Sermon on Luke 1: 26-38
I begin with a quote from a book review in last week’s Church Times:
‘”Always question authority”. That’s what Sarah Burton tells her girls in Andrew Davies’ recent television adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s novel South Riding. Clunkingly anachronistic when those words purport to come from a 1930s Yorkshire headmistress.’
I didn’t see the TV series and I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on the reviewer’s accuracy. He seems to suggest that Sarah Burton didn’t speak those words in the book itself, that rather they reflect our modern distrust of authority.
Gone are the days when we believed everything the government, our teachers or the church told us. Those days in fact may never fully have existed but it’s undoubtedly true that that kind of authority has diminished in its power.
One phrase that stuck in my mind from when I studied German many years ago was: Befehl ist Befehl. Orders are orders. That’s how Nazis and members of the German armed forces often justified themselves. I was only following orders. What else could I do?
Sometimes it must be right to question authority. Yet at other times it is surely at the very least advisable to accept authority. If the members of an orchestra continually disregard the conductor’s guidance, you have a recipe for artistic disaster.
Authority implies some level of obedience, and Mary is often given fulsome praise for her obedience when she is visited by the Archangel Gabriel. Despite the heavy responsibility and the social opprobrium she is likely to encounter.
Gabriel doesn’t actually give her a lot of choice. ‘You will conceive, you will bear a son, you will name him Jesus’ is what he says. And Mary has the good grace not to argue too strongly despite her perplexity. But it’s more than just recognising that she’d better go with the flow. She embraces what will happen because it is the will of God.
We may fret sometimes that God’s will is not made as obvious to us as it was to Mary. We rarely receive visits from ordinary angels let alone archangels – at least as far as we know. We are only rarely given clear guidance as to what God’s will is. Life and our moral choices are, we perceive, full of ambiguity.
But that is slightly, I think, to misunderstand what God’s will for us is. It is not some sort of future curriculum vitae – a detailed outline of our future lives, just as an ordinary CV is an outline of our past lives. And as if the more we stray from that CV, the more disastrous things become and the more estranged we are from God.
Rather, I would suggest, God’s will for us is that at each instant of our lives we should choose the option that most expresses God’s own love for our fellow human beings and indeed all our fellow creatures.
That includes short term decisions about how we should act now, at this moment, to this person in front of me as well as more long term decisions about, say, a choice of career.
Some of those decisions will be pretty clear-cut. We often know how we should react to the person in front of us. The angel that is our conscience makes it clear to us. It’s just that often we choose not to obey our conscience and we choose a more convenient option.
But our refusal to obey is never the end of the story. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey on this but I would guess that we all avoid doing what we know to be right from time to time. I can’t be the only one, surely?
We all do the wrong thing sometimes. We all make mistakes. But mistakes are not the end of the story.
I have a quote here from the Dominican Simon Tugwell. Forgive me if you’ve heard it before but I think it bears repetition: ‘God’, he says, ‘is that expert dancer who can make dance out of the most atrocious partner’. We are that atrocious partner, forever getting our footwork wrong. But God is able to integrate all our free choices, mistakes and sins and all, into his plan.
If you make a mistake, God can work with that. If you make another mistake, he can work with that as well. You can make any number of mistakes and God can work with them. God is a great retriever of situations.
There’s never any need to despair, even if your track record of mistakes is grim. That’s all in the past. The past, the list of our mistakes, can be transcended.
One last point: God’s will for us is not some mysterious imposition on us that would twist and mangle our nature into something that it isn’t. We sometimes fear that God is trying to make us into something we’re not, to rob us of our freedom, to distort us, but it’s not like that.
God, in the deepest sense of the word, wants us to enjoy ourselves. God’s will for us is that we should most fully be ourselves. That means loving God and loving others because that is what we are designed for. And one day God will find a way to bring that about, however many mistakes we make along the way.