Everyone is warmly invited to join us at 6:30pm on Christmas Eve for a family friendly, music filled service of celebration, and to our short service for Christmas Morning, at 8am.
Did she have any idea just what she was letting herself in for?
Mary is one of the most fascinating figures in the nativity story, at least in part because we know so little about her. As with so many women in the Bible who must have had a profound influence on events, her part is mentioned almost in passing. Matthew barely even mentions her, Mark and John don’t bother with a nativity story at all, and even Luke, the most radical of the gospel writers in his inclusion of women just gives us this: the Magnificat, and a conversation exchange with Gabriel.
Yet even those two little snippets give us insight into a remarkable woman.
But I wonder again, did she know what she was letting herself in for? Surely not. The angel greeted her as one who has found favour with God – surely Mary did not realise that that favour would mean a long journey while pregnant, a baby born far from home, a flight to Egypt. Nor, surely, that it would mean her first born child would leave home and village to become a wandering preacher, or that he would be taken from her and killed.
No, all of that was an unknown and unrevealed future.
But what Mary did know was quite enough for anyone. For even the little that the angel told her was enough to turn her world upside down. As a young woman, promised in marriage but not yet wed, she would become pregnant. It’s hard for us in this modern world to grasp the extent of the stigma that this pregnancy would bear with it: in a society governed by the currency of honour and shame, it would be a very visible disgrace, not just to Mary, but to the whole of her family. Visible enough that Mary went, Luke’s gospel continues, with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, to the home of her (much older) cousin Elizabeth. Not for the first time in history, nor the last, a young girl would be sent to visit a relative in the countryside for a few months “for medical reasons”.
That much, at least, Mary could surely foresee. Joseph’s reaction, no doubt, she could also guess at. Not only did he have the fact that his promised bride was pregnant – and to all appearances, therefore, by another man – but he would have to face the assumption from the gossips and finger wagers of the village that it was his child. He too had been brought to shame, and his reaction was all too predictable. Not knowing that Gabriel would step in to speak on her behalf, Mary must have assumed that she had not just her lost honour, and that of her family, but that she had also lost her future husband – and any real hope of marriage, of having a family and a future.
Mary might not have known all that lay in the future, foretold by the words of the angel, but just the things that she could see were bad enough. Though she had done nothing wrong, and the angel told her she had found favour with God, her life had been turned upside down, her future snatched away and replaced with a predictable future of shame, poverty, and isolation.
And yet she replies “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be.”
What inspired such a response? Was she the obedient woman, accepting what a man (or in this case, angel) in authority told her to do? Was she the woman of great faith, confident that God would work things out for the best? Was she sacrificial one, accepting hardship and dishonour for the good of the cause? Or did she simply decide there was no point arguing with God, and resign herself to the future? The truth is, we have absolutely no idea what motivated Mary, no idea what she imagined the future would hold for her, no idea why she responded by placing herself at God’s disposal.
We just know that she did.
I find that reassuring.
For of course, this is the situation we are in most of the time in most relationships. We have little or no idea whether another believer is acting out of faith, or naivety, out of desire to help or ambition to be recognised, out of optimism or desperation. In fact, if you are anything like me, you would have to admit that much of the time you don’t even know what motivates yourself in acts of service. Much as we’d love to believe that we serve God and others out of love and gratitude and commitment to the cause of the Kingdom, don’t we also know that other motives creep in: the desire to be seen to be doing good, to be thought of as committed and faithful to the cause, to be recognised as an upstanding and outstanding contributor to the community?
Don’t we all have times when we keep on doing what we do even though we aren’t sure of the point? Times when we keep coming to worship even though our faith is wavering? Times when we continue to pray our prayers though we wonder if anyone is listening?
Aren’t there times when we fear our service is being swallowed in a black hole of need, that the future is bleak, that we are a fading light in a dark world, and we only keep going out of habit or stubbornness?
And times when we worry about whether our motivation is so mixed that perhaps our work loses value in the sight of God?
Maybe you don’t have those issues. Maybe it’s just me.
But if you do, then perhaps you too might look again at the story of Mary. Did she have her doubts, her mixed motives, her dark times? My guess, since she was human, is yes – but the point is, we don’t know, and, that as far as the Biblical narrative is concerned, it simply doesn’t matter.
Mary is not a hero of our story because she had unwavering faith, she’s not a hero because she had purity of motive, she’s not a hero because she never lost sight of God’s promise.
Mary is a hero of our story because with all her doubts, with all the future unknowns, and with all the very real costs, when she heard the call of God on her life she just said “OK, God, lets do this thing.”
I can’t manage unmixed motives, I can’t summon up a faith to move mountains.
But I can step up when I think I see what God wants done, and, with all my doubt or confusion or fear or uncertainty, say “count me in”.
So can you.
It’s all Mary really did. And look how it turned out.
Sunday 18th December, at 7pm, join us for a service of lessons and carols, hearing the Christmas story in word and music.
Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
It was one of those driving holidays that Sureka and I took before we had kids. We’d driven out to the Western Plains Zoo, and were heading back the scenic route, via Wellington, Orange and Bathurst, when we encountered some wildlife we hadn’t expected.
Now locusts are one of those things that you really don’t grow up knowing much about, in Oxford. It’s rare for them to swarm across the British countryside. So I’d never seen locusts before. I had no idea what the dark cloud we were driving towards was – we were in the swarm before we realised that this was not smoke from some hazard reduction burn, but millions, probably hundreds of millions, of grasshoppers, hundreds of which ended up covering the front of our car, cooking on the radiator grill (which was never quite the same again). The sheer massive of life was something I’ve never forgotten – and the effect on the fields on either side of the road had to be seen to be believed.
Of course, we didn’t depend upon those fields for our food, our livelihood. I could drive away, worrying about the paintwork on the car (remarkably undamaged, in fact). I wasn’t watching the food my family needed to live being consumed before my eyes.
But that was the experience of Joel’s people:
What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
And so, in the opening chapters of Joel, he calls the people to repentance.
But there is something unusual in the prophecies of Joel. Not the call to repentance, to prayer, to “return to the Lord with all your heart” – you’d struggle to find an Old Testament prophet for whom that isn’t a theme. No, the strange thing about Joel is that he doesn’t point the figure, he doesn’t describe the wrongs of the people. In Joel there is no accusation, no list of sins, no litany of the many ways in which the people of God had mistreated the poor, or worshipped other Gods, forgotten the law or behaved immorally.
Joel doesn’t seem to be pointing to a people who have become deeply and obviously sinful. But he sees a message in the locust swarm, none the less – for in the theology of Israel, this disaster could not have befallen them if it were not God’s judgement upon them.
Joel’s call is not to repentance of obvious wrong. Instead his call is this: wake up, and return to me with all your heart.
We might well question Joel’s logic; more likely to see in the swarms of locusts an incredible facet of the natural world than the judgement of God, but it would be hard to fault where he goes with it.
For he calls the people of God to wake up, to return to their first love, their prime priority, their defining centre.
To return wholeheartedly to God.
It’s as if Joel – unusually, again, for the prophets – isn’t looking at the sins of the people as a whole; he’s not pointing to structural injustice, to the systems which oppress, to the tendency of power to protect itself at the expense of others. These are all seen and condemned over and again in the Old Testament. No, Joel is calling on the individual to return to God; and not in some sort of visual, symbolic way (which is often important when a community recognises its failings at chooses to return to the ways of God) “do not rend your clothes,” he says “but your hearts.”
Look inside. See those ways in your life which, if you are anything like me, you, and only you know of, but which stand between you and a richer knowledge of, and walk with, God. Rend your hearts, weep, and return to God. Take the experience of the locusts – whether it be God’s judgement or not – as a reminder of your fragility, your need, your deepest calling – and return to God with the whole of your heart.
For God is gracious and merciful.
God is slow to anger.
God abounds in steadfast love.
Last Friday at Playjays I was sitting on the steps to the upper hall when one of the children, a boy just about to turn four, came very hesitantly over to me. I could see his mum watching from the other side of the courtyard.
“Chris,” he said, “I threw one of the cars into the bushes.”
“Oh dear. Was that a good thing to do?”
“No, it was naughty.” A pause. “Sorry”
I’ve probably never felt more like God than in that moment, when I could say to him “well done, coming and saying sorry was a good thing to do. Shall we go and find the car?”, and see his face light up because no-one was cross with him anymore.
Chatting with his mum a bit later, she told me this was something they were working on; that when he was busted doing something wrong his instinct was to go loud and distract attention, but she wanted him to know he could just say sorry, and move on.
And I was thinking “That’s a good thing to teach a four year old boy. For that matter, it’s a good thing to teach a fourty-seven year old boy.”
Return, repent, for you will be restored.
And then… and then, God promises, you will be filled by the Spirit of God, you will know what God wants of you, you will be sent with the knowledge of the things of God, the ways of God, the mission of God.
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit
I’ve seen much debate about the difference between prophesy, dreams and visions in this text, but surely that’s not the point. Joel’s words speak of a radical change in the way that God will deal with God’s people; a time when the Spirit of God, the knowledge of God, the visions of God, will not be the property of a select few, but will be for all. Old and young, slave and free, sons and daughters (yes, even daughters). An unimaginable gift to all people.
Which is why we read these words as we prepare for Christmas, for the arrival of Christ; of whom the apostle would write, echoing the words of Joel,
Now there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. For all are one in Christ Jesus.
Of course, Paul forgot “young or old”, but that’s ok, Jesus didn’t.
I don’t believe God sends the locusts into our lives, whatever your locusts may be; but I do believe this word: return to God with all your heart, and you will be restored, and you will be empowered to live as one of God’s people, knowing God, speaking God’s story.
Christmas is a time of celebration, but it can also be a time of painful memories, especially for those who have lost loved ones. You are invited to share in a more reflective service of worship for Christmas, on December 18th, at 6:30pm.