Andy Philip – Advent 4 – 23/12/2018

Where do we put the Magnificat?

A few years ago, while I was still working in the Scottish Parliament, I was asked to read the Gaelic lesson at the Parliament’s carol service. The reading happened to be Mary’s great song of praise that we’ve just heard — the Magnificat, as it’s known from its first word in Latin — but it wasn’t quite all the Magnificat, for the text that I was given ended at the line “and holy is his name”.

  • What happened to the rest — to the proud, the mighty and the rich, let alone the lowly and the hungry?
  • What happened to God’s mercy and remembering the covenant?

Well may we ask. I wasn’t party to the reasoning behind this rather striking omission. I suspect it might have something to do with wanting to keep the Gaelic reading short for all the non-Gaelic speakers. Nonetheless, it has helped me to take a fresh look at the Magnificat.

On the face of it, stopping at “holy is his name” makes a strong statement about what God is like. But there is a more subtle effect, too, because it also makes the reading all about Mary and God. The wider context is stripped out and Mary seems to be singing praises for what God has done for her alone.

Of course, it’s ‘right to give God thanks and praise’ as we say each Sunday. And while it is right to give praise and thanks for what God has done and is doing in our own lives, we shouldn’t forget that we say that line together.

If we stop the Magnificat before Mary mentions God’s mercy to the generations, her song stops being part of something bigger. But what God is doing in these early parts of Luke’s Gospel is definitely something far bigger. For Mary, it is the deliverance of Israel at the very least but, as Luke’s Gospel and its sequel — the book of Acts — go on to show, it’s far more than that: it’s the salvation of the world. It couldn’t be much bigger.

To switch the perspective round the other way, the Magnificat — and in fact our Gospel reading as a whole — brings to light the fact that God acts for the salvation of the world in and through the lives of individuals. God does the big stuff through the small stuff. Sometimes that small stuff is hidden away, just as God-with-us is hidden away in the embryo developing in Mary’s womb at this point in Luke’s story. But God allows people to see and name what is going on, as Elizabeth does for Mary in our reading.

I find that perspective encourgaing. It means that our everyday lives can become part of God’s working to renew and restore the world. We don’t have to do big things for God; we just have to be available like Mary and Elizabeth and to allow Christ to be born in us, in our words and actions. That can include naming for others the work of God that we see in their lives, like Elizabeth did.

As women in first-century Palestine, Mary and Elizabeth found themselves on the margins of society. That reminds us that the margins are where God often acts. Israel’s hopes of deliverance from the power of the Roman Empire were focused on the great symbols and institutions of Jewish nationhood: the temple and the monarchy. In working through Elizabeth and Mary, God is overturning the expectations of that culture. This is part of what Luke is getting at when he places Zechariah’s skeptical reaction to the angel announcing John the Baptist’s birth to him against Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s Annunciation of Jesus’ birth earlier in the same chapter.

There is, of course, a broader, deeper overturning in the second chunk of the Magnificat. In language that echoes the Psalms and that harks back to the prayer of Hannah when she dedicates her son — the prophet Samuel — to God’s service, Mary celebrates how the Lord has turned the world on its head. The proud are confounded, while the mighty swap places with the lowly and the rich with the hungry. The people who thought they were on top find themselves at the bottom.

That can be hard for us to hear. As a society, we’re quite okay with individual religion but less comfortable with a God who wants to shape and shake our social structures, to subvert expectations. However, the God Mary praises, the one who is at work in her and Elizabeth, is just such a God.

It is revolutionary stuff! So anyone who tells you that the gospel is not political hasn’t been reading the Magnificat. Mind you, this isn’t politics as we know it: the King who is coming casts the mighty down from their thrones not to grab hold of the top job or jump on the gravy train, but to lift up the downtrodden and satisfy the starving. He isn’t a leader who will offshore his assets when it suits him but one who will give everything to free his people.

This is what has become known as God’s preferential option for the poor. It is scattered throughout Scripture as obviously and liberally as Christmas lights are scattered throughout the city centre.

We still need that revolution today. The horrors of Syria and Yemen; the horror of the number of people dying on our own streets for lack of food, shelter and care; the mere fact that, in a country so rich in resources, people need to use feedbacks to survive — these all cry out for the great reversal Mary sings about.

The first place where that revolution needs to take place is in our own lives:

  • We need God to topple the pride in our own imaginations, keeping us thankful and humble, open and generous.
  • We need God to pull us from our thrones, bringing to light the ways that we use and abuse power and privilege in our relationships and dealings.
  • We need God to heal us of our attachments to our things, freeing us from the urge to have more and more, freeing us to be happy with enough.

But we can’t allow the revolution to stay there. To do so would be to stop at “and holy is his name”, to live out an individual faith that doesn’t connect with anything bigger. It would be to spiritualise the Magnificat and confine God to the realm of our worship.

Mary’s song challenges us to place ourselves on the side of the poor, the victim and the hungry, not simply through charity but in confronting injustice directly. When everything around us is screeching at us to buy this, buy that, buy more for a happier Christmas, it can be the struggle to remember that the real meaning of the celebration is how the Lord has turned the world on its head, bringing liberation and salvation. Perhaps this Christmas, we should read the Magnificat and ponder prayerfully how we can join Mary and take an active part in God’s great work of reversal, renewal and justice.

