On Contextual Relevance
First Sunday of Advent: Condensed version of Luke, Chapters 1-3
The birth of every baby is part of a larger story, the story of our parents, their parents, and events in the world that shape the culture of the time. I was born during the Vietnam war era. My father was serving under the draft in the army at the time, and he had been selected to go overseas. News that my mother was expecting a child came just in time to ensure he remained serving stateside. Had the timing been even slightly different, I may never have known my father. I was born into a time of great upheaval in our nation. The war abroad and the race-based war at home raged in the hearts and minds of millions. Women had been granted the right to vote only 47 years prior and they were organizing passionately for equal pay and reproductive rights. I was one year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; I was three when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We can only read about the culture into which we were born but in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, his birth shaped the culture of his time.
Like every birth, Jesus’s birth was part of a larger context and the context is often lost when we consider it piecemeal in the weeks leading up to Christmas. On this first Sunday of Advent, I offer you a condensed version of the first three chapters of the Gospel of Luke. You will hear that the events preceding Jesus’s birth, surrounding it, and following it, created waves of astonishment and wonder, the likes of which humanity has not experienced since.
“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. He and his wife, Elizabeth were righteous, living true to all the commandments. They had no children and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy,” And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; for nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth to the city called Bethlehem. He went to be registered with Mary and while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and goodwill!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child by the angel; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Friends, as we once again turn our hearts and minds to the birth of the Christ child, I invite us to welcome the mystery and wonder of the events surrounding Jesus’s birth. Within the mysteries, there is room for the Holy Spirit of God to move and guide us. Before we can construct a better, kinder world, we have to first imagine it. May our imaginations be sparked as we walk together towards the birth of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. So be it. Amen.
In the quiet spaces in between we remember the simple things, the essential things, like breathing, listening, centering from a place within. All-knowing God, we thank you for this gift of being. We thank you for the gift of awareness, even though, at times, our awareness adds to the weight of all we carry. Help us, Lord, to remember to rely on you; help us to lift our cares and concerns to you, in prayer, and, when possible, in thankfulness. Help us to find the joy that is independent of our circumstances; this is the path of faith. Help us to look to the future with all the optimism we can gather; this is the path of hope. May the endings in our lives reveal signs of new beginnings. This we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you now with these words from Ephesians 3:
“I bend my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit, … rooted and grounded in love.”