Sunday, December 20, 2020

Mary Sings -- a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Mary Sings

Luke 1.46-56 NRSV

20 December 2020, NL3-16b, Advent 4 (blessings of an impossible Christmas)

Today we pick up right where we left off last week, with Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth. They're both pregnant and Elizabeth has blessed Mary for her trust in God's word to her. I'm reading from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 1, beginning at verse 46, from the New Revised Standard Version.

And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 

  and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 

for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

   and holy is his name. 

His mercy is for those who fear him

   from generation to generation. 

He has shown strength with his arm;

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly; 

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy, 

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

This week I read a startling news article. Did you know that 2020 is the year that human-made things literally outweighed nature? This is the year that all the stuff we have created — our built environment of concrete and metal and glass, machinery, waste, everything we own — all of that now weighs more than all the entire biomass of the earth. Plastic alone weighs more than all the animals on land and sea! And the vast majority of that mass has been created since the second World War.

Reading about this definitely gave me pause when I was shopping for Christmas gifts. How can we celebrate the Christ who turns everything upside down and at the same time not add to this heavy footprint on God’s beloved creation?

I also had Mary’s song at the front of my mind as I was reading about the study titled “poverty linked to higher risk of Covid death” showing that those living in poorer health board areas of Scotland were more likely to have severe cases of Covid requiring intensive care, and because fewer critical care beds were available in those areas, people in economically deprived areas are more likely to die. We’ve seen the effects of that in Inverclyde through this pandemic, and the statistics nationwide bear out that more poor and disadvantaged people are dying—both from Covid and from other things going untreated as the health service tries to cope.

And again, the news this week is full of the epidemic of drug misuse in Scotland, and here in Inverclyde a rising rate of drug use and deaths. Of course we know that drugs and deprivation go hand in hand, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to us. 

Into the middle of this reality, where hope seems impossible, Mary sings.

Like all of us, she begins from her own personal experience. Though she was not a person of power or status or wealth, just a poor teenager in an out-of-the-way town in an occupied land, God noticed her. God loved her. God called her. And she sang of her gratitude, her awe and wonder, her praise. This thing that God had done — called her to be a prophet and the mother of the Messiah — would not be easy, yet she said that God had done great things for her! She may have been scared, as anyone in her position would be, but her confidence in God’s goodness was enough to raise her voice.

And then, halfway through, Mary recognises that her own personal experience, her own little life that has been unremarkable, is also part of something bigger. Something that God has been doing for a long time, and will continue to do through her and her son, and on into the future: upend the systems of this world and make them look more like the kingdom of God.

From generation to generation, God works with power and mercy, through the lowliest and the marginalised, to fulfil the promise that changes everything: scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and sends the rich away empty, while lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. 

This is the Word that becomes flesh in Jesus. This is the promise that Mary is bearing in her body, the fruit of her faithfulness. This is who God is and what God does — from the earliest days of scripture to the very end of the book and beyond.

I wonder how many of us would join Mary in praising God for these things … given that we are far more likely to be the proud, powerful, and rich in this scenario? We are, globally speaking, at the top of this system that God is turning upside down. We are the ones whose lifestyles have created a situation where our stuff weighs down God’s creation. We are the ones who stand at arms length from the realities of deprivation and wring our hands and make a donation here and there and pray for something to change.

We should be careful what we pray for, because the song Mary sings is definitely about change. It’s about an upending of a system that is, frankly, immoral and against the values of God’s kingdom. Which is not to say that those of us who benefit from the system are bad, but rather that the entire system is. We can't even claim that it’s broken, because the reality is that it’s working exactly as it’s been designed — to privilege the few at the expense of the many, to lift up some on the backs of others. And that system is exactly what God in the flesh will challenge, insisting on valuing every person as a beloved child of God, deserving of enough to eat and inclusion in the community and compassionate care…and that challenge is what will get him killed by the powers that do not want to be scattered or sent away empty. But the Mighty One who looks with favour on Mary will not be thwarted. Not this time, not ever. This is a promise that cannot be broken, and God will find a way to fulfil it, even if it means breaking the power of death to do it.

If this is what God is doing in Christ, then we who are called the Body of Christ had better be ready to be a part of it. If we celebrate Christmas and then nothing is different afterwards, we haven’t celebrated the Messiah that Mary is singing about today. Her words echo through the generations calling us to the kind of impossible Christmas that changes the world. What does the Word of God Incarnate have to say to those who live in such dire poverty that drugs seem the only comfort? Or to those who get richer while the poor get poorer? What does the community of those who love Mary’s son have to say to those who care more about their ability to shelter money in tax havens than about the lack of critical care beds in our hospital? How does the magnificat sound to the earth that groans under the weight of our economy’s need for constant consumption?

I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing Christmas was just about celebrating a birth and then getting back to normal life, just like any other birthday party. But what God is doing in Christ is saving the earth and all that is in it, even if that means saving us from ourselves. This is an act of love so monumental that it turns everything upside down. Who are we to wish that God would…what, love us a little less so we could go on as before? It’s impossible for God to do anything but love, and to fulfil promises, and this is the promise that makes Mary rejoice and that hopefully brings us the same kind of joyful commitment to God’s call that we, too, will be willing to bear God’s word in our bodies—and into the world that is desperate for the good news to be more than just pretty words or songs or cards or presents.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Three Wise Women -- a sermon for Advent 3

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Three Wise Women

Luke 1.26-45

13 December 2020, Advent 3 (Blessings of an impossible Christmas)

(NL3-16, first half)

Today we transition from a season of reading from the Old Testament to the New, beginning the gospel according to Luke, which we will read from now until Easter.

