Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/9UEjnEzXd7U
Advent 4 C 20th December 2015
Well, Advent is certainly “Prophet Season” isn’t it? Today we hear the voices of four prophets echoing down through the ages to us, and they all have something to say to us even in 2015. But why do I say ‘four’ prophets, there’s Micah, from the Old Testament, and Elizabeth and Mary- that makes only three. However, in what Mary says there is an echo of a very old prophesy- one we read not so many weeks ago. Do you remember Hannah, the mother of Samuel- Samuel the King maker who anointed David and started this whole thing off? When you compare what she said to what Mary said there is a great deal of commonality. One would think that perhaps Mary knew Hannah’s prophecy when she made her own, or perhaps it is that the prophetic message hasn’t changed over about a thousand years of history. And you know as we begin to examine these three prophetic speeches in today’s passages we will discover that indeed the message hasn’t changed even now.
An interesting thing about this whole prophetic mode is that it seems that anyone can prophesy. The fact that these are women, Hannah, Elizabeth and then Mary, does not invalidate their prophetic words at all, and that is because, I think, a prophet, as I said a couple of weeks ago, is naming God’s presence in the midst of what is going on around us. You don’t need special qualifications for that, neither ones based on gender, nor ones based on acquired knowledge. What is required is ‘eyes that can see and ears that can hear and a heart open to God’. Which means, of course, receptivity to the Holy Spirit, which is notable both in Elizabeth and Mary. Micah says that he “saw” his vision that led to the prophetic word being proclaimed, also a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
Micah, speaking before the Assyrians, and before the Babylonians, has a vision that concerns the small and the poor being the origin for one who will rule in Israel. All the way through his prophetic word Micah is challenging the seat of power, that is Jerusalem and here he proclaims one who has his origin “from of old”- in the line of David, but in fact, if we read it as Jesus of Nazareth, from before time. And we do read it as Jesus, the one who will feed his flock, and the one who will bring peace. Micah is naming the activity of God as he sees it, in a very difficult political situation. He is speaking out against the rulers and the way they govern. It is, of course, Micah, who in the next chapter says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah likes to challenge his listeners as well as the powers that be.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, yells her prophesy with joy. It is a word both deeply personal and at the same time universal. And we have taken these words to be a special invocation for Mary- it sounds very Catholic to our ears, doesn’t it? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This is the Holy Spirit acclaiming with such fervour, both Mary’s own personal blessing because of her willingness to risk herself for the sake of the world, and at the same time acknowledging the blessing that Jesus will be to the world. Elizabeth has had an epiphany, a revelation of God, she recognizes that Mary is pregnant, though she must barely have been showing if at all, and that she is ‘the mother of my Lord’. This can only have been revealed to her by the HS. And then she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” This applies to both Elizabeth herself, who has the evidence of the fulfilment of God’s word, kicking about inside her, and to Mary, who has barely begun the journey. The question is, does it apply to us? How does God speak to us? And what does God say? Do we believe in the fulfilment of what has been spoken to us by the Lord? Elizabeth sees her story, barren woman suddenly with child, as connected into God’s story of salvation. Zechariah also sees that, when he makes his prophecy, which we read a fortnight ago, after the birth of his son. Do we see ourselves and our lives as connected into God’s story of the kingdom, of the salvation of the world?
Mary responds to these great words of Elizabeth’s with equal joy. We are very familiar with Mary’s words and perhaps we miss both how revolutionary they are, and how feisty. Even in her first claim that God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant, or handmaiden as it used to say. Now, I am a big believer in inclusive language, but here it helps us to hear just what Mary is saying. She is God’s “hand maiden” or female servant- lowly because a servant and even lowlier because she is a woman and yet she claims God’s favour. Just think for a moment: imagine that Mary was one of the Latino women, who all over the US clean for those wealthy enough to afford a cleaner, and she was claiming that she was a special favourite of Barak Obama- you would think that she had “tickets on herself” as my mother used to say. And yet that is what Mary is claiming. Normally, people knew that they had been blessed by God because they had wealth and power and influence, actually nothing has really changed, has it? But Mary, pregnant, teenage, runaway, is claiming God has done great things for her, and by that does she mean her unexpected pregnancy- I don’t think so. I am fairly sure that the great thing God has done for Mary is to send Jesus, the saviour of the world. But that’s not all by a long shot, in a twist of focus from self to others, Mary goes on to make a series of revolutionary statements. He has scattered the proud, he has brought down the powerful, and has sent the wealthy away hungry. He has lifted up the lowly, and filled the hungry with good things, because his mercy is for those who fear him. This is dangerous stuff, and you might think that Mary had quite enough to worry about without making deeply counter cultural, even socialist, statements like this, but she, in her new found role as God’s servant, is fearless! We have a picture of Mary, dressed in blue, smiling sweetly, demure and gentle, all the things that traditionally men have required women to be. But when we read these words, like those of Hannah, we see a young woman of great strength and courage, and not at all sweet! Mary has also connected her story into God’s story, or perhaps more truly God has connected her story into God’s. Do we believe, as Elizabeth says, in the fulfilment of these words? Do we believe that somehow through connecting ourselves into God’s great story of justice and mercy and peace, we can be bringers of these things- heralds for our world?
And what does it mean for Elizabeth and Mary to live in God’s kingdom? Does it mean peace and quiet? Well, no! They both suffer terribly with what happens to their sons. Of course, we don’t know if Elizabeth was alive to see what happened to John the Baptiser, but Mary certainly was alive to see what happened to her son. The first listeners to Luke’s gospel had also lived through tumultuous times. They had seen the fall of the great temple and the Jewish leaders vanquished by the Romans. And this fulfilled a number of Mary’s prophecies, didn’t it? And yet they are still true because the Kingdom of God is still in the process of coming- it hasn’t yet come in all its glory. God’s promises to us of, “peace on earth and goodwill for all” as promised first, by Micah and then by the angels at Jesus birth, is still a work in progress.
The other day, I heard an earnest young priest pray that all the Christians in the world would live in peace. It is a good sentiment, isn’t it? But not quite what Micah promises, nor the angels. The promise is for everyone, but sadly humanity, on masse, is not good at peace. Jesus came to save everyone, as the prophets repeatedly tell us. Simeon, whose words we will read after Christmas sums it up when he says,
“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace – your word has been fulfilled. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of every people. A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”
Jesus, the baby we will welcome in a few days, is the light for the whole world, the bringer of peace for the whole world. Jesus demands justice for everyone, but it is up to us to bring in that light, that justice and mercy.
So as we go out, let me encourage you to be prophets, like Micah, like Elizabeth and like Mary, who proclaim the great blessing that has come to us all in the person of Jesus the Christ, God incarnate, God with skin on!