Sermon preached at St Jude’s, Mildmay on Sunday 23rd December 2018
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Del verbo divina
La Virgen preñada
Viene de camino:
Si les dias pousada!
The virgin, pregnant
With the Word of God
Comes down the road:
If only you’ll give her a room!
St John of the Cross
Lord God, as we open our hearts afresh to your Son this Christmas, may we also give room to the mother who carried him into human life. Amen.
In the school nativity, an angelic child announced to the girl Mary that God says, “Will you be the mother of my son?” “Of course I will”, Mary immediately replied. “Of course I will”.
We might wonder whether Mary knew to what she was giving her consent. For two reasons, I think she did know.
Firstly, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Malachi and Zechariah, and Micah had long forecast that the Lord would send a messiah to save God’s people – and Mary would have known this teaching as it was passed on down the generations. Also, what Luke has recorded about her subsequent response demonstrates Mary had received a personal revelation from God and knew the purpose of her pregnancy in God’s overall plan.
Mary was pregnant with expectation and our opening hymn ‘Tell out my soul’ shows this as it’s based on her song in Luke’s gospel about magnifying God .
I’d like to explore what we can learn of God’s overall plan from the prophet Micah and the personal revelation of God to Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.
Micah lived in the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah about 700 years before Jesus was born. His name means ‘Who is like Yahweh?’ We might say, or sing, ‘Who is like our God?’ That was his name. He spoke of the birth of a new king in Bethlehem – the messiah of the Jewish people would gather the people into one nation and establish God’s kingdom. Several prophets had spoken of the servant king who was to come, but Micah is the only one to identify where the messiah would be born.
Bethlehem was a small town but famous for being the City of David, the shepherd boy who God called to be king. Micah announced that God will bring another king out of Bethlehem, “whose family line goes back to ancient times”. Whilst he would rule as David’s successor (Isaiah 9.7) his origin would predate David.
The name Bethlehem means House of Bread, and out of Bethlehem was to come Jesus, who said of himself, “I am the bread of life” (John 6.35). By using the divine name I AM, by which the Lord had identified himself to Moses (Exodus 3.14), Jesus associated himself with God. His family line went back to the beginning of time
Micah said that, with the strength and majesty of God, this king coming out of Bethlehem would reunite Jews who were living in exile outside Israel (Micah 5.3b). Some time later, the good news extended to include the Jewish diaspora around the Mediterranean in the new communities which formed to follow the way of Jesus.
This king would bring peace (Micah 5.5a). Peace. I wonder what we understand by the peace of God, and how we experience it.
I met someone recently who was clearly at peace with the world – and at peace beyond the world in her relationship with God – whilst engaging with issues of justice that constrain God’s people. She spoke of Mary as her inspiration. “Will you be the mother of my son?” “Of course I will!”
Perhaps this might show us that seeking to follow what God asks us to do can bring peace and contentment; even if the task is difficult.
Soon after a baby was conceived in Mary, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who, at a very old age, was herself six months pregnant with her first child. The angel Gabriel had announced to her husband Zechariah that they would have the son they had long desired and he would be a prophet as mighty as Elijah (Luke 1.17).
We aren’t told whether Mary had sent news in advance to Elizabeth about her own visit from the angel Gabriel, but Luke’s record of the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary contains several revelations about Mary and the child she was carrying. I’ve spotted four:
- The baby John moved within Elizabeth (Luke 1.41); he jumped for joy (Luke 1.44). John had not yet been born but this was his first recorded prophetic action, to jump for joy at being in the presence of the Son of God, who at that time would have been very very small inside Mary.
- Elizabeth declared Mary as the most blessed of all women (Luke 1.42) and mother of my Lord (Luke 1.43). Mary continues to be known by these two names; some Christians call her the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM); others call her Mother of God (Theotokos) and will be celebrating her response to God today.
- Elizabeth affirms Mary’s joy and the faith in God that she demonstrated by believing in the angel’s message (Luke 1.45). Elizabeth herself was carrying a miraculous baby whose birth had been announced by the same angel (Luke 1.5-25), so could confirm her cousin was right to believe what she had heard.
- Mary responds with a great song of praise to God (Luke 1.46-55). It’s one of the most famous songs in Christianity. We sing it or say it wherever Christians meet. It is the gospel before the gospel. It’s all about God and all about revolution. The Magnificat is so revolutionary that it’s been banned by governments who felt threatened by Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor. Including a previous British Government! which prohibited it being said or sung during Evening Prayer in India. When British flags were finally lowered at independence, Mahatma Gandhi requested that this song be read. Mary’ song is revolutionary. It is the gospel.
God was at work in these two women. Elizabeth pregnant at last after hope had gone, and Mary pregnant far sooner than she had expected. They shared a dream, the ancient dream of Israel, that one day the Lord would do what he had promised to their ancestor Abraham: that all nations would be blessed through his family. But for that to be happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled.
But also, God confirmed to Mary through Elizabeth and John that what she thought had happened in her encounter with Gabriel, had indeed happened. When God speaks through multiple people, the Word of God is very clear and affirming. That is a reason why we need each other, so we can help each other hear clearly what God is saying.
Three months later John was born, and six months further on Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In their mothers, the two cousins had spiritual teachers who were in tune with God and his mission to love the people of the world, and with the purpose of the lives of their two sons in God’s plan.
The sons were called by God and their mothers were called to be their teachers: to feed them spiritual milk from God, as well as feeding them with their own milk.
This beautiful carving from Angola shows mother and baby. Complete reliance of a baby for food on a human mother contributed to forming them into complete reliance for spiritual food on God who had given them life.
Over time the two boys grew up and came to recognise for themselves what God was calling them to be and to do. They both become agents of God’s long-promised revolution, the victory over the powers of evil. Much of Mary’s song is echoed by Jesus’s teaching as he warns the rich not to trust in their wealth, and promises God’s kingdom to the poor.
This is the kingdom that we are part of. God’s great plan of salvation to reunite all people with Himself through Jesus the messiah of the Jews and the anointed one of God, the Christ. We are called into this relationship of love. Perhaps we already know that, perhaps we have known that for many years, perhaps we are just discovering that God is calling us into a new relationship with Him, or perhaps we are wondering what Christmas is really all about.
Wherever we start from, we’re all invited to #FollowTheStar on a spiritual journey through the 12 Days of Christmas. The Church of England has produced an excellent booklet of reflections. There is one for each day from Christmas Eve throughout the 12 days ending with the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January. Each one includes a picture, a short Bible passage, a simple prayer and a challenge to reflect or act differently. Together, they form a journey that will help us take the joy and wonder of Christmas into the year ahead.
God of grace,
Wherever we are in the world this Christmas,
Let our hearts and minds draw close to you,
Renew each of us by your loving Holy Spirit and the breath of life,
Restore each of us to be whole again by your coming Saviour and reborn,
Reveal amidst worldly difficulty your true hope for the world in your coming King,
Let us love one another bravely especially all who have no voice or place in this world,
Let us welcome in Mary’s experience of a miracle into our hearts, and welcome in miracles into our lives today,
Be with us God wherever we are in our hearts with you this Christmas, and guide us with a hope as abundant as a radiant galaxy.