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23rd December Advent 4 – Jack Noonan

 
 

Audio:

Sermon (Click Link to Listen)

Bible Readings:  Micah 5. 2-5a; Luke 1. 39-55

 

Text:

When Ricky invited me to prepare today’s sermon I was thrilled when he told me that the central Scriptural Reading was the Magnificat.

This is a canticle I fell in love with at the age of 19 when I first attended the parish church of St Paul’s, South Harrow a little outside London. Soon I was singing it in the choir there. The words and chant have remained with me ever since.

The prospect of addressing it in a sermon was a delight.

But I had no idea of what lay ahead for me. Soon I found some of my uncritical assumptions about doctrines and some of my theological heroes being challenged and shaken.

I was brought up within the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. The Latin and Orthodox churches have evolved over the centuries a substantial body of doctrinal teaching in relation to Mary, the Virgin mother of God. These doctrines find some adherents also within some High church sections of the Episcopal and Anglican reformed catholic tradition but garner no significant support within the denominations of the Reformed tradition.

The doctrines in question are The Bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven; the Immaculate Conception, that she was without sin and finally Mary was forever a virgin, never having had sexual relationships with her husband Joseph and never having children subsequent to Jesus.

Pivotal to resolving these questions it was crucial that I appreciate from where these doctrines derive authority.

All hinged on the on how Christian churches view the role and authority of tradition within the church.

Within Roman Catholic and Orthodox denominations tradition has a teaching authority, in and of itself, independent of scriptures. Tradition is seen as part of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit and these teachings and revelations need have no basis in the scripture.

Within the reformed Catholic and Protestant expressions of Christianity, the principle is that, tradition, while of distinct value, is ultimately and in the last analysis, subject to Scripture.

Scripture, opened by the Holy Spirit of God, is the final authority and best bulwark against misleading and extra scriptural doctrine.

This is where I find myself standing… and as the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, The Assumption and the perpetual virginity of Mary have no warranty from the New Testament scriptures they are discounted from my building up an understanding of the beauty, strength, faith, courage, obedience and person of Mary the Virgin mother of our Lord Jesus.

In establishing the context of this passage known as the Visitation it is good to be aware that it is preceded by the Annunciation.

When the Archangel Gabriel announces to a young virginal girl of between 12-14 years of age

called Miriam/Mary the most ordinary of Jewish names…………………………………………….

Engaged to a decent fair minded carpenter called Joseph.

In Nazareth a town so small that right in to the 20 century some Biblical scholars doubted that it ever existed. A town so low in social status that it could be derided with the dismissive comment; ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’.

On searching scriptures in relation to Mary I found a girl, and later a woman, of surpassing character; humble and obedient to God and yet….. a woman of incredible strength, character and faith.

God called on Mary to risk her reputation among her family, neighbours, the honourable man she was engaged to; risk shame, isolation and the penalties of the Mosaic laws by becoming pregnant outside marriage ………

God asked a great deal of her and she in faith answered ‘Yes’…. ‘,be it done unto me according to your word’. Demonstrating a complete love and trust in God and his goodness.

Mary was “graced/blessed” by God above all other women. In that moment of acceptance, she became the channel through which God the Son became human. In saying ‘Yes’ to God her life was changed forever……………………..

It is significant that, after the Archangel Gabriel left, Mary ‘got ready and hurried’ to visit her relative, Elizabeth, an elderly cousin already miraculously 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist. The baby they had prayed for all their married life……..and believing to be now to old had ceased believing that their prayer could be answered.

Mary made her decision to visit Elizabeth on the basis of Gabriel’s revelation.

Is it that she instinctively knew that Elizabeth would give her the emotional support and spiritual counsel an innocent country girl of 13/14would urgently need?

It is good to note that when the emotional high of saying ‘Yes’ to God passes, and we are in the hard place of obedience to God.

We need spiritual friends to help us through the path of faith we have been led to set out on.

The meeting between Elizabeth and Mary is a meeting of Old and New.

Significantly the Old and New covenants embrace each other in joyful recognition .

The aged Elizabeth pregnant with the last OT prophet who ‘prepares the way of the Lord’ embraces the pregnant unmarried teenage Mary carrying the seed of incarnation…quietly inaugurating the new kingdom which her Son would proclaim 30 years later. This is happening because, in the words of Elizabeth, Mary has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.’

The dominant unseen personality at this meeting is the Holy Spirit.

The 6 month old John, who ‘was filled with the Spirit even from his mother’s womb leaped in the womb.

His mother Elizabeth speaks in the Spirit and Mary’s Magnificat is a song of the Spirit.

 

Mary in her song describes the experience of being in and doing God’s will. The Magnificat is a spiritually radical declaration.

All believers if we carefully listen…have our own Magnificats……..some not yet articulated .

 

Our souls (minds and hearts) bubble up, like Paul’s, and glorify God despite concerns related to our external circumstances.

Our regenerated spirit, born of the Holy Spirit rejoice in Jesus our Saviour.

We express amazement that God ever took time to even notice us.

We recognise that God, the Holy Spirit, has touched something in us.

That the Lords mercy/love is there for those who rightly acknowledge His Love.

 

The Mary then lists some of policies operate in the Kingdom of God.

They are totally contrary to the values and criteria of the ‘natural’ world. To the natural social order, the structure God’s kingdom is topsy turvy, seriously revolutionary and politically radical.

In the economy of God ; nobodies from nowhere with the commonest of names like Miriam/ Mary are chosen and honoured to be the mother of God’s Eternal Son , who would amplify and proclaim the radical economics of God’s kingdom on earth….. with

– love of enemies ,

-do good to those who hate you

-exalt/promote the lowly/humble

-overthrow the arrogant and powerful vested interests

-scatter, confuse and shatter the secret plans of duplicitous schemers

-Fill the hungry with good things

– turn the rich away empty handed

– prioritise the poor ,the orphans and widows

– party with the disenfranchised and ‘not our type’ of people

-everyone is someone no one is a nobody

-challenge religion and the religious

-write God’s desires in the heart

– Make all believers are priest

-All believers become children of God………with their Father’s pedigree.

Transactions are odd in this topsy turvy kingdom. In order

– to receive we must give

– to find we must lose

-to live we must die.

 

In the final line of the canticle Mary refers to God’s unconditional promise to Abraham’s descendants.

He had helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as He said to our forefathers.’………..

 

By way of conclusion and application.

Hold to the image of the seed.

The image of the supernatural seed of the Spirit of God is the invisible underlying reality in our spiritual experience.

It is important to be aware that the Way of Christ is not a ‘natural’ but a supernatural Way.

When theologians attempt to naturalise it, rationalising the supernatural realities out of existence; they quench the life-seed of the Holy Spirit.

The net result of an emasculated powerless Gospel is a church without power. A church having no abundant life to offer. Its candle is quenched, itno longer has anything of spiritual consequence to offer beyond words stripped of the power to transform. As Milton said in Lycidas ‘the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.’ The deep needs of the spirit and soul are no are not met. Soon the doors close.

Sarah, Elizabeth and Mary accepted in faith the gift of the divine seed and birthed greatness.

This we are also challenged to do.

What new thing does God want to birth in your life?

Your dissatisfactions will give you some clues.

What do you need to let go of?

What do you need to embrace?

Holding on to the old well established thoughts and emotions that you are ready to outgrow will caused a creative discomfort and discontent. Ignoring these lead to stagnation and rot.

Look to Mary and follow her example. God had a plan for her. She accepted it. She said ‘Yes’. Submitting and obeying; ‘be it done to me according to Your word’. She let God work in her and with God nothing is impossible.