The gospel we just heard is part two of the story we began last week And the change from Part One to Part Two is really amazing, even frightening. This is, I think, a gospel not easy to hear, not easy to take in, and not easy to respond to.
I said we heard the first part last week, but other things were going on last week and you may not remember, so let me take a leaf from the soap opera serials first of all and summarize “the story so far.” When we tuned in last week we heard Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The custom in those days was to honor a stranger in town by calling him up to the bema to read from the scriptures and to say something about the text. It’s not very different from what happens today when a boy or girl comes of age and reads from the Torah for the first time at a bar or bat mitzvah.
Jesus had come home again after beginning his ministry. Already he had some reputation as a teacher and healer so there was a special interest in what he might say and do back now in his own hometown. So they gave him the scroll to read and he read from the Prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind… To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
It was commonly assumed that that wonderful passage had to do with the coming of the Messiah. So Jesus read it and rolled the scroll back up and sat down there at the front of the synagogue to teach and he began by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled…” That’s the story so far. That’s where we ended last week and that is also where we began today full of hope and promise.
Jesus says in effect, “You have this wonderful expectation and right now right here it is fulfilled. You are waiting for the Messiah? I’m here.” Good news, right? And that’s where we ended last week, but it’s not the end of the story. This week we find out what happened next.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Today is the first day of the season of Advent, and the start of a new liturgical year. The basic meaning of the word advent is “coming.” In Christian terms, it refers more specifically to the Coming of the Messiah. Note that the name of this season is singular, Advent. Well, I think someone must have made a mistake! We ought to call the season Advents, with an “s.” Because this season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the Second Coming that we still await. The readings today testify to the duality of this season.
The first reading from that gloomy Gus, Jeremiah, is like a ray of light breaking through the clouds on a dark and dismal day. Jeremiah is renowned for his oracles of doom, yet here we find him giving us a word of hope. He predicts that a descendant of King David will one day rule over the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah and bring peace, and the people of God will once again know justice and righteousness. This is, of course, a classic Messianic prophecy. And Christians find its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah. We believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, prophesied by the prophets of old. And yet, in all truth, even after his coming to us, God’s people are still waiting for his righteous rule. Jerusalem does not yet live in safety; the world does not yet experience the shalom of God. And so while our Jewish brothers and sisters wait for the first coming, the first advent, of the Messiah. We Christians await the Second Advent, when the Messiah will come again in power and glory to bring justice and righteous, not just to Israel and Judah, but to the whole world.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ at his birth, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. At the risk of being called pedantic, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the virginal conception. It is the story of the angelic Annunciation to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and bear God’s Son.
The angel’s greeting in this story has inspired composers throughout the history of the church to try to capture the essence of that moment in a musical setting of the “Ave Maria.” And this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. A typical painting would look something like this. A young woman dressed in a diaphanous blue gown is seated on a throne, her head surrounded by a golden halo. Before her there kneels an angel of ambiguous gender with hands devoutly clasped in prayer. Above is a white dove in a golden nimbus, and from the dove a ray of light emanates, aimed at the head of Mary—as if Jesus is to be conceived in Mary’s head!