Monday, 7 December 2015

Waiting with Mary

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
6th December 2015


Luke 1:26-38   In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."  34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God."  38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:46-55  And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,  55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

1 Samuel 2:1-10   Hannah prayed and said, "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.  2 "There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.  3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.  4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.  6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.  8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and on them he has set the world.  9 "He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.  10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed."

From religious icons to school nativity plays,
         the image of Mary is familiar to people of all generations
         throughout the world.

At the heart of many Christian beliefs
         and with a major role in Islam,
she is arguably the most famous,
         and certainly the most revered,
         woman ever to have lived.

So, who is this woman?
         Star of a million Christmas Cards…

·      Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus
·      The Madonna
·      The theotikos
·      composer of the magnificat

The number of ways you will hear Mary described is almost endless,
         and in the midst of all these notable titles
we can so easily lose the reality of the situation:

·      Mary the poverty-stricken,
·      Mary the unmarried mother
·      Mary the refugee
·      Mary the child bride

Mary was an ordinary Jewish girl
         not born into a high family
         and with no special privileges that we know of.

As far as we are aware,
         she had nothing about her
         which marked her out as different from anyone else.

In many cultures,
         the one who is to be the mother of the King
         is prepared from early childhood to take up that role.

But when God chose to send his son to earth
         to be born as a human being
he chose an ordinary, run of the mill, uneducated young girl,
         to be the mother of the saviour of the world.

Mary was quietly getting on with her life,
         fulfilling society’s expectations and requirements;
         she was engaged to Joseph
         and waiting to start her married life with him.

When all of a sudden
         it all starts to go wrong…

The way Luke tells the story, the angel Gabriel appeared to her
         telling her that God had other plans for her life.

Now, I don’t propose to get into a great discussion this morning,
         surrounding the historicity of the events in Luke’s story;
and I’m certainly not proposing to hit tomorrow’s headlines
         with bold assertions from the pulpit concerning doubts about the virgin birth.

But I will simply note in passing,
         that Luke’s story enters the Jesus tradition quite late in its development,
and that both Paul and other earlier Christian texts
         have a strong tradition of asserting Joseph’s paternity.

But for now, let’s meet Mary as Luke offers her to us,
         and what a meeting it turns out to be.

And what a calling that turned out to be!!!

One minute her life was ticking along,
         suitably subject to the social expectations and mores of her culture,
and the next minute it had been turned upside down!

The angel may have told her not to be afraid,
         but she certainly had plenty of reasons
                  to be, at the very least, seriously concerned!

Have you ever had that feeling
         when all the negative possibilities mount up
                  one on top of another
         until you convince yourself
that it is all going to go pear shaped!?

I don’t know if Mary did that kind of thing
         but if she did, she would have had plenty to worry about

First off, she was pregnant – enough of a worry in itself;
even in today’s modern medical world
                  pregnancy is far from risk-free,
                  and back then many mothers and children
                           died in childbirth.

And not only was she pregnant, but she wasn’t yet married
         … and she was going to have to explain to people
                  that her fiancé wasn’t the father…

But before that, how was she going to tell him?
         How would Joseph react?
How would her parents react?
         Who on earth is going to believe her!?!?

What if Joseph called off the wedding?
         she’d be a single mother!
a far worse social stigma back then than it is these days,
         and there were no social services to provide any income.
So, how would she feed herself and the child?

And even if Joseph could be persuaded to go ahead with the wedding
         they were going to have no money at all!

Then there was the census coming up
         when she was going to have to travel to Bethlehem,
         whilst heavily pregnant.

And then, on top of all the practical worries,
         there were the prophecies…
                  indications from the start that her son would die an early death
                  and that her own life would be tinged with sadness…

The Mary we meet in Luke’s gospel
         is a young woman who certainly has good cause
         to have a few sleepless nights
         trying to get her head round all this lot.

But we’re also told that the call of God on her life was strong;
         and that although, yes, this all has the tinge of the possibility of disaster,
         it also has the potential for so much promise of good

After all,
         she’d been visited by an angel,
                  hardly a common occurrence, even in those days;
         and the angel had told her in no uncertain terms
                  that the traumatic time ahead of her
                  was in some mysterious way part of God’s working in the world.

