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s095g11 Advent 4 18/12/2011

‘let it be with me according to your word’.  Luke 1.38

God dos not particularly bless the gullible and compliant.    God is not interested in us accepting the historicity of the virgin birth, or lots of other things, when one doesn’t believe such things are possible.  Our faith has to be congruent with our intellect.  There is nothing especially meritorious about ‘blind’ faith.   Jesus regularly accused the orthodox and the devout of being blind.   It helps no one at all if we believe the unbelievable and, of course, believing the unbelievable alienates a multitude of others who don’t.

I am an engineer by temperament, I like straight lines and right angles.   Black and white is good.   Yet black and white has its limitations.   Like ‘you’re in’ and ‘you’re out’.   ‘You’re guilty’ and ‘you’re innocent’.   ‘You’re saved’ and ‘you’re damned’.   ‘This is orthodoxy’ and ‘this is heresy’.  

When we celebrate Christmass we celebrate God becoming human in all our complexities, limitations and hesitancies.   Recently I turned 60 and one of the things I have said is that I wouldn’t want to be 16 again.   Yet it may well have been that Mary was not even 16 when she became pregnant.   I think that I’ve got a bit of a handle on what this faith thing is all about, after almost a lifetime of being baptised, after 3 years at theological college, 29 years in full-time parish ministry and 5 years of hospital chaplaincy.   That's well over half my life spent in ordained ministry.   In some of my more deluded moments I have thought that I might have made, or might still make a bit of a change to this world – that it might be a more empathetic society.   No doubt there were people in Jesus’ day who felt like me.   Perhaps the aged Zechariah, or Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night, thought the same.

Yet the wisdom of the aged male is not the way God chose and chooses.   God chose a very young girl, and chose her, not to become wise, but to be a mother.   Not being a mother was something that few girls of that day and age would have even considered possible, let alone desirable.   If the familiarity of this announcement doesn’t leave us wondering, even perplexed, I suspect that we haven’t considered the implications.   Society may sanitise death, but it is very difficult to sanitise childbirth.

Mary’s ministry wasn’t to be fulfilled by becoming religious.   Mary’s vocation wasn’t to be fulfilled by her becoming celibate, even though later generations of supposedly celibate males ordained that this was actually so.   Mary’s ministry wasn’t to be fulfilled by her becoming someone out of the ordinary.   Mary’s ministry was fulfilled by her being ordinary.   She was to be an ordinary person like any 16 year old girl of those times.   And the child she was to bear fulfilled his ministry by being ordinary, no different a person to the ordinary run of the mill of humanity of his day.   The Jesus Mary bore would have been out of place in our day and age.   His upbringing and temperament were products of the society in which he lived.

We celebrate a God found in the ordinary things of life, not one hidden away in books, buildings, sages or gurus.   We celebrate a God found in the ordinary things of life by ordinary people, not just those who have had particular conversion experiences, who have spent their lives studying theology, or who have spent their lives on their knees.   We celebrate a God found in ordinary people, not those who believe particular things, like the virgin birth, creation rather than evolution, the literal historicity of each and every word of the Bible, the necessity of calling on God by a particular name (naturally using medieval English language), or worshipping God in a particular manner.

I began by saying that a ‘god’ found only in certain religious circles alienates other people, usually those who 1. Use the brains God has given them, 2. Use their eyes to see what is actually important in this world and what is not, 3. Use their feet to go and see that there are other people equally trying to serve God and others as themselves, 4. Refuse to be party to and enslaved by a world view that arbitrarily distinguishes between people and 5. Realise that such distinguishing between people may in fact initiate and exacerbate conflict.

The words of Mary that I used for my text are: ‘let it be with me according to your word’.   Who is this God who comes to us?   A god who comes to include us and alienate others, or a God who includes us along with all others?   The angel came to Mary, essentially a child, and she was not forced, she was given choice.   The angel came to a young girl and engaged her in conversation.   Nothing about 'children are to be seen and not heard' here.   Nothing about women remaining silent.   When Mary questioned how it might be accomplished, she is not rebuked, like the elderly high priest Zechariah who ought to have known better.   The angel treats her question seriously.   She is allowed to doubt and to wonder.

And it seems to me to mean that the message is that those who don't claim to be religious are allowed to doubt and wonder, whereas those of us who do claim to be religious need to accept, accept the new thing being done, and being done by others, surprising others, for this is to what scripture attests.

And it seems to me that such a God as this is worth putting oneself out for.   God brings no personal kudos, and it bodes well for the future.   It will be a future certainly different from the past, as the world is an entirely different place now than it was for Jesus.   Simply to return to the past as if it were something better achieves nothing for those of us who live in the present and those who look to a better future.

What we need is the assurance of God present in the here and now, and in the times to come, and for me this is what God also desires.   It is done through you and me, being present in this world, and in us seeing God in the other, in the ordinary.   ‘Let it be with me according to your word’ is the word of affirmation that we too need to give to God our allegiance as the one who blesses others as well as us.

And it is a wonder to me why a faith based on a God of love should be a source of alienation, discrimination and condemnation?   These are precisely the things that Jesus, in his complete incarnation, stood against, and it was precisely his standing against these things that had him crucified.   It is this fundamental.   The people who preach a doctrine of alienation, discrimination and condemnation are judged, not by God, but by their own standards. 

And yet the constant witness of church history is that the orthodox and the devout regularly do turn the incarnate God into something else, something that alienates, discriminates and condemns others.   I wonder when I say the morning and evening office, as I am required to do as a priest, and rejoice to do so, I wonder that the psalms being the backbone of the offices, the psalms which so frequently portray God's blessing as victory over the enemy.   Even the printing of the book of psalms in our Anglican Prayer Books attests to their supposed importance, when they do not ever mention loving one's neighbour as oneself.   And I begin to think that gazing into crystals is, if nothing else, at least innocuous.   Hugging trees actually doesn't harm anyone else.

The socio-religious agenda that Mary (or perhaps it is Elizabeth) enunciates: 'God has mercy on those who fear him: from generation to generation.   The Lord has shown strength with his arm: and scattered the proud in their conceit, Casting down the mighty from their thrones: and lifting up the lowly.   God has filled the hungry with good things: and sent the rich away empty.' remains relevant to this day as the devout and the orthodox deny divinity in anyone else.

This socio-political agenda of recognising the divine in others, not just males but females as well, not just in the wisdom of the aged, but in the young as well, not just in religion and orthodoxy but in secular society all around us as well, continues to this day.  

And the gospel is that we do these things when we too say with Mary: ‘let it be with me according to your word’.

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