Luke: 1:39-45. (Sermon 1: “Mother of God”)
(Sermon 2: “Two Women of Faith”)
Hebrews 10: 5-10...
Micah 5: 2-5a...
Psalm: Luke 1:47-55
The love of the coming One be with you all.
And also with you.
When God was ready to do a surprising thing, a tiny clan, a wandering tribe called Jews, were chosen for the task.
God has chosen the weak things of the world to put the arrogant to shame.
When God was ready to do the most amazing thing that has ever happened , a young woman named Mary was chosen.
Rejoice Mary, chosen of God; the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
The Advent countdown is now really on!
The shepherds are out under the stars with their sheep
and even the heavenly angels are on tip toe with expectation.
A carpenter and his young wife are nearing the end of a tiring journey,
and all the hostels in the high country are booked out.
But you, O Bethlehem, are small to be among the clans of Judah,
yet from you shall come forth One who is to be ruler of Israel,
whose origin is from old, preceding the most ancient days.
When the woman who is in travail shall give birth,
lost brothers, once given up for dead, shall return home,
Loving God, you have chosen the weak to put the powerful to shame, give us the courage of your holy daughter, Mary.
Encourage us to rise above that which is deemed normal, and beyond that which is comfortable, and to confront the future with thanks and praise.
Then may things come to life in us that exceed expectation, and beckon others to your glory. Through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Sisters and brothers of the church, we come to repent, not only for our flagrant sins but those underlying attitudes and biases which leave us open to a slow, insidious corruption.
Let us pray.
Loving God, forgive us that we have frequently been negative and defeatist in the face of new challenges brought by the Holy Spirit: Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Forgive us that we have worried too much about what friends, neighbours, or workmates think, and not enough about your perfect will for us: Christ have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
Forgive us that we have been slow to obey, reluctant to admit our errors, or too proud to seek your grace: Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Gracious God, you offer forgiveness to the repentant and new strength to the weak, we pray for these graces to enter and saturate our mind and soul today. Please wash away our shame, mend our brokenness, and help us to amend our goals and the means of attaining them. Through Christ Jesus , the Saviour who comes to live among the meek and the poor and the merciful.
PROMISE OF FORGIVENESS
My fellow students in Christ’s school, hear this:
God has done great things for us; God humbles the proud and lifts up those who are cast down. Those who think themselves rich are sent away, but the hungry are filled with good things. Great mercy is on those who honour him, from generation to generation and forever.
In God your sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God.
Just Like You
you started life
just like me,
as a tiny, bitsy, baby,
helpless and crying
Thanks heaps and heaps
for becoming like us
so that we can one day become
become just like you.
Ó B D Prewer & Open Book Publishers
is not cramped in rooms
or caged up in its own story,
but moves untamed, utterly free
to raise up prophets
from barren wombs.
shapes its own law;
a fractious world
and preparing ways
seeks a new-world Eve;
graces young Mary
with a Gift and task
that the strong and proud
could not conceive.
© B. D. Prewer 1993
SONG OF MAGNIFICENCE
This may be sung to the tune: Iste Confessor.
With all my being, I sing of the Mystery,
with love and wonder, I laugh with my Saviour,
though I am nothing, God has smiled upon me,
great is such favour.
Now is the dawning, of a new-born people,
God will be honoured, through a humble family,
tender and graceful, is the Spirit with me,
the Love most holy.
This deed is awesome, God’s reach is extended,
here is the wonder, leavening our story,
disclosed is the key, cut at the beginning,
to hidden glory.
Happy the poor ones, your new world is gifted,
happy the hungry, royal bread and wine are yours,
happy the humble, you are high uplifted,
God’s covenant endures.
Sing out your praises, dance and now be joyous,
no one is worthless, lost and least shall enter first,
sing through the ages, God has come among us,
come to the open feast!
Ó B D Prewer & JBCE © ‘ Beyond Words’ 1995
Luke 1: 43
Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?
Today I offer you a Protestant sermon about a theme dear to Roman Catholics:
“Mother of God”.
It is a theme around which Protestants have stepped warily, fearful of trespassing into the realm of idolatry.
I invite you to put old fears aside, step nearer with me and take a closer look.
WHAT IS MAN, THAT YOU ARE MINDFUL OF HIM?
But first, let’s start with something less ecumenically delicate,
like the immense, mind-blowing size of the cosmos,
and, in contrast, the cherry-pip size of earth,
and the much tinier things called people.
Upsizing and downsizing:
The Hubble telescope up there in space,
and the series of space explorations undertaken by the USA,
have changed our astronomical perspective.