The first two chapters of Luke’s gospel are like an overture, setting the scene for the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Luke’s primary themes are all present in the overture, so we have a hint of what is to come.

Luke begins with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are elderly and childless. Zechariah is a priest who receives a visit from the angel Gabriel, telling him that Elizabeth will bear a son and they are to name him John. Zechariah is doubtful, and Gabriel takes away his ability to speak until John is born. Today’s reading from Luke chapter 1 begins at verse 26, six months after Elizabeth became pregnant. I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘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.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. 

 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ 

Every single time I read this story, I think about how much Gabriel sounds like an alien when he greets Mary. Instead of “hello” he says “greetings favoured one” — and she was much perplexed. Of course she was perplexed — who talks like that? Even in ancient Palestine, I’m fairly certain people did not go around saying “greetings favoured one” to each other.

Aside from the strange stilted alien phrase, though, there’s more to be perplexed about. Why does the angel address her as “favoured”? She must have wondered what he was talking about, or if he had picked the wrong girl. After all, she was betrothed but not yet married, likely a young teenager. In Nazareth the tradition says that Gabriel met Mary at the well — a tradition which connects Mary to a long line of women in the Old Testament whose marriages were made at the well, including Rebekah who became the wife of Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, and Moses’ wife Zipporah. While Mary would know those stories, she would never have expected to be part of one! She was a poor teenager from a nondescript family in a town far from the centres of power, in an occupied land. For an angel to address her as “favoured” would be confusing indeed — favoured by whom? In what sense? Not in any of the usual ways. 

While she was still pondering this strange word, Gabriel explained that actually, he meant favoured by God. He doesn’t say why, though. What was it about Mary that drew God’s attention? She wasn’t anybody important, just a girl at the well. But she barely had time to think that thought before Gabriel said she was going to be a mother!

So often our pictures of Mary are of a quiet, shy girl who keeps her eyes down and submits to whatever she’s told. But Mary’s first out-loud question proves her to be a bit more practical than we usually give her credit for. She wants to know how this is going to work — the mechanics of the situation. She doesn’t yet live with her husband-to-be, so…what’s the next step? 

Gabriel’s answer that she’s going to be filled with the cloud of God’s presence, like the cloud that filled the Temple when it was built, or like the cloud that covered Mount Sinai, may or may not have been very comforting. But as Gabriel insisted that nothing is impossible with God, Mary spoke up again: Here am I, the servant of the Lord.

A lot of prophets have answered God with this same phrase — in Hebrew it’s “hineini”. Here am I. Moses says it, and Samuel, and Isaiah — and all of them said it before God actually told them what he was calling them to do. This is the answer of someone who trusts their relationship with God enough to say yes, even though the fullness of the task is not yet clear to them. 

Mary is the first woman to ever be recorded saying “hineini” in response to God’s call. She agrees to carry God’s Son, without yet knowing the full picture of what that will mean — including the risks to her own physical health, to her safety in her family and community, or the challenges of parenting, let alone parenting the son of God! Like the prophets before her, she trusts God, and that will have to be enough even though she doesn’t have a map.

Gabriel did give her a hint, though, when he mentioned Elizabeth. Mary headed straight there, apparently by herself, to get some advice from her older relative. It was a fair distance from Nazareth into the hill country, which is the area that includes Jerusalem and Bethlehem and other surrounding villages. When she arrived, Elizabeth too joined the ranks of the prophets, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking truths neither she nor Mary understand yet. Over the next three months they will have many such conversations, passing knowledge from generation to generation, sharing the experience of growing a world-changing child in their bodies, blessing each other with the companionship of women while the men of the story are silent on the sidelines. 

I originally titled this sermon “Three Wise Women” as a balance to the wise men of Epiphany. Those travellers came from afar and symbolise the whole world recognising the Messiah who has been born…but before those wise men can set out on their journey, before the star shines in the sky, before any of the Christmas story can take place, we need the three wise women of this story first! And I can hear you wondering, because there are only two women named in the story. Of course Mary was wise enough to trust God’s impossible word. And Elizabeth wise enough to recognise God at work in and through Mary’s life. And the third….is the Holy Spirit! In the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Aramaic which Mary and Elizabeth spoke, the word for Spirit is a feminine noun, ruach, so would usually use the pronoun “she” or “her”—and even better, in the Old Testament the Spirit is sometimes personified as God’s wisdom, and so the third wise one appears in the story! God’s Spirit fills Elizabeth and she speaks God’s wisdom.

I particularly love Elizabeth’s last Spirit-filled line: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

How often we need this encouragement! From one generation to another, to be reminded of the blessing that is born of trust, even in something that seems impossible. It’s a blessing that only asks we take the next step, even if we aren’t sure what the one after will be. Mary says “here I am” and then visits Elizabeth, and slowly the path begins to unfold before her, one step at a time. And it turns out that what seemed impossible before isn’t really, because with God, nothing is impossible.

Perhaps in this season where so much normality feels out of reach, we too can trust God enough to take just the next step and see what God unfolds after that. Or perhaps this is a season when we are the ones who are called to speak with the Spirit’s voice and encourage those who are struggling with what the next step might be. Whether that’s across the generations or across other divides, can we reach out to one another and find the blessing together?

May it be so. Amen.