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12.13.20 Old Story, New Spin Isaiah 57.14-19 Luke 1.26-35, 46-55 Sermon Summary

by on December 14, 2020

You may be a lover of literature, or have a “great books” education, or perhaps you’ve just lived long enough to realize that great stories share some universal narrative plotlines. The Christmas story is one of those.

The Christmas story contains plot turns that precede the New Testament and storylines that are found in other traditions. These include light shining in darkness, redemption arising out of the ashes of defeat, and hope sprouting from soils of despair. They include young leadership inspiring new vision, the reversal of fortunes between oppressors and oppressed, and the proud being humbled while the humble are exalted. 

Even more, the rich are exposed as empty and the poor shown to be full. Slaves realize they’re really free and the so-called free are actually enslaved. The forsaken in these stories emerge as blessed and the blessed end up being cursed.

All this is in the Christmas story as it is in every great story. Great narratives share these traits over time and across cultures.

Isaiah the Jew told this story. Luke the Christian told it also. The big difference between other great stories and biblical stories is that other great stories don’t necessarily identify God. The Bible does.

Miraculous events, incredible deliverances, providential coincidences, and exceptional individuals—in other great stories God may or may not be involved. But the Bible attributes all these to God.

For the prophet Isaiah the return of the people from Exile is all God’s doing. Ancient Israel was greedy, oppressing the poor to gain wealth, and chasing after other gods. So the God of Israel hid himself and the people existed AS IF without God, though God was ever watchful. 

The people suffered the tyranny of self-reliance and eventually they were conquered. But God who is faithful even when we are not, delivered them from Exile, from their self-imposed separation from God. God healed them in this deliverance. In this healing, despite their suffering, they could have joy. 

Some of us are in exile this morning. Circumstances have landed us far from God’s promised land. Decisions we’ve made have separated us from God. And we wonder, Can we ever return? Will we ever get back? What will become of our brokenness?

Isaiah wants us to know that God will not always be distant. God will remember that we are weak but also remember that we are created in God’s image. God will heal us. God will bring us home.

I wonder, Did Mary think of this when the messenger Gabriel came? Did she remember this old story given her new spin? She was going to become pregnant with a Savior, with a Son of God, with a King. We’re told she questioned. “How could this be?”

Did Mary just “know,” as some women just know, that she was already pregnant as Gabriel spoke to her? Was she buying time to try to get her mind around the message? Or did she question because she questioned God’s choice? “How can this be?” she said. What she was really asking was, “How can this be happening to ME?”

Did she remember Isaiah? That God will come near? That God will compensate for our weakness? That God’s image resides within us? That with God our lives can be born again?

Did she remember her history as a Jew? That her betrothed Joseph was named for the man through whom God saved Israel? That her Joseph was of the house of David the shepherd king whose leadership was the ideal? Did it occur to her that her son would inaugurate a season of salvation and another ideal kingdom?

Jews rehearse their history over and over. Mary knew these things. What Gabriel said was not particularly surprising. She could envision her child doing these things. Why not? It’s the same old story, just a new spin. Before with Abraham, then with Joseph, next with David, and this time with Jesus—beginning with Mary. 

It’s the same story, just a new spin. It’s like the refrain of a song, a chorus that returns over and over and says, “God saves God’s people.” So Mary sings. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and I am filled with joy.”

You also are familiar with this story. It underlies the stories that inspire you most. Stories from the history of our nation. Stories from the lore of your family. Remembrances from your own life. New beginnings arise out of endings. Hope surprises from despair. Light bursts into darkness. Joy inexplicably accompanies sorrowful situations.

Will you do as Mary does? As Isaiah does? As Luke does? Will you recognize God in your story? Will you say yes? Will you believe? Will you believe in joy even when sadness reigns?

May the words of Gabriel resound in your ears: “Do not be afraid; you have found favor with God. And now a new life will be conceived in you: A new life giving light, a new life giving hope, a new life giving love, a new life giving peace, a new life giving joy.” Amen.

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