This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we focus on a time just beforeJesus’ first advent, namely, the angelic annunciation to Joseph.
But before addressing that Gospel story, let me say something about the first reading from Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only: it serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign—he is afraid that God’s intervention might limit his political options. Well, Ahaz gets a sign anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” He promises that, by the time the child is weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be gone. There is no mention of a virgin birth, no hint that the child will be the Messiah.
Jumping ahead to the Gospel reading, we get another prophesied birth, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Joseph and Mary were engaged, which in Jewish law was as binding as marriage. And according to Jewish custom, the engaged couple were not to have physical relations before marriage. Somehow, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. As a righteous man, it is his duty to publicly denounce Mary for adultery. But Joseph defies the demands of the Law; instead, he decides to spare her from shame and to divorce her quietly. Before he can proceed with his plan, Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel. He is told that the unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and that he should proceed with the marriage. The angel goes on to say that the child will be a boy and that his name should be Jesus (which means “The Lord is salvation”), because he is destined to save his people from their sins.
When I was going through the ordination process, I was asked again and again to explain my experience of God’s call to serve. The question was a bit embarrassing for me, because I didn’t have a dramatic story to tell. For me, God’s call came as a rather vague sense of spiritual hunger. Have you ever been hungry but didn’t know what you wanted to eat? You look through the cupboard, and you root around in the refrigerator trying to figure out what it is that you are craving. Well, that’s what it was like for me when I first experienced God’s call. But God’s call comes in many shapes and forms, and in today’s scripture readings, we have references to three rather dramatic calls to ministry.
First, we heard the story of Isaiah’s call to serve God as his prophet. It begins with a vision of God’s throne room in Heaven. Isaiah sees God himself sitting on a throne, being served by fearsome seraphs singing God’s praise. (And the song they sing should sound familiar, for it is the Sanctus, which we sing at every Eucharist.) Isaiah cowers in fear and shame, bemoaning his sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people. A seraph responds by touching Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal, thereby purifying him from his sin. Ouch! Then God speaks out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” With unbelievable bravery, Isaiah pipes up, “Here am I; send me!”
Now, the lectionary allows us to stop there, on a high note. But if we do that, we miss Isaiah’s actual commission. As it turns out, Isaiah is given the difficult job of going to his people and pronouncing God’s judgment on them. God warns Isaiah that his message will fall on deaf ears. The Children of Israel are expected to do what American children do when they see or hear what they don’t like. They close their eyes. They put their hands over their ears. And they try to drown out the unwanted message by intoning, “La, la, la, la, la….”
Two Sundays ago, we heard Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. According to his chronology, last Sunday’s Gospel reading should have been the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. But instead, the lectionary gave us the wedding feast at Cana. It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit. Just keep in mind, that Jesus had just come back from 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness when today’s Gospel story begins.
After his ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus then goes home to Nazareth, to the town where he grew up. He does what every good Jew does on a Saturday morning; he goes to the synagogue service. Small synagogues often didn’t have a regular rabbi to preach, so men in the congregation would take turns reading the appointed scriptures and giving some form of commentary or explanation. (Note that in Jesus’ day the preacher stood to read the appointed scripture, then sat to preach. As some of you know, that’s what I like to do at the Tuesday Eucharist.)
It’s not entirely clear whether Jesus read the appointed scripture or one of his choosing. In any case, what he read is a portion of Isaiah that had long been understood to be the job description of the Messiah. Jesus begins his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The rest of the sermon isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the congregation was so stunned by the opening line that the rest of the sermon was a blur!
A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday in Advent.
Lewis Thomas died 20 years ago but I remember him in connection with today’s Old Testament reading. I read a magazine article in the New York Times some while ago about Lewis Thomas and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us,
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
So who was Lewis Thomas? He was dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The Lives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others. I enjoyed reading them. They are wise and warm and endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.
When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter. Whatever ideas he had picked up on the subject could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.