This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent. The Scripture it references is Luke 1:46-55.
We began this sermon with an interactive exercise; I read out a series of statements and asked people to place themselves on a line indicating how strongly they agreed or disagreed. This was designed to stimulate people’s thinking on the themes of the reading, and so I suggest that you also read the statements and reflect on your agreement or disagreement before reading the homily.
Statements for agree-disagree spectrum:
- Not having power makes us vulnerable
- Power is something other people give you
- Knowledge is power
- Power changes people
- Power is about control
- Words have power
- Having power means being able to do what I want
- I create my own power
- Power gives us the opportunity to be our best
- Sharing power makes us more effective
- Believing in God makes us more powerful
Well, hopefully that made you think a little bit. It’s interesting to see how we interpret things differently, isn’t it?
But if you’re wondering why we’ve done this today, let me say just a little bit to flesh things out.
You’ll remember that over Advent I’ve been preaching each week on the Psalm, as a series on “songs for the journey.” Except this week we have, not a psalm strictly speaking, but a song from Luke’s gospel; Mary’s song while she was pregnant with Jesus. Well, that’s a song for a journey, isn’t it?!
But while there are lots of things we could draw out of it, what struck me this time round was how much it gives us a theology of power. In it God shows strength, scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. It has a lot to say about power, and about the relationship between God and people who have power, and between God and people who don’t have power, and – by implication at least – between the people who have power and those who don’t.
It puts forward what Rowan Williams described as “the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.”
And that was – and is – the truth of what power is for. Power exists, held by God or in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves. Scripture is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the God who is all-powerful judges the powerful people on this earth.
It’s worth remembering this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved. What does that say – to the “powers that be” in church and society, and even all of us too – about how we understand and use the power we have, power which, in Christian terms, is only ever held by us on loan from God?
It occurs to me, too, that many of our churches’ worst failures have come about when we have not recognised our own power in relation to the powerlessness of others; when we have not realised our own potential, whether by action or by inaction, to do harm. And if you’ve been following the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean there.
Power doesn’t exist for its own sake. Becoming more powerful – whether that’s measured in wealth or education or social position or in any other way – is never an end in itself for someone whose heart is in pilgrimage towards God. I’m not saying power is bad; I’m saying it’s a tool, a means to an end; and that as we go on our journeys of faith, we need to check, from time to time, that we haven’t made power the destination rather than fuel for the journey.
“My soul magnifies the Lord…” Mary sang. For our lives to magnify the Lord, we need to make sure that our use of power is a focussing of God’s use of power; that we pay attention to the lowly and the hungry, and marshal our resources – because let’s not kid ourselves, by world standards the resources we have at our fingertips are extraordinary – to do what God would do for them.
This final song for the journey, this Advent, might be our most challenging, because I think it asks us to examine ourselves honestly and take account of our own power and how we use it, or refuse to. But perhaps as we go through that process of taking account, we may well find our hearts moving much closer to God than they were when we began.