Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Narrative Lectionary, Jesus as Immanuel, Matthew 1:18-25 (Psalm 23:1-4 or 23:4)
The prophet Isaiah spoke to Ahaz, the king of Judah, in Isaiah 7:10-16. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was attacked by the northern kingdom of Israel, but the attack failed. Soon after, the northern kingdom with its capital of Samaria would be sacked and taken into exile. Isaiah speaks words of hope to Ahaz about a new child to be born in his household, a sign of hope. Ahaz refused to ask God for a sign, so God told Isaiah to share the good news of an impending birth (most likely of Hezekiah who would become king), a child that would be named Immanuel, God is with us. While early Christians began interpreting these verses about Jesus (using the Septuagint rendering of virgin instead of young woman), reading through verse sixteen shares the context that this was hope for Ahaz and the people of his time. The two countries that threaten Judah will no longer be a threat before the boy is even grown. The sign that the current troubles will pass, and soon, is a heartening message to a king facing war.
Psalm 80 is a prayer of help. The psalmist leads the people in prayer to God who is their shepherd to come and save them as they face exile and destruction. Perhaps originating in the northern kingdom during the exile of 721 B.C.E., most likely this psalm was recited during the exile to Babylon in 587 B.C.E. Verses 17-19 call upon God to allow God’s power and authority to be “upon the one at your right hand.” This may have been referring to the people themselves to be restored to God, but it was also sometimes interpreted to be David, or of his lineage. The refrain, “Restore us, O God” was the congregation’s response, their call to God to come and save them.
Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with an introduction to himself and the Gospel (good news) that he proclaims of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Christ’s resurrection is proof that he is the Messiah, the Lord—the Son of God. And now through Christ, the faithful are called to share the good news to the Gentiles and to bring them into obedience with God’s ways, and the faithful followers of Jesus who are Jewish are also included with the Gentiles. Paul concludes his introduction by blessing those in Rome who are faithfully loved and called by God to serve in the name of Jesus Christ in grace and peace.
Both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary use Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus for this Sunday’s reading. Matthew 1:18-25 is vastly different from Luke’s account in Luke 1-2. There is no manger, no inn, no census by the governor. Before that, no Elizabeth and visit from the angel Gabriel to Mary. Instead, we have more of Joseph’s point of view. He was engaged to Mary, but before they were married he learned she was pregnant, and planned to dismiss her. However, he was warned in a dream to not be afraid to take her as his wife. The child was conceived from the Holy Spirit, and would be named Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint (hence the use of Emmanuel instead of Immanuel transliterating from Greek instead of Hebrew and the use of virgin instead of young woman), as Matthew uses the Hebrew scriptures to prove who Jesus is as the Messiah prophesied, though often those scriptures are out of context. Again, no angels in the sky or shepherds visiting, just the birth of a son which Joseph named Jesus.
The Narrative Lectionary adds Psalm 23:1-4 (or just verse 4) as supplementary texts. The Shepherd’s Psalm has been associated with David for a long time, God as the one who tends and leads us to green pastures, still waters, and restores our soul. Even though I walk in the darkest valley, the psalmist declares, they will fear no evil, for God is with them. God is the one who brings comfort and protects them.
Though there was much to be afraid of, the angel told Joseph to not be afraid to be with Mary and to raise her son, for he was from the Holy Spirit. Isaiah told Ahaz to ask for a sign from God in the midst of war, but Ahaz was too afraid, so Isaiah told him what the sign would be—a new child born in his household, and the fears of the day gone in the near future. There is much to be afraid of, but when we call upon God, as the psalmists remind us, God will respond. God will come into our world and lives. God is already here. There is nothing to be afraid of, for even in the midst of our present struggle, as Ahaz and Joseph learned, God was with them. And God is with us.
Call to Worship
Look, here is the sign!
A young woman shall give birth.
Do not be afraid,
For the child is conceived of the Holy Spirit.
He is to be called Jesus,
For he will save us from our sins.
All this took place to fulfill what was spoken,
And God is still speaking.
God Is With Us.
(alternative idea: have different groups respond with Emmanuel, such as seniors, children, etc)
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God With Us, we confess that at times we feel very far away from You. War, poverty, racism, climate change—with all the struggles of the world, sometimes we wonder where You are, instead of asking the question of who we are in this world. We forget we are all Your children. We forget that You are with us, always, to the end of time. In the times of deepest struggle, may we remember that You promised us a sign of Your presence: Emmanuel, God With Us. Your covenant with us, to be our God forever, endures even when we forget. In this last week of Advent, as we draw near to Christmas, may we remember You are with us. As the promises of the world let us down, as the music stops and the celebrations cease, may we know You are with us, now and always. Emmanuel, God With Us. Amen.
Take a deep breath. With every breath, breathe in God’s love, breathe out your fear. With every breath, know that you come from God, and you return to God. With every breath, know that you are loved, and you love one another. Breathe deep, for the Spirit is in you. Breathe deep, knowing God’s love is within. You are made in the image of God. Breathe in hope, breathe out peace. Breathe in joy, breathe out love. With every breath, we wait for God, and know God is with us, always. Amen.
Prayer (in the northern hemisphere)
Creator God, this is the darkest week of the year. We enter this week with decreasing daylight, and we will end this week with the days beginning to grow long again. Help us in this week to know Your comfort and peace, that the darkness is a place of rest and renewal. The darkness is a place of hope, a space of growth, before the light returns. As we await the birth of the Christ-child, may we find where You are present, now, in this darkest time, a space where we are not afraid, but held in mystery: the cry of a newborn babe, the call of peace by the angels, the wonder of the shepherds, the musings of magi. Holy One, help us to sit in the dark and know You. Amen.
Prayer (in the southern hemisphere)
Creator God, as we approach our longest day, may we remember all the ways You touch our lives. May we give thanks for the year past and look forward, knowing that the days will grow short and there will be times of struggle ahead. May we hold on to the goodness in our lives and world and strive to live into Your reign on earth as it is in heaven. As we prepare for the birth of the Christ-child, may we live with the joy and wonder of the incarnation each and every day. Holy One, help us to live into Your wondrous story with the fullness of hope. Amen.