The Gentle Revolution.

December 22, 2012

(Micah 5, 2-5a; Luke 1 39 – 55) (Advent 4 Year C)


Today on the last Sunday of Advent, as we light the fourth of the Advent candles, our thoughts turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; and this year, our readings remind us also of the role of another mother, Elizabeth, in preparing the Way for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Both of them were mothers of prophets who preached about the coming Kingdom of God, and urged people to respond to that coming by changing the way they lived. Both of them must have had a significant influence on the thinking and actions of the children they raised. Both of them are heralds of the Kingdom. Elizabeth, we are told, had her child in her old age, Mary had hers as a young woman.

I wonder how you picture Mary? Most of the pictures and statues of her show her as very imagesMaryyoung, very pretty, dressed in blue or white, with her eyes either cast down to the ground, or raised to heaven, sitting or praying, cradling her baby or her dead son. She is portrayed as a passive participant in the drama of salvation. That’s the way she has been portrayed in a lot of Christian literature too, starting with the gospel of John, which shows her as the perfect disciple, following her son without question.

Walking MadonnaIn complete contrast is the statue of her by Dame Elizabeth Frink, known as the Walking Madonna. This is the description of it by Elspeth Moncrieff: This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral; choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.

This is a mature Mary, who has been touched and changed by the experiences of motherhood and the Crucifixion. This is an active Mary. This is the Mary that Luke presents us with, who questions the angel who announces she is to bear the Saviour and challenges Jesus about his disappearance in the Temple; she is the one who ponders the events of his life in her heart, and is included by Jesus among those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8.21) This is the Mary who speaks the words of the Magnificat, proclaiming the coming of her son as the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, the inaugurator and executor of God’s decisive intervention to transform the world. This is Mary, the gentle revolutionary.

It is sometimes difficult for us to hear the radical message of the Magnificat, especially when it is so often set to beautiful music, and frequently sung by a small choirboy. Perhaps we might appreciate its revolutionary message better if we sang it in the modern version by Fred Kaan, especially when one of the tunes you can sing it to is “O Tannenbaum’ also known as “The Red Flag”

Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.

By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat

This is the call to change our ways represented by the Mary who turns her back on the safety of traditional religion and strides out into the messiness of the world, just as her son did, and just as Elizabeth’s son did.

The Magnificat proclaims a religious revolution: that God has chosen a woman to be the vehicle which inaugurates his decisive revelation to the world, and a young, unmarried mother at that. As the prophets have proclaimed, but reality has rarely echoed, God’s favour is shown not to those who hold high positions in the religious hierarchy, nor to members of a Chosen People, nor to those who keep themselves pure and untouched by the world but to those who hear and obey his commands, whatever their background and circumstances.

It proclaims a social revolution: that the proud, those who think themselves better than other people, will be brought down, and the humble, the despised and the outcast will be seen as the true recipients of God’s favour.

It proclaims a political revolution: that the powerful will be defeated and the oppressed will be freed and given fullness of life. It proclaims an economic revolution, that the hungry will be fed, and those who are rich now will feel what it is like to go short.

All this, Mary proclaims, is the fulfilment of everything that God promised, through the prophets of  the Old Testament, to those who love and obey him.

Why do we not often hear this revolutionary message?

Perhaps because the Church through the ages has tended to turn this into the proclamation of a spiritual revolution, the exaltation of the spiritually poor, and humble; but it has not lived even that revolution. Once the Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the dominant faith in Europe and Northern Asia, and the lands they colonised, most people in the church reverted to the previous status quo, serving and associating with the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, and reversing the values of the Kingdom. Most used the weapons of the old order to support secular rulers, and to enforce conformity with one interpretation of the faith. The institutional church sidelined the quiet revolution, and forsook the teachings of the gentle revolutionaries who proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I don’t believe the Magnificat and the Gospel of Luke are just speaking about a spiritual revolution; nor that the reversal of the old order is just something that will come after death, or at the end of time. I believe it is speaking about a change that Jesus urged his followers to work for in the 1st century; that he and John the Baptist  urged the people who came to hear him to put into practice, challenging the rich, the powerful, the soldiers and the tax collectors to repent and change their ways, working for change through peaceful means. I believe it was a revolution that Jesus lived, as he  touched the unclean, women, lepers and the sick, as he associated with those outside genteel society, and as he allowed himself to be abused and killed, rather than physically resisting violence.

I believe the Magnificat is speaking about a gentle revolution that the Church should be proclaiming and living today, and that the yearly observation of Advent reminds us about.

