A promise of national security, and a woman pregnant before marriage. These two seem utterly different, unrelated. They appear to come from different worlds. But there is a bridge between them, and it is one we may want to travel. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On this last Sunday before Christmas, today’s first reading, an important passage from Israel’s history, contains a promise of national security. The kingdom is to be safe. This safety will not be the result of a powerful army, or astute statesmen, or a booming economy. Instead, security will come from a different direction. It will come as God’s gift in the form of a ruler endorsed by God. The kingdom will be blessed with this favor from on high.
This is what Nathan the prophet hears in a dream. He knows the message to be nothing less than the word of the Lord. Obediently Nathan delivers this message to King David. It is from David’s offspring that the promised ruler is to come, the one endorsed by God.
Today’s gospel tells a very different story. A young woman abandons her safety, her future. Engaged to be married, she becomes pregnant, but not by her fiance. The society where she lives is a strict one. There is zero tolerance for unwed mothers and unfaithful women. Hardly more than a girl, she has placed herself on the margins, outside the circle of community acceptance.
Why did she let this happen? Mary did not become pregnant in the usual way. A heavenly messenger appeared to her, announcing that she was to have a special baby, not as the result of human desire, but by her acceptance of God’s invitation. So it was that Mary chose to abandon her safety. For this was to be a holy child.
A promise of national security,and a woman pregnant before marriage. Two very different stories. Indeed, they appear to be opposites. In one story, safety is gained. In the other, it is lost. But there is a bridge between the two.
This bridge is the one that unites the Old Testament and the New. The English theologian Austin Farrer gives us a name for this bridge which I think is as good as any. He speaks of the rebirth of images.[See, for example, Austin Farrer, The Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse (State University of New York Press, 1986).]
The rebirth of images. This is what happens when we move from the Old Testament to the New, from the story of David to the story of Mary. The images are reborn. That is to say, they appear again, but they look different, and the difference can surprise us.
Let’s consider some of the images from the story about the promise of national security. We hear about a king and his realm, a throne, a commitment made and kept. We hear about a dynasty established, a royal house.
These same images reappear in the story about the woman pregnant before marriage.
We hear about a king and his realm and his throne even as we did before. But the king is an unlikely one. Yes, he is David’s descendant, but he’s mysteriously conceived, and born to an obscure couple seeking shelter in a stable. His realm is not a territory on any map. He has not time to rest on his throne while he lives on earth.
God makes a commitment and keeps it. Yet it is hard to recognize God’s commitment in the life of Mary’s son. It was hard for his contemporaries, and it is difficult to recognize today. The ability to recognize that the promise is kept is what we call faith.
A dynasty is established for the realm. There is a royal house. Yet this is no conventional kingship. The realm in question is anywhere that God’s reign is recognized and welcomed. The royal house is a large one. It includes even you and me, who are made royal heirs by our baptism.
This rebirth of images, strange and full of surprises, is the bridge that connects the New Testament and the Old. Images from the Old appear in the New, but they are significantly different, reborn, made new and fresh.
Here is how to relate the two testaments. Don’t throw out the Old. Don’t homogenize the two or treat them the same. Instead, see the Old as born again in the New. See the New as the old made new and fresh and brought to its fulfillment. The New Testament is the old resurrected, and brought to a form that surprises and startles, even as Jesus, risen on Easter morning, was at first not recognized by those who knew him.
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Consider yet another example of images reborn, one of the most important.
In the Old Testament we find the symbol of the lamb. The lamb is a common, gentle animal, not at all powerful or wise. The lamb is a sacrificial animal. Its blood marks the houses of Israel in Egypt, protecting them from the angel of destruction who strikes the homes of the Egyptians. From this comes the Passover Lamb, eaten as part of Israel’s celebration of God’s action in leading them into freedom.
The symbol of the Lamb is reborn in the New Testament. Jesus appears as God’s Lamb, the one who takes away the sins of the world. By way of climax, John’s Revelation, known as the Apocalypse, features a heavenly Lamb with the marks of slaughter on him, yet alive. This lamb opens the scroll sealed with seven seals, and thus demonstrates that he is the key to history’s meaning. This Jesus Lamb, once dead, is alive, and triumphant over the forces of darkness. The future belongs, so Revelation tells us, not to lions or sharks or eagles, but to this victorious Lamb and those who follow him.
Christianity brings with it the rebirth of images. Images from the Old Testament, such as a king and his realm and his throne, a commitment made and kept, a dynasty, a royal house, even an ordinary lamb (a mainstay of the agrarian economy)–all these images are reborn through the resurrection of Jesus. They are changed, they become nearly transparent, able to point us to realities beyond our ability to comprehend. They serve as indicators of God’s purpose and promise.
Our time is like that of the Old Testament in at least this respect: we are surrounded by powerful, influential images that shape our lives. Often what happens is that these images distort our lives. Can these images be reborn? By the grace of God, can they come to serve a larger purpose?
Often this means standing an image on its head. We saw an example of this when security became possible–not just for Israel, but for all creation–when Mary accepted insecurity for herself and became mother of the messiah.
What image do we have of the successful person? Can you see one now, man or woman, in your mind’s eye? Our society defines success by how much we get and keep. Yet as kingship was reborn once, so too success can be reborn, and the successful person seen, not in terms of getting, but in terms of giving, giving away that others may live.
What image do we have of a prosperous home? Is it determined by the size of the lawn, the length of the driveway, the number of rooms in the house? Our society defines prosperity in terms of thousands and millions. Yet dynasty and lineage were once reborn, and the image of prosperity can be reborn as well. The prosperous home can be seen as one where there is a sufficiency of material goods, but also an abundance of love and respect.
What image do we have of a true community of people? Is it a subdivision or a church or a school or a workplace where everybody looks alike and acts alike? Our society values the uniform, the predictable. But kingdom was once reborn and community can be, too. Diversity characterizes a true community. It’s a place where differences are not distractions, but contributions to the shared life of the people.
Images that hold us back, hold us down, can be reborn, resurrected, as images that lift us up, invite us forward.
The old notion of monarchy gives way to the servant kingship of Christ. The desire for national and personal security gives way to the invitation to live the life of faith. The lamb, a common animal used as a sacrifice, gives place to the Lamb of God, who takes away the world’s sin and alone makes sense of human history.
The same can happen with other images. Each can be reborn, resurrected, stood on its head, made almost transparent to the purposes of God. Success can be reborn. Prosperity can be reborn. Community can be reborn.
The magic of Christmas is that, in poet Richard Wilbur’s words,
“straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.”
[From “A stable lamp is lighted,” Hymn 104 in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1985).]
But the magic of Christmas is not limited to these transformations. It includes the recognition that all images, ancient and modern, can be reborn, resurrected, made new and fresh, and that the same can happen with our lives.
I have spoken to you in the name of the One who brings about this magnificent rebirth: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Copyright for this sermon 2008, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).