Also the thoughts of brilliant minds like
Cambridge’s Stephen Hawkins and Adelaide’s Paul Davies,
have sharpened our awareness of the awesome immensity of things
and the apparent tiny part we play.
Documentaries on TV have made us familiar
with the cherry-pip status of our planet within our own galaxy,
and yet our galaxy of millions of suns is only one galaxy among 10 billion galaxies.
Long ago a song writer asked: “What is man, that you are mindful of him?”
Today there are plenty of clever guys (eg, atheist Richard Dawkins) who would quickly retort: “Nothing! Humanity is nothing. If there is an enigmatic Beginner of this enormous scheme of things, then don’t expect him/her/it to be personally interested with little earthlings.
To such people our church songs about a God who knows our names and guides our footsteps, is egotistical nonsense. As one has warned: “We are but chance flecks of consciousness in an unconscious cosmos.”
To such people, our Advent and Christmas celebrations are the pathetic residue of primitive mythology. To them, Christmas is a game we play once a year, to brighten up a insignificant existence.
If you are among those who have fallen into this way of thinking, then the early Christian Church says to you: “Let us tell you about the young woman who was the mother of God.”
OLD WORLD THINKING
You see, ours is not the first era to see a deep gulf between God and this earth, between the Divine and the human.
A long way back, the gods were thought to be high in the blue dome arching above us, occasioanly visiting the mountain peaks, or riding across the skies in sun, moon and stars. Much later, by the golden age of the Greek civilisation, philosophers chose more lofty, abstract deity. More like an Ideal than a living, loving Person. For Plato, for example, the idea of communing with God and calling him our ‘abba’ (daddy) would have seemed laughable In the early centuries of Christianity.
Christians had to wrestled against forms of philosophy which declared: God is too pure to have any intimate dealings with human beings. God was pure spirit and could not have direct contact with the imperfect, debased, material world. Human flesh and God could never come together.
But there could be go-betweens. In some Hellenistic religions, they believed in superbeings (neither fully God nor fully human) who could act as intermediaries. Nevertheless, direct relationship between God and earthlings was impossible. Ipso facto. Impossible. Incarnation was impossible.
Not surprisingly, some Christians who had been educated with this philosophy (saturated with it, in fact!) tried to squeeze Christ Jesus back into a more acceptable Hellenistic mould.
One school held that Jesus was neither God nor human, but a supernatural mediator (demi-urge). Mary gave birth to another class of being, who came to bring knowledge of God to humanity, so that crude earthlings could begin the long climb to purification and, ultimately, to graduation in the highest heaven.
Another school said that Jesus was divine but was definitely not born of Mary. He came as a spirit in the appearance of a man. A phantom. People thought they were dealing with a man but it was an illusion; the feet of Jesus never fully touched the corrupt ground of earth.
THE DIVINITY OF JESUS : STORY AND CREEDS
All this frustrated the mainstream of Christianity. They tried dealing with this gulf between God and humanity in a number of ways. I want to mention two of these ways: story and creed.
One way of countering Hellenistic philosophy was by story.
Towards the end of the first century, as the Hellenistic distortion began to arise, Christians started to speak more about the birth of Jesus. Jesus was a real man, truly born of Mary.
Earlier, during the 20 or 30 years, Christians did not concern themselves with the birth of Jesus. They took that for granted. It was his teaching, death and resurrection that occupied their worship and preaching. In the very earliest documents of Christianity (most NT letters, and also the Gospel of Mark) there is only one passing reference to his birth.
But by the time Matthew and Luke were writing, the Hellenistic climate was so influential that they saw it as important to tell the story of Christ’s birth. In different ways, Matthew and Luke describe his beginning as a baby, child of Mary and Joseph. By this story method, they declare that God could indeed have dealings with people. The gulf was large but not impassable; it could be bridged by God incarnate, God enfleshed.
So in Luke’s story, when a pregnant Mary pays her visit to her pregnant cousin (or aunt?) Elizabeth, Elizabeth exclaims: “Who am I that I should be visited by the mother of my Lord.” There it is! Mother of my Lord? In that sentence the supposed gulf between heaven and earth is bridged. It is a creed in story form.
The human woman Mary gave birth to the divine Child. Perfect human and perfect divine can meet. They do in Christ Jesus. Flesh is not a fatal barrier to God. A woman’s body is not an impossible, nor an unworthy, place for God to be incarnate. Mary is ‘Mother of God’.
