Sermon from Amanda

Advent 4: 19 December 2021

Micah 5:2-6 & Luke 1:39-45 

Two women met and greeted one another in a village in the hill country not far from Jerusalem. Both were pregnant, and both were quite surprised about it. 

Elizabeth was a woman who had waited so long to bear a child, so long that she had maybe become reconciled to the situation. Those round about her would very likely pity her, as surely the only way for a woman to be complete, to become whole was to become a mother. Elizabeth followed in the footsteps of many a woman mentioned in the Hebrew bible, who were described as barren, she was unable to grow on the seed planted in her by her husband because that was how people thought it worked, as if she was a field that a farmer owned and planted with a crop of little people-seeds. Sarah, Hannah and now Elizabeth had been seen to have failed as women until an intervention by God, and they gave birth to special babies, Isaac, Samuel and then, John the Baptist.  

Mary, her young cousin, was a different case altogether. She was only just old enough to be engaged to be married so there was no long waiting in hope for a baby. Her baby was, if anything, embarrassingly early, but this again was a special baby, planted in her by the Holy Spirit of God. But was this really the way that it would work this time? 

In some sense the meeting of these two women was the meeting of the old covenant and the new covenant, the old ways and the new way that God was committed to Israel. In John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s son, we can recognise the last of Israel’s great prophets, pointing the way to the unprecedented way that God would come to his people, preparing them to welcome him. Then in Jesus, Mary’s son, Luke points us to that new way, to God doing a new thing, to Emmanuel which means ‘God with us’. 

Immediately after this reading is the passage that we know as ‘The Magnificat,’ Mary’s song that begins, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour!’ These words have been set to music in many different ways over the years, including the way that we will sing as our last hymn this morning, Tell out my Soul, by Timothy Dudley-Smith. We don’t know how Mary sang it, but she sang in a long tradition of singing praise to God in a prophetic way, looking forward to each child’s way of serving God, be it the song of Hannah, of Zechariah, John’s father, or of Simeon in the temple having waited so long to see God’s salvation in the face of a tiny baby. 

You could say that these are all part of the same song, the same response to the invitation of God in the lives of these people hundreds of years apart, the same song but to the different tune that each of their lives composed. 

If you have ever heard the radio programme ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ the antidote to panel games, the compare gives the teams silly things to do, some of them to music, including ‘One song to the tune of another.’ If you imagine Tiptoe through the Tulips to the tune of the Ride of the Valkirye or Away in a Manger sung to Frosty the Snowman, you’ll know what I mean – it gives a totally different feel to the same words. 

When Mary sang her song she was responding to God’s invitation to cooperate, with themes that those who heard her would recognise from those earlier figures in scripture. Her song was of praise and joy, at God’s regard for her but also for all the discarded and un-noticed, bringing down to size those whose pride made them cold to the lives of others.  

I use the words invitation and response intentionally. When the Angel brought Good News to Mary saying that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, some have interpreted this as God informing the young girl that this in-credible intervention was going to happen, that she should then settle down to be content to be used as a compliant vessel without choice or question. I think there is a different way to look at this situation.  

Anyone who has read much scripture knows that when someone gets a message from God saying that the Holy Spirit will be moving in their life, things are likely to become unusual. No wonder Mary pondered about what the greeting might mean, no wonder she was amazed at the thought of becoming pregnant, of bearing a child of significance not just to her but to the whole world. No wonder she questioned the angel before she replied. 

And so I incline to the thought that the Angel offered the invitation and Mary accepted, not because she gave up responsibility for the direction of her life, or that she had no mind of her own, but because her obedience came from being true to her own nature, her true calling. Her acceptance of God’s invitation to be the Mother of Jesus was the response of who she really was. If you like, being tuned in to the song that God sings, singing her part of it with her own tune. 

We are each called by God to be the person he equipped and meant us to be, and – using that same image – to sing our part in God’s song, the song of creation, the song of the universe, the song of the neutrino and the lightning bolt. We sing with our own tune, every one unique, but if we learn to recognise God’s composition and accept our invitation to join in, however tentatively, we can broadcast our tune, our melody as no-one else can. As questioning as Mary, as ordinary as Mary, as obedient, as trusting, as unsure of the details, in a world of danger or contradictions, of loss and change and promise, singing along with God’s song. 

There is a prayer called the Angelus; composed of sentences from scripture, mostly from Luke’s gospel. One two-line section is; 

Blessed is she who believed: – and then the reply – 

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. 

The first phrase is the response of Elizabeth in our gospel reading to news of Mary’s pregnancy; the second is the response of the adult Jesus to someone in the crowd who shouted, ‘blessed is the one who gave birth to you.’ Using our musical image we could say blessed are those who keep listening out for the song that God sings to us, and who join their own voices to the eternal harmony. 

The last verse of John Bell and Graeme Maule’s song ‘No wind at the window’ is a retelling of Mary’s meeting with the angel, and puts it well; 

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.’ 

AMEN. 

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