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20th December 2015 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
18 December 2015

Readings

Micah 5:2-5a

Along with Isaiah 9 and 11 this is one of the best known Messianic passages but it also has a rich Hebrew Scripture context.  At the time this was written Jerusalem had been totally destroyed so the point Micah is making is that the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Davidic monarchy does not thwart God’s intentions.  God is able to bring leadership from the least important place and the least important family.[1].

Feudalism and an inherited monarchy exists through an expectation that some families will rule and others serve and there is still similar expectation in modern politics, corporate life and creative endeavours. However sometimes great film directors come from Pukerua Bay rather than Hollywood and abused delinquent boys travel to the other side of the world to do amazing practical life giving science and get knighted.  A man born in a mud hut can come from thirty years in prison to banish an oppressive regime and lead their nation.

Luke 1: 39-45 

This reading from Luke is the meeting of the mothers of Jesus and John and Fred Craddock draws attention to the fact that Elizabeth is old and her son John will end an age and Mary is young and her son will usher in the new age. Even the unborn John knows this and leaps in the womb. 

The Hebrew Scripture allusion is to Rebekah the mother of twins Esau and Jacob who struggled in the womb.  Therefore we are to understand that as with Esau and Jacob the elder served the younger so it will be with John and Jesus.  The action of the Holy Spirit is a theme in Luke’s Gospel and here the Spirit inspires Elizabeth to praise both Mary and her child. [2]

Sermon

Christmas is fascinating as a place of marginalisation according to Bill loader.  We all know that Jesus is marginalised by Santa Claus.  That is part of the process where profit and exploitation marginalises good news for the poor and makes the Magnificat sound a little quaint.  Pregnant women and especially young unmarried pregnant women like Mary are marginalised.  The quest for economic ideologies also marginalises human sexuality, the intimacy which generates life and love.[3]

When the Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills announced that nearly one-third of all New Zealand children are living in poverty and more than half of those kids will never escape it people rushed into print to blame the parents. 

The prime minister suggested that it was caused by drug addiction while others were quick to suggest that people should not have children unless they could afford them.  Having lived through two world wars and a depression my parents didn’t have any children until I suspect they realised that if they didn’t have a child they very soon wouldn’t be able to.  I don’t remember them ever being able to afford me but the understandable delay meant that they were both dead by the time I was sixteen.  I thought of that last week when I saw pictures of my grandson on a crayfishing expedition with his dad.  I didn’t get to go on expeditions with my Dad so Raewyn and I had children when we couldn’t afford it which means we can enjoy our children taking us and our grandchildren on magnificent adventures. 

Child poverty is the result of low wages and high rents that squeezes family budgets to breaking point.

Nevertheless it is unjust and irrational to suggest that people shouldn’t have children.  Such a policy would have stopped Jesus being born.  Furthermore the journey to Bethlehem is likely to have been as much about escaping a community that stoned unmarried mothers to death as any census that history has been unable to prove. 

Joseph Masters for whom Masterton is named was thrown out of his home at the age of eight by his step father who said he couldn’t afford to provide for both him and his mother.  Ray Avery’s parents were abusive alcoholics.  That was more likely to have been a symptom of their poverty rather than the cause.  Furthermore Britain’s child welfare system was not much better as various abusive foster parents and institutions turned Avery into a serial absconder who lived under a railway bridge.  John Wesley was not born in a stable but had a stable home life as a child but his childhood experience of being trapped in a vicarage fire led him to see himself as ‘a brand plucked from the burning.’ 

However as those few examples demonstrate there have also been plenty of people plucked from the metaphorical fires of most unfortunate childhoods who grew to make a significant contribution to the world we now live in.  To determine who can and can’t be born is not just a subtle form of blasphemy that reeks of fascism and smells of gas chambers.   It is also stupid.

MP Jacinda Ardern has a framed poster in her office with a picture of Nelson Mandela along with a quote from the great man. ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity it is an act of justice.  The end of a long, long walk.’ 

Mandela’s words see poverty as a justice issue and it is totally unjust to ignore the plight of children born into poverty.  It is even unjust to suggest that a community should expect, or tolerate a child’s development to be restricted because their parents are inadequate.  Stoning a rape victim to death may relieve a community of the burden of a solo parent and an unwanted child but it is not justice.  It is crucifying or re- crucifying Christ even before he is born. 

For as long as I can remember I have believed that every child deserves a fair start in life.  That must be true because my mother told me.  Furthermore the Children's Commissioner backs up that belief by saying that it's the job of the whole country, not just government, to make child poverty a priority. 

