The Fourth Sunday in Advent

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Foretold by the Prophets

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:
The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son
And you shall name him Emmanuel.

Isaiah 10:14

“She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
Because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
And they shall name him Emmanuel
which means “God is with us.”    

Matthew 1:31–33

The Hebrew Scriptures, with their deep myth of origins, their account of the call of a people, not the greatest but the smallest, yet beloved of God and bearing His promise, of their victories and defeats and exile and restoration; this story has never been  as easily accessible to the inhabitants of modernity as has the story of Jesus, and even when in this secular age neither has been believed the Old Testament Story has often seemed less credible. At the birth of the Church there were those who found the story of Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins at the hands of what they considered a vengeful Father so unlike the Savior full of grace that they rejected the Hebrew Scriptures and the just God they revealed.  One was reputed to be a bishop’s son, Marcion of  Pontus.  And there were others, “the ignorant” who twisted Paul’s meaning (II Peter 3:16), teaching that the law given in the Old Testament had not been fulfilled with the gift of the Spirit-formed heart anxious to do God’s will but had been obviated, done away.  

          But it was the warrant of the Great Church to know from the day when Jesus, having read from the Isaiah scroll the good news that mankind would be freed from the chains of sin into the glorious liberty of the sons of God, their blindness illuminated, said, “This day these words are fulfilled in your hearing;” from that day forward to know that He was the Messiah foretold by Isaiah and the other great prophets (Luke 4:17–19).   The truth of the Gospel depended upon what was given to a men such as a shepherd named Amos, to Isaiah, court official in the reign of King Uzziah, and to a poet Joel, the best remembered among a company.    Our Lord Jesus considered their words to contain the sufficient root of the Gospel, for He recounted Abraham’s refusal of the negligent rich man’s plea that relief should be sent to those in torment with the words:  “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them” (Luke 16:29).

          Through the long years of the Old Testament, it had been the prophets who had taught the hope of the coming kingdom, seeing by divine inspiration that the son of David would reign not in the Jerusalem they knew but in the new creation, that the promise of freedom God offered Israel was even greater than freedom from Egyptian slavery or Babylonian captivity and that the gift of the Lord whose coming they foretold, a heart made new, would create a kingdom of  love-inspired righteousness stretching from time into eternity,  joining heaven and earth.

          Their very existence was an affront to the powers of darkness.  Injustice knew no peace in their presence.   It was the prophet Nathan who told the great king David that his adultery with Bathsheba and his effective murder of her husband Joab would bring perpetual warfare on Israel:  “Thus says the Lord….  The sword shall never depart from your house because you have despised me” (II Samuel 12:7, 12).  It fell to Elijah to tell  Ahab, after the king had seized Naboth’s vineyard and caused Naboth to be stoned to death, after he had “killed and taken possession,” that in the very spot where Naboth had died dogs would lick the king’s blood (I Kings 21:8–19).   Their denunciation of the idolatries of kings and people, of the false assurance that came so easily to a chosen nation, of futile reliance on politics and princes, gave them not honor but evoked suspicion, hostility and finally death. Jeremiah remembered the whisperings in Jerusalem: Denounce him!  Let us denounce him! say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall.  Perhaps he will be deceived, then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him as a dread warrior” (20:10–11).    They died violently, these unwelcomed messengers of God’s judgement.   In the penumbra of His own death Jesus said of the city of David:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!   How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  Behold your house is forsaken and desolate” (Matthew 23:37–38).  And their deaths brought judgement:  “The  wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and  persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world may be required  of this generation” (Luke 11:50). 

          But to those who would hear, the prophets brought the hope of the world.  “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, God with us.”    Advent is the time when the double message of the prophets sounds in the Church.    We live always under the Lord’s proclamation that we belong to the nation of vipers, tombs richly decorated but containing only dead men’s bones, deafened by the noise of the world, enchanted by the works of our hands.   Repent, for the Lord is near; His winnowing fan in His hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.   But we are also the  chosen recipients of the prophet’s message of hope.  One will be born of a virgin who will, as the prophets foretold, bear the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6), write God’s law in our hearts, forgive our iniquity and remember our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34), and announce beforehand the coming of the Day when God’s desire to know us will be fulfilled. 

          All these things were the promise God gave to men who did not choose to prophesy, who like Abraham believed the word that came to them. Men  chosen by the Divine Providence to begin to teach what would be fulfilled with the birth of  Our Lord at Christmas.    

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