The Revised Common Lectionary pretty much vanishes from our worship during Advent. So does traditional preaching. This first Sunday of Advent is presented by our Spirituality Committee, on the theme of Hope. What does hope look like in your life? What extra space does hope need to blossom and become real?

Contexts

Isaiah 9:2-7

The early chapters of Isaiah reflect a contrast between the sinfulness of the people and the perfect ruler who would come to lead them into peace. The setting is the kingdom of Judah, just before the exile to Babylon. There are passages describing what would come, condemnations of how the people behaved toward the poor and toward God, and promises that after the exile there would be restoration. By the time of Jesus’ life, Isaiah’s descriptions of exile and return were several hundred years old. The descriptions of a future ideal king came to be seen as predictions of a great Messiah who would save the people once and for all.

Luke 1:26-38

Luke’s gospel begins with the story of Zechariah, a temple priest whose wife Elizabeth was unable to have a child. During his service in the Holy of Holies, Zechariah meets the angel Gabriel, who tells him that his wife will be enabled to conceive. Following this, the action shifts to Gabriel’s visit to Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary. Beginning with this chapter, angelic visitors and eloquent hymns of praise become recurring motifs in Luke and its companion book, Acts. The stories of Elizabeth and Mary seem to deliberately echo those of barren women in the Old Testament, especially Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel.

What’s going on here?

Because I’m not preaching on these texts, I haven’t spent as much time reading about them as usual. Here are a couple of quick thoughts.

Hope comes along with waiting. Isaiah foretells a great reversal of the circumstances of exile, or the power of death in general, but our “Eternal Father” is born as a baby. Mary learns that she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, but what did she experience or ponder as she waited to feel the new life form inside her? Do we have the patience to wait for God’s plans and promises to take shape?

Mary’s story (and the whole doctrine of the virgin birth) is narrated according to the ancient understanding of conception, where the father provided the essence of the child and the mother provided only the material. The image was used of a seed being deposited in soil. How does a modern understanding of biology change our experience of this story? What do we contribute to God’s presence in the world? An open space to receive something that already exists, or a meaningful part of the thing itself?

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