Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:39-55
As you know this church and many churches around the world mark the four Sundays leading up to Christmas as the season of Advent. Advent literally means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’ and is observed as a time of waiting or longing. Waiting, yes, to celebrate again the birth of Jesus into our lives and into our world, but also longing for the final fulfilment of advent in the Kingdom of God.
As you look at the issues facing our world or think about individual struggles, as you reflect on what we long for this Advent, it is hard to go past the promise the angel gives to Mary after telling her that she will bear God’s Son. “He will be great,” the angel says. “He will reign….forever…and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
It is a promise of redemption and restoration and of a community made whole, one that Mary picks up later in her song. It is a promise of redemption and restoration and healing like we heard in our reading from Isaiah this morning. And it is a promise of redemption and restoration and communities made whole and healing, of all those things, that we also long for in our world and in our lives this morning.
But the angel Gabriel does not simply leave Mary with a promise, a promise that one day these things will happen. He adds to that promise, hope. “Even now,” he says, “your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
And we too are left, not only with the promise that one day our world will be transformed, but with hope, with signs of God’s redemption and restoration already at work. And I want to mention just three this morning – three that will be familiar to you – because they are the projects for our Christmas offering!
The first sign of hope is right here in Canberra. Our project is a new initiative, but for some time BaptistCare has been working with women escaping from domestic and family violence, helping them develop the skills to move on with their lives; strengthening the vulnerable and fearful as Isaiah would say, filling them with good things – resilience, confidence, financial independence – as Mary sings.
The second sign of hope is the work Hagar are doing in Cambodia and other countries. There, case managers, like the one we support, work individually with survivors of sexual abuse, slavery and exploitation – arranging access to medical care, trauma counselling, schooling, vocational training or legal support – so they can achieve their goals. And if you search for Hagar videos (I hope to show one next week) they tell wonderful stories ranging from a man who had polio as a child and was sold to be a street beggar who has just finished two degrees, to a woman who had acid thrown on her by her husband’s family who now runs a small shop to support herself and her daughter.
And our third sign is Baptist Care’s work in Bangladesh. Through them we partner with a Bangladeshi organisation, PARI (Participatory Action for Rural Innovation), whose vision is “to be an organization where the poor and their communities are empowered to experience hope and live a life to its fullest”. And over the last ten years PARI have seen significant improvement in the 175 villages they have worked with, and through this project that work continues; enhancing the skills of leaders, especially women, to improve their livelihoods, supporting people with disabilities to access markets and become financially independent, developing disaster resilience and improving child protection systems and practices.
But Baptist World Aid have sent us a personal message of hope. Let me play that for you…
And so like Mary we have the promise of a world transformed, and transformed through our participation, and like Mary, who had the the sign of God at work in Elizabeth’s seemingly impossible pregnancy, we have these signs of God already at work in seemingly hopeless situations, but to these things Mary goes to Elizabeth who adds to them – blessing.
As we read this morning, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth….” I think it is no wonder that, finding herself in the predicament she is in, despite the glory of the promise and the wonder of the hope she has been given, that Mary goes ‘with haste’ to find someone she can talk to, who can offer her support and encouragement.
And Elizabeth does that and more. She blesses Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb…Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
It’s an extraordinary passage. Extraordinary because in our very androcentric Bible there are rarely scenes where women appear together without men, but here two women meet and converse without the presence of any male character (apart from their unborn sons). It is also extraordinarily intimate and physical, the women greet each other, pregnant belly to pregnant belly in many artistic renderings, the baby leaps in her womb and Elizabeth cries out loudly – almost a cry of birth, but this is a cry of joy… And there is this extraordinary blessing honouring what God has done in Mary’s life, honouring what Mary has done and affirming and nurturing and encouraging what Mary and God will do together.
And we, too, in order to participate in the work of God, need to add to the promise and add to the hope, the blessing of others. We need to seek out the blessing of others to help us discover how God is being born into our lives, and we need to be people who offer that blessing. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we may need to seek it out and offer it in settings that are new, that differ from the usual norms. And we will need to attend to God more closely, with our whole beings. To bear God’s promise and hope, we need the powerful work of blessing.
In an essay on this passage, writer Debie Thomas says:
Could there possibly be a better job description for the church? A better prototype for Christian community? ….In this Gospel story, Luke essentially describes the first Christian worship service in history. Mary and Elizabeth — the young and the old, the unmarried and the married, the socially established and the socially vulnerable — finding common ground in their love for Jesus. As Henri Nouwen describes it, “God’s most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.” What a gorgeous and challenging example for us to live up to.
Can we live up to Mary and Elizbeth’s example? Can you think of people who affirmed and blessed the work of God in your life? Can you think of someone you have blessed? I am going to give you a moment to think, but can I ask you to ask God if there is someone in this church – someone God is working through – who needs your blessing now. And just as Mary wasn’t the person anyone expected God to use, this person might not be one of the usual suspects! (Pause)
Thinking about our own lives and reading this passage, we cannot underestimate the significance of blessing. Because when we receive from God the promise that we are engaged in the transformation of our world, and add to that the signs of hope the angel gives us and then add to that the powerful and empowering blessing of a community, we discover, like Mary, that we can sing of even greater promises and possibilities.
We can sing, yes, of how God has been real and transformative in our lives, but we can also sing – boldly using the past tense to describe how God will act in the future – because we are so confident these things will happen – of how God will be real and transformative in the lives of all people; bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, fostering the common ground of real community; filling the poor with good things, sending the rich away empty, creating the possibility of shared and sustainable life on earth.
And in speaking and singing and acting in accord with this song, we will discover that we are not merely witnesses to God’s greatness, but we are enhancing, we are enlarging, we are magnifying God’s greatness and glory in our world – we have become co-workers, co-creators, co-birthers of God’s redemption and restoration. As the third century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, writes, We are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.
We can then sing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Perhaps we are not quite there this morning. Perhaps having received the promise we need more time to ponder the sings of hope, more attention to seeking and giving blessing within our community – let us keep on doing those things – but perhaps we can practice a little this morning the work of magnifying God. So, can I invite you to write on the other side of that slip of paper one thing that you are longing for God to do this Advent, but like Mary let’s put these things in the past tense – one thing that you know God will do. Let’s compose our own Magnificat or Song of Praise this morning.