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Will the real Mary please stand up?

Will the Real Mary please stand up?

Sermon at St Stephen’s Stanley, 20th December 2020

On this 4th Sunday of Advent, with Christmas just a few days away, our focus is on Mary the mother of Jesus.

Here’s the lovely icon that lives in the Chapel, Mary with little Jesus. It’s called the Virgin of Tenderness. It’s a beautiful traditional picture of Mary the loving mother.

And by way of contrast, here is the very different picture I chose for the front of the pewsheet this week: Mary very heavily pregnant, kneeling in the straw beside the manger as if her contractions have already started.

Two contrasting images, one very stylized, idealised, the other much more raw and unvarnished. They look as if they could be two different people. And our two bible readings this morning, both from the first chapter of the gospel according to Luke, also show us two very different Marys. So who was Mary? Will the Real Mary please stand up?

We begin in the gospel with the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, at home in Nazareth, to tell her that she will have a baby. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, there are several stories of angels from God telling a woman that she will have a baby. In that culture, and still for many people today, children are seen as a gift from God. By contrast, in that culture, to be married and have no children was considered a dis-grace, a sign of God’s lack of favour. But Gabriel calls Mary ‘favoured one’, and tells her ‘You have found favour with God.’ Although Mary and Joseph are not yet married, a child will be born.

God sends messages in different ways to people in the bible. Sometimes it’s an angel bringing a message, sometimes it’s one of the prophets, sometimes it’s simply ‘The word of the Lord came to x’. And when God speaks, it’s not just to say ‘Hello, how are you?’ It’s an invitation to do something, to take action, to change yourself and the world around you. Sometimes what God asks is difficult or dangerous, or just not what people want to do. Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh, and runs away to sea to get away from God. Some of the kings, challenged by a prophet to change their bad behaviour, refuse to listen and blame the prophet instead. And going right back to the beginning, Eve disobeys God, eating the apple which is the start of all the trouble.

And it’s not just in the bible, is it? We may have ideas about what God is telling us to do, in our personal relationships, forgiving, having mercy – but we don’t always do it; God may speak to us about the harmful ways we sometimes live our lives, but we may prefer just to keep on. One way or another people in the bible, and we ourselves, often reject God’s call to us, and turn a deaf ear.

But Mary is one who accepts. ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’ Or, as the Christmas carol has it, ‘Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head; to me be as it pleaseth God, she said.’ This is Mary the model of perfection, selflessly accepting God’s will; and it’s a beautiful image. This is Mary obeying God’s word, and putting right the sin of Eve’s disobedience.

Let’s turn to our first reading this morning. Just a few short verses after our gospel reading, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth – who is also pregnant, another birth announced by the angel Gabriel. And Mary sings the song we call the Magnificat.

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; for he has looked with favour…’ – there’s God’s favour again: so far so good. But what follows is something very different.

‘He has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’

Mary emphasizes her own lowly status: she’s an unmarried girl, in a culture where women had no status, at least until they were married and had children. But it’s not only Mary whose status is being looked on with favour, and lifted up. Her song continues:

‘He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’

This is radical. This is revolution! This is turning the established order upside down. People think that worldly wealth is a sign of God’s favour, but no! God brings down the rich and powerful, and lifts up the lowly. And women in that society were among the lowly. This is not gentle Mary meekly bowing her head, this is Mary at the barricades, leading the revolution!

Ok, I’m exaggerating. But you get the point. In this first chapter of Luke we seem to have not one Mary but two: Mary the submissive and obedient girl; and Mary the social and political radical, boldly proclaiming revolutionary change.

But maybe these two Marys are not completely incompatible with each other. Mary who accepts the word of God surely has some insight into what it is she is accepting. Not just a baby, a little tiny child to be fed and washed and loved and cherished; not just a baby like any other, but God incarnate, God as a human being, a child who will transform the world, turning our priorities upside down.

This baby, Jesus, God saves, will feed the hungry with the bread of heaven. He will raise up the lowly with the assurance that they are not left behind, but included in God’s favour. He will tell them that they will be first in the kingdom of God. And he won’t just tell them, he’ll invite them in. He’ll bring them in. And he will confuse the proud in their conceit; encouraging us to swallow our pride and let go of it. Mary’s Magnificat is a foretaste of the healing and salvation that her son brings to the world: a wonderful, revolutionary new world that you and I can walk into and breathe in like fresh air, and create; if, like Mary, we will accept God, and bring the Lord Jesus Christ to birth.