A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, March 26th 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
Two bible readings.
Two young women.
Two children to be born.
From Isaiah 7:14: ‘the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,’
“Immanuel,” which as some of us will know, means, “God is with us.”
Then from Luke 1:35: ‘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; he will be called Son of God.’
“Son of God,” which as some of us will know, carries a sense of exhibiting the character of one’s father, as in, “he’s his father’s son; his parent’s child.”
I wonder how many times you have read or heard these two readings? For myself I couldn’t even begin to count. Of course, the great majority of occasions when I have read or heard them it has been December, not March. After all, Isaiah’s talk of a young woman, or virgin to use the general term for young women in his time, giving birth to a child called Immanuel, appears most frequently in our carol services, or in other services during Advent. And it would be a very strange carol service that did not include the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce, ‘you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.’ (1:31) Jesus: a name which itself means, “God saves.”
Yes, here we are in March, not December, in Lent, not in Advent, and these are our two Bible readings for today. That’s because March 25th (yesterday), coming nine months before December 25th (Christmas Day) is celebrated by many Christian churches as the Feast of the Annunciation, that is, the occasion portrayed in Luke’s Gospel when Gabriel announces to Mary the conception of the child, to be born as Jesus, as God with us, as Son of God.
These two readings from Isaiah 7 and Luke 1 have often been paired together in the history of the Christian Church. For example, in art there have been many representations of the annunciation, picturing the heavenly messenger, Gabriel, visiting the young woman, Mary. In many of these paintings, from the Middle Ages onward, Isaiah gets included as a background figure, often carrying a scroll which represents his prophecies.
Also, in many such paintings Mary is portrayed as reading when the angel appears. It’s a good thing I wasn’t Mary because once my nose is in a book I miss at least the first sentence or two of anything that anyone says to me! Not only is Mary reading in such pictures, but often we’re shown that the book she is reading Isaiah, and sometimes we can see that her finger is pointing to Isaiah 7:14: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,’
Now as far as I know no one is suggesting that when Gabriel turned up on that occasion Mary literally was reading Isaiah and had just got to chapter seven, verse fourteen. It certainly doesn’t say so in Luke’s Gospel. Artists were not claiming that this was the case. Instead, they were wanting to draw to the attention of those who viewed their work that these two Bible passages were linked by the common thread of God at work through time and different settings. And that this work was for the good of people, brought about through the birth of a special child to a young woman.
Now, we’re a church, not an art gallery, so although we might appreciate noting that Christian tradition has linked these two Bible passages we also have other questions about them. We want to know what they might mean for us to today in terms of how we understand God and the world, and how that understanding influences the ways in which we live in thus world. And the thought I have today is that God works through the natural in order to do the miraculous.
Both Bible passages focus on God working this world through the most natural of processes, the birth of a child. It’s being going on for a very long time. Yes, there are arguments to be had over whether the birth of Jesus contains a significant, unique element; to quote his mother, Mary, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ (Luke 1:34) On another occasion we might explore different views about that, but let’s leave that aside today. Instead, let’s concentrate on how shocking in itself it is that God might be born on earth, a human being.
In Isaiah the birth of a son to a young woman is to be taken as a sign from God: ‘therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child …’ (7:14) And centuries later, and just a chapter later in Luke’s Gospel than today’s reading, shepherds out in the fields at night are told by angels, ‘this shall be a sign for you, you will find a child …’ (2:12) A sign from God might not be some spectacular event we deem to be a miracle, but a natural event which is which is invested with meaning: God is present here on earth through a human birth.
That suggests to me that we would do well to look very carefully at everyday events and experiences. We might discover God is at work there, or at least appreciate that God cares what goes on there. After all, if God chose to be both present and at work in a human birth, whether in the time of Isaiah, or above all in Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago, then God might be here at work in everyday events in 2023.
Or at the very least, we know that God deems our natural, everyday experience of life here on earth to be significant because God chose to be part of it with us. Life – your experience of it and mine – matters because it matters to God. All those facets of our lives – work, leisure, health, education, church, family, community, service to others – they all matter to God. And so it matters that as individuals and as a church we take seriously what goes on in the world and what we do about that.
And then finally, one more thought about God at work in Jesus Christ through what is natural in the world. Life follows birth, and death follows on from life – that’s our universal experience. Taking Luke chapter one out of December and putting it here in March reminds us of that. When in December we read about Gabriel visiting Mary we concentrate on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as is only right and proper.
When we bring the annunciation forward into March, however, into Lent, we connect with the adult life of Jesus. Particularly we connect his birth with his journey to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Remember, next Sunday is Palm Sunday, commemorating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The days that follow are ‘Holy Week’, when we remember his betrayal and death upon the cross.
We are reminded then that God, who works wonders through human birth, also works a redemptive wonder through human death; in both cases through Jesus. The cradle that held the child and the cross upon which he hung are bound together; the mother who held him at birth will also hold his body when he has died. And in both situations, firmly located within the ways of this world, God is at work for the good, for the life of us all. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.