A second way later Christians countered Hellenistic thought was by creeds. Especially by the 4th and 5th centuries, they tried to protect the faith in the incarnate Christ. through formal creeds, voted on at ecumenical councils.
During this period, the phrase “mother of God” was written into credal texts. In doing this, they were not giving divine status to Mary. They were definitely not saying that Mary preceded God or that she created God. They were insisting that the Divine Child started as a human foetus, really carried in Mary’s womb and later suckled at her breast. God’s true Child, our Lord Jesus, was fully mothered by Mary. She was truly the mother who bore the Divine, Son of God.
The gulf between God and earth is bridged by those credal words : “Mother of God.”
Mary was the God-bearer. Spirit and flesh are not antagonists.
It was shocking stuff to the elite philosophers and their followers! Ludicrous folly! But the Christians persisted: “Like it or lump it. That is how it is. God and people are much closer than you think. God does not despise this earth. Men and women are not too impure to have the most intimate contact with God. God has made us for fellowship. God loves us and treasures us.”
TIME TO AFFIRM: MOTHER OF GOD?
Traditionally, Protestants found it hard to cope with the phrase “Mother of God.” They feared that it smacked of deifying Mary. As I see it, they had plenty of evidence on which to support this fear. The cult of the Virgin Mary had, in some circles, almost replaced the devotional centrality of Christ and the welcoming embrace of God. When the picture built up in the later church of a God and his Son enthroned in awful power and blazing glory, the loving Mary seemed the approachable one, and she was widely venerated in popular religion.
Today, maybe the time has come to step way from those old Protestant battle grounds. The birth stories of Luke, and the creeds of the fifth century, were not trying to exalt Mary into a demi-god but to testify to the humble God who came really did among us, as one of us. Nothing less than the Divine issued from the body of Mary. Mary was truly the God-bearer, the mother of our Lord.
Lose this and you lose Christianity.
AS A PROTESTANT
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, as a Protestant
I want to celebrate the phrase “Mother of God.”
First and foremost
it underlines the incomparable love of God;
the unique humility of God;
the saving beauty of God:
“Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.”
it declares hope for humanity.
If the Divine can become “incarnate in the virgin’s son,” then the human and divine are not
Human flesh is not a lost cause. God has become “bone of our bone,
and flesh of our flesh.”
we may seem just insignificant bits of chance consciousness
on one irrelevant cherry-pip satellite.
But that is an illusion.
Biblically speaking we can be God-bearers,
made in the likeness of God.
As one early Christian put it:
“God became human so that the human could become divine.”
“Blessed are you among woman. And blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Women played a pivotal role in early Christianity. Elizabeth and Mary are at centre stage when Luke begins to unfold his drama of salvation to all races and classes.
We can compare Luke with compare the attitude of traditional Jews, who each morning chanted: Blessed be the Lord God , the King of the universe, who has not made me a Gentile, a donkey or a woman. No such scorn from Luke. For him women were close to the heart of the Gospel he was itching to share with the world.
He seems to delight in telling the stories of Elizabeth and Mary. His Gospel starts not with men but with women. It is true that Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah is there. But though he is a priest by birth, he is portrayed as a man of little faith, who needed convincing. You will also find Joseph mentioned in the early chapters of Luke, but Joe has little more than a “supporting role” in the drama.
TWO EMPOWERED WOMEN
Have you ever noticed how right at the outset Mary is her own person?
When she is notified by the heavenly messenger that she is chosen to bear a unique son, she does not consult men before saying “Yes”. She made her decision without any reference to the socially dominant males. She and God are quite capable of sorting this matter out by themselves.
In Luke’s story Mary and Elizabeth represent the “nobodies”
who are empowered by the coming of Christ. This mere slip of a teenage girl, is a very strong character. She breaks out into the magnificent hymn of praise to a God who uplifts the downtrodden and neglected. The Magnificat is one of the most revolutionary statements in the whole of the Bible.
Women, who are among those commonly reckoned as the powerless,
are now chosen to help God set in motion the spectacular drama of salvation. These are the ones who have faith. They believe. They trust the God who is doing amazing things.
FOR ALL WHO ARE OF LOW SOCIAL STATUS
Here I must hasten to add that Luke is not anti-male. Luke is not some ‘cross-dresser’ with a chip on his shoulder.
While it is true that he continues to make sure that women share the limelight in a positive way, he does not do this by rubbishing men. Luke believes in a Christ who respects and loves all people. Christ has a special place in his purposes for any who (male, female, Jew or Greek, Roman or slave.Roman,) have been pushed to the margins of society or denigrated.
As Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether writes:
Poor women and despised men, widows, unclean women, prostitutes, Samaritans and the Syro-Phoenecian woman. these are those in whom, the messianic prophet [Jesus] find the faith that is absent among the ‘righteous of Israel.’ The story of the widow’s mite, the forgiveness of the prostitute who has faith, the healing of the woman with the flow of blood, the defence of Mary’s [Magdalene] right to discipleship, are among the Lucan stories that lift up the typology of women as people of faith
Like Matthew and Mark, Luke proclaims that the new age has dawned
with this wonderful Jesus. But more than the others writers, Luke reminds us that for Jesus, women in this new age had a large part to play. God has “exalted those of low degree.”
WERE WOMEN THE FIRST CHURCH?
Let me try out on you a possibility; a playful hypothesis that I would like you to consider.
There is a sense in which Mary and Elizabeth are the first church. When those two pregnant women got together in Elizabeth’s home, they are the first people to come together in the name of Messiah Jesus. They are the first of those who gathered by the proclamation of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Theologians tend to differ as to when the church started.
Some say it was on the day of Pentecost. Some say it was when the risen Christ appeared to his disciples behind locked doors. Others claim it was when Jesus first called disciples to him. Yet others argue that the church began when Peter, in the district of Caesarea Philippi, first made his confession: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
But I reckon Mary and Elizabeth have good credentials.
They are the ones who first hear the Gospel Word and believed that the messianic age has dawned with the little babe growing in Mary’s womb. They believed that the Messiah had come, the one who is Christ and Saviour. They are the ones who receive the word and obey it. They are doers of the word. They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and break out into praise and joy.
These things are the authentic characteristics of the church.
Therefore I put it to you: Maybe these women were the first church?
THANK GOD FOR THE WOMEN OF THE CHURCH.
Whether this hypothesis of mine is valid or not, does not matter.
What does matter is that these two women are remarkable characters in the Gospel story.
As I read again the story of vulnerable young Mary
going up into the hill country to visit, and stay with, her much older relative Elizabeth,
I take courage from her courage.
As I picture those two pregnant women spending hours together in fellowship,
it is much more than mere a sentimental binge I am having.
I rejoice that this is truly the way God works.
I see there in the home of Elizabeth
the first of the countless “nobodies” whom the Spirit of God will lift up by the event of Christ Jesus.
I see them believing, rejoicing, giving God a glad obedience.
I am also most grateful that by the grace of Christ Jesus
I am also a part of this unique fellowship which we call the church, the koinonia:
I too belong in this where the weak and the obscure and the outsiders are called,
welcomed and empowered by the Spirit of the living God.
I believe in the Living God who is directly involved in the affairs of the world.
I believe that God chooses the meek and the poor to shame the proud and the rich.
I believe in the incarnate Word, leaping in a woman’s womb, cradled in poverty.
I believe in Jesus, true son of Mary, true Son of God,
who came among us in weakness,
that we might come to know the profound strength
available to common people
who turn to God in trust and with love.
Yes, my friends, this I truly believe.
By your Spirit, most glorious Immanuel, please continue to come among us, honouring our bodies, sharpening our minds, and nurturing our spirits.
Loving God, please do not get annoyed by our adulation of technology and its gadgets, but continue to nurse us as a mother nurses her children, that we may be led by your Spirit from illusions to truths, and from lesser truths to the ultimate truth of in Christ Jesus.
Do not weary of our injustices or despise our political attempts to right wrongs. Please foster all that is good in our nation, rebuke all that is evil, and by your Spirit enable our political parties to achieve far more than they deserve.
Please do not become dejected with your inept and divided church, merciful Immanuel. In your mercy go on cherishing our small faith and enlarging our love. Let the Gospel of Christ Jesus shine out from the flawed common clay of our lives.
Do not tire of the prayers with which we bombard you. Please continue to console the sorrowful, soothe the disturbed, heal the diseased, encourage the timid, support the persecuted, guide the bewildered, feed the hungry, sustain the courageous, lift up the fallen, bind up the broken hearted, and comfort the dying.
Loving God, give us the faith that was in Mary, the mother of our Lord, that we may offer you our very body, mind and soul, to achieve your loving purposes on planet earth. To the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Never put your faith in worldly status,
and never underestimate your heavenly importance.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
Let your trust in the coming of Christ soar within you like wings of joy.
Go out into the world and serve one another as God-bearers.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.
Grace, mercy and peace, from God our Creator, through Jesus our Saviour, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit our Nurturer, be with you this day and evermore.