Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7. 10-16, Psalm 80. 1-7 16-18, Romans 1. 1-7, Matthew 1. 18-25

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve sung enough carols that speak of children that are seen and never heard, and we’ve also praised this wonderful meek and mild mother of God. Really? Imagery and words that whip any women into subjugation because they too must be meek and mild. Of course, the flip side is that all men must be macho, etc, etc. Really?

Well, I guess Joseph could have been quite derogatory in his opinion of Mary if it hadn’t been for divine intervention. I think we need to dwell on this further on this portrayal of Mary that we find at Christmas time.

If we didn’t have the Lectionaries in front of us, we would actually be using our Bibles. One reason why I wanted them on the pews so that they could actually be used. The Lectionaries are great, don’t get me wrong, but they do present portions of Scripture as though served up with a hint of saccharin sweetener. Without the context of where this passage is in the Bible, in the letter of Matthew we can, all too easily, fall into the mindless trap of not reading what came before or what comes next. 

What’s presented in the Gospel passage today is just a summary. The minimum of details to give us the gist of what happened. It’s as though it’s been cleaned up, as though the idea of determination, valour, and boldness are not seen to be ideals for any woman to live up to. How very Victorian. Much like the idea of children must be seen and not heard.

Ideals that do not empower women. Now, before you get on your high horse and label me as an ardent nutter and feminist, I put it to you that if weren’t for the suffragettes and other ardent women, we wouldn’t have the rights we do have, as women. Gender equality has not yet happened in Britain, and indeed the country (dare I call it that?) has slipped down the world rankings of equality. There is only one country where the pay gap between men and women has closed to an acceptable degree, and that is Iceland. But I digress. 

Religious imagery has tended, in the main, to portray Mary the mother of God as white, blond, mostly meek, timorous. Really? She’s spoken about as being a virgin. She’s spoken about as having just gone through puberty. Yet, no age is ever given to Mary in the Bible, and neither does the original Greek translation use the word ‘virgin.’ Matthew quotes from the Septuagint (that is the Hebrew Scriptures which were translated into Koine Greek by seventy writers) and he turns the phrase ‘young woman’ into virgin. There are different ways to interpret the original word in Hebrew, which is almah. 

Would it have mattered if the mother of Jesus hadn’t been a virgin? We know that Mary was unmarried when the angel appeared to her, and we also know that the culture that Mary lived in was very patriarchal and that women tended to be property, much like livestock. The word used does not mean that Mary was sexually innocent, it just meant that she had not borne a child. And before any of you think this refers to the immaculate conception, you’ll need to put your thinking caps back on. The immaculate conception is an important doctrine for the Roman Catholic Church and refers to Mary’s birth, not the one we’re about to celebrate in three days’ time.

So…back to the story. An angel appears to Mary. In Luke’s version, Mary has enough courage to question the angel. Much like her cousin’s husband Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. But whereas Zechariah had disbelief and was struck dumb for nine months, Mary’s question seems to be without guile. The point being is that she asks. The invitation of the angel for Mary to be the mother of Jesus and her independent decision tells us so much more than the Scriptures do. She owns her own body, and God knows it. She does not need a man to guide her and make decisions for her. To somehow make her complete. She does not need permission from her parents or from clergy to become pregnant. This is her decision. Her right.

From the beginning of this story, we’re told of a woman who knows her own mind. She’s got courage and determination. God has a bold agenda for Mary and having a meek and mild woman to be the mother of God isn’t what he’s got in mind. From the off, God shakes the ordered foundations of the patriarchal society to bring the underling out from the shadows into the spotlight. He asks a young woman if she would comply with his wishes. Dialogue. Respect. Mary’s devotion and faith have attracted God. She chooses to accept God’s authority, but she is not submissive in terms of being subservient. The power of God is never timid. 

Mary’s humility on accepting this quest, on the other hand, shows just how much boldness she does have. She trusts that she will not be thrown into the gutter when it is found that she is pregnant. Joseph chooses humility when the angel appears to him. He chooses a different path from that which society would expect him to follow with marrying an obviously pregnant young woman. They each, individually, but also as a couple demonstrate a new way of living that is sacrificial. They would have both received derogatory phrases, sneers in the street, by those intent on perpetuating the patriarchal culture or from those who should have known better but didn’t. 

God chose a woman full of grace but also one who was bold and had courage. One who was not afraid of adventure. God also chose a man who stood by this woman. Two people whose fear of God was greater than their fear of humankind. Two people who knew they had to step out in humility, into the calling on their lives and trust that God had their backs. 

I wonder…do we have enough trust in God to know that he’s got our backs? Do we know that he’s chosen each of us to do something that only we can do? Do we realise that God’s call is about us – and not the societal expectation that we should be meekly following? Do we have the grace and spunk to be able to step out and trust his calling on our lives?

I hope and pray that we do. If not for our sakes, but those around us. Those who are the next generation, and those after them. Mary and Joseph didn’t do what they did for themselves, they saw the bigger picture. I wonder…do we?

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