St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Mary, the Mother of our Lord

Ser­mon preached at St. Luke’s Enmore, Sunday 12th August, 2018

Read­ings: Isai­ah 61.10–62.3; The Mag­ni­ficat; Gala­tians 4. 4–7; Luke 2. 1–7.

Our Read­ings today give us the chance to take a brief look at the sig­ni­fic­ance of Mary, the Moth­er of our Lord. My own think­ing about Mary has been col­oured most par­tic­u­larly by my time in my school chapel choir in the high­lands of Kenya, Limuru. Every year the incom­ing stu­dents were invited to audi­tion for the choir. So it was that six choir pro­ba­tion­ers were giv­en the task of singing the Mag­ni­ficat in three part har­mony and for me it was life chan­ging. What had before been a known part of Even­ing Pray­er became a treas­ure, a gift from God through Mary. As a thir­teen year old I had no theo­lo­gic­al ques­tions about that text. For me it was Mary’s song and it exactly cap­tured my hopes in my world as a child of God. In a way, it enhanced my iden­tity as I sang it from my heart. I was delighted when we arrived here at St Luke’s that we sing the psalms every Sunday.

The Hebrew Scrip­tures are filled with songs and poetry. The most fam­ous are the psalms but our read­ing from Isai­ah today brings us a song that forms part of the proph­ecy of the Mes­si­ah. Those proph­ecies weave in and out of the entire book and this song becomes per­son­al and expresses exulta­tion about the trans­form­a­tion that God is bring­ing into the world through his own people. The Mes­si­ah in Isai­ah is described in sep­ar­ate sec­tions as a King, a Suf­fer­ing Ser­vant and the Anoin­ted One and in Chapter 61, the song is of the Anoin­ted One of God who rejoices in His call­ing and com­mis­sion.

The lan­guage of this song gives us a layered pic­ture of beauty, with robes of right­eous­ness added to those of sal­va­tion, and the bridal adorn­ments more beau­ti­ful still. Just as life springs up in the earth pre­pared for it where there was none, so right­eous­ness and praise spring up, not in a corner, but in the sight of all the nations.

All of this jubil­a­tion is expressed because the nation that is God’s very own is to be restored and giv­en a new name. God’s nation is to become radi­ant and reflect his glory and good­ness. This song shouts its mes­sage. It invig­or­ates its hear­ers and enlivens them. Their cir­cum­stances are dif­fi­cult; they need this vin­dic­a­tion, this encour­age­ment to go on believ­ing in their God. They long for a lovely world where praise and right­eous­ness spring up from their own unprom­ising soil.

In Luke 4, Jesus stood among the mem­bers of his own syn­agogue in Naz­areth and read the pas­sage from Isai­ah 61 that pre­cedes the song we have today. He read: The spir­it of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anoin­ted me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted, to pro­claim liberty to the cap­tives,
and release to the pris­on­ers, to pro­claim the year of the Lord’s favour. 

Had Jesus said some nice plat­it­ud­in­ous things about the com­ing Mes­si­ah all would have been well. How­ever, he spoke pro­voc­at­ively about how today in your hear­ing these things have happened, which was fine, until he also explained how the won­der­ful things that were done in Caper­naum would not hap­pen here. Sud­denly the whole syn­agogue became enraged. Then they tried to kill him by run­ning him toward a cliff. Mary his moth­er is not men­tioned but she was there, in shock, as he escaped from the mob and left Naz­areth, nev­er to return.

In this moment Mary his Moth­er wit­nessed not the affirm­a­tion of all she knew about her son, but the dev­ast­a­tion of wit­ness­ing a com­munity of faith­ful God-fear­ers who would not admit that this man Jesus who had grown up among them could be in any way the Mes­si­ah. This incid­ent comes early in Jesus’ min­istry and would have chal­lenged Mary. It is such a stark pic­ture of how Jesus did not con­form to anyone’s idea of how he would present, but it also gives us a pic­ture of how Mary held on to the prom­ises she was giv­en, did not denounce her son, held her ground, walked her own road.

Jesus con­cep­tion was just as prob­lem­at­ic and Mary’s response remark­able. When the angel came to Mary and gave her the mes­sage that he brought from God, it didn’t fit with any oth­er known event, and she did ask about how it could pos­sibly hap­pen to her, giv­en that she had not had intim­ate rela­tions with a man. The angel told her how it would hap­pen:

 ‘The Holy Spir­it will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will over­shad­ow you; there­fore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your rel­at­ive Eliza­beth in her old age has also con­ceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be bar­ren. For noth­ing will be impossible with God.’ 

This is a sort of explan­a­tion, but still the mat­ter of this heav­enly con­cep­tion is shrouded in mys­tery. Mary says simply ‘Here am I, the ser­vant of the Lord. Let it be with me accord­ing to your word.’ The angel left. It must have been hard for her to accept and even harder to under­stand. It was hard for every­one around her, and still is for us today.

