Sermon for First Sunday of Christmas HIGH MASS Sunday 28 December 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Isaiah 61.10-62.3; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
“But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
In this description of Mary’s response to what the shepherds say, and – by extension – all that he tells us of the birth and childhood of Jesus, he shows her as the first Christian disciple and the model for all disciples.
So, after her example, (and following the example of others is one of the most important ways in which we learn), let’s spend some time pondering these words which we have just heard from Scripture.
The Gospel depicts Mary ruminating intensely – ruminating or chewing the cud is a good word for something happening in a stable – over the word of God. Twelve years later she will be described thinking again, after Jesus was lost and found in the Temple: “his mother kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2.51) In scripture, the heart is not just an organ for pumping blood and oxygen round the body, it’s the centre of our being and will. Both scenes have to do with the identity of this child. His full significance is not immediately apparent, and so Mary keeps on mulling things over.
To “keep” in the sense Luke uses the word, means in Greek, to preserve, to remember, to treasure these events.
To “ponder” means to puzzle out their meaning, to toss things together until they make sense. Luke uses it in the present tense. It is a process under way, not a completed action with clear results. Experiencing things she does not fully understand, Mary turns them over in her mind, weighs them. She lets events sink into her memory. She seeks to work out their meaning. To describe Mary as pondering these events is appropriate. Even if the message of the shepherds seemed clear, there is reason for Mary to be puzzled about the great contrast between Jesus’ future role and the circumstances of his birth.
So here we have none of that simplistic, mindless piety often associated with the Mother of Jesus. This is a woman of intelligent faith, seeking to understand hard things concerning the lives of those she loves, hoping to discern how the divine Spirit is moving in their midst.
Later generations will follow is seeing Mary as an exemplary disciple, a woman at prayer, actively contemplating the word of God.
“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
Mary is for us a model of prayer, and prayer, not as an escape from the real world, but as an active and thoughtful engagement with life, its challenges, demands and events, its joys and its sorrows; an attempt to understand what God is doing in our lives.
If she is the pattern for our engagement with these things – the revelation of Jesus Christ in word and sacrament – it is in what we do here in church that this pondering is focused. It is not confined to church. In our worship we hear God’s word to us. No more than Mary can we comprehend its full significance immediately. We need to keep and treasure and ponder there words in the depth of our being.
You have a right to expect that those who preach the gospel in church will spend hours, days, weeks, years, a lifetime doing just that. But this is not something we can leave to others to complete for us. It is something which needs to penetrate deep into the heart of each person and into the heart of our community. We who preach have a duty to persuade you of the centrality of listening to the word of God and keeping it, treasuring it, pondering on it, as we seek to learn God’s will for us.
In today’s gospel the shepherds follow the angel’s instructions and head for Bethlehem to find the child; not just to verify the message they have received, but to “(make) known what had been told them about this child.” They become earthly messengers of the heavenly ones, helping others to understand the meaning of this birth. As they return to their sheep, their praise of God also continues that of the angels.
The other readings today speak of prayer as an active engagement, so we should keep and ponder them too.
The third section of the Book of Isaiah addresses the exiles who had been allowed to return from Babylon to Jerusalem. Once the initial excitement has worn off, they are downcast because of problems in rebuilding the city and its temple in the face of indifference or hostility from the local population.
God speaks through the prophet: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.”
Then the voice changes and the prophet speaks for himself. Prophets usually speak to the people on behalf of God. But here the prophet speaks to God on behalf of the people. He intercedes on their behalf. This is normally a priestly task, but the idea of prophets doing it goes back to Moses. Isaiah will not keep silent. He will pester and intercede with God until Jerusalem has experienced a salvation that can be seen as a brightness or a burning torch.
This promise of unceasing intercession is a word of assurance to the people. Intercession expresses the bonds that bind humanity together. It is a being with God on behalf of others; being in God’s presence with people on our hearts. It is not that God does not know what we need, but that he chooses to work through his children. And interceding on behalf of others also affects us who pray; it gives a new perspective on both those for whom we pray and on ourselves.
In the epistle today, we have one of the rare occasions when Paul writes about the earthly life and ministry of Jesus: “….when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…. that we might receive adoption…”
The birth of Jesus is both a unique event and also one which affects all born of woman, whether Jew or Gentile. Paul speaks of the new identity and status of the adopted children of God. This is much more than a legal formality. When a child is adopted they become part of a family and its life; secure in the knowledge that they are loved and cared for, they can grow and find their purpose and way in life.
As God’s adopted children, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we are both:
- Assured of his undying love for us,
- We are called to an active and positive participation in his life.
Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts crying, “Abba, Father!”
Abba is one of those words in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, preserved untranslated in the Greek New Testament. This signals its importance. It represents Christ’s willingness to live to the full what it means to be the Son of God; to allow the Father’s will to be done in him.
So, in that Aramaic word, we hear both
- Jesus’s own language of prayer
- The prayers of the early Christians as they prayed for the Spirit of Christ to make real in them that perfect obedience they saw in the life and death of Jesus.
The Spirit works as the catalyst, to bring about in us the childlike obedience that typified the work of Christ himself. That interior quality of Christ’s prayer life, which so impressed the disciples that they asked Jesus to teach them to pray, is seen as possible and real for all his brothers and sisters. It was not a future legacy which they must wait for heaven to inherit, but a present reality in which they must seek to live, to which they must respond, by allowing Jesus to pray in them through his Spirit.
The gospel today ends with the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus on the eighth day. Unless you surprise me, a rather smaller congregation will gather here to celebrate this event in the life of Jesus – on New Year’s Day – so I had better say something about it now:
- Circumcision, for Jews, is initiation into the covenant between God and Israel.
- Baptism, for Christians, is our initiation into the New Covenant.
Like adoption, baptism not a just a change of legal status, but the beginning of a new life and relationship. We are called to share in the ministry of Christ: to be those called both to hear the word of God and to speak it; those who are called bot to witness to the world and to intercede for it because we share his loving concern for it.
This too is focused in but not confined to what we do in church. So every day – at Mass and at Morning and Evening Prayer – we have prayers of intercession – we pray for the Church, for the world, for those in authority, for our city and communities and workplaces, our homes and families, our colleagues and neighbours, for the sick and the suffering, the needy and homeless, refugees and prisoners, for the dead and those who mourn; for a hundred and one other things.
Some of the people we pray for are known personally to us – others will not be. Even if you cannot be with us, you can find their names on weekly parish email. And you can find the particular intentions for which we offer mass each day in the Parish Paper.
So we are to ponder, to seek to understand the mystery of God and Christ, and we are to pray because as prayer is at the heart of Christ’s relationship with the Father, so it must be at the heart of ours. These two are bound up in each other; each inspiring, stimulating and strengthening the other.
In Friday’s Parish Email letter, which some of you may have read, I suggested that if we were to make one New Year resolution it should be to give more attention to prayer: prayer which like that of Mary contemplates the mysteries of God’s dealings with us in Christ in the power of the Spirit; a prayer which opens our hearts in active love to the world as Mary’s heart was open to Christ, and Christ’s heart is open to the world.