It is a reminder that our Christmas is not like the world’s Christmas. It is not an escape from the world of poverty and violence and conflict, it is a commitment to do something about it, in Jesus’s name. It is not about tradition or about buying and getting, it is about change, and giving away possessions and privilege. It is not about getting away from struggle, it is about struggling in the right way to change the way people see the world, about leading people to ‘repent’ in the proper Biblical meaning of the word, and about seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Today Christians often complain, especially in the USA, that there’s a ‘War on Christmas’. But I give you the words of a minister who recently wrote that he would sign up to support the War on Christmas because: I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.

You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.

But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough, in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.

So, “War on Christmas?” Sure, sign me up. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.

The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story. 

God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.


Perhaps many of you would not go as far as Pastor Mark Sandlin; and the celebration of the traditional Christmas does give a lot of joy to families, and promote a good deal of charitable giving. But if the coming of Christ into the world is supposed to be a life changing experience, and if what we are celebrating is not just that Christ has come 2000 years ago, but also that Christ is coming now to change the world, we ought to open our ears and minds to hear the challenge of the words of the Magnificat anew, and ask ourselves how we can join Mary and Elizabeth and their sons to become God’s gentle revolutionaries to bring in his Kingdom afresh this Christmas.

Are you Ready for Christmas?

December 18, 2011

(Romans 16, 25-27; Luke 1, 26-38 & 46b-55)


It’s a question people constantly ask you this time of year. “Are you ready for Christmas?”


Is anyone ever ready? There’s so much to do, so many things to arrange at home and at church: services to plan, shopping to do, meals to prepare for, presents to buy for different age groups, and celebrations with family members to co-ordinate. No wonder so many people collapse exhausted on the actual day!


The trouble is we all want to have a ‘perfect Christmas’. When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought’ last Thursday, he spoke of his belief that God doesn’t wait until we are ready and everything is perfect; God comes to us, in the same way as he came at the first Christmas, in the middle of the mess, to bring love and joy.


In the account we heard from Luke’s Gospel, it’s quite obvious that Mary wasn’t in the least bit ready for the events of the first Christmas Day. She wasn’t ready to be a mother: she was betrothed to Joseph, but, as she explained to Gabriel, they weren’t yet living together and she was still a virgin. She certainly wasn’t ready to be the mother of the Messiah, the Saviour of the World and the Son of God. So her response to the angel’s announcement was, “Why me?”

As she knew, she wasn’t anyone special. Two thousand years of Christian devotion may have turned her into something remarkable, through doctrines such as her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption, and titles such as Theotokos (God-Bearer), Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and Co-Redemptrix; but, as many of our TV Nativities show, in reality she was a simple girl, probably still a teenager, from a provincial village in an occupied country, with very little education, destined for a life of hard work, marriage and motherhood. The choice of her to be the mother of Jesus was nothing to do with her special qualities; it was an act of God’s grace.


Luke’s account tells us about Mary’s response to the announcement of Jesus’s coming birth, and at the same time, gives us pointers to how we can make ourselves ready to receive him when he comes into our lives.


Mary responded with humility. She puzzled over the announcement that she was ‘highly favoured’, because she didn’t think she had done anything to deserve that. But she accepted God’s plan, not just as a ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’ as the text is usually translated, but as a slave, which is what the Greek original usually means. She demonstrated that she was ready to go along with what would happen to her, even though she knew it would make her life very messy and turn the ordinary life she was looking forward to upside down.


She also responded with acceptance and obedience. “Let it be with me according to your word”. She accepted in spite of her doubts and questions, believing that with God’s plans, even the most unlikely events were possible. She demonstrated at the Annunciation that ‘obedience of faith’ that Paul spoke of in his letter to the Romans.


Mary also responded with joy. The Magnificat, which we heard in our second reading from Luke, is a psalm of praise to God for everything that will come about through the birth of Jesus, the Saviour.


But she also responded with insight. The Magnificat is a prophecy, which describes the distinctive and revolutionary character of the Messiah which Jesus will be. Through his coming, the poor will be exalted, the mighty will be brought down, the hungry will be fed and the proud will be scattered. This anticipates the whole of Luke’s Gospel, which  proclaims that  the titles which were given to the Roman Emperor – Saviour of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of God – actually belong to Jesus, not Augustus Caesar. The coming of Jesus undermines the worldly standards of wealth, status and power; his reign is not just for the Jews, but includes the Gentiles and those considered outsiders (Romans emphasises this as well). A peaceful revolution is about to begin!


What the Magnificat also tells us is that Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is about the birth of a whole new order of peace, love and justice, which this child brings into the world. It is about the birth of the Kingdom of Heaven. How ready are we for that this Christmas?