Marion Chatterley – Advent 3 – 16/12/2018

This morning we find ourselves in the company of John the Baptist.  Last week, Jim Forrest reminded us that John wasn’t someone who would have a mantlepiece full of invitations to dinner parties or black tie events.  He is unlikely to be the person you would most like to bring back to life.  He was a dirty and ramshackle character who, I suspect, was pretty scary to encounter.  He didn’t mince his words; he wasn’t trying to win friends – he was a prophet in the truest sense, he sought to share the truth.  And he didn’t try to soften that truth or to make it more accessible; he just told it as it was.

And the crowds responded.  They asked him: What then should we do?  They understood that things weren’t as they should be; they understood that they had a part to play in changing the situation – and they came to this holy man and asked him, tell us; guide us; direct us.  Show us what we can do to make an impact on this state of affairs, to begin to shift the norms within our communities.  Tell us where we’ve gone wrong; point out the bad habits we’ve picked up and help us to get ourselves onto the right path.  Help us to have a different focus and a change of priorities.

And John responded to them.  He wasn’t a prophet whose only contribution was to point out what was going wrong, he was also able to make some suggestions about how to turn things around.  And so he began to speak to them about redistribution; about fair treatment of other people; about appropriate behavior with others and about contentment with what we have.  That’s a serious agenda.  It’s a highly political (with a big P) agenda.  It’s an agenda about how we see ourselves in relation to other people, an agenda about turning our gaze towards others rather than focusing on ourselves and what we might desire – or even convince ourselves that we need.  It’s an agenda that reminds us that we are not isolated individuals wandering through our lives in some kind of protected bubble.  We’re each a small part of a number of communities, each of which is part of something bigger than itself and the whole is very much bigger than the sum of its parts.

One of those communities is our worshipping community.  We are a gathered group of people who come together once a week in this place at this time.

Each of us comes with our own story, our own understanding of the situation in our world, our own ideas about what might make a difference.  And perhaps in common with those early crowds who flocked to question John, we are looking for answers, looking for guidance, looking for direction.  This morning we hear some of that from John – share what you have; only keep what you need; do the task allotted to you with integrity; treat other people with respect.  Pretty straightforward principles that are difficult to challenge.  Most of us can, at least, have a stab at that – even if we don’t achieve all of it all of the time.

But that’s not the end of what John has to say.  He gives his guidance, he offers some suggestions.  And the people are touched by what he says, they are questioning in their hearts, they wonder whether this might just be the Messiah.

John is quick to answer: I’m not worthy to tie the sandal of the one who is to come.  You might think that I have something profound and life changing to say but you haven’t heard anything yet.

These are the preparatory steps on your journey of faith;  these are the things you can do now, to begin to prepare yourselves for the real change that is about to come to the world.  These are the ways you might change without too much personal cost or challenge.  But wait.  This is only the beginning of the story.  There is real good news to come – and it’s just around the corner.

We’ve reached that point in Advent when Christmas appears to be coming rather sooner than we might have liked – most of us will have plenty to do between now and the beginning of next week and if you’re like me a growing awareness that there are insufficient available hours for the ‘to do’ list to be completed.  What we know for sure, what we’re reminded of in this morning’s Gospel, is that the celebrations of the Incarnation are just around the corner.  Our encounter with the Son of God, renewed year by year and, in some way new and still magical year by year, is just around the corner.  We can make some preparations, we can think about the witness of John and be thoughtful about our decision making in these coming days, but the main show is yet to come.

The One who will actually change the world, the One whose Incarnation is the fulfillment of these weeks of watching and waiting, the one who challenges us to change in ways that are uncomfortable and sometimes difficult, the birth of that One will be our focus before we know it.

 

And the challenge then is to keep going on this journey of faith.  It’s all too easy to look at the suggestions for change that John the Baptist made, to do our best to achieve those changes, and then to convince ourselves that we’re living our lives in the light of the Gospel.  But that would be short-changing ourselves and in the long run short changing our community.  As soon as Jesus is born, we begin to see that he is a threat to the authorities of the time, that he brings challenge and tough suggestions about what amendment of life might actually mean.  He doesn’t let himself away with anything and he doesn’t let us away with anything.

Fundamentally the Christ child brings a message of hope – hope that God’s Kingdom really will come.  Hope that things really will be different.

The crowds who flocked to John in the desert asked: what then should we do?  The coming of the Messiah gives us a more complete answer to that question.  We should indeed do the things that John suggested – do what we can to make the lives of other people as good as they can be; treat people as we would wish to be treated; share what we have and try to have only what we need.

And in addition to that, we should take our gaze even wider.  We should begin to consider the brothers and sisters we can’t see and don’t know.  We should take seriously our responsibility for our planet, should find ways to exercise good stewardship of our shared resources.  The Christ child came not just for those who encountered Him but for the whole of humanity.  The Christ child came in response to God’s love for the world.  Our response to that child must be to take seriously His incarnation, his presence in our midst, and to seek to follow faithfully and with integrity.