Home Sermons Sunday 20th December
December 20th, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be
acceptable to you, Lord, our strength and our sustainer. Amen.
It often seems such a long time between the announcement of
something exciting and the actual event. When I was a child
we often counted the sleeps until birthday or Christmas or the
beginning of the school holidays. But sometimes the promised
event is so far away that it just doesn’t seem real at all
particularly if what is going to happen is way outside our
experience or expectations. And perhaps this state of disbelief
may even be quite helpful to us.
I’ve often wondered if Mary’s apparent stillness and compliance
with what the angel told her was to do with this state of disbelief
when something quite extraordinary is predicted. I have often
seen this stillness and acceptance on the faces of people who
have experienced a disaster – natural or otherwise. What has
happened is just too big for them to comprehend.
The story, as we read it in Luke’s gospel, can raise all sorts of
questions for us, which Luke doesn’t answer. Luke is not
writing history or biography and even biology! He is not
interested in the how questions, but in the why. There are
three important themes in this story. Firstly Gabriel states
explicitly “nothing will be impossible with God.” These final
words from Gabriel to Mary sum up the birth stories of both
John the Baptist and Jesus. Although the conception of John
the Baptist is highly unusual, his parents being old and his
mother barren, that story nevertheless recalls similar stories
from the Hebrew Scriptures, so that the reader knows what to
anticipate. Like Sarah and Abraham, surely Zechariah and
Elizabeth will find their hopes fulfilled. But if their hopes are for
that which is improbable, the pregnancy of a virgin is
manifestly impossible; yet it is just that impossibility which
Gabriel says has been overcome.
A second theme in this story is that of grace. Gabriel greets
Mary with the words “Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with
you,” and assures her, ‘you have found favour with God.” The
words favour and favoured could equally well have been
translated as grace and graced. Mary is the object of God’s
What is it about Mary that makes her appropriate as an object
of God’s grace? There is nothing in the text that gives us even
a hint of why she was chosen. Luke identifies her simply as a
young girl who was engaged to be married. More is said about
Joseph than about Mary – he is identified as coming from the
House of David. Even in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth,
the parents of John the Baptist, we are told that they are
righteous and blameless, that they kept God’s commandments
and prayed to God. Yet there is not one single word about
Mary’s virtues or vices or why God might have chosen her.
And of course, that is the point. Mary does not earn or deserve
the honour of becoming the mother of Jesus any more than any
other woman. The story is not about virtue rewarded, but about
the unmerited nature of God’s grace.
So what is Mary’s response to this grace? Firstly she identifies
herself as “the servant of the Lord” – she recognises that she
has been selected by God and that God’s choosing leaves no
room for her own choices. “Let it be with me according to your
word.” Well satisfied with a job well done, Gabriel then leaves
Mary to think about what has happened.
From here the story moves to Mary’s visit to her cousins
Zechariah and Elizabeth. Much about this visit is vague. Luke,
who usually precisely locates events, provides little indication of
time and place. He also gives no reason for Mary’s visit. What
is clear however, is that this dialogue between Elizabeth and
Mary reinforces Gabriel’s announcement. Virtually every word
of Elizabeth’s confirms Gabriel’s words to Mary. Elizabeth’s
initial greeting – “Blessed are you among women, and blessed
is the fruit of your womb,” – confirms Gabriel’s greeting of Mary
as the “favoured one”.
Secondly Elizabeth asks why is it that the mother of my Lord
should visit me. While Elizabeth does not speak of the child
with the messianic titles used by Gabriel, her reference to him
as my Lord recognises his part in God’s plan for humankind.
What may well have been seen as passive acceptance of the
powerful will of God here emerges as active confidence that
God will bring God’s promises into being.
But what of the passage that follows this – the Psalm known as
the Magnificat which we sang. The words of the Magnificat are
deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and help us to begin to
understand God’s promise to David. These verses portray
Messiahship in quite distinctive ways that are in tension with
the traditional view of what the Messiah should be and do.
The heart of the passage is in the second to last section. The
work of the coming King will be in part, at least, to set the
established order on its head. There is to be a complete
change in mindset and world view with the coming of this
Messiah. The proud and the powerful will be scattered and the
lowly will be lifted up. The hungry will be satisfied and the rich
will be sent away empty.
As we read through these verses carefully we can see them
reflected in the later stories in Luke’s gospel. I also believe that
the Magnificat is linked to the Sermon on the Mount and the
beatitudes found in Matthew’s gospel. Both speak of the
complete reversal of the ways things have been – and reflect
Jesus’ ministry where the focus was on the poor, the hungry,
the least of society. Here in the familiar stories of Christmas we
have our mandate for the churches to be active in social justice.
The joy that bursts forth from Mary’s heart is not centred on the
news that she has been favoured above all other women,
although she is astounded by that reality, rather it is her
realisation that human life will never be the same again. The
time is at hand. The birth of the Lord is near.