A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Sunday 23rd December 2018
During this service, Revd. Aaron Kennedy baptised his son, Gabriel
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. (Luke 1:41-42)
They tell you when you learn to preach that you need to get people’s attention at the beginning of a sermon. Today I’m going to do that by reading a sonnet by the priest and poet Malcolm Guite. It’s called The Visitation and it tells the story of today’s reading we’ve just heard. After I’ve read it we can have a short pause to think about it.
Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.
Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.
And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time
Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.
“Two women on the very edge of things/unnoticed and unknown to men of power/ But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings/and in their lives the buds of blessing flower.
As we were worshipping at the Eucharist here on Thursday, Aaron read us an extract from a sermon of the 12th century monk and preacher Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard reflects on the whole creation waiting for this ‘too young’ woman, this “woman on the edge of things” to respond to the angel’s invitation to bear God’s Son. He pictures the whole creation on tenterhooks, the whole of salvation hinging on her response. It is extraordinary to think of God waiting on Mary. We’re so used to being asked to think on us waiting on God but, for this one moment, God has to wait on us. God waits, the creation waits, presumably the pre-existing Son waits, for this consent. “No payment was promised, no promises made; no wedding was dated, no blueprint displayed. Yet Mary, consenting to what none could guess, replied with conviction, “tell God, I say yes.” One word is enough, but that ‘yes’ is absolutely necessary. Without it, nothing could be achieved.
From that moment, the story can unfold. According to Luke’s account, Mary next travels to her kinswoman Elizabeth, the one who is ‘past her prime’. Just as aged Sarah births Isaac and just as barren Hannah births Samuel, both prefiguring these later Galilean births, these two women share something in common. And what that is, apart from a pregnancy, is joy. The baby John leaps in Elizabeth’s woman and she cries out in joy, while Mary responds with her Magnificat of praise. It’s as though this one word ‘yes’ sets in motion a whole story of joy unconfined. Joy is one of the great themes of Luke’s Gospel; despite all its light and shade, the whole story of Jesus is infused with joy in the promise of God coming true. It as if the word spoken by God and the responsive ‘yes’ from Mary unleashes a whole salvation plan of joy, joy not just in God’s promises, but joy in the world being put right. Someone asked me the other day (Aaron, was it you?) how two so different themes of joy and judgment could be so closely associated with Advent. Once we see that judgment is about the wrong things in the world being put right, which is what Mary means when she talks about, in the word of the Book of Common Prayer “He has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit, Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” When we see judgment like that, of course, then especially if you’re at the bottom of the pile, then seeing the wrong put right is surely a cause for joy. Unless you’re near the top of the pile: something for us all to ponder there.
But let’s pull back from the big picture here, let’s draw away from the big ‘yes’ of Mary to our own world of choices and responsibilities. If, as she does, Mary stands as a type of human response to God, and if, as she is, in some way she is a model of holiness, what about our response to God? To what are we invited to do for God? What is God asking of you? What is it we are to say ‘yes’ to? Of course, in some way, this moment of baptism for Gabriel is the quintessential moment of ‘yes’ in anyone’s relationship with God. As Grace, Aaron and his godparents make their baptismal vows, in humility like Mary, they say yes to God for him, until such time as he says yes for himself. But what that means in, God-willing, a long life for him and for you who stand for him will be a lot more little ‘yesses’ and perhaps a few ‘no’s’ as well. His life and yours will be full of choices and decisions about what it means, created and loved by God, to respond to God’s call. And he is no different to any other one of us here. Each of us is asked to life an affirmative life for God, as God waits, ever-so patiently, for our own ‘yes’. In what way is your life, or mine, directed in that positive way? It’s a great question to ponder, because positive Christian living, living out of the ‘yes’ if you like, is such an attractive and compelling way of life. What difference might it make for us to live positively like this, embracing our Christian vocation in positive way, rather than see it as a negative way, a way of self-denial and self-sacrifice, of avoiding sin rather than embracing life in all its fulness, to live out of the original blessing as Mary seems to do. Maybe, and maybe more than maybe, God waits for your ‘yes’ and ‘mine’ each day.
But maybe others do too. Who else waits for a word from you, apart from God? Are there those you know who need that call, that word of encouragement, or forgiveness, or that word that sets them free from misapprehension or guilt? It’s so easy to go through life ignorant of the effect we have on others around us, especially if we could change that with a word that might make a difference. I was challenged about this myself this week when I had what is called my Ministerial Development Review, a sort of supervised self-assessment of my ministry that happens every couple of years. One of my reviewers mentioned that maybe I don’t show that I value what some people say, that I don’t give them the time they deserve, or that I’m a little abrupt or brusque. It’s good to be reminded from time to time about how we are perceived and that a change of approach, or a different way of speaking, might just set someone else on a new path, or open up new potential in a relationship, or perhaps even to move on from what may not have been so good in the past. I’m sure many of you are recognising an aspect of that in yourself right now. Who else needs a word from you, a new word, or an old word spoken in a new way? How might responding to that challenge positively change a situation in which you find yourself? How might it change the annual Christmas argument that always comes up in your family? Who else waits on a word from us?
And finally, to return to that great theme of Luke’s of joy, how can we bring joy to the world by living this ‘yes’ that we see in Mary? Notice the effect of her ‘yes’ on Elizabeth and her unborn child. Leaping for joy in the womb. Charles Wesley puts in like this:
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosen’d tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.
When Mary’s ‘yes’ unleashes joy into the world, she models for us what it is to live the Christian life. It is, in short to be people of joy, infectious joy. If you want to know where God is, look for where there is joy. It has become very fashionable to talk about God in the midst of suffering in the past 100 years, as we have wrestled with the horrors of global war and the Holocaust. But, to quote a Jesuit writer, joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. And to bring joy to the world, to live out of the joy of knowing Christ, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, to be a baptised person. Not everyone can do that – and we shall acknowledge that tonight in our Blue Christmas Service – and there are those extraordinary souls who point us to Christ through their pain and struggle. But, when we say ‘yes’ to God, a joy is released that cannot be explained. What a calling it might be for Gabriel and for Aaron, Grace and his godparents, to bring Gabriel up not just as a messenger like his angelic namesake, but as a messenger of joy, who brings the Good News of God’s love to others, the Good News note. And for us all, where is the joy for you? Where can it be shared? Because when we discover our true joy, we begin to discover what it is God calls us to, we find our vocation.
So let us rejoice today, rejoice with Gabriel and with his parents and godparents, rejoice, as Malcolm Guite encourages us to, for “all the great unsung/Women who turned eternity to time/ Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth/Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.” But most of all let us rejoice in the sheer generosity of God, who despite our brokenness and weakness, chooses to come to us in great humility, that we might be raised to the heights of joy and bliss.
And it all starts with one word, the most important in the Bible: yes.
 O for a thousand tongues to sing, Common Praise 534