St Andrew’s, Milborne
Sunday 23rd December 2018
Hebrews 10.5-10; Luke 1.39-55
“Who are you?” Mary asked sharply, putting down her duster and placing her hands on her hips.
“I’m the angel Gabriel,” the boy replied with a deadpan expression and in a flat voice.
“Well, what do you want?”
“Are you Mary?”
“I come with tidings of great joy.”
“I’ve got some good news.”
“What is it?”
“You’re having a baby.”
“God, and he sent me to tell you.”
“Well, I don’t know nothing about this.”
“And it will be a boy and he will be great and be called – er, um . . .Ah the King of Kings. He will rule for ever and his reign will have no end.
“What if it’s a girl?”
“It won’t be.”
“You don’t know., It might be.”
“It won’t, ‘cos God knows about these things.”
“And you must call it Jesus.”
“I don’t like the name Jesus. Can I call him something else?”
“What about Gavin?”
“No,” the angel snapped. “You have to call it Jesus. Otherwise you don’t get it.”
“All right,” Mary agreed. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell Joseph.”
“Tell him it’s God’s.”
“OK, Mary said, smiling for the first time.
When the angel departed, Joseph entered. “Hello, Mary,” he said cheerfully.
“Oh, hello Joseph,” Mary replied.
“Have you had a good day?”
“Yes, pretty good, really,” she said.
“Have you anything to tell me?”
There was a slight pause before she replied: “I’m having a baby . . . oh, and it’s not yours.”
It probably really wasn’t like that at all – the scene I’ve just read comes from a junior school improvised nativity play, as recorded in Gervase Phinn’s book A Wayne in a Manger.
But I wonder whether it was really quite as straightforward as the story Luke tells.
In the passage from Luke’s Gospel immediately before the one we heard today, we have the same scene – Gabriel speaking with Mary. Luke admits that Mary is perplexed by the angel’s greeting, and when she is told she is to have a child questions how that can be. But then immediately after the angel gives her more surprising news – that Elisabeth who has been barren is also expecting – Mary seems to immediately acquiesce, stop asking questions and accept everything.
I wonder if it was really quite that simple.
We’re told more than once by Luke that she ponders things – first the angel’s greeting and second after the visit of the shepherds.
She’s a young girl, betrothed to be married, who finds herself pregnant. Surely, however close to God she was, she didn’t accept that without any questioning or confusion or fear. Her place in her community would be compromised by what they think she’s done. Even today, someone who is engaged who then becomes pregnant without the help of her fiancé faces moral disapproval. It was much worse back then.
After the extraordinary visit from the angel, Mary rushes off to see Elisabeth. It doesn’t sound as if Elisabeth was expecting her. She couldn’t just call ahead to alert her in advance. No mobile phones back then – or even landlines. There’s so much detail missing.
Did she go because she needed to escape the stares and judgement of her own community?
Did she go because she felt the need for time spent with someone who would understand her predicament?
Did she travel alone? It would have been highly unusual for a woman at that time to do so.
In terms of the story of the incarnation, we have the important parts, but there are so many gaps too. Mary has become for some the idealised woman, and yet the picture we have of her in the Gospels tell us very little. As the mother of God incarnate, she is supremely important, and yet as so often in the work of God, those who are chosen are ordinary people.
We know that Mary was thoughtful and obedient, loving and worshipful. We know that she and Joseph kept the Jewish laws after Jesus was born, going to the temple for his circumcision and to Jerusalem later for Passover. We know they were relatively poor. But the Bible doesn’t actually tell us why God chose her, why Mary was the favoured one.
In the end all we can say is that it was through God’s grace, it was God’s choice and God knows why he chose her.
All through Scripture we see God choosing those to do his work who are weak and vulnerable, who make mistakes, who are not the people that we would choose if we had something special that needed doing. When someone advertises for a job that needs filling, they want the very best. If you look at some adverts for Vicars, they seem to want the angel Gabriel, if not Jesus himself to fulfil their requirements.
But God seems to do things differently. He chooses old women to have children, youngest brothers over older ones, deceivers like Jacob, murderers like Paul, adulterers like David, blunderers like Peter, inconsequential, unimportant people like Mary.
Wow! What great things they have done for God!
Mary breaks into song when the two women meet – it’s a song that Christians have echoed through the ages, and as you will be aware it is an important part of the liturgy of the Church of England, the canticle that is said and sung at Evening Prayer and Evensong. It’s recognising that the people of God are not the rich and famous, the powerful and wealthy but the meek and humble and poor.
In God’s kingdom, the proud and haughty will be brought down, the powerful and the lowly will change places, the rich lose their wealth and the poor given their fill.
Of course, in God’s kingdom all are equal and all are loved. Things will be balanced out. It’s harder for the rich and powerful to recognise their need for God, while the poor and humble know it only too well.
God noticed Mary, God notices the small and lowly. That’s partly why Jesus was born as an outsider away from his home community to a poor couple, so we can all recognise the power of God’s kingdom.
If he’d been born in a palace, how many of us would have felt he wasn’t for us?
As I was preparing this sermon, I came across this modern-day version of the Magnificat, written by one of the curates in this diocese. It’s a Mary’s Song for today. How do you fit in?
My soul magnifies God
And my spirit leaps within me
Dances for joy
For God has seen me
Even in my smallness
I am seen
I am noticed
I am known
And I will be known for generations to
As someone blessed by God.
She has shown me mercy
Mercy that goes on and on
Beyond the horizon
Further than the eye can see
Mercy handed down
From family to family.
God has scattered the proud
In their conceit
Unseated them from their haughty
Thrown them off and set them down
She has levelled the playing field;
Those sat at the top of the tree
Who wield power
Will be toppled
Brought back to reality
See who really rules.
And those who lose
Who are looked down upon
Who trek across savage seas in search
Who flee violence at home
Whose children are separated from them
Those who fall victim to political wars
Innocents sacrificed on the altar of
Weapons funded by governments miles
away who care not to see
The body count
Those who are counted out
Who are passed by
Will be lifted up
No more sifting sand
Gifted stable ground
No longer lost.
Those who cannot settle the cost
Who wonder where the next meal will
Whose sleep is disturbed by rumbling
Will be fed the very best.
Those who stand in the food bank queue
Who wonder how they’ll feed their
children in the school holidays
No longer full of worry
But belly-full of warm life giving food
And warm life-giving hope.
Hope for a future without want.
Those who are currently stuffed full of
Full to the brim
Will slim down
Sent away empty
For God has redressed the balance
And justice is flowing
In the places that have been cracked and
This is the God who has called me
Set me apart
And my heart is full.
 Gervase Phinn: A Wayne In A Manger (Penguin, 2005) p. 46ff
 Ruth Wells