Advent 4, December 18th, St John the Divine

Reading Luke 1.26-38

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

In our present population, more perhaps than at any time since before the Middle Ages, there is a large percentage of men and women and children who have no knowledge of the Christian story. Imagine you were one of those people, and you have recently come to faith, so this is your first Christmas as a believer: hearing these stories fresh, with the ears of faith, will be electrifying. If you have grown up with all this though, it’s different. Familiarity breeds – contentment. You hear the words, ‘In the sixth month…’ and you know what is coming.

Now of course no two Christmases are quite the same; the annual nativity play happens against the backdrop of a world that’s different each year. I remember Christmas 1989 when the iron curtain was coming down across Europe, and Tony Blair in 1998 announcing airstrikes onIraqin front of a winking Christmas tree outside No. 10. This year it’s the Arab spring, the US coming out ofIraq, and the tottering of the Eurozone. And the backdrop of our own lives changes as well: what has changed for you since the weekend of the Carol Service last year?

Even so, there is still a sense of sameness about each successive Christmas. Take today’s story. If you can get inside it – which you may say is not easy, because visits from angels are not part of everyday experience (we’ll return to that) – if you can see it from Mary’s point of view, it is all fear and uncertainty: fear of her visitor, of the news he brings and the shame the birth might bring on her, uncertainty about how what he tells her will ever happen. But we’re not in first-century Nazareth, we are in twenty-first century TW9, and if you’re hearing this for the umpteenth time, then the appearance of the angel is no big shock; it’s a visit from a comfortable old friend. So, how to make it fresh?

It’s not a new problem. There are few scenes in the Bible that are better known than today’s. It’s been painted a thousand times, and if any of your friends are people like me who fancy themselves and like sending fine art Christmas cards, then a glance along your mantelpiece may reveal a couple of Annunications, as this scene is called. There is often a sameness about these pictures: Mary at prayer on one side of the room, desk and prayer book beside her, meekly listening, arms crossed; on the other side, the imposing angel. How to make it fresh?

One artist managed it, as you can see from the picture you received as you came in. The original is in the National Gallery. Carlo Crivelli’s picture divides into two. Look at the right hand side of picture, and it’s standard Christmas card kit: Mary in chamber, desk and prayer book, crossed hands, meek look. Swivel your eyes left, though, and you see that this is a cutaway picture. The left hand side of the picture takes us into the street outside Mary’s room. In the foreground, some fruit and veg lie on the pavement; in the background local people – people Mary knows, we presume – stroll, or stand and chat. And there is the angel in the street. He delivers his greeting to Mary though the open widow (which, interestingly, has bars on it – burglary was a problem in 1486 too). The angel is wearing great gear, but no-one seems to notice; he is one of the crowd: God speaks to Mary out of routine familiarity.

If this Christmas comes with familiarity, carols you know by heart, characters – shepherds, wise men, Herod, angels – that are part of your seasonal furniture, and if this familiarity breeds contentment, good. Better still, it may breed gratitude, as you celebrate your umpteenth Christmas as a believer, one of the people of God who follow Jesus and so celebrate his birth. And best of all, out of all that familiarity, God may speak something fresh. For ‘nothing will be impossible with God’ (1.37). What might this be?

I’ve just had an experience of getting on to the streets in a new way on my first shift as a Street Pastor – a group of volunteers from churches in our area who try to be helpful to the hundreds of mainly young people who are the fuel of Richmond’s late-night economy. I was a bit scared beforehand, but it was fun – chilly but fun – and rather more than fun. Street Pastors get great appreciation from those who know what they are for – I’ve never been so affirmed by strangers – and lots of interested questions from those who don’t: Do you get paid for this? Why do you do it then? We explained to one person what we were for and she said, ‘Ah, you look after pissed people.’ Pithy. One person we met was part of a tipsy office party group, but she was quite sober. Amid all that jollity she needed to talk about a friend’s funeral. Her angel in the street was a lady – somewhat older than me – who listened, offered to pray for her and gave her a hug. It was a privilege to witness.

Richmond needs more Street Pastors, because the Police want us to do two nights a week next year instead of just one. Up to now, though, out of the hundreds of people associated with our three churches, only Alyson here, myself and one other are actively involved. Who will be someone’s angel in the street be in the sixth month of 2012? I am pretty sure that person is sitting here.

That may be the fresh thing God is speaking to you this familiar Christmas. It may be something else. God may be calling you or me to be like the shepherds, and break off from the usual stuff we do and attend to something important and potentially wonderful; or to be like the inn keeper, the star of a hundred nativity plays, and be imaginative in the face of some need that comes you your door (see, for example, the notice about the Winter Fuel Allowance); or to be like the Wise Men and go somewhere, either literally or to make a journey of the heart.

How to make Christmas fresh? That’s God’s job, not ours. Our job, when we realise that this year God wants our celebration of the birth of Jesus to be the time when something is brought to birth in us, our job then is to be like Mary, and say,

‘Let it be with me according to your word’,

which means Yes.

 
Notes

Crivelli Annunciation at http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/carlo-crivelli-the-annunciation-with-saint-emidius

 
Winter Fuel Allowance  If you receive the allowance and feel you do not need it, you can donate it to the Richmond Charities who will use your gift to help someone in fuel poverty this winter. To find out more, contact

 
Catherine Rumsey
Clerk to the Trustees
The RichmondCharities
8 The Green
Richmond TW9 1PL

020 8948 4188
C.Rumsey@richmondcharities.org.uk
Registered Charity No. 200431

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