Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Advent, 20 December 2015, St Mary’s, morning

Readings  Micah 5.2-5a, Luke 1.39-45

Preacher  Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP

There are only four more shopping days to Christmas after today…. A few more days of frenetic activity as we dash out to the shops to get that last minute present for Uncle Sam that we’ve been putting off taking the trouble to buy…. Tomorrow is the last day for first class post for Christmas, so any cards sent off now may be accompanied by an anxious uncertainty that they may not arrive in time, especially if they are sent 2nd class…..Yesterday one arrived from a long lost cousin who hadn’t been seen for years, leaving that lingering feeling that one ought really to send one back by way of reply… the turkey has been hopefully ordered….the children or grand-children are complaining that it’s high time we decorated the Christmas tree…we’ve just checked the tree lights and yet again this year they’re not working… and so here we are again, yet another year caught up in the mad frenzy that we associate with the count- down to Christmas. Caught once again in the commercial helter-skelter of Christmas extravaganza. Why do we do it? From a purely secular or even commercial point of view it makes a lot of sense. The days are long and dark and dreary and this bonanza of activity gives us all something to occupy us and distract us from the cold winter that lies ahead. Although of course in these days of global warming the winter ahead may not be anything like as cold as the harsh winters we tend to associate with our youth. One can though understand why there may well have been a major pagan festival in ancient times at this darkest time of the year. But how do we make sense of all this as Christians? Where in all this frenzied activity lies any spiritual significance? Can we – do we – allow ourselves at least a few moments of quiet reflection in order to focus on the real meaning of it all? And to let God in?

At the heart of the Christmas story lies a two-way activity : giving and receiving. A gift isn’t a gift unless there’s someone willing to receive it. At Christmas we remember that God out of love for creation gave God’s very self to us in the birth of Jesus – in the form of human flesh. God became flesh… through a loving self-emptying, God became a human being. But this inestimable gift of God born as a human being only makes sense when humanity in response receives and acknowledges the Gift. The Prologue to St John’s Gospel that we shall hear read at tonight’s service of Nine Lessons and Carols reminds us of the risk God took at the Incarnation –

“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not”.

Jesus knew the pain of rejection …. of rejection of the precious gift of himself. “But”, John’s gospel continues, “to all who received him , who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

This is our greatest gift from God…..to be called, through faith in Christ, God’s children.

But for the gift to be truly a gift it has to be graciously received. At Christmas we take time to give presents to our nearest and dearest. And in this is great joy. But what of receiving ? Especially when we receive those presents we’d really rather not have ? Do we hide them in a drawer or do we receive them graciously and thankfully? I’d like to suggest this Christmas – just five days away from us now – that we concentrate not so much on giving as on receiving. And that can be harder.

Today, on this 4th Sunday of Advent, we remember and celebrate Mary, the mother of Jesus – and we have just listened to the wonderful story of Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth – the younger woman visits the older, and they both share their joy – the older woman pregnant with John the Baptist and the younger woman now pregnant with Jesus. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and acknowledges that Mary is the mother of her “Lord”.   Elizabeth goes on to exclaim of Mary –

“Blessed is she that believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

This is where our gospel reading for today ends, but of course what follows is the wonderful outpouring of praise of Mary’s Magnificat, in which she proclaims the radical values of God’s rule – the God who reverses worldly values and who vindicates the poor and vulnerable in the face of the powerful and overbearing. How important this message of hope is in today’s deeply troubled world, in which countless people are refugees, migrating from a rule of terror and seeking safety and a new life free from oppression and hatred. How important this message of hope is, in a world where the threat of terrorism and its horrifying effects seems seldom from our news broadcasts these days – on our radios and our television screens and in the daily press. Our own city of London is at a high level of risk, and only weeks ago the attacks on the people of Paris are still vivid in our minds. The dynamic of a rule of terror is aimed at making people live in fear. And the gospel message and the message of Mary’s Magnificat is all about the refusal to live in fear. Fear as well as death have been overcome in the whole narrative of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. But we are human, and as someone said to me recently, “Life is hard work”. Life is indeed hard work, and all too often fraught with difficulties and challenges that at times can seem insurmountable. At such dark times it may only be our tenuous faith that sees us through. But see us through it must, and please God see us through it will.

The story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a wonderful story which emphasises the joy and faith of these two women who won through their difficulties and who knew that God was with them and for them.

May we too as we approach this “queen” of feasts ( as one of the hymns puts it) at Christmas know that God is with us and for us, and be encouraged that no matter what difficulties and trials we face in our daily lives, God in Jesus has already trod the most difficult road – and that the Incarnation that we focus on at this time of year is the greatest message in the world that can ever be proclaimed – that God in Jesus became one of us and loves us and lives in us in the power of the Spirit.

Mary knew that power and love of God, and it all poured out of her in praise in her wonderful song of the Magnificat.

I would like to close with some lines – the source is unknown – that sum up the relationship of Mary and Jesus and who they are for us in the unfolding story of our salvation –

Mary, the Dawn, but Christ the perfect Day.
Mary the Gate, but Christ the heavenly Way.
Mary the Root, but Christ the mystic Vine.
Mary the Grape, but Christ the sacred Wine.
Mary the Corn-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread.
Mary the Rose-Tree, Christ the Rose blood-red.
Mary the Fount, but Christ the cleansing Flood.
Mary the Chalice, Christ the Saving Blood.
Mary the Beacon, Christ the haven’s Rest.
Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision blest.
Amen.

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