Sermon Podcast: Advent 417 Dec 2018 By Sermon Podcasts
Carey Saleh, Vicar of Stourport on Severn and Wilden, 23 December 2018.
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Mary has been so often cast as a meek and obedient girl; nice, pure. No trouble at home. No trouble anywhere. A role model for nicely brought up Christian girls. Do as you’re told. Keep your head down. Don’t get into trouble.
Whatever the arrangements made between her family and Joseph’s - money would have changed hands. Their betrothal was as binding as a marriage. It was a contract between families. A girl was the property of her father to be handed on to her husband.Kept in line. Respectable and respectful. Well she wasn’t a Christian of course she was Jewish; and even if she had been considered meek and mild or pious once that sort of respectability was blown clear out of the water by the news of her pregnancy. The people of her town never looked at her in the same way again.
Levitcal law demanded that she be stoned to death. Joseph had decided to take another way out. He would divorce her quietly. Which meant of course that no one else would want her. Including her family. She would be considered soiled goods. A pariah. A disgrace.
For a devout Jewish girl whose only future was to marry this was a death sentence. So I don’t buy that insistence that she meekly bowed her head over her embroidery and said, “Fine by me, whatever you say God. I’ll just let the seams out in my blue gown.”
She rushes off to her kinswoman Elisabeth rather as Ruth the Moabite went to find the kinsman Boaz. A woman in desperate plight who needed a member of the family to stand between her and disaster. That too was the law of Leviticus. It is the first time we meet Elizabeth. She has been in seclusion for five months finding herself pregnant quite unexpectedly, and since Zechariah has been unable to speak since his meeting with an angel I wonder how much Elizabeth is aware of what God has been doing or who her child will be.
Yet here they are, the elderly barren woman and the virgin both finding themselves pregnant. Instinctively they withdraw from the rest of the critical crowd and turn to each other. And as they meet something happens. Mary enters the house and calls out to Elizabeth, her voice suddenly speaking truth. And as she does so Elizabeth feels her baby leap with exaltation. And in that moment something beyond human knowledge is shared between these two women. The deep intuitive healing and transforming wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Life within us both where life cannot logically have happened. God is at work in us.
And the result is an outbreak of emotion in Mary. We can call it joy, we can call it praise. Both were there. But there was something else. A moment of authenticity spoken aloud, a vast “At Last”
Finally God has broken through - and all those stories she’d grownup with about her ancestors, about covenant, about promise are to be fulfilled. What she says is “Finally God has seen the humiliation of this slave woman and from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
The same words that Hannah used in her song in the book of Samuel when Hannah knows she will have a child.
The songs of these two women share a theme - the subversive ways of God, lifting up the poor and weak, and bringing down the proud and haughty in their conceit. Filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. That is the AT Last of Mary’s heart. The Church has missed that subversive text down the centuries too eager to turn her back into an obedient vessel. Every cell in her body was changed and challenged to accommodate her calling.Her very DNA woven into the mystery imparted to her.
And there is another story in the Old Testament that comes to mind. The story of another slave woman who received an annunciation. Her name was Hagar, the slave girl of Sarah given to Abraham when Sarah found she couldn’t conceive. Running away from Sarah’s harsh and jealous treatment Hagar meets with God. And God says to her, Hagar, slave girl of Sarai, you have conceived and you shall bear a son and you shall call him Ishmael for the Lord has heard your affliction.
In Mary’s outburst of praise there is a liberation cry. That was the deep understanding of Mary’s people - the story they told year after year – how God had heard their anguish and liberated them from slavery bringing them out into a promised heritage. Now Mary’s people are in bondage again to the occupying force of Rome. It is a world where the rich and powerful flourish and make the rules for the poor and down-trodden and rob them of their land, their voice, their freedom. They are burdened by taxation where ever they look, by Rome, by Herod, by the Temple. And across the sky line stand the crosses – a reminder of what happens to those who make trouble for those in Power.
So there is appropriate anger in Mary’s joy ringing out as a song of vindication. God has seen the state of the poor. God will do something about it. This God of liberation is keeping the promise made to Abraham – the promise to our ancestors – the remembrance of mercy.
There is a fierceness there – the new fierceness of a mother for her unborn child. The child that the world could easily have stoned to death while still in the womb – the child that a jealous king will give orders to slaughter – and kill baby boys indiscriminately. This young mother cries out against such tyrants, and gives praise to the God who said to Pharaoh over and over again “Let my people go!”
Cry Freedom – that is Mary’s song. The song of a slave girl set free, the song she sang on behalf of her people.
Richard Rohr writes:
“Mary is a woman who is profoundly self-possessed. She can hold her power comfortably because she knows it is from Beyond. She can also give it away. Power, dignity, and blessedness are hers to hold, offer back, and proudly acclaim in her great Magnificat. This woman knows her boundaries, her ground, and her gift.”
I wonder what God can bring to birth in us that is unexpected, previously hidden away by convention What intuition might the Holy Spirit cause in us so that we might leap with exaltation of new understanding?
What is coming from deep within us, stirred by the events in which we find ourselves, the political uncertainty and upheaval, the natural world out of balance, our own known centres and sense of identity out of kilter? When the whole world is on the move again like the refugees of that long-ago census? What advent stirs in the unlikely places of realisation and raises us to righteous anger? What long unspoken lament will be charged by exultation in the unnoticed corners? The sort of places where the world wouldn’t look twice. But Mary acknowledges that God has indeed looked twice at her. Regarded the humiliation of this slave woman. Regarded is from the French verb Regardez with its sense of Behold – to look again.
The prophet Micah had a message for the little unnoticed corners. You Bethlehem who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel.
What might God see in us that we have not seen in ourselves, and yet might be stirring deep within us? We have for centuries tried to keep Miriam of Nazareth in that meek pious obedient straight jacket. We should look again. There is a reason why Scripture describes God as a mother bear robbed of her cubs or a mother eagle lifting her young on her own back.
So in this woman God recognised the fierce protective love of God’s own heart that would have the strength to bear the point of any piercing sword.
The love that our liberating God has for us.
Who am I, said Hagar, that I might have seen God and live?
Who am I, said Elizabeth, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Who am I , said Mary, a woman with no husband?That this should be?
Who are You? Who are we? And who is God?
We should look again.
For Behold, God has done Great things in and for and through us; and will go on doing so.