Advent 4 2015 – Mary

Sermon given by Clare Heard on Sunday 20th December 2015

I’m not sure how many of you are Strictly fans. Ella and I love it (much to James’ dismay as he rapidly leaves the sitting room each Saturday night!).  We always enjoy seeing the fantastic choreography and love how at least some of the celebrities slowly transform into wonderful dancers throughout the competition.

Now if any of you happened to watch last night’s final (and don’t worry – I’m not giving anything important away), you would have seen Georgia do the first section of her show dance blindfolded. This meant she had to put the most enormous amount of trust in her partner, particularly for the lifts. At one point she was lowered down her partner’s back head first with her hands outreached, not knowing when she would feel the floor, but then when her hands touched the solid ground, she took her own weight, let go of her partner and flipped onto her feet – still blindfolded.

The impact of this was very powerful and very moving, but almost the most wonderful part was when her blindfold was removed, and her eyes opened to the scene around her. There was a real sense of joy and freedom that then came through. The whole dance was beautiful – and it made me think of our relationship with God.

The first part of the dance, blindfolded, is how we must be in our world. We see through a glass darkly. But throughout advent we look forward to the day when Christ will return, when we will see face to face, when our blindfolds will be removed and our eyes opened. When we will be free, full of joy, when our view of life will be transformed, turned upside down.

In today’s gospel, Mary and Elizabeth have had their view and experience of life turned upside down. We know that Elizabeth was too old to have a baby, and that Mary was too young, a virgin. And yet in today’s passage they meet as mothers to be….everything has changed.

This is what Jesus does – he turns things upside down. If we look at the gospel passage there are all sorts of social reversals going on. The older woman honours the younger, the married woman blesses and welcomes one who should be shamed and cast out…..

Elizabeth gives the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus shows to sinners. Seeing beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work, even among those whom society rejects and excludes.

Elizabeth begins a series of blessings that weave through Luke’s birth narrative and intensify its tone of joy, delight, and praise. “

Mary is blessed for putting her trust in God, she has been blessed with divine joy, and her response to this grace, mirrors what has happened to her, as she pours out a song of blessings and joy – the magnificat.

And here again there come the reversals – scattering of the proud and exalting the humble, filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty – Mary has experienced the upside down grace of God and now has a new view of the world and all God can do in it. She has experienced being turned upside down with hands outstretched – and she has found solid ground in the love and welcome of Elizabeth, and in the knowledge of what God is doing through her.

This passage, together with the magnificat that follows, is an expression of joy and grace. Luke captures the 2 women in a moment of great happiness.

But if we think back to how each of them must have been feeling not that long before this meeting takes place, it’s a different story…..Elizabeth shamed for being infertile, not being able to carry a child, and Mary shamed for being an unmarried pregnant girl. Both must have had moments of acute misery. Both must have felt incredibly blind and lost.

This for me is a wonderful reminder of what God is able to do – this is a God of grace who can bring joy out of pain, hope out of despair.

And why…..because he loves us….loves us so much that he sent his son as a helpless baby, to be born in dirt and poverty, to be forced to flea his homeland as a baby for fear of persecution….to endure all the pain and shame that humanity could throw at him, and ultimately to die. This is the God who wants to take off our blindfolds, and wants to set us free.

We are loved by God, because we are part of his plan, we are not a mistake. Each of us is truly valuable and worthwhile. Now this is true of all humanity, regardless of colour, creed, social status or nationality. It is true of immigrants and asylum seekers, it is true of politicians and bankers, it is even true of those who hurt us. God loves us all but we do not deserve it.

So it is a good thing that God is a God of grace, who forgives and blesses those who fall short. We are promised mercy – kindness that we do not deserve, forgiveness that we have not earned. And as we are welcomed and blessed by God, we are asked to share in this upside down kind of living.

How often do we extend mercy to others – to those who do not deserve it? Mercy seems to be out of fashion in today’s world where fairness and justice are held up as politicians make promises over whichever issue happens to hit the news each week.  But mercy? I haven’t heard that mentioned for a very long time.

So as we move from Advent to Christmas, as we remember Jesus coming as a baby, and we look forward to his return, I ask us to embrace the upside down nature of God’s love.

I realize this is a difficult thing to do and can be very frightening. We are asked to let go of our security blankets – our social etiquette, our built up boundaries of independence and self sufficiency. We are asked to reach out to those who make us feel really uncomfortable, guilty and possibly afraid, and we are asked to give love and mercy.

This is only going to be possible if we base our actions on the knowledge of God’s love for us. We will only have the courage and strength to do this if we can start to understand how loved we are, how valuable we are.

We are asked to stretch out our hands and reach for the rock beneath, which is the love of God. We need to enter into this upside down world, take off our blindfolds and open our eyes….

Open our eyes to what God is doing through unexpected people in our society who are often excluded or treated as shameful? To changes that might seem to threaten all our comforts and security…and we need to join in.

What are you passionate about? What can you do to bring God’s love to our community and world? Whatever the answers to these questions, they should spring out of the love we receive from God. Because it is as we receive we are better able to give, as we are loved, are better able to love, able to face our fears, are able to take off our blindfolds and dance.

There are so many things we could be afraid of….. change, loss, looking stupid, being attacked, loss of freedom. We need to be brave enough not to respond to our fears with defensiveness or with attack. We need to be brave enough to dance.

Wonderful dancing is a beautiful expression of freedom, but it is also an expression of love and trust. When we dance with others, we must compliment the other, dance in harmony, depend on each other. And this is why dance has been used to describe the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. The relationship that we are invited to enter into, to join the Lord of the dance.

When faced with religious rejection, prejudice, fanaticism, narrowness, and bigotry it would be so easy to turn into preachers who condemn all they see that is not aligned to the loving purposes of God.

“But this week, on this last Sunday in Advent, what difference would it make if our starting point were mercy? If we were to dance? If we were to sing Mary’s song of blessing and joy?

Sing instead of talking of indifference and intolerance. Dance instead of sitting in solitude. Sing instead of speaking words of hate and fear. Dance instead of marching on a rigid path. Sing instead of closed mouths, unwilling to speak up for or speak out against. Dance instead of inertia.

Mary’s song would make our world a different place, dancing would make the world a better place, a place where we might even catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.”

As I watch strictly each year, in the midst of the glitz and sparkles, in the midst of some fairly terrible interviews and commentary, I catch glimpses of beauty, glimpses of joy and glimpses of love. I journey with the celebrities through success and failure, through pain and triumph. I see relationships develop, people nurtured and cherished, and I see dance. Not always perfect, but always wonderful because of the work and effort that has gone in, because the celebrities are discovering how music and movement can grow our souls. I catch glimpses of the kingdom of God.

And so on this last Sunday in advent, as we think about Mary, about her willingness to have her world turned upside down, her willingness to face her fears, and the blessings that poured out from her and have continued to pour out through the life and death of her son, we are asked to join in her song of mercy, of blessing and of joy. We are asked to join in the dance.

May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust that God is coming to save and free us as we enter this Christmas season. May we, like them, give thanks that God has taken away our shame and then respond to God’s love by welcoming the shameful. May we, like them, become a community that supports each other as we hope and wait for Christ to come again.

And maybe, just maybe, mercy and love will abound afresh in our world this Christmas and more people will sing and more people will dance. Amen

Holland Park Benefice