Advent 4 • 24 Dec 2017

2 Samuel 7:1-11,16
Romans 16:25-27
St Luke 1:26-38

Rev. Dr David Gill

Mary: Advent’s Neglected VIP

Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald carried an article entitled “You Can Thank Women for Christmas”. It made the point that women do most of the shopping for Christmas, most of the food preparation for Christmas, most of just about everything for Christmas.

I read it, waiting for the obvious punch line – some reference to the one woman without whom there would be no Christmas, no Christ, nothing whatever to celebrate. Namely, Mary the mother of the Lord. But the punch line did not come. Mary rated not a mention. She was bypassed, unnoticed. A journalistic blank spot.

Strange. But then, we church people – well, those of us shaped by Protestantism anyway – are in no position to criticize. We share the same blank spot.

For example, take our Revised Common Lectionary. It is a three-year cycle of Bible readings, followed in many denominations, many countries and most congregations of the Uniting Church. For each Sunday it gives us one reading from the Hebrew scriptures followed by a psalm in response. Then a reading from the epistles of the early church. And it culminates in a reading from the gospels – for the next twelve months we’re into the story as told by St Mark.

The lectionary has many advantages. It pushes us reflect on the major seasons and festivals of the Christian year. It stops preachers riding their pet hobbyhorses into the ground. At a time of growing biblical illiteracy it sets us thinking about passages and biblical themes we might otherwise dodge. And it keeps us in sync with other Christians. So, three cheers for the Revised Common Lectionary.

Well, make that two-and-a-half cheers. Occasionally I find myself wondering what those who drew up the lectionary were thinking. Take the gospel readings for Advent this year. On the first Sunday we heard Jesus telling people to get ready, be prepared. On the second and third Sundays, the readings featured John the Baptist as he thundered at people to repent.

Only today, one sleep short of Christmas, does the lectionary focus on the woman early Christians referred to as Theotokos, a Greek word meaning the bearer of God.

Or take the naming of our churches. The Uniting Church, for example, has congregations dedicated to St Stephen, St Andrew, St Thomas, St Matthew, St John, St Aidan, St Ninian, St James, St David, St Margaret and St Paul. It has whole battalions of Wesleys. True, we do have one St Mary’s Uniting Church – but for that you can thank a location in St Mary’s the suburb, not the veneration of St Mary the person.

She has no special place in our prayers and devotions. We tend to ignore the festival of the Annunciation. We don’t say the Angelus, even though it’s quite biblical. And you won’t find much art work, in and around our church buildings, dedicated to the mother of the Lord.
Without her there would be no Christian faith. Yet she doesn’t get much of a look in. Maybe our forebears saw religious leadership as men’s business. Maybe old-style Protestant prejudice got the better of them. Whatever the explanation, Mary fell pretty much out of the picture. Which, alas, all too often she still does.

It’s understandable, of course. Like all religious figures, the mother of Jesus has suffered from her admirers. Our Protestant bit of the Christian family has been wary of the veneration of Mary. Given some of the excesses popular piety in years past, that is hardly surprising. But, as we’ve been discovering in the great learning process called the ecumenical movement, the Protestant reaction has itself been an excess. Mary has a unique place in the saga of salvation. Her place as a continuing inspiration to the faithful should be equally special.

“Blessed are you among women!” This, according to Luke’s gospel, was the Spirit-inspired verdict of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. The same conviction has been echoed by believers through twenty centuries. Blessed are you, Mary, the bearer of God. Blessed are you, the one who was totally available, entirely obedient to the divine purpose. Blessed are you, the exemplar of godliness for all ages.

This very special woman is the counterpoint to the mess humanity knows itself to be in. Sin, we realize, is less a matter of infringing certain rules than a far-reaching separation, alienation, estrangement between us and God, and between human beings themselves. Martin Luther described it well: the state of being curved in upon oneself.

By the same token, holiness is less a matter of adhering to certain rules than a far-reaching availability, sensitivity, responsiveness to the purposes of God. The state of being curved outwards, towards God and others.

Some of what passes for Christian piety has been getting this seriously wrong. We hear a lot of what might be called “Instant Gratification Christianity” – which in fact is Western consumerism writ large and given a religious gloss. This warped gospel proclaims “Believe thus and so, and everything in your life will fall neatly into place. Commit yourself to Christ, and watch your business prosper. Insert a prayer into the great cosmic slot machine, and out will roll a can of whatever your heart most desires”.

The so-called prosperity gospel, proclaimed by some Pentecostal preachers, is a classic example.

Mary would have found such teaching utterly mystifying. For her faith centred on God, not herself; on patient availability for the achievement of God’s purposes, not instant gratification in the achievement of her own.

Advent calls us to a renewed availability to God. That means offering God not only our gifts, our strengths. But also our weaknesses, our failures. We all carry scars, most of them invisible but all of them real. We are all of us frail, though we do our damnedest to pretend otherwise. Those weaknesses and failures, scars and frailties, we should also offer to God, for by his grace they too may be taken up and used to his glory.
At this holy time, the Australian churches provide us with a very tangible way to give expression to our availability.

For 68 years, the churches of Australia have had their Christmas Bowl Appeal. Each Christmas since 1949, we have sought to reach out together in Christ’s name to the hungry, the refugees, the downtrodden, the exploited, those the world would prefer to forget. It’s the movement for Christian unity, with its sleeves rolled up getting its hands dirty. During these weeks you have been receiving the Christmas bowl envelopes. I commend the Bowl for your sacrificial support.

But when all the bank transfers are made, when the cheques are signed, when the last envelope is in, what then of your availability to God, and of mine? When our spiritual resources are so limited, our strength is so fragile, our faith so hesitant, our need so great?

Then it is that you and I are recalled to the paradox of the gospel: namely, that dying and living, giving and receiving, seeking the fulfillment of others and finding fulfillment ourselves, are but opposite sides of one and the same coin.

That paradox is expressed powerfully in a wonderful prayer I came across some years ago. It has meant a lot to me, especially at times when the going has been tough. Author unknown, the prayer goes like this:

Lord, when I am hungry, give me someone to feed.
When I am thirsty, give me someone whose thirst I may ease.
And when I am cold, someone to warm.
When I am sad, give me someone to cheer.
When I need understanding, send me someone who needs mine.
When my burden is heavy, give me also those of others,
and when I need love, may others ask for mine.
When I think only of myself, draw my thoughts to another.
May your will be my food,
your grace my strength
and your love my rest.
May my whole life be a gift perpetually offered to you, O Father,
until the day when you are pleased to receive it back again.

To that prayer, Mary would have been the first to say: Amen Lord. Amen.