Sermon - 23rd December 2012
Scripture - Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:47-55
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
Christmas is about the world turned upside down. It may seem like our worlds are pretty shaky with all the preparations we do for this time of the year, but at the heart of what we celebrate is a radical reordering of our priorities. A little baby is the word of God made flesh. Dirty shepherds are the first people to be told the Good News, pagan astrologers come to pay him homage whilst the Jewish king reacts with fear, loathing and dreadful murder. Christmas is all about reordered priorities and we see this in our two readings tonight.
The prophet Micah was incredibly radical in his message. Sadly we don’t get to read much of him in the readings set for worship each week. His task was to try and speak God’s message to the people of his day – seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. He ministered in the northern Kingdom of Israel which was surrounded by nations constantly at war with and threatened by the superpower Assyria. The leaders of the people watched the nations rage around them and wondered how they would survive, what their foreign policy would be. Micah’s startling message - like that of all the prophets – was that the only hope for the people was a radical trust in God. This trust needed to be accompanied by a fierce loyalty to Him too.
Micah saw that this loyalty to God had to be expressed in the lifestyles of the people and in how they, as a society, treated the poor. His message wasn’t based on a trendy leftie idea about justice but on the deep understanding of God’s will that all should live in dignity. It wasn’t good enough to worship at the Temple and make elaborate sacrifices – instead the people had to return to God and implicit in that call was economic justice.
The poor had to be looked after, debts had to be forgiven after a certain time, the cloak couldn’t be taken as a pledge of a loan – to do so meant that the poor had no covering at night. But God’s wrath, in Micah, is not just against the rich and powerful, but also against the religious establishment who didn’t offer a prophetic critique of how things are. Those who gave easy answers and salved consciences that should have been feeling guilt get short shrift from Micah.
Micah sees no immediate hope for the people as they have fallen so far from what God wants, but he does see hope in the future. Out of the destruction will come peace when swords will become ploughshares and everyone will sit on their own land and enjoy the fruit of it. The future will come out of Bethlehem. We don’t know what Micah’s immediate hearers made of it but people have, ever since the Wise Men, looked to this passage and seen a promise of a new king who would put things aright.
The passage from Luke has three women in it – but we only see two of them. We see Mary and her cousin Elizabeth and, behind Elizabeth there are echoes of Hannah another Jewish woman who was barren but conceived later on in life. Elizabeth and Hannah had longed for a child and, eventually the Lord granted their prayers. Elizabeth in a moment of grace recognise the child that Mary is carrying and then Mary sings for joy.
Mary’s song is amazing and one of the most radical passages in the Scriptures. It comes from an explosion of joy and relief – I suspect that up until her meeting with Elizabeth, Mary hadn’t told anyone of her pregnancy – wisely so as she’d risk divorce, scandal and even death. In her patriarchal society it was accepted that women who committed adultery were stoned to death.
Mary was, at this point on the outside of respectability. She stood to lose everything because of her trust in God – a radical trust no less than the trust which Micah urged his listeners to have. Mary’s perspective on the outside gave her a unique view of life and so she sang for the poor. Grounded in Micah and the other books of the Old Testament, Mary saw a future where God turned everything upside down, a future where the priorities of this world were re-ordered.
Like her Old Testament sister, Hannah, Mary see’s God’s deepest purposes in the re-ordering of a society where the poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away, where rulers are tipped from their thrones and where the proud are scattered. Mary remembers her lowliness as a humble girl from the north of Israel, found pregnant in a patriarchal society without the benefit of marriage. She is an outsider and, from the edge she see’s God’s purposes in her life clearly. She realises that all generations will call her blessed but she sees God’s purposes at work in the world too as she sees a different social order.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of her words about rulers being tipped from their thrones in the Arab spring this year. We don’t know how it will all turn out but seeing tyrants and dictators be cast out by their people was marvellous to behold and introduce some much needed fear into the hearts of other tyrants around the world. In a few short weeks everything changed and now we’re watching the after tremors in Egypt and continuing struggles in Syria. I was reminded of Mary’s words about the proud being scattered in the imagination of their hearts in the reaction of the press to the Levenson enquiry. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Levenson’s recommendations, whatever the impact of having freedom of the press and regulation of it guaranteed by statute, there was something wonderful about seeing media barons and editors squirm at the spotlight being turned on them instead of on celebrities and ordinary folk for a change.
Mary recognised that she was magnified by God. She had done nothing worthy of this type of blessing. She recognised that the proud are scatted by God and the humble lifted up by God. She recognised that the re-ordered society is a divine initiative and that is what caused her such joy – God would intervene in our world to put things right.
During Advent we’ve been thinking about that divine intervention. We reflect, quite naturally now on the intervention of God becoming flesh as we start our Christmas celebrations. At the start of Advent we thought about Jesus’ coming again at the end of time to make all things new. These are themes of Advent and should be themes of our Christian discipleship.
So what does this mean?
So as we prepare to celebrate Christmas how can we sign magnificat in our own lives and to our own societies? Mary’s song was so radical that, in the 80s, the juntas in Latin America only let it be sung in Latin and not Spanish so people wouldn’t understand it! How can we, as the church, be prophetic in our own age?
You’d have thought it would be easy. We live in a country with an established church where 26 bishops of that church sit in the House of Lords and help make Law. Yet the Anglicans seem to waste this opportunity. Their inability to consecrate women as bishops has made them look silly and this, no doubt, is why Mr Cameron has brought forth more radical proposals for equal marriage proposing to allow churches who want to officiate at them to do so. But the Church of England, in its response, talked about the same tired old nonsense about the complementarity of men and women in relationship and that marriage was only fully marriage if people had children – and so undermined the marriage of childless couples everywhere. Think how much more prophetic they could have been if they’d rejoiced in the opening up of marriage to everyone and spoke about the radical commitment of marriage, about how partners need to love and support each other, not marry in haste but realise the amazing commitment that we make. Think of the prophetic voice and good news they could announce if they did more to support and strengthen marriage rather than attack some who want to actually marry.
When the Church is at its best it offers an amazing prophetic voice. Before the election the Roman Catholic Church in these islands prophetically called for an amnesty on people here who have irregular immigration statuses but who are, of course, working – especially in London and supporting our economy. In the Summer the United Reformed Church was the first mainstream Christian Church to allow congregations to celebrate Civil Partnerships if they wished to do so. The Methodist and United Reformed Churches have campaigned on issues around poverty and peace. In our congregation we have, for years, campaigned for equal marriage through the mass blessings we have done at Pride over the years and the interviews we’ve given to the press. Jenny-Anne has led our campaigning on transgender issues and our submission to Parliament on the Gender Recognition Bill was read as part of the debate.
We are called to be prophetic, to spread Good News. The Good News at Christmas is that Jesus was born, that he came to save, that he shows us how to live. The Good News for the hungry is bread, for the poor is security, for the asylum seeker is sanctuary. It’s all part of God’s mission to transform our world into a better place, into the coming kingdom. So as we celebrate this Christmas the birth of Christ into our world, let’s remember the words of his mother who sang for the poor and, in her joy, understood the deep purposes of God.