Micah 5:2-5a (NLT)
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
whose origins are in the distant past,
will come from you on my behalf.
3 The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
until the woman in labour gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
will return from exile to their own land.
4 And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
for he will be highly honoured around the world.
5 And he will be the source of peace.
Luke 1:26-38 (NLT)
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favoured woman! The Lord is with you!”
29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favour with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”
38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.
Sermon by Colin Udall
A couple of weeks ago I preached at a friend’s church and asked who was ready for Christmas. Only one person in the congregation raised her hand to say she was ready. Christmas celebrates the coming of Jesus as a baby. But of course, Jesus tells us a number of times that we should always be ready for Him. In a sense, as Christians we should always be prepared for Christmas because we never know when He may be coming. The Old Testament prophets did their best to tell everyone to be prepared and to prepare them, and the prophet Micah is no exception as we read in this short passage.
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’. Bethlehem, the small, seemingly insignificant town, but with a great Biblical history, not least of which the young David was anointed King in Bethlehem and it was where David had fed his father’s sheep.
But at this time of year we remember that to Bethlehem went a young couple during the census in the days of Caesar Augustus. There was born, “a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord.” Angels acknowledged Him, and shepherds worshipped Him. The wicked sought to destroy Him, for our kinsman-redeemer drew near. The very heavens which He had created led wise men to Him.
Whilst we often quote and remember Isaiah at this time of year, it is good to be reminded that other prophets pointed the way to Jesus as forbearers to John the Baptist.
In our Gospel reading we find Mary, who has just heard the news that she is to bear Jesus, going to meet her cousin Elizabeth, who has been carrying John in her womb for the past 6 months. Here we see Elizabeth recognising Mary for who she is and Mary then responding with the song tat we now know as the Magnificat, though it has roots elsewhere in Scripture and particularly in the Books of Samuel.
“Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.”
It’s not certain where Zacharias and Elizabeth lived, but as Zacharias was a priest at the Temple he would have lived in or close to Jerusalem, making Mary’s trip about 100 miles, which would have taken her around four days to reach her destination.
We can easily believe today that she had been there before. In that day, you didn’t call or send an email or message that you were coming – you just turned up
So, Mary arrives as anyone would in that day – unexpected. When she came into the house, she would have offered a greeting that is also a blessing.. We hear this blessing explained by Jesus when He sends out the 70 in Luke 10 – “5 But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’” So there is nothing out of the ordinary in how this visit is unfolding… except that both of these women have experienced a wonderful miracle.
Mary wants to talk about what has happened to her and so she turns to someone she knows has had a similar experience. She will have heard about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. She will probably been at family gatherings to celebrate the miracle. She will, no doubt be there when John is circumcised after his birth. She wants to share her good news with her cousin. But before any of these more intimate conversations can happen, Elizabeth recognises what has happened through her unborn infant’s reaction to Mary’s voice. In turn, Mary can no longer hold in her joy and praise and thanksgiving, and so sings this wonderful song. This rebellious song. This song that is full of its own prophesy. It’s a dangerous song, because it talks of turning the world upside down, of relationships being reversed, of bad things happening to the rich and good things to the poor, which is not the expected thing, especially in Roman occupied lands where power and might were seen as the be-all and end-all. People were not seen as equal in Roman eyes, indeed not particularly in Jewish eyes, either. This was the overwhelming message of what is to come and of Jesus Himself – that we were created equally and we should all be treated as equals and with equal justice and fairness.
This first few seconds of meeting reveals the truth of what is happening to the pair of them, and the Magnificat is in part a reaction from Mary to the dawning of that truth upon her. The penny drops. She realises it and bursts out in a song of praise to God, “My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” She is voicing that wide-eyed wonderment of the truth that the angels have spoken to her and Elizabeth and the greatness that their sons will be born to.
The majority of the Magnificat is, however a prophesy. It is an account of God’s mercy, love and faithfulness to “the humble.” Mary tells us why and how it happened and is still happening: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers.” Mary’s message is that the coming of Jesus into the world is the fulfilment of God’s promises. As we remember in our Advent cycle of lighting candles, we, as Christians are linked to the biblical prophets and we can refer to Abraham and other founders of our faiths as ancestors as a result.
Mary was sure that God had remembered “to be merciful … even as he said to our fathers.” God never forgets, he cannot forget! We may pass through wilderness experiences but the Magnificat is a powerful reminder not to despair. We may have all had different experiences over the past couple of years in dealing with the pandemic in our personal ways and with family members and this may have affected us deeply, both mentally and physically. These are the sorts of wilderness experiences that we have when our faith is shaken and we do not understand God’s hand in it all. I recently read a book called “The Silence”. In it, a Portuguese priest witnesses the oppression, torture and murder of Christians in 14th Century Japan. All the while, he believes that God is witnessing it too and the priest cannot understand why God seems silent on the issue; the silence of the title. But Mary reminds us that God is a covenant-keeping God. In the Incarnation, He has given the final proof that all His promises are sure, that He is faithful to everything He has ever promised. We may not understand, but be faithful to God and He is faithful to you.
Mary’s Song also makes it quite clear who will benefit from this Covenant and these promises. “He has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” These are exactly the terms of the Beatitudes, the opening sentences of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus condemned those who thought that, by their own actions, they merited God’s praise. In fact their so-called righteousness was fatally flawed; they were the “rich” who were sent empty away. God’s values are in reverse to those of this world. Here is the dangerous teaching that the Pharisees will come to dislike so much and eventually bring about Jesus’ death on the cross. This is the dangerous teaching that led to the initial Roman persecution of Christians and to many persecutions down the years.
This is the essential message of the Magnificat: that only in Jesus is there salvation. It’s by believing in Him and trusting in His redemptive sacrifice on the Cross that becomes the new covenant with God; that through Jesus we can have sins forgiven and we can have a personal relationship with Him and his Father
And so today, let us reflect that out of the humble town of Bethlehem came the Messiah that was promised for so long. That out of humility came greatness. Let us reflect on the great things that God did for Elizabeth and Mary and how He does good things for us too and that we should follow Mary’s example and thank and praise God for what He has done. And even when we are feeling low and lost and without God, or that He is there but not answering, we should know that He is there and that if we believe in Him, we, like Mary and Elizabeth can have a hand in turning the world upside down.
In this Advent of expectation
draw us together in unity,
that our praise and worship
might echo in these walls
and also through our lives.
In this Advent of expectation
draw us together in mission,
that the hope within
might be the song we sing,
and the melody of our lives.
In this Advent of expectation
draw us together in service,
that the path we follow
might lead us from a stable
to a glimpse of eternity.