The journey to overcome poverty may be a long long walk but it was also a long walk through history that fulfilled Micah’s expectations.  That was a journey that began with John the Baptise preparing the way for Jesus.  A journey that Luke understood as predestined.  Science tells us that it is random chance, not economic theory that breeds exceptional individuals.  Micah puts it slightly differently by suggesting that God can rise up new leadership from the very least of human communities and Mary’s child, along with the other examples we have mentioned, appears to prove him correct.

Events may appear to be random chance but when we look back through history we can often see the patterns biblical writers ascribe to divine action.  We can only speculate at the events behind the brief and often highly coded biblical text. It is certainly apparent from the gospels that intentionally or otherwise John prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry.  Some of John’s disciples became Jesus’ disciples.  Luke is the only gospel writer who claims a kinship between Jesus and John through their mothers but kinship is in fact normal in tribal communities.  The picture we used to illustrate the reading shows a very young woman visiting a much older woman.  In portraying the meeting that way the artist is certainly perceptive because we could well imagine a young girl who finds herself pregnant rushing to an older relative rather than her parents.  That would be especially true in an honour-shame society.

Even in our much more accepting community young women are likely to seek advice from a trusted relative on how to break the news to their parents.  There are also plenty of stories about young women being sent to stay with relatives until their offspring can be secretly adopted out.   The fact that Elizabeth also has an unexpected pregnancy would likely have encouraged Mary to consider her as more likely to be sympathetic.

Luke and Matthew describe messages in dreams and visions but many of us have experienced waking in the night with new insight on perplexing problems.  Further consultation with wise people often helps to bring such insight into action. 

We could therefore imagine Mary going to Elizabeth needing some advice on how to deal with the situation she finds herself in.  Rather than heap condemnation on Mary for getting pregnant Elizabeth’s response is to praise the potential of Mary’s unborn child.  She also expresses a link between the two unborn children. Elizabeth’s child leaped in the womb, not an unknown occurrence.  Elizabeth may well have used that quite natural occurrence to illustrate her advice to Mary that regardless of how she became pregnant the child has value, the child belongs to the future and has immense potential, as all children do. 

Luke framed the story with allusion to Esau and Jacob who struggled in the womb and the elder served the younger.  That was part of the sacred writing genre that emphasised the validity of new saving stories by the way they echo older saving stories. 

Regardless of kinship children of mums who support each other in pregnancy quite often remain close and their children are likely to get tangled in each other’s activities.  Jesus as the younger becomes part of John’s mission and becomes the obvious successor when John is arrested.  That is more a natural succession than the older serving the younger although as it works out John does in fact prepare the way for Jesus.  That is the way of succession plans.

From the perspective of this section of Luke’s gospel however the people who well and truly ‘prepare the way’ are the mothers.  It is the mothers who pull away from the world of men who want to control women’s fertility. 

Bill Loader warns that religion gives us a systems of power where men rule and women are men’s mums who are ‘behind every great man’[4]  Rather than blame religion it is better to recognise just how easily religion becomes the servant of power structures that marginalise people and blame the poor, the unwed mothers, and even the children of inadequate parents for their own demise.  

Elizabeth in her wisdom confirmed for Mary that the child within her was born of the Holy Spirit and isn’t that true of every child.  Power structures like to use the natural urge to reproduce to build wealth, to control property, even to form alliances between nations and to selectively breed the families they decide are fit to rule.  Power structures struggle with the ‘enchanted evening’ where strangers meet ‘across a crowded room.’ 

I was enchanted by Raewyn’s sparkling eyes at a crowed Ranger Guide investiture.  That was a random event but with a little imagination we could trace that divine introduction back to the Siege of Mafeking where Baden Powell got the idea for Scouts and Guides. 

Genetics thrive on random chance but the perceptive prophet like Micah can bring hope by pointing the action of the divine spirit within what appears as change to mere mortals. 

God is able raise up leadership from the least important place and the least important family.  Later in Luke’s Gospel John the Baptist expressed it differently when he told his audience ‘God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’ (Luke 3:8). 

Our challenge as we prepare ourselves for Christmas is not to throw the stones at the less fortunate. 

We are to value every child as a child of God, to be the wise folk who follow the star rather than the frightened despot willing to destroy young lives to protect his privileged position.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p.581.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke.  Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009),pp. 28, 29.

[4] ibid.

 

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