A sermon preached on the fourth Sunday of Advent by the Revd Aaron Kennedy at the 8.30am service.
Micah 5.2-5a; Luke 1. 39-45
We are remembering today what traditionally has been known as the visitation.
The name simply means what it says,
in this case, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth –
but it has an official ring to it.
You can hear the capital T, capital V.
Somehow the name adds mystique to this ancient story,
and makes it all too easy to do what Christians have been doing since time immemorial.
Venerating the characters and stories of the bible
praising God for them, even being amazed and awestruck
by the works of God accomplished through them,
but stopping short of being changed themselves.
Letting these stories remain just that,
and not using them as a spur to discover how to experience
something of divine life enjoyed by the biblical characters
Mary is a particularly relevant example for us,
whose church is named for the blessed virgin and mother of our Lord Jesus.
Rightly we want to elevate Mary,
we want to be near to her,
and so to God.
But so often that is where we leave it.
So to help us avoid this mistake for ourselves
let us consider Mary’s story more closely.
While it may be normal for us to think of Mary as blessed by God,
it was nigh on unthinkable in her day
to view a 14-year-old girl
unmarried, and pregnant, not by her betrothed,
as blessed by God.
The opposite would have been true,
since, except in the case of rape in the countryside,
such women were routinely stoned to death.
Luke makes a deal of explaining Mary’s extraordinary blessedness
by setting the stories of the foretelling of Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s births
one after the other,
so that a comparison can easily be made.
Both Mary and Zechariah (John’s father)
had news of the pregnancy brought to them by the angel Gabriel.
Both questioned the angel as to how such a thing could be possible
(for their different reasons).
Mary was not punished for her doubt, Zechariah was, temporarily.
But both were blessed with the child that was promised.
All these things they have in common.
What sets them apart is that Zechariah was respectable (he was married)
honoured (he was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem),
mature in years (not in his salad days),
and he was, of course, a man.
Mary was none of these things.
and Luke is trying to make very clear to us
that God is the chief actor, and character in this story.
Not Mary, not Zechariah, but God who pours out his blessing upon them.
God who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Whether they happen to be respectable, honoured, mature and wealthy males,
or none of those things.
Unfortunately, we tend to over sentimentalise and beatify biblical characters,
and assume that that was all well and good for them,
and that such experiences were for then, or for them. Not us! Not me!
Interestingly, this attitude was taking hold
even as these stories were unfolding.
First we have an appropriate offering of praise for Mary from the mouth of Elizabeth,
in what has become known simply as the hail Mary.
“Blessed are thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
But then later on in Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 11,
as Jesus is out and about preaching and teaching,
an impressed onlooker cries out:
“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”
Jesus doesn’t smile politely and thank the lady for her kind words,
in fact, his reply is quite tart.
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
An important side note on the word obey.
One I think many of us struggle with,
with its negative connotations
so often carrying the fear of threat or force.
In calling us to obey God’s word, Jesus is not
– unlike human authority figures –
using the threat of force to coerce us into submission.
Rather he seeks to persuade us to bend our ear to God’s mouth
to pay attention to his words
and so put our trust in them.
So having said that, yes, let’s honour Mary.
Let us pray for her intercession.
And yes, blessed is the womb that bore Christ,
and the breasts which nursed him.
But let’s not leave it there.
Let us hear the word of God and listen, pay attention to, be obedient to it,
and know for ourselves what it is to be truly blessed!
The passage from the prophecy of Micha makes clear,
that the messiah that Mary helped to bring into the world,
which he longed to see 800 years before Christ’s appearing,
was to be a great King, of ancient origin,
coming to rule,
as a good shepherd,
who will feed us.
He will bring peace,
and cause us to live secure.
In other words, he will change the character of our life experience.
We will know his nourishment,
we will know his protection,
we will know his true and lasting peace,
and we will know no fear of death,
because of the Good Shepherd.
The only thing that set Mary apart,
other than the unmerited grace God bestowed upon her,
is her so-called fiat, her amen, so be it.
A willingness, having heard, to trust, to obey, the word of God.
Or as Elizabeth says, believe that there would be a fulfilment
of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
And what is it to believe but to trust?
A word closely related, theologically, to obedience.
We all believe that the pews in this church will hold our weight
if we sit on them.
We believe it,
so we act in accordance with that belief.
And we sit down.
To believe is to live one’s life as if what is believed is actually true.
To trust it. Depend upon it.
To hear the word of God and obey it.
Mary allowed her life to be shaped by the promise given to her,
and she acted on the basis of the promise.
If she hadn’t believed –
she would not have conceived.
And God would have had to find another willing vessel.
So how can we avoid the danger of merely praising Mary
(or Jesus for that matter)
and stopping short of entering that life of blessedness for ourselves?
Mary was not humanly special.
Indeed she clearly did not fully understand Jesus’ ministry.
We know that because at one point she tries to stop him,
he was causing such a controversy (Mark 3.21).
Mary was human just like you and I.
But she said yes to God.
She said amen. So be it. Your will be done.
She surrendered her will,
and lived within the reality that God’s word revealed to her.
Allowed it to shape her life.
Acted upon it. Trusted in it.
And that is why she was truly blessed.
May we be given the grace today – and over this Christmas period,
not only to admire the characters
and unfolding events of the stories we will hear.
But to see in them an example
of how we might add our own fiat, amen, so be it;
an example of how we may hear and trust and obey God’s word,
and so experience and participate in for ourselves
the super-abundant, effervescent and eternal, death-defeating-life,
of the Holy Trinity
and so know what it is to be deeply, truly, blessed.
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