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