Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
20th of December 2015
This time last year, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, I explained to you why it is my favourite Sunday, not only in Advent, but in the whole Christmas season. For those of you who may have forgotten, and for those of you who weren’t here, I’m going to tell you again. It’s because of the Magnificat; Mary’s song of praise. At this time of year there are many places in the community where we can hear the story of Jesus’ birth in the stable; see the baby in the manger with the shepherds and magi come to honour him. Jesus may not be as popular as Santa Claus, but he’s still there. But it’s only in churches that we hear Mary singing her song of liberation. It’s only in churches that we see the old world of injustice overthrown and the new world of peace born. And it’s only in churches that we are reminded that being citizens of this new world means loving everyone – including our enemies.
We don’t often think of her this way, but Mary is a prophet. Her response to the greeting from her cousin Elizabeth is to sing the magnificent Magnificat, and she sings of things already done: God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled up the hungry. And yet Mary was singing in a country under Roman occupation. The proud and powerful were very much in control, as they still are today, and in both her time and ours many people still die of hunger. As one commentator writes: ‘Either [Mary] has lost her mind, or she has been blessed with double vision’. (Joanna M. Adams, ‘Living by the word: Double Vision’ Christian Century, 12 December 2006.) I’m going to go with the latter. Mary is prophesying, and she is so certain, so open to the coming justice of God, that she can sing about it as though it has already happened. She’s able to see that in the approaching birth of Jesus God’s promise for the future is already coming true. In Jesus’ birth, as in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God is defeating death and hopelessness. Mary sings, ‘The Mighty One has done great things for me’ and in the great things that God has done for Mary, we see the great things that God has done, is doing, and will continue to do, for the entire world.
In Mary’s song, the world as we know it is overturned. Mary and Elizabeth are meeting in Zechariah’s house, and Zechariah is a priest, a religious professional. Yet we don’t hear anything of him; and of course even if Zechariah was present he wouldn’t be able to speak, having been struck dumb by Gabriel. It’s the women whose words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s song sings of the over-turning of the power structures of this world, and the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary shows us an example of that overturning in action. The lowly, the barren and the young, women, peasants, people under occupation, are lifted up. What God has done for Elizabeth and Mary anticipates what God is going to do for all the lowly, the hungry, the poor and the powerless. Mary’s song assures us that this will happen, because it has already happened to her.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is the Sunday that we celebrate love. Of course, we celebrate love every Sunday, because God is love and love is at the heart of the Christian faith. Love God; love your neighbour; love your enemies; love one another; these are the commands that Jesus gave us. It is by our love that people are to know that we are Christian and it is in the life and death of Jesus, in his stories and his actions, that we see what that love means. We can also hear it in Mary’s song of prophecy. Listening to the Magnificat we know that we are commanded to live as citizens of the new world, the kingdom of God, that it describes, a world in which everyone has enough to eat, in which the lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down from their thrones so that everyone is equal. As the story of Elizabeth and Mary shows us, everyone, even the most lowly and powerless, even those as lowly and powerless as that previously-barren old woman and that unmarried mother, are our brothers and sisters and the beloved children of God, and we should treat them as such.
In some churches I might need to remind the congregation that being Christian means loving Muslims or loving refugees. Sadly, there are apparently many Christians who believe that Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan has nothing to say to them. I don’t need to say that here. What I might need to say, and at this point I’m preaching to myself more than anyone else, is that being Christian also means loving people who participate in anti-Muslim marches. It means loving those who reject refugees and asylum seekers and have no difficulty with children being locked up in immigration detention. It means loving the CEOs of companies that somehow manage to pay no taxes in Australia.
George Brandis famously said that people have the right to be bigots, and I’m going to go further and say that we are commanded to love bigots. We are commanded to love paedophiles and terrorists; we are commanded to love our enemies as well as our neighbours. Jesus reminded us to be careful about judging other people, in God decided to judge us by the same measure, but even when there is absolutely no doubt that people deserve condemnation; that they should be prevented from doing what they are doing; that they should be encouraged or even forced to change their ways; that they must be punished for the sake of the rest of society; we are still to love them.
In the words of the Magnificat love can include sending the rich away empty so that the poor will have enough; humbling the proud and bringing down the powerful so that the meek and lowly are no longer oppressed; but everything is to be done out of love, not out of anger, hatred or revenge.
The message of Christmas is that with the birth of Jesus we have seen the beginning of a new world, the coming of God’s kingdom. This is why Christmas is a time for our souls to magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our Saviour. It is also a time to remind ourselves again of what it means to be Christian, and the single most important aspect of that is love. At this time of year we are constantly bombarded with messages about loving our family and friends – usually in order to encourage us to show our love by buying them something! As Christians, we know that Christmas isn’t just a time to show our love to our family and friends. It’s also a time to show our love to people we don’t know, and even to our enemies. And while Christmas may be a good time to be reminded of that, we know that we are to show that love every day of that year. God has looked with favour on all of us, and we are to respond to that favour with love. Love came down at Christmas, and we receive that love by showing love in return. So let’s sing our commitment as written by the poet Christina Rossetti: TIS 317 “Love came down at Christmas”.