Then Luke tells us that Mary sets off in haste to vis­it Eliza­beth. At this point I won­der what your pic­ture of Mary is. The reli­gious art that we have sets her in a form­al por­trait set­ting. The baby is upright on her lap and both of them are on their best beha­viour. Just what you would expect of the Son of God and his Mum. It is a very stat­ic, saintly view. I would like us to remem­ber today though that as we con­sider Saint Mary, the Moth­er of God, we are the gathered Saints of God here on this corner of Enmore and Stan­more Roads. And like us, Mary lived an act­ive and busy life. Her life as a moth­er began with a jour­ney of about 160 kms. It was an ardu­ous, rugged jour­ney and would have taken about 5 days across hilly ter­rain. She trav­elled quickly with her unborn child. She left behind her nor­mal life and work. I have nev­er done a walk like that for any reas­on, but Mary was com­pelled. She was pro­voked into action by the sever­ity of her cir­cum­stances. There was nobody else in the world who could have under­stood what had happened to her. She arrived dirty, tired and con­cerned about her recep­tion.

When she gets to Elizabeth’s house, she receives a simply won­der­ful wel­come. Elizabeth’s baby leaps around in her womb, and cry­ing out loudly she exclaims:

 ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me that the moth­er of my Lord comes to me? 

Eliza­beth is simply over­joyed and she includes the unborn child in her joy, and more than that, she shouts out her greet­ing to Mary, call­ing her the Moth­er of my Lord, the very name of God. In the his­tory of wel­comes, this must have been one of the best. Into this wel­come Mary’s song is set. It is exult­ant, it is worth singing, it is lovely and no won­der our church claimed it for our pray­ers in every day. Mary’s God is the Great One, holy and mer­ci­ful, strong and resource­ful for the people that bear his name. God acts on their behalf to defend and provide for them, and he keeps his prom­ises.

So Mary stays there for three months, right up to the time when Eliza­beth was due to give birth. Then she set out alone again to travel with oth­er strangers to Naz­areth, to home, in the sure know­ledge that it might not be so easy there to explain the child that she is expect­ing. And it isn’t. The dif­fi­cult jour­ney leads her back to her betrothed, Joseph, who begins the soul-search­ing about his wife-to-be and what could have pos­sessed her to be telling such massive lies about an angel and a mes­si­ah. He can­not believe her, there are no pre­ced­ents for believ­ing such a thing. Mat­thew tells us this Joseph part of the story, and how the inter­ven­tion of an angel helps him come to accept­ance of his wife’s start­ling testi­mony. It is an upheav­al for Mary and for him. It tests her faith in God because she waits for res­cue in a dan­ger­ous world that does not accept babies born appar­ently fath­er­less.

Mary’s Yes to God is chal­lenged at every turn, not least by the sud­den decision to count the pop­u­la­tion in order to extort more taxes. Oppres­sion raises its ugly head and the two par­ents-to-be are forced to travel late in the preg­nancy, and away from fam­ily and sup­port who must stay behind to be coun­ted. They take the same jour­ney, made harder than before by her con­di­tion, and made more anxious by the floods of people who pre­ceded them to their home town. By the time they arrive only the dregs of accom­mod­a­tion are left and there the ordin­ary-look­ing baby, the Mes­si­ah is born.

In the early nar­rat­ive about Jesus’ com­ing, Mary fea­tures as someone who has needed to sum­mon all her reserves of determ­in­a­tion and faith. She has char­ac­ter, she is strong and she is learn­ing to be more devoted to her God and her God-child in her deep vul­ner­ab­il­ity. In her moth­er­hood she has the affirm­a­tion of God’s descrip­tion of him­self as a labour­ing woman in Isai­ah 42, as he gives birth in dis­tress­ing pain to a new thing, res­cue for all who call on his name. In Psalm 22 to God are attrib­uted all the skills of a mid­wife when it says: Yet it was you who took me from the womb

You kept me safe on my mother’s breast….

Much later Jesus as he mourns over Jer­u­s­alem before his own death talks of him­self as a moth­er hen, long­ing to gath­er her chick­ens under her wings, but they wouldn’t come. The meta­phors used of God make him hard to pin down because each sur­pris­ing one gives an aspect of his feel­ing, yearn­ing, act­ive being. There are many more.

Songs nour­ish and sus­tain us while jour­neys are pur­pose­ful and hard, expos­ing us to open skies, and the nat­ur­al world.  Jesus’ jour­neys in utero were not an acci­dent. They were an intro­duc­tion to his own world and nation. But after his birth, after he had found no hos­pit­al­ity in Beth­le­hem, and the king of his nation threatened to kill him, his par­ents embarked on the most haz­ard­ous jour­ney of their lives, away from all that would become famil­i­ar, out into exile and a scary kind of safety. Nadia Wheat­ley set this story out in her children’s book called ‘Flight’. I can recom­mend it. It cap­tures the sense of danger, fear and the momentum of such travels for the refugee. They find a safe haven.

We have come to listen again today to a very old story. It is filled with drama and high expect­a­tion. Mary and the baby Jesus sur­vive all the haz­ards they have faced togeth­er, and their lives are forever entwined. She later becomes a wit­ness to more drama than she can fully bear, and she is there at Pente­cost. In our weekly cel­eb­ra­tions we stand in the dra­mas as they unfold and we come to love the prin­cipals for their being human, their cour­age and grace. We call Mary blessed on this day as we cel­eb­rate her life, and we love her for the way she loved and cared for her Lord. The mys­tery of her bear­ing Jesus through his birth is part of the mys­tery of our lives in Christ, and we too are called to bear Jesus’ Spir­it act­ively into our world. We are called to be filled with His Spir­it, and to make room for Him in our lives.

Rose­mary Brad­ford

12.8.2018