Reflection for March 26, 2017, The Annunciation

Isaiah 7:10-14, Hebrews 10:4-10, Luke 1:26-38

We are almost to the time of newness, when the earth explodes in warmth and beauty. Something new is about to happen. But it’s not quite here yet. It could be that something new is about to happen in your life. We sometimes sense that something is on the horizon, or that things are about to change. In each of these readings something new, almost but not yet happening, is coming.

In the Hebrew Scripture this morning, the prophet Isaiah is a court prophet in the established religion of the temple. The new thing that is about to happen is an invasion. In chapter seven, all of the enemies of Israel have formed an alliance and are now plotting an invasion which will destroy the country. All of the people, faced with this impending new thing, the prospect of upcoming disaster, are filled with dread. Even king Ahaz is paralyzed with fear. And Isaiah, the political prophet, realizes that he must call his timid king to courage. He asks the king to ask God for a sign or vision upon which to build that courage or confidence. But Ahaz is too afraid to ask God to do anything. To the king, it is all hopeless. What is the point?

So Isaiah points the king and the court to the most basic sign of human hope: to a woman with child. And he points to the coming of a child as a sign that birth comes through travail. The children of the community point us all in the direction of hope. Children remind us that before too long, as we watch them grow, what we dreaded will pass, and we will be facing joys and challenges beyond those upon which our anxieties are now focused. The child is a sign of hope, of God’s presence, of moving beyond the dread of our current horizon, of taking the longer view. The child will grow, and so will we. God is with us, and will see us through. When an invasion is that new thing on the horizon, remember our children, and do what is best for them.

The new thing in the second reading is the birth of a new religion, a new way to practice religion in the first century of the Roman Empire. Rather suddenly in the first century the idea of sacrifice to gods to appease divine anger or gain divine favor has lost its appeal. In the pagan temples of Greece and Rome, as well as the temple in Jerusalem, the idea of killing animals on sacred altars run by priests was on the wane. People just were not sacrificing as they used to. And the new thing that was being born was a new way to be religious that was not focused on the temple institutions but on individual faith and experience, living and sharing with people of the same perspective, leading life in a moral way. And this new religion, propelled by many different mythic stories, was catching on fast.

In this light the book of Hebrews makes sense. The writer says that Jesus is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Jesus is God’s sacrifice on behalf of the world. So we can stop sacrificing all those animals, and focus on our faith and experience, living together and sharing, and finding our moral way. While honoring the old concept of sacrifice, the book shapes Christianity to move with the coming religious sensibilities. A new faith is being born. And maybe we live in that kind of newness now. But whenever a new religious perspective is being born, there is always a lot of anxiety and fear.

The new thing in the third reading, of course, is a pregnancy. This is the Sunday of the Annunciation, always about nine months out from Christmas. An angel tells Mary that she is pregnant. Since this is Luke, and Luke is a musical; Mary, of course, sings a song. But in all this wonderful news there are some issues and more than a bit of anxiety.

Think of Mary as a junior in high school. How would most high school students react to all this. I’m pregnant? Is that good? How did it happen? You mean there is this thing called virgin birth? Yea, right, who is going to believe that? I was planning on getting married. How is that going to work out? What will my parents say? What will people think of me? And you’re an angel? And my child is going to be the savior of the world? It’s all a little much.

And yet out of this new thing and all of the anxiety and fear it produces, comes the recognition that even in this difficult thing for this young woman, comes a new possibility. And the possibilities are greater than we can imagine, greater than our children can imagine, greater than all the temples and all their priests, greater than all the kings struggling with their own demons. For something new is on the horizon. It’s spring, something new is about to happen. What is the new thing dawning for you? Oh, I know you may be more worried than hopeful. But something new is coming. It will be more than we expect. And it will gradually unfold, just as a child grows into wisdom.