There's Something About Mary

Published: Monday, 21 December 2015

maryThis is the fourth sermon in our Advent journey in 2015 and was given by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on 20 December 2015.

Reading: Luke 1:39-55

I remember one night when I was first getting into this preaching caper. It was a Saturday night and I was struggling to pull my sermon together. The Sunday morning deadline was looming all too fast. I looked around my study for that imaginary treasure trove of great sermons stacked behind the sign that read, “In case of emergency break glass.”

During a coffee break, I penned a poem for light relief. A ‘poem’ is too lofty a term, for that doggerel was so forgettable, I don’t think I ever kept a copy but it went something like this:

Writing sermons is like producing babies.
Occasionally they come effortlessly, with cries of jubilation.
Most times they come with pain, screams and agonizing labour.
And as for this one, which is still in embryonic form,
O God, deliver me!

Written by a 20 year old single poet who knew nothing about bearing babies!

The metaphor of gestation and birth is unavoidable each Advent and Christmas. It’s deeply impregnated into the Scriptures of this season. The birth stories can rip open the wounds of those who’ve suffered a miscarriage.

The stories of pregnancy coming to a couple described as ‘barren’ and ‘past it’ [Luke 1:7] and to a virgin couple [Luke1:27] must twang the heart chords of those not ready and those not able.

This morning we find ourselves again, the young and the elderly, the single and the married, the heartbroken and the hoping.

We come to read again these ancient Scriptures and to seek some connection, some hope, some meaning and some life for our own stories.

Today’s passage commences in Luke 1:39 at a cracking pace:

1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,
1:40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

This story reveals a rich SHARING.
We’re familiar with the lead up to this rendezvous. Mary has a visitor at her door in Nazareth by the name of Gabriel. The visitor said she was in favour with God and she was expecting. Luke says she was perplexed, afraid and filled with questions like: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Who do you run to, when you’ve got shocking news?
Who do you share with when you’re filled with questions and pain and fear?

There must have been some uncomfortable talking with her fiancé, Joseph. Mary doesn’t seem to have confided with Zechariah, the priest in the family. Luke says, she went with haste to Elizabeth, another woman, her cousin—someone with whom she had a connection. Another one coping with an unexpected pregnancy—someone with whom she’s now in the same club although Elizabeth is a few months on.

In such a supportive relationship can you imagine the conversation—all the things they covered?

Mary may not have got the answers to her questions about how she would become a parent and how she would face the public as an unwed mother and how Joseph would relate to her now. But from Elizabeth she seems to have received rich support and great courage.

In the 1950s Marilyn Monroe was the top billed actor of the decade and one of the most bankable Hollywood stars. She struggled with addiction, anxiety and depression. Her husband, the playwright, Arthur Miller, reflected on all the attributes she had and also on the sadness of her life. Then he said, “What she needed was a blessing.”

Whoever we are, no matter the rich assets we might possess, we all need a blessing. No matter the challenges that assail us, we all need a blessing. We need people who will bless us. We all need to be able to give others a blessing.

Here in this Judean countryside, Mary receives a blessing. In fact here are three blessings recorded:

Elizabeth says v42,
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Again in v45:
“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

What a gift to receive, a blessing on who we are in all our uniqueness,
To receive a blessing on our work which is coming to birth,
To receive a blessing on the faith and the courage we’ve already displayed.
What a gift!

What a gift to give a blessing to another, especially one who’s plagued with perplexity and doubt.

I love the way Dinah Craik, the novelist, wrote about this gift:

“Oh, the comfort —
the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person —
having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words,
but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together;
certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them,
keep what is worth keeping,
and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”

Have you got that sort of friend?
Do you know that comfort of having some one you can trust, someone with whom you can pour it all out chaff and grain together?

Our deacons decided on Tuesday night to meet toward the end of January to review this year and to look towards some important goals to aim for in 2016.

We’ll probably share these thoughts in February and we’d to hear your dreams and thus weave them into a greater, shared vision.

One of the things we might want to see is stronger connection points. Offering a greater number and variety of small groups, whether they be study groups, coffee groups and ministry groups. Groups in which these friendships can grow and this important sharing can deepen and thrive.

Mary and Elizabeth were not only engaged in Rich Sharing.
What transpired was a Spiritual Stirring.

