Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
I suppose that in every age, people have responded to signs: in ancient times they may have come from natural phenomena, seen as pointing to extraordinary events like comets, eclipses of the sun or moon, great storms or weather patterns.
In our times much faith is put into the collection and evaluation of statistics, whether these are in the areas of employment, crime, school or health service performance. However these too are subject to interpretation and demand a proper understanding of how they were collected, what sampling considerations apply and what levels of confidence may be placed in them.
Isaiah points to another sign, given when the kingdom of Judah was under great stress. It was the sign of a baby, born to a young woman, unmarried and under the norms of the time, a virgin – as if she was likely to be anything else.
Yet this child was to be special: appointed of God from before His birth and with a special task and destiny. He would be unique in His ministry and it would be a ministry for all of time.
The child was to be special in the eyes of God, beyond the imagination or understanding of the Jews of Isaiah’s time or even of those of His own.
He would give new depth to ideas of the purpose and identity of Israel, to the understanding and the application of the law, to the place of forgiveness and of the unmerited and unearned favour of God in His dealings with people of all nations and persuasions.
The baby would of course have to grow to adulthood and to accept the purposes God had for His life. He would have to enter His own ministry freely and willingly, and to discharge it to the limits of His strength and devotion and understanding.
For Paul, there is also a sense of destiny and appointment. He too was special in the sight of God, and he too was drawn out of his own perceptions and understandings so that he might live for a greater and more sacrificial purpose.
Paul would be led first into favour with the Pharisees of his time, and into persecution of the followers of Jesus. Yet at the height of his authority he would be reduced to blindness and a complete food and water fast before he could accept and enter the plans that God had for him.
Paul would be charged with the task of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the peoples of many lands and cities, and of facing such opposition and persecution that his endeavours led him into. The task would take all that he had and would reward him with rejection, beatings and imprisonments, not to mention the grief of backsliding churches so easily distracted from the simplicity of the gospel message by apparently more learned and higher forms of doctrine.
Yet these two readings put brackets around our gospel message which tells in the simplest possible way, of the birth of Jesus.
But the birth of Jesus was also attended by the devotion and obedience of Mary and Joseph. Mary, also unmarried at the time of Jesus’ conception, had accepted her role and task with remarkably little reassurance for her personal safety and was at risk of rejection and worse at the hands of her betrothed.
Mary still entered the vocation placed before her, trusting in the provision and protection of God for the sake of her child, but with little else.
Joseph, at first horrified at Mary’s pregnancy, was also called on by God to enter far more than marriage and fatherhood. He also needed reassurance that Mary’s condition was in the providence and love of God and that his task would be to protect and provide for them both.
The thread common to these readings is the sense in which God has called on people into His service and ministry. It would be easy to discount them as applying only to special individuals in the gospel story, but there is far more to it than that.
The reality is that all who have responded to the gospel message are also called into the service of God.
There is no limit of circumstance – such as a besieged city or a beleaguered nation; there is no limit of age – for Joseph is thought to have been rather older than Mary, although still capable of enjoying normal married relations with her.
There is no limit of status, for Paul was of some social standing and learning, and perhaps to the scandal of some today: that was no impediment to God’s call either.
For each of us there is no limit of age or occupation, of the sorrows and grief of the past, of rejection or disappointment, of health or income or understanding, which can preclude us from entering a new area of service to God in Jesus Christ.
The point is not where we start but where we are heading and how determined we are to progress there.
And God does not limit His calling to the great and the good in the eyes of our society, to those whom we consider to deserve such a call or are able to receive and discharge it satisfactorily in our opinion. Rather He calls us where we are, and within our own situations and needs. He calls us before we have resolved all questions of theology or morals or politics or philosophy.
Rather He calls us so that we may enter new realms of discovery, as He leads us into purposes that we could never have guessed or imagined: for that is the kind of God that He is. And yes, He believes in us and He entrusts us with His tasks.