Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 19 December 2010
Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
The Old Testament prophets are often read simply as foretellers of Jesus’ coming. We sell ourselves short if we stop there: their message is so much richer if we also take it seriously within its own context. Isaiah’s words to Ahaz come in the middle of a confrontation between the prophet and the king. Ahaz, a descendent of King David, is facing a major crisis as his northern neighbours muster their armies to attack him. Isaiah has encouraged him to simply sit tight and trust God, because the threatened invasion won’t materialise. But Ahaz has already decided to ask the mighty Assyrians for assistance – somewhat akin to one mouse calling in the cat to help him against the other mice – and so he will ignore Isaiah’s advice to simply trust God. His unwillingness to ask for a sign, however piously phrased, is motivated by the fact that he has no intention of listening to God’s prophet anyway. The sign is offered regardless, and directed to the ‘house of David’. The sign is the birth of a child. In the verses which follow this reading Isaiah predicts that long before the child has reached the age of moral discernment, Ahaz’s enemies will have been destroyed. In the first instance, Isaiah is probably speaking of the king’s young bride, whose son would be a symbol of the continuation of the Davidic dynasty. God had made a promise to David that he would always have a descendent on the throne, and Isaiah often draws on this promise to instil hope. According to this promise, God would be like a father to the Davidic king and he would be God’s son (cf 2 Samuel 7:14). Ahaz was making a real hash of this calling, but God would remain faithful, and the birth of the next Davidic heir is a symbol of that faithfulness. In fact, Ahaz’s son Hezekiah did live up to his mission much more admirably than his father.
No ordinary king, though, could live up to the task of Emmanuel, of faithfully embodying the presence of God in the midst of the people. And when the Davidic dynasty was brought to an end by the Babylonians about 150 years after Isaiah’s time, the longing for a king that deserved the title son of God and the conviction that God would not ultimately renege on his promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty blossomed into messianic hopes. The Christian conviction is that these hopes have been realised in Jesus of Nazareth. Paul describes him as descended from David, and also as God’s son. But where the kings of old were given the adoptive title of ‘son’ at their coronation, Jesus is established as Son of God through his resurrection from the dead.
Where Luke gives us the story of the Annunciation, Matthew recounts the story of Jesus’ conception and birth from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph provides a striking contrast to the faithless Ahaz. Also a descendent of David, he is a carpenter, not a king. But he believes what God’s messenger tells him about the child which his bride is carrying. He has the faith to take God at God’s word, and to act accordingly. And so he becomes a human father to that greater son of David who is also Son of God and Emmanuel, the fullness of God with us.