Notes from the sermon preached by Richard Barton
Today the story in the gospel text is the familiar story of the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary to announce the news that she would become pregnant and bear a child, Gods son.
I was brought up as a Christian. When musing on other faiths, I have often thought that I would find it difficult to Jewish. The Old Testament though it is full of talk about God, and although God does sometimes appear, mostly represents God in a very abstract way. God as an ideal, a theory. When God appears to Moses in passage we heard earlier in Advent, God says, you cant see my face. The appeal of Christianity is that we see in a very real way what and who God is, in Christ. And therefore, in a very real way- in this passage, this is where it all starts. This is where God enters into the world, as the theologian Cynthia Rigby puts it “God with us, known supremely in Jesus, barges in” We can look directly at the face of God.
But this story does not perhaps have a promising start. Gabriel appears to Mary and says, basically Hello Mary you are a very special person in the eyes of God. Now, Marys initial response is that she was “deeply troubled” or “perplexed” or going on what Gabriel said next, she was very afraid. This is perhaps a natural reaction for anyone facing the sudden appearance of a supernatural being, even if they are telling you that you are special to God. Gabriel then spells it out:
Mary is going to become pregnant, have a son, call him Jesus, he will be a great man, he will inherit the throne of David and his kingdom will have no end.
Now for a young woman in the first century, engaged but not yet married, to be told that she is going to become pregnant even though she and Joseph are not sleeping together, might well engender a question or two. Like “what!” Let alone all this stuff about what her son, or Gods son was to be called and to become. Most scholars warn against trying to impose our own 21st century feelings and experiences on characters from the Bible, but even so its understandable that Mary would question what she had been told.
So Mary’s responses to Gabriel are not initially very positive, fear, and doubt. This perhaps is a very human response to any situation where we are faced with something that is new, different, potentially demanding and particularly something that you don’t understand coming “out of the blue”.
Facing this kind of situation, an initial response is often fear. An unexpected bill to pay, or perhaps a request for help from an unexpected source, news of a loved one’s illness.
Fear that may be something that paralyses us and makes it almost impossible to have a normal life. The other night Linda and I were looking at a video online made by a climber climbing to the top of Salisbury cathedral spire, just looking at those images made me feel a very visceral fear – the fear I have of heights.
Fear may lead us to ignore or try to forget the issue.
I want to tell you about a women also from the Middle East, also dealing with birth. I listened to a programme on the radio the other week about the voices of women from Afghanistan. Some of the women who spoke were gynecologists obstetricians and midwives at a woman’s hospital in Kabul. One of the doctors – because she had stepped outside the gender roles of her society was living in fear of her life. One of her sons had been damaged by a bomb blast, a relative had been killed, targeted by the Taliban, people who could not accept her role as a woman to tend to other women giving birth. The courage of this woman in overcoming her fear and working to bring new life to a country so marked with death, moved me greatly. I am convinced that the God of whom, to paraphrase Gabriel: there is nothing she cannot do; is at work with the women of Afghanistan.
As well as her fear, Mary doubts. How can this be?
Doubting is again a very human response to the new, the too good to be true, the amazing ideas which seem overly ambitious, or even to God. Our responses may include “Wait a minute” “This is never going to work” or even “I just don’t believe it”.
As perhaps an extreme example, Richard Holloway once a bishop in the Church of England who lost his faith and resigned to write about doubt and moral philosophy, wrote: “Everything I once thought to be steady and enduring has disappeared into the ceaseless flux of a universe without meaning.”
For most of us there are or have been times when we have doubts about aspects of our faith or even our fundamental beliefs themselves.
I recall as a young science PhD student in Canterbury, I was asked to speak at a local high school about how I was able to rationalise science and religion. Ironically perhaps, preparing for this talk I really started to doubt that I believed anything of the faith I had grown up in. I did attempt to try and explain how I justified a religious belief as a scientist to the students.
In a following discussion one student who, as I recall was an atheist wanted to defend my liberal theology against another student who was an evangelical Christian and for whom my faith was at best incomplete. I recall being oddly moved by that compassion from an unlikely source.
For Richard Holloway, as for so many I would guess, part of the problem lies with the age old conundrum, how can there be a loving and all powerful God when there is so much suffering in this world. Holloway describes how when as young curate at the funeral of a young child his inability to console the grieving Mother was possibly the start of his questioning his fundamental belief in God. Who of us here has not struggled to maintain our faith in the face of suffering especially by those who seem least to deserve it.
Gabriel in trying to convince Mary of the wondrous designs of God, almost like a scientist – gives her some evidence. What about your cousin Elizabeth, no one thought she could have a child, but look at her now”! In our lives of yearning, questioning, doubting and believing, if we end up like Mary believing in God and what God can do, it almost always has to come down to a matter of faith. However for me it’s not a blind faith. It’s a questioning, faith and sometimes almost impossible to explain or articulate. The famous adage of “faith is what we have when we have no reason to have faith” comes to mind. I only know that despite the awfulness of innocent suffering that can seem to surround us, there are these pieces of evidence of the beauty, joy, defiance of the natural order of selfishness, of love – that make me still believe, that make me believe in a God who can do something wonderful. The women of Afghanistan defying the Taliban to provide care and education and a sense of worth to the woman of their nation, the people I work with in the hospital laboratory, striving daily to make a difference to peoples health in the specimens they process and test, all the people who have setup and run the Real Junk food café here because they feel passionate about not wasting resources and providing a meal for everyone regardless of their ability to pay, the story of the student student who coming out of a nightclub found she had no money to get home was offered a few pounds, all he had, by a homeless man – and though she didn’t accept it she ended up raising awareness and money for the man and the issue generally, often enough it is simply the people I meet in my life and who touch my life, seeing the face of God, the face of Christ in those around me. Even Richard Holloway admits “the sudden inexplicable kindness of strangers is the best thing in the universe”.
Mary is sometimes pictured in this story as the meek, submissive character, accepting her role as the mother of God. However, though it is not in today’s reading, a little bit further in this chapter we can read the passage know as Mary’s song, including “He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.” It’s a passage that we often hear in the fourfold breaking of the bread at communion and it is nothing short of revolutionary. The turning upside down of the world order.
The challenge to bring down those in privileged positions and ensure that those who are usually considered as of little value feel that they are important, to feed those who are going hungry and to turn away those who have a lot and are seeking to increase their wealth. How we bring this about in practice is perhaps the topic for another sermon, but Mary’s song is one to keep in our hearts at this time.
So I would encourage you when you when you are challenged by God to believe and to further the work of Gods kingdom in some small or big way, overcome your fears, work through your doubt and cynicism, become a servant of God, sing Mary’s song and work to turn the world upside down.