A feast of food for thought about the Christmas story

This morning I was up early, had a lovely walk around the lake which was atmospheric with mist, the moon still visible and the sun not quite up. I returned home to breakfast, a time of prayer and reading before getting ready for church. I have been blessed this morning with plenty of food for thought concerning the Christmas stories.

First, a blog post by Ian Paul comparing the way that Matthew and Luke write about Jesus’ birth. Matthew presents Jesus as another Moses figure and kingly whereas Luke presents Jesus as in the line of priests, referencing to the temple, prophecies and a concern for the poor. I recommend that you read it for yourself, and I hope I have remembered the gist of it correctly. Click here.

However, the real treat was hearing my husband preach with passion about Mary and Elizabeth. With his permission, I would love to share it with you.

He read Luke 1:39-55 (NRSV)

Well, we are well into the church’s year that sees us looking through Luke’s Gospel. Luke has declared that he has done his research carefully to set down ‘an orderly account’ of the events so that we might know the truth! Luke has come to be known as the Gospel of the gentiles. Also known as a Gospel for the poor and giving prominence to women. It is also the Gospel where the world’s values are most turned upside down as we shall see from today’s Gospel reading.

Gabriel, the angel of the Lord has been busy announcing two miraculous pregnancies! John with Elizabeth in her old age who has been childless, and Jesus with Mary in a very different way! But today we see this amazing and wonderful meeting between the two women relatives. Some translations say ‘cousin’, but this may not be accurate! The Holy Spirit gives the two women the gift of prophecy! (He interjected a reference to a blog post read half an hour before – a statue of them meeting, almost touching bump to bump)

Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s greeting was being filled with the Spirit and baby John leapt in her womb! I want us this morning just to allow ourselves to bathe in the wonder of this story although there will be challenges later once Mary gets going! Earlier on in Luke’s Gospel, referring to the angel’s prediction about John we read:

for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

I dare to speculate that this prophecy of the Angel was being fulfilled here! John leaping in the womb may be because of the proximity of the one in Mary’s womb who would be the Saviour of the world!

Elizabeth is the first to proclaim that Mary is the ‘blessed’! It’s wonderful, crazy stuff!! And remember this was in a loud voice – no holding back from the elderly lady! Prophecy pure and simple!

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?

For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.

 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Where did that come from? The Holy Spirit! Elizabeth knows a lot! ……. She calls Mary blessed. She tells of John’s leap! She calls the ‘fruit of Mary’s womb’ “my Lord”! And she also commends Mary for ‘believing’ God’s word – the Lord’s promise! Wonderful stuff!

And of course Mary’s response is sublime and no wonder we repeat it so often. One of the things I hope you notice about the Magnificat as it has become known is that it reflects so much of the themes we go on to read about in Luke’s Gospel! It starts on a very personal level and then expands in an amazing way to talk about generations and generations from the start with Abraham and then actually becomes quite political! Remember this is a young girl!!

I remember not that long ago reading some feminist scholar’s (plural) work referring to the annunciation to Mary…… (he said how much he had learnt from feminist scholars)…

30 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus….

The angel then goes on to tell her that she will conceive by God’s Spirit. The scholars I read almost accused God of abuse – where is Mary’s will in this? But what astonished me about this is that they seemed not to have read on!! Does Mary sound hard done by? Not on your life does she!

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.

She KNOWS she will be called blessed because the ‘Mighty One’, as Mary calls Him, has done great things for her and Holy is HIS name!!

This is how Luke has chosen to begin his Gospel. Unique to Luke! But seeing Mary so close to the things on the Evangelist’s heart! No Kings/Magi/wise men here – instead lowly shepherds! Mary then goes on and leaves her own concerns behind and broadens her great hymn and prophecy of praise!

50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

There are some countries where this is banned!! Too subversive they say! We see and read history and see powerful thrones and dictators and empires fade or toppled……. Is it really God bringing them down…..?? Can we believe that with all the bad things in the world that history is really ‘His story’?!

Another amazing aspect of the Magnificat is that it is full of references to the Old Testament! Mary is a real scholar with a good memory! Bits from the Song of Moses, from song of Miriam, Deborah, Asaph and especially the song of Hannah. If you get the time do look up Hannah’s song and put it alongside the Magnificat! (1 Samuel 2:1-10). (He decided not to read this out as it would have made the sermon a little long – but worth your time reading now)

2 Hannah prayed and said,

‘My heart exults in the Lord;
    my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in my victory.

‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
    no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
    let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
    and on them he has set the world.

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
    for not by might does one prevail.
10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
    the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king,
    and exalt the power of his anointed.’

Same themes. And Mary’s song as we have seen is a virtual collage of Old Testament texts but particularly this one from Hannah.

The upshot of this is that Luke is depicting Mary as seeing God as Saviour and deliverer. Not bad considering the one in her womb is the Saviour of the World! Things will unfold according to God’s promises as Mary sees and that Hannah had seen before her!

The starkest example of this theme is in Luke’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus……….. [he paraphrased story but click here to read it]

So as this wonderful season approaches we have a message of hope. Let’s pray – I hope I am not jumping the gun but I want to end with two verses from a famous and well-known Carol that contrast the sin/strife and the hope we have for justice just like Mary and Hannah:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Comes round the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And thou all world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

As I sat drinking my post-church coffee at home I turned to the bible and read Luke chapters 1 and 2. It’s a great story and thanks to the offering of others, one I read with a bit more insight than previously.

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