The celebration of Jesus’s birth should not be an escape from the harsh realities of life, as is the case with so many people’s Christmases these days. Mary is not going to escape reality. Luke’s story shows her as part of a poor family, which is pushed around and has their lives disrupted by the decisions of the civic authorities. She gives birth in squalor, away from the support of her own family and the familiarity of her own home. She has to rely on the kindness of strangers.


It’s very different from the sanitised version that we are so often presented with in Nativity plays, where politics and poverty are very much in the background. Most people prefer it that way, and see the Christmas holiday as a chance to retreat into domestic life, and forget the problems of the world. But the Magnificat calls us to the very opposite of escapism. It calls us to active engagement with the powers of this world, in the name of a God who comes to undermine the established order. At Christmas we are challenged to be part of the new order of things which the Magnificat describes.


We are called to called to engage with the way power is exercised in our world – but to do so as servants, as Jesus  did, not as dictators. We are called to tackle the issues of poverty, but with generosity and through sharing, as Jesus did, rather than by assigning blame. We are challenged to do something about the causes of disease, homelessness, and prejudice; but we are called to do so as collaborators, as friends, as welcomers, as Jesus did, rather than judging and excluding those who suffer from them.


The story Luke tells us this morning, and the psalm which Mary sang, tell us of a new way of living within the old order; a way which is messy, which turns our normal lives and expectations upside down, but which is ultimately joyful and transforming. They call us to connect with the outcasts, the marginalised and the poor of the world and of our community, and to live Christmas in the same servanthood, humility, and simplicity as Mary did.


So, are you ready for Christmas? Am I?


No, I’m not! If I knew one of the local clergy was coming round, I’d have a tidy up. If I knew a member of the Royal Family was going to pop in for tea, I’d get some new crockery and make sure the front room was newly decorated. But how  can I be ready to welcome our heavenly Priest and King into my life, if he’s going to enlist me into his revolution, and turn my life upside down? I’m not a revolutionary, and I like my life the way it is.  How can I be ready to be a servant of the poor and the marginalised, to be open to those whom society disapproves of, to be someone who challenges those who exercise power in church and state in the name of Christ.

I may be ready for the comfortable, sentimental family Christmas, that concentrates on the baby and the animals and the Magi with their strange useless gifts, but I’m certainly not ready for that sort of Christmas.


Yet I know I have to try. That’s what Advent is about. Advent 2011, like every Advent before, is when God gives us an opportunity to become more Christlike, a fresh chance to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas and an invitation to make ourselves ready to welcome the Baby of Bethlehem as the bearer of the Kingdom of Heaven, our King, and the Saviour of the World. So, let us get ready together!

Let us pray:

God of all hope and joy,

open our hearts in welcome,

that your Son, Jesus Christ, at his coming

may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself.


(© New Zealand Prayer Book)


(Proverbs 25, 6-7; Hebrews 13, 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14, 1 & 7-14)

Have any of you ever had to organise a wedding reception? It’s an absolute minefield!

How much do you spend? Where do you hold it? Do you have a formal meal for the older relatives and a disco for all the young friends, or try to combine the two and please neither.  Who do you invite? Can you remember who invited you to their wedding reception, and must you invite all of them back? Who stands in the receiving line to greet the guests? And, most tricky of all, who sits with the bride and groom on the top table?

I expect most of us can remember family arguments over weddings! And things have got much more complicated with the rise in divorce and remarriage, so that you have step-parents and half-brothers and sisters to include too. I know of several couples recently who decided the whole thing was simply too difficult to manage, and went off to get married quietly abroad to avoid the problems.

Even in today’s relaxed society, formal meals are a crucial part of social life. Who is invited and where you sit is important for defining status. But in the past, they had even greater importance. Formal meals were where you might gain the ear of someone important, and the impression you made might be crucial for your future influence and prosperity.

And in the Gospels, written at a time when hunger was so widespread, and large meals were held only on very special occasions, such meals symbolised  the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world; and a wedding banquet was a sign of the eschatological banquet that would mark the welcome of the chosen ones into God’s presence at the end of time.

So, although the meal that Jesus was attending was a Sabbath meal, when he spoke about it he talked about a wedding feast – an indication that he was talking about life in the Kingdom of God, not just everyday social etiquette.

He starts out by giving a piece of practical advice  that might have come from any book of ‘How to get on in society’ anywhere and at any time: don’t push yourself to the front; wait to be noticed by those in charge. You can see we find the same advice in the Book of Proverbs, and I’ve read it is found also in the writings other rabbis.

This practical wisdom advises the practice of humility; but it is not real humility. At its lowest level it is the practice of well-bread politeness – but you only hold back in the knowledge that it gets you places; you only take the lowest place in the hope that your host will very publicly invite you onto the top table, and so reinforce your prestige. This is the reverse of what God wants.

