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.