This is the text of my sermon to Dudley Uniting Church (Penneshaw) on the last Sunday before Christmas in 2015.
(Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:47-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45)
Many of you know that I am currently studying towards a Masters degree in Theological Studies at Flinders University, and you are aware that my studies in the current semester are focussed around a coursework dissertation on styles of leadership within the rural church. (A coursework dissertation is academic language for “a big essay but not a massive one”, this essay will take me a year to write by the time I’ve finished it and it will be around 15,000 words long, give or take a chapter.) Anyway, what I have found interesting in my research in the last two weeks has been the idea that churches in rural Australia and the English countryside might actually be better at some things than their urban and suburban counterparts, and one of those things is belonging.
Many rural congregations, this one included, meet in buildings that are as old as or almost as old as the towns in which they are situated. You are all quite familiar with the Methodist history of Kangaroo Island so I shan’t go into that now, especially since you probably know that history better than I do. Who am I to teach it? Nonetheless the point is made: when it comes to communities in the bush the Church has usually been there from the start. And not just the chapel, by which I mean the building, the Church as the local people of God, has been there. Many of you, alongside many of the Christian people of Kingscote, Parndana, and Stokes Bay, as well as the other Christians of the Dudley Peninsula are volunteers in our communities. We have Ambos in our congregation, we have people who volunteer at Meals on Wheels, Red Cross, the Cancer Council, and each of our five local football clubs. Some of you are involved in the Shed at American River, and you help at the markets and the museums here at Penneshaw. As local volunteers rural Christians do our bit. Of course town Christians do these things too, but not to the extent of involvement or in the proportionate numbers that bush Christians do. Well that’s what my reading is saying anyway. As rural people we get amongst it.
Something else I have been reading in the past week has been “God’s Smuggler”, the story of Brother Andrew and his ministry behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s and 1960s. I’d never read the book before, although I knew the basic dot points and I remember reading the story in a cartoon book my parents bought from Koorong when I was about ten. Anyway one story within the book which pricked my attention was when Brother Andrew was talking to a small group of Christians in one of those communist nations and he asked them why they stayed. If life is so hard for Christians why hadn’t they tried to sneak across to the West and religious freedom, wondered Brother Andrew. “We stay,” said one of the men, “because if we go then who will be left here to pray?” In a newly written final chapter to the updated book, (the original came out in 1967), Brother Andrew offers the wisdom that if you want to fulfil Jesus’ teaching found in Matthew 25:35-36, of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked then you have to be there with them. So often Brother Andrew felt he wasn’t able to do much on his trips into Easter Europe but every time he suggested that he was told “but you are here”. What mattered to the beleaguered Christians of the East was that they had not been forgotten, that they had been remembered by the Church in the free world, and that they were being loved and prayed for. It was that message, as well as his sneaky stash of Bibles, that Brother Andrew brought to those local congregations. Brother Andrew got amongst it.
For this final Sunday in Advent Rev Rob has set the theme “the Joy of Presence”. This follows from the Joys he has proclaimed in “Service”, “Submission”, and “the Encounter”. At Christmas, when we use big words like “incarnation” to refer to Jesus coming in human flesh, and “Emmanuel” which names God as with us, we celebrate that like the Christian volunteers in our communities, and Brother Andrew’s clandestine visits to Poland and Rumania, God is bodily amongst us.
In our Old Testament reading today Micah writes of a dire period in the history of God’s people. The city inhabited by God’s people is under siege and God’s people are threatened with immanent defeat and destruction. Hope is diminishing as the siege draws on: but God promises deliverance, and God puts a time to it. By the time a child is born, a child who has already been conceived and is in the womb, God’s answer will have come. The shepherd who is coming, and remember that shepherds in Micah’s day were metaphors for good kings, will be from the ancient days. There is no mistake, this will be no flash-in-the-pan, God is sending deliverance in the tried and tested ancient way, a king who is a shepherd will come and just as David had been this king will be a liberator and a peacemaker. This new David’s arrival is immanent, indeed it’s less than three trimesters away.
In our New Testament reading today the writer to the Hebrew believers also makes reference to the history of God’s people. Remember the days of animal sacrifice, says the writer, indeed those sacrifices are still taking place. Those sacrifices do not take away sin do they? In fact all that they do is act as rituals to remind us of our sin and our need for God. For sin to be taken away, for the problems of the world to be alleviated and the sicknesses of separation from God to be cured, God will need to intervene. Well that is what God did when Jesus came in a human body, says the writer. In the sacrifice of Jesus God was bodily involved in the ritual and what had once been only a pointer to the need for salvation became the means of salvation itself. God got involved, Christ himself got amongst it, and sin was cured. Like the one born in the days of Micah the actual presence of a living person amongst the people of God is God’s sign that God’s liberation is at hand.
And then, and then we get to Mary.
