejoice that God was at work in our world, doing something hugely important to change the course of history, while at the same time wonderfully fulfilling words previously spoken to us by ancient prophets.
(2) We could ask Jesus to be our personal saviour, to be the one who saves us from our sins.
(3) We could marvel that in this tiny baby God was present in a way previously unknown. (No other baby in the Bible, even when miracles were performed to overcome barrenness, was born without a human father).
An alternative line of thought from this passage is to focus on the name Emmanuel. Although only used this once in the gospels, this name brought forward by Matthew from Isaiah's prophecy, speaks of a great gospel theme: that in Jesus Christ, God is 'with' humanity.