Sermon: Small and insignificant

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
19th of December, 2021

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:39-55

This week we were finally able to hold a memorial service celebrating the life of Marcelle Maisey. Jenny Preston presided, and she preached on the Bible passage chosen by Marcelle’s family, Proverbs 31:10-31, which is often titled ‘the capable wife’ in Bibles. Jenny pointed out that the word translated as ‘capable’ actually has connotations of military might or physical strength and courage, and so many commentators prefer to title this passage ‘a woman of valour’. Only two women in all the Hebrew Scriptures are described in this way, the woman in Proverbs 31 and Ruth the Moabite. Today we hear of two more women of valour, Elizabeth, and Mary. Unusually, in a Bible that usually tells the stories of men, today we see these two women meeting and conversing without the presence of any male character, other than their unborn babies. Their meeting and their lives change the world.

In Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth the focus is on Joseph, who discovers that his betrothed is pregnant and must decide whether to put her away. In Luke’s telling the focus is instead 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. Last year we heard her brave response to the news of her pregnancy out of wedlock: ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. This year we see what happens next. The angel Gabriel has told Mary that her relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and Mary hastens to see her.

If it is unusual to have a Bible passage in which two women speak in the absence of men, the way they speak to each other is equally unusual. Elizabeth is the older of the pair, married to the priest Zechariah. It would be appropriate for the young, unmarried Mary to come to serve her older kinswoman in the last months of her pregnancy. But that is not what happens. 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?’ Both these women would have been considered unimportant in their culture but Mary – young, poor, unmarried – is definitely the least important of the two. And yet Elizabeth considers it an honour that Mary has come to her, greeting her by saying, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.

Mary’s response to this greeting from her cousin Elizabeth is to sing the Magnificat, in imitation of the song Hannah sang when bringing her son, Samuel, to minister to the Lord in the presence of Eli. Mary’s song celebrates what God has done in Israel’s history and is doing now in Jesus. 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 can 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 already 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.

Mary’s is a song of cosmic reversal, in which the world is turned upside down; a subversive song in which the lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down. This is the world that Jesus came to initiate, the one in which the first are last and the last are first, in which the poor are blessed, and the rich are woeful, in which the rich man ends up parched in hell while Lazarus rests in the bosom of Abraham. This is a world in which the barren and elderly Elizabeth not only gives birth to a prophet, but becomes a prophet herself, and offers submission to the younger, unmarried, Mary. This is a world in which two women of two different generations can support each other through their unlikely, miraculous, pregnancies, as they prepare to give birth to sons who will transform everything.

This is the same world that was foretold by the prophet Micah. By now you will be unsurprised to hear that the reassuring prophecy that we are given today only comes after a long series of judgement oracles. Micah, like all the Hebrew prophets, looks at the world around him and sees that it is not as God wants it to be. He condemns those who ‘covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; … oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance’. (Micah 2:2) Then he looks forward to a ruler to come, from the line of David. Interestingly, this ruler will come not from Jerusalem, David’s royal city, but from the tiny town of Bethlehem of Ephrathah, where David lived as a shepherd. Rather than being a great warrior, as was David the King, this ruler will ‘feed his flock in the strength of the Lord’. Rather than overthrowing Israel’s enemies through violence, this ruler ‘shall be the one of peace’. We know this prophecy, because it is the one that the chief priests and scribes quote to Herod when the Magi come seeking a king. They were looking in the wrong place for the wrong kind of king; Micah had foretold that the one who would be ‘great to the ends of the earth’ would begin their life in obscurity and grow to be a ruler of peace.

Today’s readings from Micah and Luke give us the same message that the Christmas story itself will give us next week. The Messiah will be laid in a manger because there is no room for him in the inn, and the announcement of his birth will be made to shepherds living in the fields. The Christmas story tells us that God is just as likely to be acting among the poor and insignificant as among the wealthy and powerful. In fact, the tale told throughout the Scriptures is that God is more likely to be acting in small, isolated communities like Bethlehem and through those society deems unimportant. Mary sings that God has ‘looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’. If we want to see where God is, our faith tells us, we need to look down, among the lowly and excluded.

We know all this, but it is often hard to believe. It is not easy to rejoice that God chooses the lowly and excluded if we are the lowly and excluded. Over my lifetime, and certainly over yours, the church in Australia has moved from the centre of society to the absolute margins. We look at this beautiful building and remember the days when churches were filled, when it was taken for granted that multiple generations of families would attend church together, when we had full Sunday schools and vibrant youth groups, and so we mourn a shrinking congregation and declining influence. We can look at the churches that seem to be growing, Pentecostal churches like Hillsong, and migrant churches, and wonder what it is we are doing wrong. Even if we are certain that God is more likely to be acting among the poor and insignificant than among the fortunate and strong, I am almost certain that as a church we really would prefer not to be quite so lowly and excluded. Yet this week we have been given a perfect example of what ‘success’ truly is.

Advent 4

Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is ‘Love’ Sunday. This week, when we gathered to remember Marcelle Maisey, love overflowed. There was of course pain, because when someone we love dies the sorrow we feel is a measure of the love we shared with them, but stronger than the pain was the gratitude and celebration. Obviously Marcelle was neither poor nor insignificant, but she was not famous. She was not a politician or celebrity or sports star, not the sort of person whose death is announced in the media and who is given a state funeral. And yet as we listened to what Marcelle’s family and friends had to say of her: of her great gifts of hospitality, of friendship, of welcome; of her support of Boroondara Community Outreach and the fresh water project in PNG and her ability to convince others to support them too, it was obvious that we were celebrating not simply a life lived well but the action of God in our world. Marcelle’s life included tragedy as well as joy, and through it all this community and many others saw God. On this Love Sunday, Marcelle’s life can be for us a model of the love that embraces everyone, that helps to build a community and make it better.

Jenny drew on Proverbs 31 to describe Marcelle Maisey as a courageous and strong woman, a woman of valour. Elizabeth and Mary were certainly women of valour. Can we, too, be people of valour? Can we, like Micah, look to the margins and the little clans to find God? Can we, like Elizabeth, celebrate the presence of God in the lives of those society tells us are less important than us? Can we, like Mary, courageously answer ‘yes’ to God’s call on our life even when we ourselves feel ‘lowly’? Our faith tells us that we can, in the strength of the Lord, because God keeps his promises and showers us with loving-kindness. The saints who have gone before us have given us examples to follow. We may sometimes struggle to believe it, but the God who looked with favour on Mary also looks with favour on us. So we, like Mary, can magnify the Lord and our spirits can rejoice. Amen.

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