She had an inner conviction that her child was no ordinary baby,
         and this was something that went far beyond proud parent syndrome.
In some way, she came to believe that she was carrying a child born of God,
         one who would bring salvation to his people.

And when the doubts came, she had the physical evidence
         of her own pregnancy
to remind her that the angel’s promises hadn’t just been a dream.

And when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth,
                  in the part of the story we skipped over this morning
         her status as one chosen by God was once again confirmed
                  as Elizabeth prophesied about Mary’s unborn child

For Mary, this teenage mother
         the call of God on her life was far from straightforward!

The signs of promise were there
         but they were coupled with the potential for disaster.

And this is so often the way when God calls us to follow him:
         It’s never as straightforward as we would like it to be.

Just because you have been miraculously called
         and chosen by God

         doesn’t mean that you won’t give birth in a stable,
                  and end up on the run from a brutal dictator;
         and it doesn’t mean
                  that you won’t live to see your child die early.

You see, there are no guarantees when we’re chosen by God
         that things will go the way we want them to.

I had someone ask me this week if I believed
         that God heals people if they have enough faith.
And whether I believed that God brought release
         to those who were tormented by evil and doubt.

And I had to answer honestly;
         yes I believe God brings healing and wholeness,
         yes I believe God brings release from sin and oppression,
but I also see good Christians get sick and die,
         and I see faithful followers of Christ become ensnared by the traps of sin.

There are no guarantees when we’re chosen by God
         that things will go the way we want them to.

However, and this is where Mary’s story speaks to us down the centuries;
         if we have been chosen by God
                  if we have been called by God to be part of his people,
then this means that we cannot help but play our part
         in God’s plan for the salvation of the world

Think about the example of Mary

         she never chose to be the mother of Jesus
         But when God called her
                  in spite of the potential problems
         she responded in faithful acceptance:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord:
let it be with me according to your word”

And so it is that God similarly calls each one of us
         in different ways to be part of his people,
         to be his children,

And this is God’s initiative
         it is not our doing!

The good news of this for us
         is that our part in God’s plan is not down to us being successful
                  it is not down to us doing well
                  and achieving things for God

We, with Mary, can only respond to God by making ourselves available,
         and trusting our lives to God’s care.

I guess what I am saying
         is that the Christian life is often a big waiting game.
Which is no bad lesson to hear in Advent.

Mary, you see, was called by God;
         she came to believe that she had been chosen
         to play her part in the salvation of the world

But then she had to wait

She had to wait for her child to be born

She had to wait for him to grow up

She had to wait while she saw him die

She had to wait while he was buried in the ground

A lifetime of waiting, before she saw the truth
         of what had been promised to her
         by an angel in her teenage years.

A lifetime of pain and uncertainty…

And so we wait…

We wait with Mary for the fulfilment of God’s call on our lives
         and sometimes we wait for months
                  sometimes we wait for years
                           sometimes we wait for a lifetime

Advent is often described as the time of waiting
         the period of preparation
         for Jesus’ coming into the world

And  in a very real sense,
         our whole lives are also a time waiting and longing

we sense that God has his hand on us

         We know that he has chosen us
         called us to be his people
         called us to have a part in his plan for the world

But then so often we have to wait

And sometimes we try and fill the waiting with our own activism

         We fill the silence of waiting
         with our own strenuous efforts

But ultimately it’s always going to be God who acts – not me, not you

Mary’s miraculous pregnancy speaks of this

It’s not what humans do,
         but what God does,
         that means Jesus comes to us.

Jesus wasn’t born out of human efforts
- he was born because God intervened into our situation

Jesus came into the world at God’s initiative.
         This is the message of the story of the virgin birth.

And yet we spend so much of our time
         trying to do things to make Jesus come

We sing our songs
         quietly / loudly / old-style / new-style / whatever!
we invite our friends along to church, or we try to…
         and we work so hard
         at this, that, and the other

All good stuff, I’m sure

But how much time do we spend waiting for God to act?

