Here’s tomorrow’s sermon twelve hours before the congregation will hear it.
ADVENT 4B – 18th December, 2011
ST MATTHEW’S, GUILDFORD
“’That’s the way it’s done,’ the Queen said with great decision: ‘nobody can do two things at once, you know. Let’s consider your age to begin with — how old are you?’
‘I’m seven and a half, exactly.’
‘You needn’t say “exactly”,’ the Queen remarked. ‘I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’
‘I can’t believe that!‘ said Alice.
‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’
Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’
‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’ “
After this sermon, we are going to make a series of statements, each beginning with, “We believe…” We call it the Nicene Creed, and it almost always follows the sermon in our Sunday Eucharists. And pretty much everything we profess in that Creed is potentially an “impossible thing”.
But the angel Gabriel tells Mary that “nothing will be impossible with God”.
On Thursday, the famous – or “infamous”, depending on your point of view – self-proclaimed atheist, Christopher Hitchens, died, at the age of 62, of complications from cancer of the oesophagus in Houston, Texas. He had spent a very large part of his life declaring, “I do not believe”, especially in relation to religious faith and the existence of God. The nasty bit of me wants to ask what he’s saying to God now that they have met! But that’s probably unhealthy and certainly too speculative. Again and again, I need to remember that God is grace-ful and amazingly forgiving. So we can safely leave Christopher Hitchens to the grace of God.
On an ordinary day in a very ordinary village in an ordinary little captive nation under the rule of the mighty Empire of Rome, comes an anything-but-ordinary angel – the Archangel Gabriel, no less! – to a very ordinary early-teenaged girl, with an anything-but-ordinary message.
‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ ‘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.’
And Mary simply asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Which, in my view at least, is a fair enough question! I don’t know if she’s had her breakfast yet, but this is a pretty impossible thing to believe at any time!
When we think of the culture and people to which Mary belongs, the “how” is the least of the questions one might expect her to be asking.
She is, as we’ve said, a young woman, girl really, in a world where virginity is highly treasured and honoured, where betrothal and marriage are sacred, and where adultery is potentially punishable by stoning to death. A pregnancy occurring before the wedding would be regarded as clear evidence of Mary’s having “been with another man”; for Joseph would know for certain that he had not been involved.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Joseph learned of this mysterious/miraculous pregnancy, he seriously considered “putting her away” – breaking off the betrothal and exposing Mary to all the shame that a village society could heap upon this hapless young girl. The intervention of the “angel of the Lord” telling Joseph that the child is God’s Son prevents Joseph’s doing this, but we need have no doubt that rumour and innuendo followed the Holy Family for many years afterwards.
So, Mary has been told of what is to occur. And then, as if Mary hasn’t already had enough to believe before breakfast, she is told of another impossible thing which is already happening!
“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.”
The story of children – always sons, it seems! – being born to long-barren women is not uncommon in the Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”). We can think of Sarah, mother of Isaac; of Rebekah, mother of Esau & Jacob; of Rachel, mother of Joseph and Benjamin; of the mother of Samson; of the Shunemite woman who offered hospitality to the prophet Elijah.
Mary would undoubtedly have heard all these stories in the synagogue and at her own mother’s knee as she was growing up. But for a child to be born to a virgin – that was stretching all credibility!
The fact that her cousin, Elizabeth, old enough to be past child-bearing age, is really six months pregnant seems from the angel’s point of view to be the clincher. What he has told Mary about the child she is to bear is “proven” by the impending birth of the one whom many will come to know as John the Baptiser.
If God can do this, God can do anything!
So Mary – Oh, so sweet and innocent! Oh, so trusting and willing! Oh, so obedient and faithful! – Mary answers the angel with those unforgettable words:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
It is such a simple acceptance of what God wants: almost, but definitely not, a “Whatever!”
Actually, when I read the passage for about the fifteenth time last night, I noticed that neither Gabriel nor God has deigned to ask Mary if this “overshadowing” and “conception” meet with her approval. Gabriel’s message is a statement, not a proposal or proposition.
“Mary, you have been blessed/favoured/given grace, which will come in the form of a baby who will be God incarnate, God in human form and human flesh”. No please or by-your-leave or plan B in the whole process!
There is probably little or no value in pondering what God and Gabriel would have done if Mary had said “No!” But I’m so grateful that she was able to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
In the Old Testament, many times God calls men – sorry, it always seems to men! – to serve God and God’s people. Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah and several others respond to God’s call by declaring their own inadequacy – “I’m too young, too old, a poor speaker”, or even, “Here am I, please send someone else!”
And I know that when God first called me to ordained ministry, I did everything I could think of to avoid, or at least delay, responding to that call. We can always see how inadequate we are and how much more qualified and/or appropriate someone else is for whatever God calls us to do!
One writer says that Mary is not chosen by God because she is “full of grace”: rather, she is full of grace because she is called by God. Her response is proof perfect that God has got it right!
And this Advent, and this Christmas, God chooses to be born again through us. God chooses to be revealed again through ordinary people in ordinary places like this church and in the families and communities and schools and workplaces and recreational settings in which we find ourselves every day.
To and through each one of us who bears the name “Christian”, to every one of us who have been baptised and expressed faith in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – through us Christ again takes flesh and reaches out to the world into which he first came in the baby born in a feeding-trough in a cave on the outskirts of another, ordinary little town.
Our Advent study group has been focussing on the much-loved Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. The last verse of the carol says,
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel!
It may seem, even now, to be another “impossible thing”, but you’ve probably already had your breakfast!
As we hear Mary’s, “let it be to me according to your word”, may we respond in similar words and commitment to bring Christ – his love and mercy, his justice and peace – to everyone whom we encounter in this “festive season” and beyond.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus!
Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass”, chapter 5
 Genesis 18,21
 Genesis 25:21
 Genesis 30:22
 Judges 13