This is who God chooses
Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20 December, 2009
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Here we are, in an obscure hill town that doesn't even seem to have a name, in an obscure province at the edge of the Roman Empire with two women, Elizabeth and Mary both of them pregnant. It may surprise you but I'd like to suggest that, in a number of important ways, this was a meeting just like us today at St Peter's.
I did my undergraduate degree in ancient history — and this passage from Luke never fails to astonish me. As I imagine you know, the literature and history of the Graeco-Roman world is almost all concerned with the doings of the great and powerful, living in metropolitan political centres like Athens and Rome and, of course, almost all male. Women, when they appear at all, have a pretty limited set of roles — usually either faithful wife or scheming witch (or in the case of someone like Livia, wife of the emperor Augustus, both at the same time). The setting and characters of the gospels — Luke's and Mark's in particular — stand out amazingly.
For this is who God chooses. An unmarried peasant girl and the barren middle-aged wife of an obscure rural priest. What an outrage! Imagine if the most important meeting in the world today was not the world leaders at Copenhagen but a pregnant indigenous teenager in Swan Hill visiting her cousin, the pastor's wife. Imagine if they were the ones chosen by God to be literally the mothers of the new kingdom. Or even worse. Imagine if it was us? What would we say then? "Behold the handmaid of the Lord"? Or "Not me thanks all the same Gabriel — why not call into the White House or the Lodge?" Because, unless we're Calvinists, we have to allow for the possibility that Mary might have said 'no'. As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote: 'all of creation held its breath and waited for her reply'.
To my knowledge, none of us here has been commissioned to bear the son of God. I certainly haven't. I'm sure I would have noticed. But every Sunday we face God's mission for us: to repent of our sins, be in love and charity with our neighbours, follow the commandments of God and walk from henceforth in his holy ways. This a tough enough assignment. And we don't have the advantage of an angel to announce it to us. Wings as beaten snow, eyes like flame — "Oh I guess God's pretty serious about this one." It's a bit too easy to assume that God didn't really mean love and charity with those neighbours. But what if, in some way, creation is holding its breath and waiting for our reply?
So we have a young woman who has been chosen for a task for which she never asked — and an old woman who, up to now, has not been blessed with the child for which she has ardently prayed all those years. In that, I imagine, Mary and Elizabeth are pretty much like most of us here today. Like them, we are not as in control of our lives as we might wish and are faced with how we are going to respond to whatever it is God gives — or withholds. The American preacher Craig Barnes observes that:
after Mary discovered that she would give birth to the Messiah the first person she went to, with haste, was not Joseph or her parents but her relative Elizabeth whose life was also clearly out of control. This means that the very first church service, the first community of believers brought together by the presence of Christ, were two pregnant women.
So perhaps it is here at the Visitation, rather than at Pentecost, that the Church begins. Here in a hilltown outside Jerusalem. Two women praising God. Exultant, yet scared. Conscious that their lives are getting out of control but willing to go on, knowing that they are in the hands of God. Here in a church on Eastern Hill, a group of disparate people praising God. Perhaps faced with a mission for which we have not asked. Perhaps waiting for something for which we have prayed — it seems in vain. Exultant, yet scared. Conscious that our lives are getting out of control but willing to go on, knowing that we are in the hands of God.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.