Another sort of humility involves self- hatred and self-abasement. “I am a miserable worm, the bottom of the moral food chain, hardly worthy of being here at all. Thank you for noticing me”. This is not what God wants either. The great commandment tells us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves; so you can’t love other people if you don’t love yourself first. Of course we need to be realistic about our good points and our bad ones – otherwise, as the psychologists warn us, we will tend to project our ‘dark side’ onto others and persecute them for what we cannot accept in ourselves. But God found us worthy of love, to the extent that he sent Jesus to save us; so there is nothing wrong with loving ourselves.

So, how can we find a way of being genuinely humble.

Many years ago, when I was a finalist in the Times ‘Preacher of the Year’ award, a clergy friend wrote to congratulate me, but also to warn me against getting too big-headed! He told me about a Catholic saint who used to practice humility by licking the floorboards clean with his tongue! I never tried it – and  I am sceptical about how good such ‘spiritual exercises in mortification’ are  in making people really humble in their interaction with other human beings.

Real humility comes from inside, from an acknowledgement that what we are and what we have comes ultimately from God. In the context of the wedding feast it comes from admitting that we are at the feast by the gracious invitation of God alone. We don’t earn that invitation and we have no right to it, nor to a particular place at the table; and what is more, the sick, the disabled, the sinful and the unworthy have as much right to be there as us clean and respectable folk.

So, in everyday life, to invite such people to share with us is true humility, because they can never reciprocate. There is absolutely nothing in it for us.

Luke tells us constantly that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like; those whom the world despises will be the first into the Kingdom and will have first place in the queue for the top table. That’s made very clear if you read the Magnificat, a version of which we will sing at the end of this service.

Our reading from Hebrews tell us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever –  so as the Body of Christ, that is what our church should seek to be like too. But in practise that is a very difficult thing to do.

Some of the older ones among you may remember a Peter Sellers film of 1963 called ‘Heavens Above’. In it, Sellers plays an idealistic prison chaplain called John Smallwood, who after a confusion with another clergyman of the same name, is appointed to to a prestigious wealthy parish. When he invites the outcasts of his society – gypsies and criminals – to share his vicarage, sets up a free food supply that ruins local shops, and persuades a local factory owner to sell off her business, so that most of the townspeople become unemployed, the economy of the town collapses, and finally he is moved off to a parish overseas as a damage limitation exercise.

There was a more modern fictional example of the difficulty of putting this vision of the heavenly banquet into practice in the last episode of ‘Rev’ which you may have watched on TV recently. In this, the vicar, called Adam Smallbone (note both characters have’ small’ in their name – to indicate humility?) receives a really bad online review of his church and sermon from a ‘mystery worshipper’. The Ship of Fools website, which does publish such reviews, put a spoof review of this fictional church online. As well as criticising the sermon, it noted how unattractive the church would be to most worshippers, because there were tramps in the churchyard, some of the men in the congregation were unshaven and there was another tramp asleep in the back pew, snoring loudly.  Adam was profoundly depressed by this review, but perhaps in relation to our gospel reading today, this service sounded more like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet than you might think.

How to keep our churches open and welcoming to everyone, even those on the margins of respectable society, is an issue that all congregations have to return to again and again, as they seek to be Christ’s body on earth. There are no easy answers. The Hebrews reading gives some clues. It urges us to welcome the strangers into our fellowship, and tells us that in the past, people doing so have ‘entertained angels without knowing it’. Angels are the messengers of God, so this indicatess that we will find insight into what God is like and what God wants of us among the poor, the outcast and  the dispossessed. But if we don’t ever really meet them, and simply dispense charity from afar, we will have little chance of hearing the message that these ‘angels’ are bringing us.

Jesus also told us, in Matthew’s Gospel, that whatever we do for ‘the least of these my brothers and sister, you do for me’. That reminds us that (to paraphrase Bishop David Stancliffe) fellowship with others is not ours to give or withhold; it is God’s. We are in communion with others, even if they make us feel uncomfortable, even if we disagree with their views, because God invites us, as he invites everyone from the Pope and the poorest of the poor in Sudan, to the same heavenly table.

Hebrews tells us that if we do invite such people to share in our table, then our lives and our worship have a chance of being ‘a sacrifice of praise to God’.  Our faith tells us that whenever we entertain the outcast, we may entertain not only angels, but Our Lord himself.  Jesus is not likely to be an easy guest to invite to your wedding reception. He is likely to criticise your arrangements, challenge your values and bring in all sorts of uninvited guests with him.

But if you want to be at his feast, even at the lowest table, then guess who’s coming to your dinner?