Have you ever wondered why you do some of the things that you do? Is it routine or ritual? If you get up early in the morning to walk the dog, it’s probably routine. But does being outside in the fresh morning air make it more ritual than routine? Think about sitting down with your family to have dinner. That can certainly seem like a routine. But does it shift to ritual when you bless the food before eating it?
So what’s the difference between routine and ritual? They sound so similar and are sometimes used interchangeably. A routine usually becomes a habit – we just do it without thinking about why. A ritual has more to it. It has meaning or tradition that stirs up something deep within us. It points to something bigger than itself.
Mary and Joseph knew that when they took baby Jesus to the Temple when he was only 40 days old and there wasn’t anything routine about that. They were a Jewish family and they followed the Jewish ritual of presenting their first born son to the Lord. Such a ritual was in gratitude for their baby and as a reminder of the sanctity of their relationship to God.
Although baptism is a sacrament, there are rituals involved in it that uncover its meaning for us – such as watching and hearing water being poured into the font, or watching the priest make the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead. They both point to the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Who in the world is King Ahaz and what does the prophet Isaiah want us to know about him that would be of any interest to us so close to Christmas?
Well…glad you asked that question! About 700 years before Jesus was even born, there were two kingdoms where the Israelites – God’s chosen people – lived: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
Israel had been threatened by the Assyrians for years and had finally been captured by them. Judah, however, was still independent. Its capital was Jerusalem and it was being ruled by a descendent of the great King David. His name was Ahaz.
The thing about the Assyrians is that they weren’t happy with just capturing Israel. They wanted to add to their empire and they set their sights south on Judah. King Ahaz was doing his best to hold them off, but it wasn’t easy. And he began to think that the best solution to the crisis was to make a deal with the Assyrians.
And that’s when Isaiah stepped in. He couldn’t help himself because like any prophet, Isaiah was God’s mouthpiece, and he needed to urge King Ahaz to have faith in the will of God instead of giving in to the will of the Assyrians. But Ahaz was scared and like anyone else, he wanted a sign that he and the kingdom of Judah would survive – but he wasn’t going to ask for one.
Have you ever been at a party or large family gathering and noticed how one person in particular seemed to be attracting a lot of attention? If I had to guess, I would say that that person was someone who could tell a good story. In my family, that person happens to be my brother-in-law. He comes into a crowd, finds a chair somewhere in the corner, sits down and waits for people to notice him – which, given his large size, isn’t hard to do. He gets food and drinks brought to him as he carries forth with story after story. He thrives on all the attention he gets.
Jesus was a good storyteller, too – an amazing storyteller. He also could attract a crowd of listeners – but it wasn’t because he wanted or needed the attention. It happened naturally as his reputation for teaching, for healing and for controversy spread. People were naturally curious about him.
As you know by now, so many of his stories were parables; and many of them were told in the company of Pharisees, who prided themselves on being keepers of Jewish rituals, tradition and liturgy. Jesus would draw his listeners in with an ordinary beginning to his story such as: “There was a man who had two sons…” (Luke 15:11) which is the beginning of the parable of the Prodigal Son; or “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..” (Luke 10:25) which is the beginning of the Good Samaritan; and “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple…” (Luke 16:19) which begins today’s parable.
A few weeks ago, I was preparing for a class that we’re offering here this summer on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We use a study guide with questions that we’re supposed to think and write about before coming to class. There was one question in particular that really caught me off guard and it surprised me by how much I struggled to answer it. The question was: How do you define faith? Have you ever tried to do that? I think you know if you have faith, but how do you describe what that is? Is it trust or a belief or are those words more like synonyms rather than definitions?
In many of his letters, Paul praises his communities for the faith that they have in Christ Jesus. In this morning’s letter to the Hebrews, he defines that faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That sounds really good, but what does it mean?