I worry sometimes that we think of Jesus as being a bit like Tinkerbell
         who, if you remember the story of Peter Pan
                  is in danger of fading away
         unless all the children clap really hard.

And sometimes I think we do the equivalent of clapping really hard
         because we think it’ll make Jesus more real to us.
So we fill our lives with spiritual activism
         worship, prayer, services, Bible-reading, social action,
         political engagement, caring for the homeless and the vulnerable,
         and so on, and so on, and so on…

As if by our actions we can make Jesus more real

And yet, what it boils down to in the end, I think,
         is how much we trust that Jesus is God become human flesh!

Do we trust that it is Jesus who saves us
         that it is him who chooses us
         that it is him who lifts us from the pit of our sinfulness?

Are we prepared to wait on the Lord,
         trusting that he is who he says he is?
         and will do what he says he will do?

Or will we spend so much time and energy
         trying to do all these things for ourselves
         through our strenuous efforts?

In our culture the emphasis is very much on us achieving things
         We are constantly told that if we work hard,
                  we will be successful.

And we come to believe that this applies
         regardless of whatever goals we set ourselves.

So, if we want lots of money
         – we are told that we won’t achieve it without hard work
If we want power and status – hard work is going to be the key

If we want a successful marriage
         we are always told that this is hard work

My cousin lived in America for a while
         and one of the phrases he learned over there
         was a habit of paying someone a compliment
         by saying that they are “a hard worker”

It’s as if our value in life comes from what we put in.

And the same lessons get transplanted into our churches.

I’m sure you have heard it said “you get out what you put in”
         in terms of how much people get out
                  of the church they belong to…
         I’ve said it myself, on many occasions.

We come to believe that if we want to have a church which is growing
         because people are coming to know Jesus Christ
then logic dictates that we have got to get out there
         and tell them about him!

We come to believe that if we want to have
         a successful and intimate relationship with God
we aren’t going to have this
         without spending time working at that relationship

And there is an element of truth in all of these things

But in the midst of all our doing,
it is easy to miss what God does

God calls us – he chooses us to be his people

He chooses us to have a part in the salvation of the world

But this is his doing
         it doesn’t stand or fall by our efforts

You see, the problem with the activist mindset
         is that if it’s down to us to do all these things
                  if the salvation of others totally depends on us
                  and our efforts to bring them into the Kingdom
then when we fail – and we do fail!, all the time!
         it becomes our fault

If everything hinges on us and what we do
         then when we do something wrong
                  we can convince ourselves that we have stuffed up
                  God’s great plan for our lives
         and we then weigh ourselves down with guilt
                  and a sense of failure
                  that we have failed God

Let me say this:
         This view of God is too small.

God chooses US – as weak, fallen, sinful people

         He calls us to have a part in his plan for salvation of the world

This is GOD we are talking about here
         he is not going to expect us to do everything
         we aren’t called to carry the burden for the entire world

         we don’t have to pray, every day, for everything and everybody
         we don’t have to take responsibility for every non-Christian.

It is God who carries the burden of the world on his shoulders,
         it is God who came to this world, who died for the salvation of the world,
         and who lives by his Spirit in the body of his people,
         drawing the world to God in love.

All of which means, we don’t have to!

And, like Mary,
         once God has called us
         we are already part of God’s plan for bringing all things to good,
         and our lives already have value, because of his choosing of us.

We don’t need to spend all our energy
         desperately trying to justify our existence
                  trying to prove our worth
                  trying to earn our place in God’s kingdom

Because we, like Mary, have been chosen by God.

So, here in the midst of Advent
         let us join with Mary, waiting for God.
And here, in the midst of Advent,
         let us join our voices with that of Mary,
who sang of a world turned upside down,
         not through her own efforts
         but by the activity of God through her.

Let us join with Mary in singing of the downfall of the haughty
                  and the rich and the powerful,
         let us sing of the raising up of the meek
                  and the poor and humble,

Mary sang the new world into being,
         offering her praise to the God who comes to us,
         rather than requiring us to come to him.

And so we wait with Mary,
         for the coming of the messiah.

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