Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
23rd of December, 2018
I’m not sure whether you remember this, but I’ve mentioned before an episode of the eighties Australian television program A Country Practice that I’m reminded of every Christmas. The episode centred on an older woman who found herself unexpectedly pregnant and was considering ending the pregnancy. Naturally, everyone in the entire town knew this and had an opinion on it, there were no secrets in Wandin Valley, and one of the doctors went to visit a church to think about it. There she met a priest who asked her about different scenarios in which a termination might be appropriate. One was when the mother was an unmarried teenager for whom giving birth would be particularly risky. Would she perform an abortion in that circumstance? The doctor said, yes, of course. Ah, said the priest, but what if the mother’s name was Mary and the town was Bethlehem?
I don’t remember anything else from that episode. It was screened in 1987, when I was fourteen, and that one scene is the only one I remember. But it comes back to me whenever I read Mary’s story in the Bible. Today’s Jesse Tree ornament is a heart, representing Mary, whose love for God and her son is at the heart of the Christmas story. In this past week, as you coloured in the Jesse Tree pictures, you will have been reminded of the bravery of Esther; the initial cowardice and eventual courage of Jonah; and the prophecies of Isaiah, Malachi, Elizabeth and Zachariah, and John the Baptist – all of them looking forward to the coming of Christ. Mary was also a prophet, and just as brave a woman as Esther. She also follows Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, the other women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, in being the source of scandal.
In our culture the Nativity has become a story for children, most often told in Nativity plays and picture books. This idealisation of the story of the birth of Jesus distracts us from the fact that Mary became pregnant out of wedlock in a time when that was definitely not acceptable. Matthew is open about the scandal of Jesus’ birth; he writes about Joseph, as a righteous man, deciding to put Mary away quietly when he finds her to be pregnant. He has little choice and is showing mercy by rejecting Mary quietly; the penalty that the legal code in Deuteronomy prescribed for women who were found not to be virgins at marriage was that ‘they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.’ (Deut 22:21) But God intervenes. God’s angel addresses Joseph in a dream, encouraging him not to be afraid to go through with the marriage. The angel goes on to prophesy the birth of a son, the name he is to be given, and the role he is to play. Matthew tells us that Joseph follows the instructions. By naming the baby Joseph acknowledges Jesus to be his son, making him legally part of the house and family of David.
The story we heard today, from the Gospel according to Luke, by-passes this scandal. Luke doesn’t mention how Joseph reacted to news of his betrothed’s pregnancy. Instead the focus is on Mary, who is told by the angel Gabriel that despite being a virgin she will conceive and bear a son she is to name Jesus. The protagonist of Matthew’s Nativity is Joseph; for Luke the hero is Mary, who bravely responds to news of her pregnancy out of wedlock with, ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. We have no idea what she then says to Joseph! Instead Mary hastens to see her relative Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary approaches Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth cries out, ‘Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’ In response, Mary prophecies.
All the ancestors in the faith that we have been reading about this Advent as we have created our Jesse Trees culminate in Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. But they also culminate in Mary. Like Tamar and Rahab and Ruth, she is a woman whose scandalous situation leads to a prophesied birth. Like them and like Esther she is a woman whose courage saves her people. Like Isaiah and Jonah and Malachi and Zechariah and Elizabeth she is a prophet. Mary’s response to the greeting from her cousin Elizabeth is to sing the Magnificat; a prophecy of what God has done in Israel’s history and is doing now in Jesus: scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, filling up the hungry. Mary is singing in a country under Roman occupation, but she is so certain, so open to the coming justice of God, that she can sing about it as though it has already happened. Mary is 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 herself we see the culmination of the history we have been following this Advent through the Jesse Tree.
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 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 it describes, the kingdom of God, a world in which everyone has enough to eat, in which the lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down from their thrones. As the story of Mary shows us, everyone, even the most lowly and powerless, even those as lowly and powerless as an unmarried mother in an ‘honour/shame’ society that says such women should be put to death, are our brothers and sisters and the beloved children of God, and we should treat them as such. And we should love ourselves, because we, too, are God’s beloved children. Let all of us sing with Mary, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’ Thanks be to God. Amen.