18 December 2011

The World Turned Upside Down

A Sermon for Advent 4B

It's now the final Sunday of Advent and Christmas is only a week away. It's good amid all the commercialism and largely artificially-created anxiety about making the holidays perfect or special to have this season of Advent. I know I've benefited from the invitation to focus in a kind of creative waiting on the coming of God into this world that God made, whether in the birth of Jesus, or the mysterious Day of the Lord that's yet to come, or in the constant coming of God's Spirit into our hearts and minds. In this Sunday's readings we have a new focus to explore, this time using the figure of Mary, Jesus' mother, as a lens.

Mary has many roles to play in the story we hear today -- it is her trust and her willingness to obey God's will as expressed in the angel's words that makes the whole rest of the story possible. After all, obvious as it seems, it's worth remembering that without Mary's co-operation there could have been no Jesus and indeed no Christ, or at least, not at that time. But our reading from Paul's letter to the Romans invites us to see Mary in another light as well.

The passage from Romans is the final benediction, in which Paul sums up the message of his letter, hearkening back to the salutation with which he opened in chapter 1. In both he speaks of what had been planned and promised over a long period of time. Here he specifically refers to "the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known" -- what is that mystery? It doesn't take a lot of knowledge of St Paul's thinking, just a look at the whole of this benediction, to show us that the mystery now disclosed and made known is the good news of God in Jesus, the gospel that Paul wants to come to Rome to preach.

So God had a plan, a long-hidden plan, that Paul says has recently been disclosed and made known, and that plan concerns Jesus and is disclosed in Jesus. And how in turn is Jesus himself disclosed? We can say "through his preaching and healing" or "through his public ministry" and we won't be wrong, but particularly at this time of year, it seems to me that we should look at his birth, his surprising, amazing, and in some ways shocking, birth. Mary was a young, as-yet-unmarried woman, betrothed to a man of Davidic ancestry -- likely she was of Davidic ancestry as well, as we shall see. The angel was asking her to cooperate with God in turning every notion of her future she might have had, or her friends and neighbours might have had, on its head, without fear of the consequences. Young women, especially betrothed young women, did not have babies without pretty dire consequences, nor did they claim to have special divine revelations from angelic messengers without having to answer some pretty major questions! We, knowing the rest of the story, know that Mary won't be abandoned, that she and Joseph will marry and raise her son, and many more children, in a loving family, but Mary could not be sure of that then.

After Mary has responded to the angel, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also involved in an amazing story -- she and her husband are going to have a long-desired child, long after she was too old to conceive. Mary likely had many reasons for that visit; I imagine that chief among them was a desire to get away from her normal surroundings, from her nearest and dearest, from Joseph, and think more about what she had heard. When she arrived at Elizabeth's house, her experiences and her thoughts burst out in an amazing hymn of praise to God that we call the Magnificat, and that we sang this morning in place of the psalm. In it, Mary shows that she understands something about turning situations on their heads. More importantly she shows us God in the midst of that transformation:

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

God is the one that transforms the world around us, and God does so by favouring the hungry, the lowly, those that resist power, pride, and greed, those that show reverence for God and God's will. This is what Mary had learned from the angel's message and the promise that it contained about her child.

The message is reinforced by our Old Testament lesson. In it we see David surrounded by all the symbols of his material success -- he has moved into his new palace in his new capitol, he rules a united kingdom. But something is not right and upon reflection David decides that what is not right is for him to have a palace to live in, a house of cedar as he puts it, while the ark, in which God dwells, is still only in a tent. Although the first reaction of the prophet Nathan is to encourage David to plan a house for God, God has different plans. After first rejecting David's plan with a fairly testy response, "when did I ever ask you or any other ruler of my people to build me a house?", God gets down to the real plan: God will build David a house, not the other way around. This rests partly on a play on words: the house David build for himself and the one he wants to build for God are buildings, constructs of wood and other material. But the house God will build for David is a lineage, a line of descent that will not die out and will fulfil God's will for God's people. But it also rests on the same message of reversal and transformation as Mary's song and the angel's message.

David wants to reverse the proper relationship between himself and God. He wants to look after God, build God a house to live in, as though God needs shelter from rain or cold. God reminds him of the true relationship and also reminds him that the true transforming power lies with God. It was God that transformed David from a shepherd boy following his sheep to a king ruling over God's people. David must never forget that.

David's story intersects both with Mary's story and with our reading from Paul. Mary's child, the child about whom the angel has come, will be the fulfilment of all that God promised to David. He will be the promised Messiah, even though he will not come in the way that people are expecting him to come. And David's story and Mary's story are two points along the amazing arc of the divine plan of which Paul speaks. Paul reminds us that the events that were so recent to him and his readers and are so far away to us were part of the revelation of the mystery of God's plan. It's a plan that goes beyond God's people Israel, over whom David was king, to include the Gentiles as well.

In Jesus, the Saviour, we are made part of a plan for all human kind, not just one human family. David was not the beginning of that plan, nor was Jesus' birth to Mary its end. In the fourth gospel, John shows us that the plan begins right at the beginning, as he borrows the opening words of the story of Creation and makes them the opening words of his proclamation of Jesus Christ. All through the previous three Sundays in Advent we have seen that the horizon of God's plan stretches past Jesus's birth, his saving works, his death and resurrection and ascension, to the future Day of the Lord.

In Advent we are invited into a season of purposeful, creative waiting and a topsy-turvy season of defiant expectations. We wait to celebrate the coming of our Saviour, the Prince of Peace, not with all the pomp and splendour of his ancestor David coming into his house of cedar in the city of Jerusalem that he had won in battle. In a stable, not a palace, in a manger, not a throne, Jesus comes to those lowly ones whom God favours: he comes to us as a child who grows up in hard-working poverty, not in well-off and respected Judaea but in poor and despised Galilee, not as a king but a servant.

In her song, Mary shows us how God will turn the whole world upside down. Just as God defied David's expectations of how to be a great king, God also defied her expectations of what life as a wife and a mother was going to be like. And we too are waiting for God to defy our expectations through the Spirit that comes into our hearts through faith. Especially in this season of Advent we can, by opening ourselves to God's purpose as Mary did in her response to the angelic message, be part of God's transforming power and find ways to turn our lives and our world upside down, making them homes fit for our Saviour.