The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s151g12  Advent 4  23/12/2012

'His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation'  Luke 1.50

There are some textural variations which ascribe this song of Mary to Elizabeth, and they have some logic since it has many echoes with the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, another elderly woman also barren for a long time, giving birth to the prophet who instituted the monarchy in Israel and anointed Saul as king and later David.   It is the elderly Elizabeth who parallels Hannah rather than Mary, in that she gives birth to John the Baptist the prophet who, by baptising Jesus, initiates the new kingdom.   When I say there are some textural variations it means that some manuscripts in Latin dating from the 4th and 5th centuries, along with words of Iraneaus (202 CE) and a manuscript ascribed to Origin (254 CE) have 'Elizabeth' rather than 'Mary' in the text.   In the principles of translation it is more likely that Elizabeth was the original singer, and a pious translator changed the author to Mary, being such an important song, and the change quickly became 'de fide'.

And it would actually be more logical that Mary would say to Elizabeth: 'blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord', for it was more remarkable that Elizabeth would bear a child than it was for Mary, the young teenager.

Indeed I suspect that we have so magnified Mary that she has come to us, not only without having lost her virginity (despite giving birth) but without hormones.   I would be suspicious of the sanity of any teenage woman who considered it was God's blessing to become pregnant and give birth without the comfort and joy of coitus.   Indeed I would be deeply suspicious of a God who required this of someone - and why would it be necessary for the salvation of the world?

So it is little wonder to me that the Jesus of tradition also comes across as sexless and without hormones.   It makes me appreciate the line in the new form of the creed: 'For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became fully human.'   For me it seems less important to affirm that Jesus was male than it is to affirm that he had hormones and knew the natural desire for intimacy common to both genders.

Today I reflect on the goodness of the Lord, that overflowing abundance of life all around us, that is the creation.   We read of this encounter of two women, both pregnant, one younger and essentially unremarkable, and one who was older, whose pregnancy was something for which she had yearned and prayed for, for many years and yet, when it happened, it was entirely unexpected.   Elizabeth’s yearning and prayer was that she be like any other normal woman - just like Mary who had come to visit.   Elizabeth didn’t need the son to provide for her in her old age, she didn’t expect an especially gifted child, she probably didn’t want her child to be especially religious.   All she wanted was to be a normal mum, and for so long this seemed to have been denied her.  I think of the agonies of those couples who have no choice but to resort to the rigours of IVF programs to perhaps begin to see the depth of this desire.   The gift that Elizabeth was given was just to be a normal mother.   All she wanted was that she would no longer be different, an outcast - and the Lord's gift was for her to be included.

And it seems to me that the church has wanted to make people different, separate from the ordinary 'run of the mill' person in the street.   We have come to expect that the church wants us to impose on ourselves a separateness from the rest of society.   At the critical age of confirmation, classes rarely include anything about the trials of puberty.  It's usually all about God and holiness and coming to church!

The blessing of inclusion that we hear being celebrated today therefore does not just mean something for Elizabeth alone, it is something that can and should echo down through the ages, that God wants inclusion for all - rather than marginalization, alienation, and condemnation.   Elizabeth sees in her inclusion a God who includes not just herself but includes all.   The proud and the rich who dismiss others as irrelevant.   God hears the pleas of all the lowly and hungry.

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

This term 'fear of God' actually has nothing to do with being afraid of the divine, but treating others as we would want to be treated ourselves.   So Nehemiah says: 'The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver.   Even their servants lorded it over the people.   But I did not do so, because of the fear of God.'  (5.15)

And in the new testament, the petitions: 'Honour everyone.   Love the family of believers.   Fear God.   Honour the emperor' - are all the same. (1 Peter 2.17)

Of course we consider it miraculous that God acted to enable Elizabeth to be included.   But what about those for whom a child is not the key to inclusion, those who can't live what we consider a 'normal' life?   Sadly, of course, for the poor of this world, the inability to stop having children - because of a church's proscription on the use of contraception - means that another child is to exacerbate their poverty, not relieve it.   Gay and lesbian persons have often been barred from fostering or adopting children, even though they are more likely to care for children well.   Fa'afafine, viewed as a third gender specific to Samoan culture are known for their hard work and dedication to the family.'afafine

If we think that a virgin birth was miraculous, or a child born to someone well beyond menopause was miraculous, would it not be more miraculous if the church viewed others as normal - rather than ostracising them?

If God acted to include the barren woman by giving her a child, what does the incarnation mean if not that the baby Jesus is a child for all those the church marginalises, alienates and condemns?

Indeed when one looks at that otherwise impossible injunction: 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5.48) in the context, it is better translated: 'Be inclusive, therefore, as your heavenly Father is inclusive' - including enemies, and more than just our spiritual brothers and sisters.   It is this that Mary (or Elizabeth) recognised in their encounter, and it is this that actually holds out the promise of a better life, not just for 'christians' but for all, from generation to generation, and all, not just 'christians' will have good reason to sing God's praise.  

Do we, as 'christians' fear the Lord in terms of our inclusion of others, or do we arrogantly presume on our superiority to exclude all and sundry?