This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva Shared Ministry at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 23rd December 2018.
Psalm 80:1-7; Luke 1:39-45; Luke 46-55
Week four of Advent as we heard in the lighting of the fourth candle this morning is associated with peace; and what we know from the Bible is that peace is often hard to come by.
In the brief reference to the town of the Saviour’s birth as recorded by Micah, which was our set reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning, Micah is prophesying in the context of war. He says that the one who will come from Beit Lechem, the birthplace of David and a small town whose name means “House of Bread”, is not the saviour from sin and darkness so much as he is the one who will lift the siege on Jerusalem. In Psalm 80:1-7 which was one of our set psalms we get a similar idea: the people are in distress and they cry out to God in the words of Asaph pleading that God will hear them and deliver them from the consequences of previous military defeats. Indeed Psalm 80 might be the plea of asylum seekers, of survivors from the Assyrian conquest of Samaria which was capital of the northern kingdom of Israel who have escaped and are seeking shelter in the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital at Jerusalem. A destroyed people ask the God of Hosts, the lord of Heaven’s army in Psalm 80:4 “How long will your nostrils smoke?” which I just love as language. In Psalm 80:7 it is this same God of hosts who is petitioned for restoration, salvation, and the smile of blessing. When my little sister was actually little she would often say when our mum was angry and scowling “I don’t like that face mummy, where’s your happy face?” I think Asaph is saying the same thing, in Hebrew and with greater reverence for sure, but the idea is there: please be nice to us Great-Father-who-is-a-General, stop steaming and please love us and cuddle us again, because we are hurt and we are sad and we are sorry. Please daddy, our tears are making us sick. Bring us back says Psalm 80:7 in The Good News Bible, show us your mercy and we shall be saved.
Our Christian tradition readings from Luke 1:39-45 and then Luke 1:46-55, (the lectionary separates them), speak of Mary’s visit to her elderly yet pregnant cousin and Mary’s song in response to the work of God in her womb as well as that of Elisabeth. Perhaps God has heard the choking tears of Elisabeth in the way that Asaph pleaded for Israel; certainly God has heard Elisabeth as God heard Hannah. God has also heard Elisabeth as God heard Rachel, desperate for a child for the husband who loves her dearly; and God heard Elisabeth as God heard Leah who even after seven children, six of them sons, still felt unloved by her husband who only had eyes for her barren yet pretty little sister. So many daughters, each desperate beyond tears for her father to look upon her with favour and grace and reverse her shame and embarrassment. So many sons, each desperate beyond aching bones and torn muscles for his father to look upon him with favour and grace and release him from war and siege. The adult children of God need peace; the plea of the people of God is for that shalom that passes all understanding but which also comes with physical release.
When the two passages from Luke 1 are read together there is a contrast between them; the story of Elisabeth is a story whereas the song of Mary is a song. “Well, derr!!” you might say, and fair enough. But when I point out that the gospel so far has all been story and that what we read is narrative prose from Luke 1:1-45 but suddenly we switch to poetry in Luke 1:46 maybe you understand what I am saying. What am I saying? I am saying that the story of the salvific work of God is interrupted by the song of thanks and praise from the salved one, and I think that’s remarkable. Having pleaded with God for so long for deliverance, for saving, for soothing, don’t forget to offer praise and adoration when the saviour-deliverer shows up. Mary’s song sums up in an act of worship all that Luke has already described in narrative, including what God has done for Zechariah and Elisabeth. And Elisabeth joins in not with singing but with response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting into proclamation and prophesy of her own. Think about it, if Mary has heard Gabriel’s message and then shot straight off to Elisabeth’s house she may not have been showing a bump. Elisabeth us pregnant and her younger kinswoman has come to help around the house, Elisabeth is not expecting the virgin teenager to be pregnant and Mary does not look pregnant when she arrives. But as soon as Mary does arrive it’s all “Blessed are you amongst women”, and “my baby leapt with joy”. Cool huh? Well I think it is.
But it gets even cooler, seriously it does. Because not only is Mary’s song a praise summary of Luke’s prose summary of Luke 1:1-45, Mary’s song is a praise summary of Micah 5 and Psalm 80 and so much of Hebrew history besides. In all that we Jews were, be we wandering Arameans, enslaved Hebrews, imperial Israelites, Judahites and Samarians, or colonised Judeans and Galileans, at all points in our history from Adam and Abraham until today have asked from God God has answered it today. Show us your mercy that we might be saved cries Asaph in Psalm 80:3,7, God has looked with favour on the misery of his servant…he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy declares Mary in Luke 1:48,54. I mean, just look at Luke 1:50-55 (Damien: read and extemporise). God has done it all, now, in the coming of the promised one, and everything will change and nothing will ever be as it was. Woot!
The story of Advent is that The Son of Man revealed in Jesus of Nazareth did not come to Earth as conqueror; he neither arrived nor departed as Commander of The Angel Armies, The Lord of Hosts, as God is acclaimed in the psalms. Unlike the Pax Romama or Pax Augustana, the peace brought about by Augustus who established the imperial form of the Roman Empire by wiping out all of his enemies the peace of God never depends upon military defeat. The Christian gospel, beginning with the stories of Advent, is the story of Emmanuel’s ministry of proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Jesus brought and preached and told the story of God by inhabiting the good news that the peace which comes from Heaven, the ministry of The Prince of Peace, the glorious Advent message is the peace which only God can bring. The peace of God is a peace that not even the political assassination of the Messiah or the decimation of Jerusalem itself can overcome.
The story of the fourth Sunday in Advent is that Caesar Augustus and his peace-through-victory fell far short in comparison to God’s promised peace-through-justice, the peace of Christ delivered in a newborn child. As we have heard in recent weeks military victory has never brought peace to the world; it has only ever brought a lull in fighting before the fighting escalates. The end of “The War to End All Wars” which we celebrated as a centenary a few weeks ago was nothing of the sort: the fact that what was known at the time as “The Great War” became known within twenty years as “World War One” is evidence of that. From 2018 looking back to 1918 we know there was a World War Two, and many wars besides between 1918 and today. Some of those wars are ongoing as we sit here today. The message of Augustus Imperator, “the all-conquering one”, is seen in his primary title: Octavian was more than just emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth; he was continually acclaimed as victor and the embodiment of victory. As nephew of Julius Caesar, who it was claimed was a direct descendent of Venus, Octavian carried the title divi filius, and his title Augustus became a proper noun (like “Christ” did), suggesting that Octavian is “the god who is to be worshipped”. It seems that as emperor Octavian could only claim the title of God Incarnate and Son of God because he was the great conqueror first. Our Emmanuel, our Son of Man who is God The Son, did no conquering and never intended to. In a world where even today the superpowers posture and threaten, and it is assumed that Australia need never be afraid of Jimmy Foreign because America is our friend and China is our customer, the message remains. Since the empire of Rome our European cultures have understood that there was no other way to achieve peace than by winning wars, but in Christ who is the Prince of Peace we are offered a radical alternative. We can trust God, and leave our struggles with God, because God loves us and has favoured us because of God’s love for us and our loving response to God.
Emmanuel means God with us, and if we believe that God truly is with us, then whoever can be against us is no one we need to worry about. So peace, which we are reminded of by today’s fourth candle, is not difficult to come by at all, we just need to remember to think differently about who God is, and what the baby in the manger came to say.