Sunday, 20 December 2015

‘Men are Useless’: A Sermon for the Fourth Sermon of Advent

I preached today on Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55. Afterwards, a friend told me that what she took from it was ‘men are useless’. So with a judgement like that, I feel compelled to blog my sermon. And here it be.

Sunday, 20 December 2015  |  Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. So sang Mary.

We certainly see this kind of role-reversal in the Old Testament. At the time of the prophet Micah, the land of Israel was sandwiched between two world powers: Egypt to the south, and Assyria to the north-east. But Assyria was the major aggressor, and sought to expand its territory, swallowing up all before it. And so, at this time, the eighth century bc, the history of the people of Israel in the north of the land, and the history of the people of Judah in the south, is largely about international relations: Can we hold off the Assyrians? Shall we just give in to them? Shall we ask Egypt for protection? What shall we do? What should we do?

Some of the prophets urged the people to turn to the Lord for help. But the people refused to listen. When the leaders of Israel and Judah saw the enemy approaching in their chariots, the ancient equivalent of a tank regiment, their first thought was not, ‘Let’s turn to the Lord for help’, but, ‘Make treaties, rally the troops, prepare for war’. But Assyria was a force awakened in the ancient Near East, and none could resist – not least Jerusalem, the capital of Judah.

As we heard earlier, Micah prophesied that a ruler would soon be born in Bethlehem who would deliver the Lord’s people from imperialist oppression. The king of Jerusalem was a waste of space and a travesty of a monarchy supposedly based on David. And so, from outside Jerusalem – in fact, in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David himself – from Bethlehem there would arise another destined to be the true King of Israel, another who would show the pathetic, weak-willed kings of the people precisely how the job should be done.

The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. So sang Mary. And for Micah, the powerful king of Israel, and the powerful king of Assyria, were about to be thrown from their thrones, and a man from the most insignificant clan in the land of Judah would instead be lifted above those born into power and wealth and privilege.

Ah, Terry, I hear you say. Ah, Terry, thank you for the history lesson, but let’s get on with the sermon now, there’s a good chap. I hear you. But let me just point out one thing about what I’ve been saying so far: Apart from the slightest mention of an unnamed woman giving birth, it’s all been about men. The prophet Micah, a man; the King of Assyria, a man; the Kings of Israel and Judah, two men; King David, a man; and the promised ruler from Bethlehem – another man, albeit, presumably, quite a special one (and I don’t mean José Mourinho, either). But where are the women?

The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. So sang Mary. But apart from her warbling away like an X-Factor finalist, where is the evidence that the Lord has brought down the powerful, has lifted up the lowly? If we accept that women and children are representative of the lowly in a patriarchal society – that is, in a society where the rules are made by men for men – then how is God bringing down the powerful in order to lift them up?

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke – another man, of course – gives us some clues as to how God is acting slowly but surely to turn our corrupted patriarchal world upside down. Notice that the major players in this passage are two pregnant women (one elderly, the other young and unmarried), and two unborn babies – and only one of these babies is even mentioned here by Luke. The men are conspicuous by their absence. The priest, Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, has blown his chance of being centre-stage at this point in the story. You’ll recall that he found it difficult to accept that his aging wife would conceive, and so he was rendered mute (and possibly deaf as well, as the Greek can mean both things) until the birth of his son. Zechariah’s voice is silenced; and, unexpectedly, Elizabeth’s voice is heard:

This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.

Here we see God beginning to reverse the perceived natural order of things: the person who had a voice is silenced; the person with no voice is heard.

And what of Joseph, the man engaged to Mary? He’s not mentioned at all. It’s all about Mary and the baby she’s carrying. Mary has already accepted her destiny – or, if you prefer, her fate – that she will give birth to the Son of God, the ultimate fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy about a future ruler. And so she hurries to visit her relative, Elizabeth. She makes an arduous five-day journey from Nazareth in the north of the land to somewhere just south of Jerusalem (a distance roughly the same as from Penge to Peterborough). Now the angel Gabriel had told Mary that the elderly Elizabeth was pregnant, but Elizabeth herself had not been told that Mary, too, was expecting. This is why what happens next is so extraordinary: As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the unborn baby in her womb suddenly moves – ‘leaps’, says Luke. Somehow, her unborn baby, who will grow up to be John the Baptist – somehow, her unborn baby John knows who Mary is, and is already doing what he is called to do. He is pointing to Jesus.

There’s more, of course. Luke tells us that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Spirit helps her to see that Mary is pregnant with, as she puts it, ‘my Lord’. But the Spirit also helps Elizabeth to know that her own unborn baby, John, leapt for joy. John’s movement in the womb was not down to badly timed indigestion on Elizabeth’s part, but baby John’s response to the Spirit showing him that this insignificant woman, Mary, would give birth to the one who is to rule in Israel. This one would be great to the ends of the earth, and Mary is his mother. The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. So sang Mary. And through these two women, and through these unborn babies, God was beginning slowly but surely to overturn the tables of patriarchy and imperialism and the natural disorder.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to get into our two passages today. And I hope you can see that the story of Elizabeth and Mary flows quite naturally from Micah’s prophecy. Micah’s prophecy is about hope, and Mary’s pregnancy is that same hope being given definitive shape in the person of the unborn baby Jesus. And so now let me say something about what all this means for us.

First of all, there’s the matter of Micah’s prophecy. While we, as Christians, should recognise Micah’s prophecy to find its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus, we should also bear in mind that the original hearers of Micah’s prophecy quite possibly would have had no real clue as to what it meant other than hope. The Assyrians are breathing down the necks of the kings of Israel and Judah; the situation is hopeless; but somehow, the Lord promises hope. There is salvation and deliverance just around the corner!

But if we do accept Micah’s prophecy as ultimately pointing to Jesus, then we also need to accept that the original hearers did not live to see this prophecy fulfilled. If Micah’s prophecy was spoken around 700 bc, then that’s seven hundred years between its utterance and its completion in the birth of Jesus. That’s a long time to hope. And if we probe Micah’s prophecy further, then it could be argued that his prophecy is still not entirely completed, for we do not yet live secure, and Jesus is not yet recognised as great to the ends of the earth. Nonetheless, Jesus is risen and ascended; he is sitting at the right hand of his Father; and this is the foundation of our hope.

And this mention of Jesus’s resurrection leads me to admit that, at the moment, despite God acting slowly but surely to reverse the brokenness of this world, all we have is this hope. But it’s enough. Why? Because it is hope that God will finally achieve the impossible and restore the entire world. Because Mary’s son, Jesus, was born into the old, fallen creation but resurrected into the new. Because in Jesus, God has promised one day to make all things – all things – new. Elizabeth knew this: that’s why she was sure God had taken away her disgrace. The unborn baby John knew this: that’s why he leapt for joy in the womb. And Mary knew this: that’s why she could sing, The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

Is this a song we can sing with Mary?

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