Listen to how this relationship deepens to incorporate the spiritual dimension, v40:

1:40 …Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit
1:42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
1:43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
1:44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

From Mary’s greeting there’s something happening within Elizabeth. Twice she says that when she heard the sound of Mary’s shalom ‘the child in my womb leaped for joy’. [v41, 44]

There’s something deep going on here, something inward. Perhaps those of you who’ve been mothers might best understand this. You may have even experienced something like this. It’s not just about Mary and her cousin now but something triggers a response in this growing baby that is alive and joyful.

To this inner leaping there’s what Luke calls a ‘filling of the Holy Spirit’. It’s outwardly expressed by an exclaiming, a loud cry of blessing, that conveys to troubled, perplexed Mary that God is with her and God’s Spirit is bringing joy!

We’ll never fully understand this mystery. We may want to bottle this wonderful thing yet we cannot manufacture it.
What did they bring?
They brought a determination, a running, an intensity, a yearning and an openness. And God did the filling.

Wouldn’t it be great to see this happening more in our encounters with people? To sense God’s Spirit is at work! God’s spirit causing people and plans to resonate. God’s Spirit creating this remarkable timing.

More than 25 years ago our family was living across the Tasman. Right out of the blue we got a phone call from a guy with an Aussie accent by the name of John Simpson. He was newly appointed leader of the Baptist Union of Victoria. He was asking if I’d come and work with him based in Melbourne.

After that initial bombshell we chewed it over. We could think of lots of reasons why it was a crazy scheme. Our children were just entering the teenage years, “Wasn’t it best to keep them in their own culture, keep everything stable?” John said, “Why don’t you and Lyn come over for a week and see for yourselves.” We did. John and Judith took us around Victoria and he talked about the role. They seemed lovely people. We warmed to their style.

They arranged a conversation with their Executive Council. It took place on a hot day in December here in Ashburton, at a couple’s place in Summerhill Road called Olwen and Winsome Abbott. Do you remember them?

Even before everyone else turned up for this interview, Olwen Abbott drilled us with a long list of questions. Here he was conducting his own interview before the interview!

We returned home still with oodles of questions, yet we had a growing sense of rightness. A few days later from a phone box in Portland John called and expressed the same on behalf of the group. They too had a sense of leading.

I’ll never forget the expression he used. He said it seemed like “deep calling to deep’. (Psalm 42:7)

Isn’t that what we hope for in our encounters? Amid the confusing waterfalls around us and the overwhelming breakers crashing over us there is this spiritual stirring, this magnetism or what the Psalmist called, that sense of ‘deep calling to deep’.

It’s nice to have a Rich Sharing. It’s even better to have a Spiritual Stirring but now Mary receives an inkling into some Surprising Service. Her body is being inhabited by a growing baby. Now her voice is being used to shout out the truth of what this baby will do and become. V46

1:46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

Our age might be symbolized by a camera and a selfie stick. But the symbol that might best characterize Mary’s spirit is a magnifying glass.

When God is stirring in our lives, instead of developing a greater sense of our own importance, we’ll be singing with Mary, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior’.

Then her song is filled with talk of change in v51:

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

We talk of the Christmas message as all about peace and joy and comfort but Mary’s song proclaims that this baby will bring change.
Jesus will upset lots of people.
Jesus will disturb our plans.
Jesus will scatter.
Jesus brings down.
Jesus lifts up.
Jesus sends away.

The work of Jesus is countercultural.
He will make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
His work is upside down.
It is inside out.

Mary’s song is painfully personal yet it’s also the manifesto for a whole, new social order.

See how far has Mary come in her thinking since she first heard that knock on the door, to this time when she’s almost come full term.

She’s travelled from horror to hope, from fear to faith, from the anxiety that might want to abort to the full acceptance of all that God is wanting to do.

One last thought:

Members of a small group were asked why they stayed at their church. One guy replied: “I’ll tell you what keeps me coming to this church. It’s strange, I know, but I get the feeling here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen.”

I wonder if you get that same sense here at Ashburton?
I wonder if you get that same sense about your life?
There on the cusp of Christmas, something is about to happen. Something is about to be born!

So with courage and faith we say, ‘Come Lord Jesus. Let it be’. AMEN.

Now, into the keeping of God we put all things of today and this week.
All disappointments, all hindrances, all forgotten things, all the things we’ve neglected to do.

Now, into the keeping of God we put all gladness and beauty, all love, delight, and achievement.

And we commit all the people whom we love to God’s shepherding, to God’s healing to God’s restoring, to God’s calling and making;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.