I hope your new year is starting well. We had a great Advent I yesterday, with eucharist in the morning and Advent lessons and carols in the evening. It was a wonderful start to this season of watching and waiting and preparing. So our readings for this coming Sunday are…
I have a bit of a habit when I work on these posts, and that is to try to find a unifying concept – one single word – that the lessons taken together embody for me. In Ordinary Time, based on the BCP lectionary, that wasn’t too hard, as the readings were chosen as a group to embody a theme. But in Advent and Christmas, as in Lent and Easter, the readings are chosen to tell the story of the liturgical season, so it may take a little more work to find that one-word concept. Today, however, it jumped out at me. The word that these lessons whisper into my heart is family.
Family is so central for us this time of the year. We think about our family gathered around the Christmas tree to give and receive gifts. We have our family parties and meals and celebrations — with the accompanying disagreements and dysfunctions that make each family unique. We make a special effort to gather together family members who live far away. The thing about family — the reason the holidays seem to bring out these arguments and dysfunctions — is that family is where we feel safe. Family is where we can behave badly, in ways we would never dream of behaving at work or in public, because family will always love us and take care of us. (This is actually why we sometimes (often?) behave badly in a church environment, also. Church is supposed to be a place where it is safe to be broken, safe to be flawed and unlovely and even sometimes unloving. Everybody in church is (at least nominally) a Christian, so they all have to forgive us and love us when we behave badly, right?)
The reading from Isaiah talks about the root of Jesse, and what will happen when the branch from the root of Jesse comes into the world. Jesse was David’s father – David, the second king of Israel, back in the glory days when everything was milk and honey and strength and prosperity for God’s chosen people. After being weakened and conquered and taken captive and re-conquered and subjugated to foreign governments, these chosen people were really anxious to return to those glory days. And who can blame them?
The gospel from Matthew brings up another great father from the history of the Israelites: Abraham. Abraham was an old man – and his wife an old woman – when God promised him a son, promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the night sky. Abraham was the first of the patriarchs, and his grandson Jacob is the one whose name was changed to Israel – the name of a nation. Abraham is seen as sort of a father to all of the Jewish people – and hence to Christians, too – as well as to the people of Islam. So we have the father of the loving and benevolent and glorious king of Israel, and we have the father of all of the Jewish people.
And then what happens in the epistle? We are reminded that this family, it doesn’t include only the Jewish people, only the children of Abraham. No, God’s family includes the Gentiles, too – that means that every last person on this planet is one of God’s children. Isaiah told his people that God was sending someone special to help them. John the Baptist told his followers that God was sending someone for all the children of Abraham. And in Romans, Paul (?) reminds us that everyone is a child of God, that Jesus was the someone special who came not only for God’s chosen people, but for the entire world.
So in Jesus, our family has widened. Our family is not just our mother and father and brother and sister. Our family is not just our tribe. Our family is not just our nation, our denomination, our faith. Our family is every last soul on this earth, here now, already departed, or yet to be born. And this is our family because God ordains it, because Jesus came for all of us. Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman. He did not refuse help to those who came to him in need. He did not check family trees to find a common ancestor before healing anyone.
And I think that this idea gives us another reminder, in this season of watchfulness and preparation, that hearkens back to last week’s readings. We don’t know when Jesus will come. We don’t know what he will look like. But it is our job to recognize him when he comes. And we can do this better if we are already looking at everyone around us like family, if we are already looking for Jesus within everyone we encounter. The light of Jesus will shine out to us from every person, from every child of God. Sometimes it is harder to see, when someone is trying to hide it or when we are trying to hide from it, but Jesus is always there. Jesus looks out at you from the eyes of your children, from the eyes of your parents, from the eyes of your co-workers and fellow parishioners, from the eyes of the lady behind the counter at Burger King, from the eyes of the crazy guy who stands by the bus station and hurls curses and insults at the passersby, from the eyes of the baby born prematurely and struggling to breathe, from the eyes of the patient in the nursing home. From my eyes. And from yours.
So look at your family all around you. Look at Jesus within them. And as the prayer in the epistle this week says, may the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.