And doesn’t the Magnificat make deeper sense in the light of this thought? I mean it always made sense and no context is really required for “tell out, my soul, the greatness of the LORD”. I’m not convinced at all that Mary was overly familiar with the book of Micah and I’m pretty sure she hadn’t read Hebrews before the annunciation, but even so. God’s liberation is at hand: in the time it takes for a baby to be formed in a woman’s womb God will show up in human shape amongst us and be the cure to all that is wrong in the world. Oh, and by the way Mary, it’s your womb. This would be why in place of a psalm the Revised Common Lectionary requires us to sing Luke 1:47-55 today as a song of celebration, of setting free and letting go, of knowing that God is amongst us in bodily form and that all that is wrong will soon be right. Very soon be right.
In Mary’s song we hear that God sees the solitary one. Not that Mary is lonely at this point in the story, or even alone, but that she is uniquely individual. Mary is not some random girl, she is Mary the daughter (traditionally) of Joachim and Anna. She is known, by name, by God, and she has just grasped that. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 8 she cries out “who am I that God should choose me”, yet at the same time she fully accepts that that is exactly what God has done. God has chosen to create glory out of a girl the world believes insignificant, and to show through her the majesty of a multi-generational mercy. God honours the faithful because God is faithful. God looks for those who act like God, remaining faithful to the promises and covenants for generations and generations. God looks for trust and for those who remember the record of God’s faithfulness as the evidence of God’s answers. God looks for those who say “God came through last time so there is no doubt, no doubt at all, that God who has promised this thing shall deliver on it”. That is what God sees in Mary. I am sure that such faith was not unique to Mary, indeed Elizabeth has such faith too, as did Anna and Simeon of whom you heard last week, but that faith was seen in Mary nonetheless. Mary believes in God, which is to say that she has unshakeable trust in God’s promises.
Which is why she is so excited.
Because, after all, what has God promised in this instance? The God who always, 100% delivers on God’s promises, has promised to come to Earth in human shape and live amongst the people.
When Mary arrives at the house of Elizabeth, as reported in our gospel reading for today, God testifies to the faithfulness of the promise. Mary hasn’t even told Elizabeth what God has said to her yet Elizabeth is already celebrating the delivery of the promise. Did you get that? Mary hasn’t yet told Elizabeth what God has promised but Elizabeth is already celebrating the fruition of the promise. Tell out my soul! The Shekinah of God comes upon Elizabeth, (our English translations say “the Holy Spirit” came upon her), which is the presence of God ordinarily found only behind the veil. The same tangible presence of God which knocked the voice out of Zechariah in the Holy of Holies bounced the child in Elizabeth’s womb at home with the news that God is coming near. The Shekinah itself is not the entire story, God is actually coming in human flesh as well as ageless spirit. What joy Elizabeth expresses, what joy the foetal Baptist expresses, the Joy of God’s Presence breaks out once more because the fulfilment of the promise is…well how far away is it? Yes, less than three trimesters!
In Micah’s story the baby is not the promised one, that baby is more like a clock. Before the child is born, or as soon as it is, God’s vindication will come “thus saith the LORD”. But the LORD saith not that vindication shall come through the baby, only that the gestation of the baby is the measure of the prophetic time frame. But move the story on half a millennium and the new baby is something different, God’s vindication of the faith-filled and trusting women and men, God’s cure for sin, God’s liberation of the enslaved, comes in the baby because the baby is the actual presence of God.
Glory be to God; and Joy to the World because it truly is The LORD who is come!
And so back to us. When our friends and neighbours sing these words “Joy to the World, the Lord is come” do they actually understand what that means? Do they really express, or at least experience, the joy of God’s presence? Are they as excited about God’s being close as the Christians of Prague were at the visit of Brother Andrew? “You are here and that is evidence that we are not alone.” Let me say that again, “you are here and that is evidence that we are not alone”; isn’t that the ageless worship of the Christian Church? Are our neighbours as excited to hear of the presence of God as they are to hear of your presence at an upcoming community event? The president of my local football club said to me earlier this year “we are so blessed to have you amongst us, please don’t leave.” Isn’t that also the way Jesus would want us to speak to him? “We are so blessed to have you amongst us, please don’t leave.” Presence is important to people, and even though in the case of the football club my presence is desired because of my skills in umpiring rather than the delights of my witty banter or my suave dance moves they like having me around. Sadly for them I am leaving Kangaroo Island next month, happily you and for them Jesus never leaves.
I like having God around. Perhaps I should phrase that as “I like being around God”, but I want to make the point that I like that Christianity has a God who came close, so close as to be incarnated from a teenage womb. Unlike other prophets of other religions we believe that Jesus was God before he was born, so he’s not like Buddha or Mohammed or even Samuel or John the Baptist who were born an ordinary man and then gained wisdom through religious experience. That, I believe, is why Christmas is such a season of joy: because God Godself came close. God did not merely send a spirit of wisdom to inspire the congregation, or an angel to do dictation for a chosen sage, God came in person as evidence that we are not alone and every day we remember that we are blessed to have amongst us one who has promised never to leave.
The promise of the real presence of God is true Joy to the World!!
 Brother Andrew. God’s Smuggler. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002), 288.