Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matthew 1:18-25
Public disclaimer time: Isaiah is not talking about Jesus, the so-called “Old Testament” is not predictive of, nor replaced by the “New Testament” and Christianity is not the fulfillment of Judaism. It seems important on the last Sunday of Advent, and as the evening marks the beginning of Hanukkah, to say those things. And saying them might remind us that these two great religions are actually in conversation with one another, like deeply connected cousins, marked by the reality that our holidays often correspond, and our Christian sacraments – baptism and communion – have deep connections to the Jewish rituals of Kiddush, the blessing of the wine after worship, and Mikva, the ritual immersion that is still part of a Jewish conversion ceremony.
It’s important to note these things at this time because Christmas is one of those moments where our scriptures get intertwined, and where the tradition has blurred these lines and asserted this position of Christian dominance, and such language leads to horrible ends, as witnessed by history many, many times. So, at the birth of the Prince of Peace, as well as this moment in our nation’s history, it seems a good time to ask us all to consider what makes for peace. And it begins with how we talk about each other, and to consider, as we wrestle with our divisions, the ways that we are also connected. For we all have our stories, our stories of power and meaning-making, that shape who we are – sometimes the same story shaping people in different ways.
I have found, through years of interfaith dialogue, that the wisdom and Spirit of God is found in the conversations between perspectives, for all of our spiritual wisdom stories are more than just one thing…they are many things, all revealing an aspect of the God who is bigger than all our imaginations, and greater than all our possibilities. We get to talk about and imagine the infinite, but only through the languages and lenses of the finite. As human beings, we get a lifetime of finite stories – instances of peace, of war, of loss, of success, of failure and tragedy, joy and happiness, profound mistakes and intimate connections – a collection of finite circumstances that fit into an infinite narrative. We only have the ability to perceive (and occasionally understand) the finite…God works in the realm of the infinite.
Isaiah’s proclamation is not an infinite one, though it is part of an infinite story. It is finite. The Hebrew used in this passage is clear that Isaiah is speaking about his time, his place. When he says, “Look, the young woman is with child…”, it is a declarative statement, like, “Look, over there, at this young woman I am pointing towards.” He does not mean it to be an infinite declaration about Jesus, but a finite declaration about someone in his time and his place, a statement that declares a sign from God that will bring about some peace they are hoping for in their context…a finite peace that has to do with the fear of invasion being negated in the short timeframe of a child’s early development.
And yet, as so often happens, that finite declaration becomes tied to a more infinite story, for we all end up longing for peace in our own time – peace as in the absence of war, but also peace in our own relationships, in our vocations, our community, our own lives. And when the writers of our Christmas story longed for that same peace, they heard those words of Isaiah an re-interpreted them. This time of year in our tradition we celebrate the birth of the “Prince of Peace” because that’s what we say Jesus brings –peace as salvation, the kind of salvation that the angel tells Joseph Jesus will bring, the kind of peace that Isaiah lifted up also. And that peace at Christmas begins with a “yes” from these soon-to-be parents, Mary and Joseph.
I have to confess, as a parent, that these birth narratives from Matthew and Luke both inspire and terrify me. Parenting can be, on it’s best days, a white-knuckle ride of debate about nature versus nurture, second-guessing your decisions and hoping that your own fears are not limiting your kids’ futures. Then add to that mix an angel who tells you magnificent things about what your kid will do and you have what I imagine would be a LOT of sleepless nights, a constant conflict between the finite world of raising kids and the infinite world of human possibility. Might Mary and Joseph have reminded each other of this promise of Jesus’ greatness after Jesus broke another water pitcher running through the house, or hit his brother with a rock, or when he missed his curfew again?
We all trust in a future hoped for, but not yet seen. And we are often limited by t=our own fear, trapped in what we think is likely, unable to imagine what is possible.
The beauty of the Christmas story is that when faced with the prospect of the impossible…the choice between assuming the outcome that they’ve seen play out a hundred times and trusting in the possibility that the movement of God in the world can make the unlikely happen, both Mary and Joseph – inexplicably – choose to trust. They choose yes. It is the same yes that their son will choose, when faced with the option to love without exceptions or do what everyone else does – he loves, even to the point of facing the power of his day with that love.
Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s still only Advent in our calendars…we are not even at the birth yet, in our grand re-telling of this Christmas tale. There’s still so much of the story left to unfold. We are at the promise. And in the great drama of the church, we are to imagine that we are being asked to birth the Christ child, to parent that baby, to expose ourselves to risk, to challenge, even to scorn. This is now only the possibility of peace, in one way of looking at it, if the participants will have it. And it begins with yes.
Mary’s yes is to a plan from the visiting angel Gabriel, presumably the only heavenly being she has ever witnessed, telling her, an engaged but not yet married young woman, that she was going to have a child and name him Jesus, and he will be given the throne of David and will reign over the House of Jacob not just for his lifetime, but forever –
a statement, in the face of Roman oppression, that seems absurd. It is, quite frankly, an impossible scenario. She knows what will happen if she shows up pregnant right now, her parents will kill her. By Biblical standards – and this is real, you can look it up – they could literally kill her. And then this whole thing of her kid, a boy born out of wedlock to a poor couple in the country becoming King? Ludicrous.
And Joseph’s yes comes to him in the first of a series of dreams that will visit him, telling him of a future in imagery, in partial descriptions, in fanciful promises that he will place his trust in because…well, we don’t know why? I suspect that people around him in his day and age questioned his decisions, maybe even called him foolish for this behavior. For what he was talking about was impossible.
But Christmas is all about the impossible. We wouldn’t be re-telling this story 2000 years later if it was onlya tale of something totally mundane. We keep telling it because it is the story of God acting in the mundane – of God known to us in flesh and bone.
We celebrate this birth with pomp and circumstance, rarely bringing up Mary’s contractions, or what might have been hard labor in difficult circumstances. We talk about visiting shepherds and cattle that are self-aware enough to bow their heads, not of the blood and sweat and tears and the struggle that goes along with all births. We sing “Away in a Manger,” where the little baby Jesus “no crying he makes,” which certainly could have happened, though, like many parents, I have some serious doubts about the solemnity of that moment. The laying down of his sweet head part surely comes after the less mentioned screaming his head off part…or the biting during nursing part…or the gassy kid who spits up all over Mary’s new shawl. And yet, that is also where the majesty and glory of God show up…a message we also need to hear at Christmas, where “yes” brings new life right here, among and in our own bodies, deeply connected to this world of struggle and conflict and compromise.
Our finitude is connected deeply to infinity, our flesh linked to Spirit. This truth lies at the heart of the Christmas story. God does not live in purity and isolation, but resides with us here in the dirt, knowing our pain, knowing our effort, knowing our strength and our weakness. This birth shows us that God will not only show up in the most visceral moments of our lives, but will show up precisely in the places we don’t ever expect God to be, asking for a yes to God’s plan to connect to all of us, to save all of us, to bring Hope and Joy and Peace and Love to all of us. Such a yes will ask us to face our own prejudices, and to reimagine God, for, if we’re paying attention, God will take form exactly where we think we can’t go and ask us to go there.
The first part of Christmas, you see, before the birth and the “Joy to the World” and the presents and the meal…the first part is the yes. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, Luke from Mary’s…and that story now resides in us, to be told from our perspective, asking us to consider our own yes even in the most mundane parts of our own lives. Will we say yes this year to God born in and among us, right in the middle of our lives, ready, willing and able to transform that which we think is hopeless? Will we say yes by helping that one person in a finite way, while we reach for the infinite? Will we say yes by speaking words of kindness just once, knowing that’s part of something much bigger? Will we say yes by speaking out on behalf of one person who is bearing the weight of oppression, though that will not end the oppression? Will we, finally, listen for the voice of angels, bringing the message of Love making a way out of no way, asking us to marry ourselves to God’s plan of drawing our circle ever wider, doing justice, loving kindness and walking with God in humility? Will we hear that choir of angels telling us, again this Christmas…do not be afraid?
In this blessed time of Advent, almost to Christmas, with four candles lighting our way, may you feel held in the circle of God’s love. Rest there and find your way to yes.