The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Introduction and Call to Worship
The waiting is almost over. We come together before God in this time of tinsel and fairy lights and ponder the deeper meaning of the Good News that we are about to celebrate. Today we hear Mary’s story – the great news that she heard and the song that she was inspired to sing, and we venture to sing our own songs of faith, love and compassion.
First Reading Micah 5:2-5a
The ancient words of the prophet Micah echo down the centuries and speak of a strange birth, and a ruler of the humblest origins, who will bring security and peace in the name of the Great God.
Second Reading Hebrews 10:5-10
The writer to the Hebrews explains the destiny of the baby whose birth we prepare to celebrate: to open the way to God for all of us, for all time.
Gospel Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
Mary has received her angelic visit and the astounding news of her pregnancy. She sets off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also an important part of the story and mother-to-be of a miraculous child.
HOMILY “And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’” (Luke 1:46-47)
Big news, even when it is good news, can be devastating. News of a baby on the way, the possible adoption of a child, a new job, or a move to a different place can all be joyful, long awaited and anticipated events. But many people know that when the news finally comes, the feelings surrounding it can be complicated. Suddenly, the things that must be left behind spring into shape as sharper losses... The size of the task or challenge ahead, which seemed well achievable before now, magnifies tenfold; longed-for adventure seems an unnecessary risk, or anticipated safety and comfort rather dull. Know the feeling?
The Gospel of Luke tells us that both Elizabeth and Mary face life-changing challenges which may have seemed beyond them. But friends, when God calls, everything changes –sometimes in an instant. The reading begins after the visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, a story we are very familiar with. Mary accepts her calling to be the Christ bearer but her hitherto uncomplicated life is turned upside down with devastating speed through the discovery of pregnancy outside of marriage (although betrothed). Yet God’s great messenger makes it clear: this is tidings of great joy!
Mary’s cousin Elizabeth rejoiced that God had taken away her shame and given her a child after many years of barrenness. For her, like Mary, God has a very special plan. But to top it all, Mary’s son is going to be a saviour, God’s promised eternal king. While a mother may well be proud of such a son, it is not a role without perils. She may well have preferred to hear that he was to be a businessman, an accountant, a barrister, even a politician… (Well, perhaps not a politician!) But certainly, someone with a safe and profitable trade to keep his family fed and do good deeds around town.
As ever, God’s news is good news for both women and they are eager to share their joy. But it is not easy news. We may also know that feeling, because God doesn’t spare us challenge in the face of his incredible and creative love. Mary journeys to share her joy with Elizabeth whose title of "kinswoman" is assumed to mean cousin. We follow her in our Gospel reading today on the journey south that would have taken four to five days. This is a meeting full of significance and joy for the two women. By travelling to see Elisabeth, Mary is not running away, rather longing to share her news, her overwhelming joy!
Mary needs to see and talk to someone who she knows is in a similar situation to her own, and who will believe what she says about God’s messenger. This is a meeting of special significance and joy for the both of them, who have so much to share, and it seems to be exactly what Mary needs, as it is only after she sees and speaks with Elizabeth, and hears her blessing and cry of belief (the child that leaps in her womb), that Mary sings her famous song of faith, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” This great hymn of praise mirrors the Old Testament Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10 and is full of Old Testament meaning as Mary no doubt draws upon her Hebrew upbringing, perhaps recalling passages she learnt, knew and loved as a child and no doubt filled her with joy.
C S Lewis describes joy as being ‘the serious business of heaven’ and I very much hope that you have found these last four weeks of Advent and the run-up to Christmas as joyful as I know I have, which may come as a surprise given the uncertainty of these times and the darkness which we may feel surrounds us. Nonetheless, the joy experienced by both Elizabeth and Mary should be shared by us. It is with ‘joy’ that we have prepared for a glimpse of heaven this Christmas 2018 in our worship and celebrations, in the breaking of the bread and our carols as we long for Christ to lead us out of the darkness of the passing age into his new and wonderful kingdom of light.
Today, as Christians living in 21st century Britain, we are the inheritors of these tidings of great joy, shared by Elizabeth and Mary; tidings of joy which the world needs to hear anew. This is real, honest news that speaks of light and hope, new life and God’s plan for our salvation. It speaks of the hope to come in the Saviour who has been born and given to us. His name is Prince of Peace and Mighty Counsellor. This is the Good News with which we have been entrusted. The Gospel can be devastating just like any good news – a new baby, a better job, a longed-for move – and the Gospel is also a promise of challenge as a new kingdom dawns. So, where is your part in this story of great tidings? What news of God’s love and salvation are you called to share with others this Christmas season? Amen.
Big news, even when it is good news, can be devastating in its impact. The feelings that come with it can be complicated, both joyful and daunting at the same time. It can take some getting used to.
Mary’s good news throws her into a precarious social situation as well as placing a huge weight on her shoulders. It is with her cousin Elizabeth, who is in a similar situation, that she finds her voice and sings her song of joyful revolution.
We are inheritors of this wonderful and yet challenging good news. This song of joyful tidings is ours to sing. Advent is a time to weigh up what this means and find the courage to respond as we should.
Are we willing to share the Good News with someone else this Christmas 2018?