Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 16 December 2012
Readings: Isaiah 35; Luke 1.57-80
Last Sunday evening, when Fr. Julian was speaking of the Advent injunction to “watch” (Vigilate), he suggested that the Church’s reading of the prophet Isaiah in this season might be due, at least in part, to its being made up largely of poetry. Poetry is capable of depths of meaning. It encourages us, by re-reading and memorisation, to explore them. We had one such poetic passage from Isaiah this evening and another from Luke.
In his opening chapters, Luke interweaves the stories of the annunciations and births of John the Baptist and Jesus. These stories are themselves punctuated with poems – often called canticles or songs. They have much in common with the psalms and, like them, have found a place in Christian worship. In fact it would be difficult to imagine the daily worship of our Church without the Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – the Songs of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon; the Eucharist in the western Church without the Gloria in Excelsis (the angels’ Christmas hymn) or its prayer life without the Angelic Salutation, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”
Luke does this not just as part of the infancy stories, but as a sort of prologue, a highlighting of themes, to the whole Gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
When we first hear of Zechariah in tonight’s passage, he cannot so much as utter a word; let alone sing. This was a consequence of his response to the announcement of the birth of the son who has just been born to his wife Elizabeth and is now to be circumcised and named.
Zechariah, a priest, had been on duty in the Temple and it fell to him to offer the evening sacrifice of incense on behalf of the people. When he entered the sanctuary to do this, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his wife would bear a son and that he should be called John and that he would be great.
In the parallel story, the same angel appears to Mary, not in the Temple, to a member of the religious hierarchy, but to an ordinary girl in her home town. She is told that she will bear a son, that he is to be called Jesus, and that he will be great.
Both priest and young woman are told not to be afraid, but are understandably shocked by what is said to them. So far: so similar. But then, in the responses of the two, the paths diverge. After hearing of an unexpected and improbable birth, each asks a question in similar words, but there is a subtle but significant difference.
In case we have missed this, the text makes us think again when the angel punishes the priest but gives Mary a breath-taking answer.
So we listen again to the questions:
Zechariah: “How will I know that this is so…since I am old?”
Mary: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
“How will I know?” The priest wants proof.
“How can this be?” The girl seeks explanation.
Zechariah will be given no further evidence than the spectacular presence of the angel and his subsequent muteness for wishing a sign.
Mary receives the information she wonders about.
Is this God simply favouring one and not the other in some mysterious and inexplicable way; because God is like that?
The angel’s answer to Mary suggests something else. He not only answers her “How” question, but he does so graciously. It will happen, he says, through the presence of God’s own Spirit.
Gabriel has heard Mary accept the impossibility of such a birth in human terms, her perplexity over how it might come to pass; but also her willingness to be part of it.
Mary’s question is not about further assurance – like Zechariah’s “How will I know?” It is a state of wonder and acceptance. It asks about process not proof.
Though he has been a priest for many years, Zechariah seeks a sign that will vindicate his trust in God’s word. Perhaps he does not want to be seen as an old fool in accepting and making known such preposterous news – even though it is what he and his wife have been praying for. There’s no fool like an old fool.
The angel answers the priest’s question by putting into words the vision that had terrified him: “I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God.” What more do you need than my presence? Why should this announcement create doubt and fear for you a priest, since the God of your scriptures has often been in the business of opening barren wombs?
Zechariah has to learn his lesson the hard way, but learn it he does. So, when the neighbours come to circumcise the boy and ask what he is to be called, and refuse to accept Elizabeth’s word, because it does not fit with their expectations, he calls for a writing tablet and writes, “His name is John.”
Then he is filled with the Holy Spirit. He not only speaks but “the tongue of the speechless sing[s} for joy,” just as Mary had sung at her visit to Elizabeth. The themes of Zechariah’s and Mary’s songs overlap.
God’s favour is shown to Israel as “the house of his servant David.” It is a servant people who will be favoured, recalling God’s promise to father Abraham that they “might serve God without fear.” God’s favour, his grace, is extended to those who serve his purposes. God’s mercy is light for those in darkness, and a guide for walking “in the way of peace.” That peace is not merely an absence of conflict but an active “pursuit of things that make for peace.”
Those experiencing God’s mercy serve God’s purposes of peace, in holiness and right-living “before him all our days”. This language parallels God’s words to Abraham, “Walk before me” and “be blameless,” “and I will make a covenant with you.” Zechariah speaks of God remembering this “holy covenant” established with Abraham, a covenant of mutual responsibility between the two parties. For listeners versed in the Jewish scriptures, the poems of Mary and Zechariah would have sounded the familiar note of God’s desire for human participation in carrying out his purposes.
Mary too sings of God’s covenant with Abraham. Fundamental to all the promises to Abraham is that he would be a blessing “to all peoples.” The importance of Israel and its ancestors, for Luke, is focussed on this dominant theme, that Israel be a “blessing to all peoples.”
In the questions of Mary and Zechariah, Luke sets before us two different responses to the word of God: both are fearful but while one is sceptical, the other is open to new possibility in the power of God. But, in their songs, we hear them both celebrating that newness.
Mary is favoured because, as a servant: she listens and responds positively. At the Annunciation, she ponders the message of the angel. Later, when like Zechariah, she sometimes does not get the point immediately, we are told that “she pondered these things in her heart.” Her pondering is an attentiveness that allows words to interrupt the flow of normal thought and life and effect change. The Church, for Luke, is called to this attentive service. God favours those who are lowly, able to listen to words from God and serve his purposes.
This sets the scene not for the infancy stories alone, but for the whole Gospel and for the story of the infant Church in the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke’s Jesus is the “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God”. His teaching of God’s words about “the things that make for peace” is authoritative, the last and defining clarification of Scripture.
Listening to Jesus is half the story of salvation; the other half, in Acts, involves Jesus pouring out of God’s Spirit who enables listeners to obey. So we will find Mary again, at the beginning of Acts, with the apostles and others, waiting in prayer for the coming of the promised Spirit of Jesus. The promise made to her at the Annunciation: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most high will overshadow you,” is now extended to the whole Church.
As I get older and longer in the ministry, I grow in sympathy for Zechariah: like many religious professionals, perhaps a bit too sceptical, heard it all before, heard too much bad news, seen too many hopes disappointed, wary of the new and unsettling, even if it promises to be something good! The hope for people like me, and perhaps some of you, is that, when like Zechariah we finally do get the message and respond in the right way, we are allowed to join the song.
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses